The Imperial Chinese Robes exhibition offers an unprecedented view of the outrageous finery that existed behind the walls of Beijing¿s Forbidden City during the last days of its most powerful dynasties.
The Imperial Chinese Robes exhibition dazzles at London's V&A Museum
The world has been offered a rare glimpse of what life was like inside the walls of Beijing's Forbidden City during the dying years of its great ruling dynasties, with an exhibition in London of exquisitely embroidered, centuries-old royal clothing.
Two-thirds of the priceless garments on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum's Imperial Chinese Robes exhibition have never before left Beijing, and many of them have never been on public display at all. But, even under low lighting and behind glass, the bright silk robes, fox-fur coats, and shoes shaped like flower pots, give a colourful hint at what life was like in one of history's most secretive and tightly regimented societies.
The Forbidden City during the Qing dynasty was off limits to all of China except the ruling family, highest officials and those serving them. Formalities and laws governed every area of life, and the colour, cut and patterns of clothing were tightly codified, as the garments on show at the V&A display. The emperor and his closest family members were the only ones allowed to wear bright yellow robes, or to have dragons embroidered on them.
To see the stiflingly heavy robes, skirts and coats, which would have been layered on top of each other and worn - if you were the empress on official business - with three pairs of earrings, three necklaces, a headband, hat, silk pendant and boots is to get some sense of what it must have been like to live in a regime so crushingly regulated that every court necklace was formed of exactly 108 beads, in a uniform pattern.
Everyone would have known their place: an imperial concubine was allowed fewer pearls in her hat than the empress and each concubine was given a rank that depended on criteria such as bearing a son or having special skills. Even the emperor would be expected to follow tradition when it came to his five separate sets of clothing for different duties, each of them sub-divided into winter-wear and summer-wear. Even when he wasn't in imperial yellow, the colours were symbolic, whether he was wearing red for sacrifices at the Altar of the Sun, or blue for the Altar of Heaven.
"It is such an important exhibition for us," says Ming Wilson, the V&A's China specialist and the show's curator, who has been talking to Beijing's Palace Museum, the heritage site where the Forbidden City still stands, about a loan for the past 15 years. She explains that the Palace Museum itself doesn't have a permanent textiles gallery, so even if people visited Beijing they usually wouldn't be able to see the robes currently on display in London.
"I hope the exhibition can tell us two things," she says, wandering from glass case to glass case within the museum. "Number one, that clothing was very much part of the government in ancient China. The reason for having all these different categories of dresses was that everyone wore the appropriate clothes for the occasion, and in doing so, a sense of orderliness would prevail. For a large country with such a large population, order is very, very important."
Secondly, she points out, we can get an idea of the extraordinary standard of Chinese craftsmanship at the time. "The imperial court was the country's biggest spender," she says, and so we can be confident that the embroidery on the imperial robes will have been the best possible example of needlework made during the Qing dynasty, which lasted from the mid-17th century until 1912.
One invoice that has been discovered shows that an imperial robe from the 1870s took 920 working days to make. An empress would not have waited for two and a half years for a piece of clothing, and so we can imagine the teams of embroiderers who must have toiled on each garment. It cost nearly twice the amount it cost the British to lease the entire island of Hong Kong for a year, which puts the opulence of imperial finery into some perspective. And that was just for a robe that was embroidered on one side.
One of the V&A exhibition's most breathtaking items is a double-sided saffron-coloured robe dating from the 18th century, with a pale blue dragon motif that's identical on the reverse. Nowhere among the swirling multicoloured waves, mint-green foliage, labyrinthine background pattern or individual scales on the textured dragon's hide can you see a single loose thread or a stitch out of place. It would have been several times more complicated to make than the robe that cost more than Hong Kong, although it's futile to try to put a value on it.
Although there are colourful family histories attached to some of the treasures on display - fabrics belonging to the fashion-loving empress dowager Cixi for example, a former concubine who took control of the country in 1861 when the emperor died and her son, his only heir, became emperor at the age of six - there's much that's still unknown about them.
"There is this huge archive [at the Palace Museum] and to go through it all really takes time," Wilson explains, saying that she wouldn't be surprised if we understand much more about the robes on display in 10 years' time. "All this information came out fairly recently."
The Palace Museum was set up in 1925, but with wave after wave of conflict and revolutions hitting China between then and now, in Wilson's words, "the curators and scholars simply did not have time to sit down and do some scholarly work. It took five generations of curators to complete the stock-taking at the Palace Museum."
All this means there's still much we don't know about everyday life in the Forbidden City, with its altars to the elements, pervasive symbolism, and imposing-looking, dragon-adorned emperors who had scores of wives and concubines to choose from.
More will be discovered when the project to digitise China's national archive is complete, but for now, exhibitions such as this one, containing vivid blue dresses covered in cranes, tiny slippers with 3D phoenixes on them, and platform-heeled boots that wouldn't look out of place on a 21st-century catwalk in Paris, are the closest we'll get to understanding what it was like to live and work within those walls.