Textiles and clothing have long been a sign of rank in China. For example, during the Song dynasty, 960 to 1279, officials wore long robes, often adorned with dragons, whose color marked their proximity to the Emperor—purple was lower than cinnabar and green, which were both lower than the dark blue worn by the highest officials. In other dynasties, different colors predominated, as in the short-lived Sui dynasty (581 to 618), during which yellow was the emperor’s color, and the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), when red was the imperial hue.
Similarly, the embroidery on these pieces conveyed one’s status, transforming decorations into official badges rather than expressions of a wearer’s personality, or even their wealth since some designs and types of fringe treatments could not be purchased at any price but could only be conferred.
Silk was the fabric of choice for such officials. The material dates to China’s prehistoric times, with examples going back as far as 2800 BC. By 800 BC, silk production was highly organized. Sometimes silk was made into a fabric such as twill, other times it was used as embroidery on a base of hemp cloth. The material came into full flower during the Tang dynasty, 618 to 907, when tapestry-weave techniques from the West were introduced. Embraced as kesi, these silk tapestries, particularly those with gold thread, became a major genre of decorative art in China.
Of course, robes and garments were not the only articles of clothing to telegraph one’s place in Chinese society. Belts called chaodai and especially hats also sent strong, unambiguous signals. During the Qing dynasty that followed the Ming, court officials were expected to wear a round guanmao indoors and out. The types of fur that lined these officials’ hats were themselves signs of rank, as were the insignia on the hat’s exterior. The emperor got pearls and dragons in gold, while lesser officials got rubies, sapphires, crystals, and gold, in descending order of importance. Before long, beads in the color of these gemstones and precious metals were substituted for the real thing.
As with many goods, textiles were mass-produced in China, where a seemingly limitless supply of workers made up for the relatively late arrival of the Industrial Revolution. These workers turned out garments as well as items such as embroidered shoes. Today, the highly decorated Lotus shoes designed for women whose feet had been bound when they were young girls are collected as decorative and cultural objects rather than as vintage footwear. The painful practice of foot binding stunted the growth of the feet, which was worth it to status-hungry Chinese families, for whom small feet had been a mark of beauty for roughly 1,000 years. Naturally, though, the girls, who often had difficulty walking as adults, were not expected to complain.