Empress' clothes 'show rise of women in China's last dynasty'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 10:11am

A rare dress belonging to an empress and embodying the rise of women in imperial China's last dynasty has gone on display in the Museum of History.

Empress Longyu's dark blue silk bridal surcoat challenged the Qing dynasty's rigorous patriarchal attire system with its eight dragon-phoenix roundels.

The dress is part of an exhibition of clothing from the dynasty featuring more than 130 costumes selected from the 100,000-piece textile collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

"Only emperors could use dragon patterns during the Qing dynasty. But this surcoat was manufactured at the time Empress Dowager Cixi was in power," said Ruan Weiping, an associate research fellow at the Palace Museum.

"The dress showed the conflict between the power of women and the imperial authority."

A third of the items are on public display for the first time, including a blue surcoat of Emperor Kangxi and a coloured sketch of a festive robe on silk. More than 70 of the items on display have never been shown outside the mainland.

Museum of History curator Ang Yee said the exhibition was the largest of its kind in Hong Kong. "It has the largest number of items, and the most diverse as well," she said.

The exhibition also features Emperor Kangxi's dragon robe, especially precious for its fox-fur lining. "The bright yellow brocade satin court robe used only the underarm fur of white fox. So they needed thousands of white foxes to make just one robe," Ruan said.

Two costumes, a red empress court skirt and an empress coronet with 13 eastern pearls from Heilongjiang were the only items of their kind left in China, she said.

Museum of History chief curator Susanna Siu Lai-kuen said the Qing dynasty had the most complicated attire system in Chinese history. The imperial family had different costumes for official, festive, regular, travel, military and leisure use.

All these outfits were on display at the exhibition, she said.

The use of colour on imperial attire was also tricky. The implication of yellow, for instance, varied when its shade changed slightly - only an emperor could use bright yellow; apricot was for the crown prince, and the other princes used golden yellow.

The exhibition, "The Splendours of Royal Costume: Qing Court Attire", runs from today to October 7. Ang said the museum expected about 170,000 visitors.