Guo Pei mosaic qipao a highlight of Hong Kong show about silk’s beauty and history
Learn how silk styles, colours and designs evolved over thousands of years, watch a demonstration of how the threads of a silkworm’s cocoon are turned into a filament of thread, and see how fashion designers have used the fabric
Silk is almost as old as China itself. Legend has it that the thread was discovered by the wife of the Yellow Emperor – a mythical ruler in ancient China – when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup and that ever since then, knowledge of silk rearing and weaving was passed from generation to generation.
Now to celebrate the history and beauty of all things silk, the Hong Kong Design Institute has collaborated with the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, eastern China, to put on the exhibition, In Praise of Silk: Fashion from China National Silk Museum Across Time at the Hong Kong Design Institute in Tseung Kwan O.
The exhibition conveys successive Chinese imperial dynasties, and with technological advances and changes in lifestyle silk fabric, the new forms, patterns, colours and designs that emerged.
Since the institute lacks museum-standard humidity and temperature control systems, the historical items of clothing displayed are replicas.
Even so, they are still very interesting to look at and reveal much about life in the past.
The tight sleeves of the brocade robes worn by pastoral nomads of the early Liao dynasty in Inner Mongolia stand in contrast to the bell sleeves and flowy drapes of dresses worn by royalty of the Qin dynasty.
As people began discovering new dyes, the diversity of colours also grew, expanding from earthly beige tones to brighter colours such as red and orange.
In addition to historical clothing, the institute has borrowed more than a dozen dresses from the museum – including a mosaic qipao by Guo Pei, the first Chinese fashion designer to show a collection at Paris Haute Couture Week – that epitomise four different historical eras.
While the small collection of dresses, as beautiful as they are, is hardly sufficient to represent each period, they offer hints at how modern Chinese fashion design has evolved from traditional designs to the bolder, Westernised creations of recent decades.
Visitors can find out how silk is produced in another part of the exhibition, where staff demonstrate how to turn the threads of the silkworm cocoon into a single filament of silk.
The thread that makes up one single cocoon is up to 900 metres long, and even if the moth has emerged from the cocoon it can still be useful.
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In another corner, we watch in awe as a member of staff stretches the cocoon into the size of a shower cap, separates each layer and then stretches it further until it is almost the size of a table, ultimately forming a silk duvet.
“Silk is a luxurious and valuable material, so the very first synthetic fabrics were all designed to imitate silk. But silk has this natural sheen to it, which is beautiful,” says Edith Cheung Sai-mei, a visiting fellow at the institute. “Unfortunately, younger people nowadays find it too old-fashioned.”
In Praise of Silk: Fashion from China National Silk Museum Across Time, d-mart, Hong Kong Design Institute, 3 King Ling Road, Tseung Kwan O, till 2 December, 10am-8pm, Closed on Tuesdays. Free admission. Inquiries: 3928 2566.