Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912

Making Clothes Talk

Stunning garments once worn by empresses and top-ranking consorts in the Qing dynasty played a significant role in announcing their identity and status. Court dress was a vital matter because robes and accessories functioned much like a uniform. One illustrated guide, commissioned by the imperial court in the mid-eighteenth century, detailed appropriate wear for a range of occasions, from formal rituals and court audiences to festivities and family banquets. Color, exquisite woven or embroidered motifs, and tailoring still provide clues about these important ladies and their world. Click on the hotspots below to decode these robes.

An imperial woman’s “court robe” was known as chaopao. Only women of the highest rank—empress dowager, empress, and second-rank consort—were entitled to wear magnificent bright yellow court robes like this one on formal occasions.

photo of a yellow dress with elaborate embroidery

painting of the empress
Left: Court robe. Embroidery by Imperial Silk Manufactory, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Tailoring by Imperial Workshop, Beijing. Yongzheng period (1723–35) or Qianlong period (1736–95), 1723–95. Embroidery, polychrome and metallic-wrapped silk threads on silk satin, and coral. Palace Museum, GU43478 © The Palace Museum

Right: Empress Dowager Chongqing at the Age of Eighty. Ignatius Sichelbarth (Ai Qimeng, 1708–1780), Yi Lantai (act. ca. 1748–86), and Wang Ruxue (act. 18th century), Beijing. Qianlong period (1736–95), 1771. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Palace Museum, GU6453 © The Palace Museum

Top: Court robe. Embroidery by Imperial Silk Manufactory, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Tailoring by Imperial Workshop, Beijing. Yongzheng period (1723–35) or Qianlong period (1736–95), 1723–95. Embroidery, polychrome and metallic-wrapped silk threads on silk satin, and coral. Palace Museum, GU43478 © The Palace Museum

Bottom: Empress Dowager Chongqing at the Age of Eighty. Ignatius Sichelbarth (Ai Qimeng, 1708–1780), Yi Lantai (act. ca. 1748–86), and Wang Ruxue (act. 18th century), Beijing. Qianlong period (1736–95), 1771. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Palace Museum, GU6453 © The Palace Museum

Jifu (“auspicious robes”) were worn for festive celebrations, family banquets, birthdays, and other important occasions that were less formal than ritual and state ceremonies. The body of the robe is cut from a single piece of silk. Seams run down the middle of this A-shaped garment instead of at the sides, as is common in Western dress.

front of elaborated embroiled blue dress with a pin in between
back of elaborated embroiled blue dress with a pin in betweena metal and stone hairpin in the shape of a crab
Front and back of a festive robe. Weaving and embroidery by Imperial Silk Manufactory, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province; tailoring by Imperial Workshop, Beijing. Qianlong period (1736–95), 1736–77. Embroidery, polychrome silk threads on silk satin. Palace Museum, Gu42151 © The Palace Museum

Inset: Hairpin with crab and reed. Daoguang period (1821–50), 1834 or earlier. Jade (nephrite), kingfisher feathers, pearls, ruby, and silver with gilding. Palace Museum, GU10223 © The Palace Museum.

 

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