Chinese Clothing and Textiles

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.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Pair Of Antique Chinese Qing Dynasty Mandarin Rank Badges - PantherMagnificent Circa 1850~60 Antique Hand Woven Brocade Chinese Dragon Robe PortionAntique Chinese Silk Rank BadgePair Of Antique Chinese Qing Dynasty Mandarin Rank Badges - BearVery Fine 19thc Chinese Qing Dynasty Butterfly Imperial Figures Court RobeA Good Pair Of Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Foot Binding Shoes Rare Antique Chinese Silk Rank Badge Embroidery Phoenix Gilt Coral - Qing 19thAntique Chinese Textile Sleeve Panel Band Silk Embroidered Woman Person 9 Antique Chinese Silk Embroidered Ceremonial & Childrens Hand Sewn Hats, NrAntique Chinese Textile Panel Silk Embroidered People LargeAntique 19c Chinese Silk Embroidered Gold Thread Dragons Wall Hanging PanelFine 19thc Chinese Qing Dynasty Famille Rose Yellow Silk Landscape RobeAntique Chinese Textile Sleeve Panel Band Silk Embroidered Man Person DeerFine 19thc Chinese Qing Famille Rose Imperial Precious Objects Vases Silk RobeAntique Chinese Pair Silk Embroidered Qing Dynasty Embroidery Dragon And PhoenixC1920 Antique Chinese Embroidered Silk Purse, Carnelian Glass Set Gilt MountRare Vintage Chinese Sterling Silver 2 Piece Belt Buckle SetVintage Chinese Ornate Micro Embroidered Black Silk Blazer Jacket M-lFine Antique Chinese Embroidered Framed Circular Silk Panel.No Res -- Superb 9ft Antique Chinese Dragon Cloudband Silk Brocade 5-clawsAntique Chinese Textile Sleeve Band Panel Silk Embroidered DragonChinese 18th Or 19thc Silk Rank Badge - Gilded Dragon , Chasing Flaming PearlA Matched Pair Of Antique Chinese Carnelian And Silk Pulls Scholars KnotAntique Chinese Export Black Silk Gold Thread Dragon Embroidery Textile 19th C. Outstanding Antique 19th Qi'ing Chinese Canton Embroidered Silk Shawl EmbroideryAntique Chinese Qing Dynasty Silk PanelSmall Chinese Foot Binding Shoes Made With Hand Stitched Silk - Genuine Antique Antique Chinese Red Silk Embroidery Forbidden Stitch Sleeve Band Cuff Qipao RobeSuperb Antique Chinese Silk Embroidered Qing Dynasty Skirt 19thc. Or Earlier #2Antique Chinese Textile Weaving Embroidery 5 Claw Imperial Dragon Qing Coral Grd20th.c Chinese Silk Textile Lot With One Skirt And One RobeAntique Chinese Silk Hand Embroidered Piano Shawl Pure Silk 65" By 67"fringe 13"Antique Chinese Orange Red Silk Robe With Fine Gold Thread Embroidered PanelsFine 19th Century Chinese Embroidery Panel Robe FragmentAntique Chinese Textile Panel Band Silk Embroidered 3 Piece Set Dragon FlowersAmazing Embroidered Chinese Silk - 1st Bn Durham Light Infantry - Tietsin ChinaAntique, Vintage Silk Embroidery Chinese Paino Shawl. (beautiful)Superb! Pair Of Antique Chinese 19th C Silk Embroidered Bound Feet Lotus ShoesOld Chinese Framed Silk Embroidery With Fishermen FishingBelt Buckle Antique Vintage Chinese Cinnabar Engraved And Lacquered MetalAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel Couched Gold Phoenix Qing 19th CentPair Antique Petite Chinese Ladies Shoes With Embroidery TextileAntique Chinese Silk Embroidery With Fringe Dragon Design Religious Textile RobeAntique Chinese Textile Sleeve Panel Band Silk Embroidered Writing Script FlowerSuperb Huge Antique Hand Embroidered Chinese Dragon & Pearl On Black Silk Shawl.Chinese Silk Embroidered Purse Jade CoralAntique Chinese Silk Panel With Silk And Gold Embroidery Flowers And Birds DesigAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Sleeve Band Panel Forbidden Stitch Kesi FloralAncient 1800 Chinese Embroidered Ivory SilkAntique Chinese Forbidden Stitch Long Table Runnere 43x17 InchesAntique Chinese Embroidered Cloud CollarRare Antique Chinese 19th Century Silk Embroidered Cricket Pocket Watch CaseAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Lotus ShoesAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Panel W Calligraphy Hand Stitched Gold ThreadAntique Chinese Textile Sleeve Panel Band Silk Embroidered Butterflies Flowers10" Old Chinese Bronze War General Protective Sleeve Gloves Sharp Claws PairAntique Chinese Silk Embroidery Panel With Flower DesignAntique Chinese Embroidery Framed Panel People In The Garden 19th C Elegant!Antique Chinese Embroidery Framed Panel Garden View 19th C Elegant!Very Rare Chinese 1st Rank Crane Buzi Mandarin Rank Badge 19th C.