Textile triple treat

It doesn’t happen often, but when the cosmic forces of the universe align and all the planets fall into a favourable formation, Melbourne gets three textile/fashion exhibitions showing simultaneously. I’ve already posted about one of them, Exquisite Threads, but I managed to get to the other two this week – and what is even more miraculous is that they are still running for quite some time, so you can see them too if you’re in this fair city of ours.

The exhibition for today’s post isn’t strictly themed around textiles, but they make up an important part of the display. I’m talking about A Golden Age of China at the NGV, a seriously impressive collection of art and artefacts from the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795). At this time, China was the wealthiest and most populous nation in the world, and this is certainly reflected in the textiles (and everything else) on show in the exhibition. As photography is not permitted in this particular exhibition (usually it’s fine at the NGV) I got the obliging staff to send me these fabulous professional shots instead.


CHINESE. Emperor’s ceremonial court robe 明黄色缎绣彩云金龙纹男夹朝袍 Qing dynasty, Qianlong period 1736–95 silk satin 143.0 cm (centre back), 156.0 cm (hem width) The Palace Museum, Beijing

I happened to be visiting the gallery at the same time as a free guided tour of the exhibition was taking place, so let’s see what I remember! There were several versions of this robe, some with the design embroidered and some with it woven in (which this one looks to be). Both would have taken crazy amounts of skill and time as the colours and pattern are so intricate. There are all sorts of auspicious symbols worked into the design including bats, five-clawed dragons and bushels of grain*. Only the royal family were allowed to wear certain symbols as they indicated sovereignty, and only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow. Anyone who flouted these laws was executed. Now that’s extreme fashion policing! I did wonder, after seeing three or four of these robes, all of them yellow and all very similar, whether the emperor actually liked yellow? Let’s hope so.

By the way, do you notice the shape of the cuffs? They are shaped to look like horse’s hooves to reflect the Manchurian heritage of the Qing emperors, and the robe is split at the hem so it can be worn over trousers while on horseback: covering an area that includes present-day Mongolia, Manchuria had a strong horse riding culture. (It also had its own language, which I only found out because of the free guided tour. But apparently there are only about 70 native speakers left now).


CHINESE. Empress’s sleeveless ceremonial surcoat 石青色缎绣彩云金龙纹夹朝褂 Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period 1722–35 satin 140.0 cm (centre back), 124.0 (hem width) The Palace Museum, Beijing

There were some items belonging to the Empress on display also (although I think that this referred to the Qianlong emperor’s mother rather than his wife. Oops! I blame the embroidery for distracting me!) including headdresses embellished with kingfisher feathers and these shoes embroidered with cicadas and bamboo.


CHINESE. Shoes with flowerpot-shaped sole 雪灰色缎绣竹蝶纹花盆底女鞋 Qing dynasty 1644–1911 satin, other materials (a-b) 15.0 x 12.0 x 22.0 cm (each) The Palace Museum, Beijing

Apparently the Manchurians were not fans of the foot binding culture (what sensible people they were!) so their shoes looked normal – well, apart from the huge platforms they are resting on! (Side note: although I never met her as she died before my parents even met, my paternal grandmother, despite being from decidedly peasant stock rather than aristocracy, had her feet bound when she was young and as a result had problems walking ever after. More on foot binding here.)
Apart from ceremonial garments and jewellery, there are a lot of other items to admire in A Golden Age of China – I found the blend of Western and Eastern techniques and the level of detail in Giuseppe Castiglione‘s depictions of imperial celebrations fascinating, for example. Also, I liked the fake lotus flowers floating in the water feature outside the gallery (as did this seagull…).


Whew. It’s taken me two hours to write just this much because I’ve been reading about Manchurian language and Chinese symbols and foot binding, and if you’ve clicked through to my links you’ll no doubt have spent more time than you planned getting through this post! I was planning on posting about the third exhibition (Unfolding: New Indian Textiles) here too but I think I’ll leave it for next week to avoid information overload. It ends on May 30, so if you want to see it, try to get in soon. If you can’t make it, though, tune in again here next week!

*If you’re interested in Chinese symbolism on clothing and jewellery, you will love this article: a warning though, the site itself is super-addictive.