Asian Antiques Appraisals And Valuations

Chinese Antique Robes – A Collector’s Guide

From the intricate butterflies on your sleeves to the majestic dragons on your coat, never has attire been as significant as it was during Qing-dynasty China. Here, we delve into the world of Chinese robes, exploring the colors, symbols, and styles that conveyed social status and identity.

A Robe as a Symbol of Rank

In the mid-17th century, the Manchu people, a nomadic group, overthrew China’s Ming dynasty, establishing the Qing dynasty. This period marked a significant shift in Chinese fashion, where clothing became a tool to display one’s rank and status. The attire was so specific that a person’s position in society could be easily identified at a glance.

During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, strict guidelines were set forth in the “Illustrated Catalogue of Ritual Paraphernalia,” detailing the attire’s color, symbols, and style:

  • Color: Yellow, the most revered color, was reserved for the royal family. Minor princes and nobles could wear blue (the Qing dynasty’s official color) or brown, while court officials wore blue-black garments.
  • Symbols of Imperial Authority: Emperor’s robes were adorned with the ‘Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority,’ including the sun, moon, dragon, and others, each symbolizing a different aspect of power.
  • Animals: Civil and military officials were categorized into nine ranks, each represented by a specific animal stitched onto a rank badge displayed on their outer coat.

Robes for Every Occasion

Different occasions called for specific types of robes. For formal ceremonies, officials wore chaofu, traditional Manchu garments with a side-fastening jacket, apron skirt, and ‘horse shoe’ cuffs. These cuffs, originally designed for horse-riding, allowed freedom of movement, a practical feature for officials who might need to mount a horse quickly.

Semi-official occasions required garments like the jifu, or dragon robe, which featured intricate designs symbolizing the universe’s elements. High-ranking officials wore robes with nine dragons, while medium-ranking officials wore robes with eight dragons.

Robes for Every Season

In Beijing’s varied climate, dressing appropriately was crucial. Winter robes were lined with fur and padded for warmth, while summer robes were made of lighter materials like silk or gauze. Changeovers between summer and winter clothing were marked on a lunar calendar, with specific dates for each transition.

A Wife’s Robe Reflects Her Husband’s Status

Women’s attire mirrored their husband’s or father’s rank, displayed on an outer coat or vest. Women’s dragon robes, while rare, were intricately embroidered and lacked front and back vents. For everyday wear, women donned side or front-fastening robes with decorative elements like flowers and butterflies.

Stitches and Techniques

Robes were often embellished with intricate stitches like the Peking Knot, known for its precision. Techniques like kesi, or cut silk weaving, and gilt couching, where gold thread was stitched onto material, were also used to create stunning designs.

Determining Age and Authenticity

Determining a robe’s age can be challenging, but clues like the use of aniline dyes in the late 19th century and changes in fashion trends can provide insights. Proper storage and care are essential for preserving these delicate fabrics for centuries to come.

Recutting and Repurposing

Some Chinese robes were recut or repurposed by Western buyers or sent to Tibet as luxury items. These alterations reflect the adaptability and enduring allure of Chinese robes across different cultures and time periods.


Chinese Antique Valuations And Appraisals

Do you own a piece of Chinese porcelain or an oriental work of art that you would like to know more about, such as age, history and value?

Then you should really consider using our Chinese Antique Valuation Service as the last thing you want to do is risk under selling the piece due to lack of knowledge or ill gotten advice.