I finally got round to visiting the exhibition of imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City in Beijing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s located in the part where they usually have the fashion exhibits, so the light is quite dim and you need to get up close to the cases to admire the detail.
The emperor had five categories of formal wear: official, festive, regular, travelling and military. Of course, the embroidery and craftsmanship is exquisite, with traditional Chinese motifs of waves, clouds and dragons in goldwork and hues of ever paler pink, blue and green on imperial yellow silk. The emperor even had a pair of yellow silk embroidered riding trousers resembling dungarees!
The robes of the empress and imperial concubines featured a wider range of patterns and colours, including the purple and gold robe embroidered with cranes and golden clouds that adorns the posters and publicity for the exhibition (see above), peonies, and a beautiful simple pattern called cracked ice and plum blossom. Annoyingly, I can’t find a photo of it on the V&A website, but Portland Classical Chinese Garden has a stone walkway in this pattern. Also, to my eye it looked quite Japanese, so it’s interesting to see that it also features on Japanese porcelain.
But what was most astonishing was the condition of the fabrics in the exhibition. The dragon robe shown above is nearly 280 years old, but it looked absolutely pristine. According to the V&A blog, “The well-being of the robes was the duty of the Imperial Household Department staff. In days before the invention of air-conditioners and humidifiers the robes were protected from fluctuating temperature by sturdy wooden cupboards and chests. Insect-repelling incense was placed inside the furniture, and palace eunuchs regularly aired the clothes to prevent the build-up of mildew.”
I could do with some of those eunuchs around here.