Rich preferred rare materials

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am

Beyond their functional purpose of gilding their wearers, the ancient accessories on display at the exhibition also testified to social rank.

From as early as the Xia dynasty (2100-1600 BC), social status came to be reflected through a sartorial hierarchy. Etiquette required adherence to a strict dress code, defined both by designs and materials.

'People placed a great emphasis on displaying their rank and status in their clothes and accessories from head to toe,' says Stoney Yeung, the museum's assistant curator of Chinese antiquities. 'Rich people preferred rare materials, such as gold, jade, precious stones and pearls, which were then presented with elaborate decorations painstakingly handcrafted.'

During the Han dynasty, for instance, government officials identified themselves by wearing colour-coded silk ribbons around their waists bearing an official seal. Belts were fastened not with the buckles of latter eras but jade and bronze belt hooks.

In the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), commoners were not allowed to wear pearl or jade hair ornaments, while ladies of rank would shy away from sun, moon or dragon motifs.

In the Qing imperial court, the decorative materials, gold discs and rows of pearls in hair ornaments worn by Manchu ladies reflected their status. Ear pendants of the kind worn by common Han women were forbidden at court.

From the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) onwards, men no longer let their hair grow long with a knot on top, as was previously fashionable, and so hairpins for men fell out of use. A portrait of a Qing dynasty official shows him wearing an archer's ring on his right thumb while holding a snuff bottle in his left hand. Finely embroidered purses and jade pendants hang from his belt.

Instead of spraying themselves with perfume, well-off people carried scent holders containing fragrant substances such as dried and fresh flowers, herbs and sandalwood.

Long and colourful caishui kerchiefs came into fashion, often worn on the chest, in the Qing dynasty. Jade rings were often attached to them for suspending needle containers, toothpick cases, purses and fragrance pouches.

Waist accessories for officials also became more diverse. In addition to purses and fan cases, Western introductions, including tobacco pouches and spectacle cases, became fashionable. Embroidered items and accessories and jewellery imitating royal court designs were popular gifts for friends and relatives and as tokens for love and alliance.