New Arrival: A Robe for Royalty

Prince’s summer chaofu (formal court dress); China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, probably 1820–60; silk gauze, embroidery in silk and metallic-wrapped threads, gold-printed trim, metal buttons; 141 x 170.2 cm; Gift of Shirley Z. Johnson; Freer Gallery of Art, F2015.7
Prince’s summer chaofu (formal court dress); China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, probably 1820–60; silk gauze, embroidery in silk and metallic-wrapped threads, gold-printed trim, metal buttons; 141 x 170.2 cm; Gift of Shirley Z. Johnson; Freer Gallery of Art, F2015.7

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) court was world-renowned for sumptuous spectacle, due in no small part to the luxury of the silk garments worn by the ruling family and courtiers. This robe, a chaofu, is an example of the most formal Qing garment. From its exquisite quality to the tailoring and decoration, every detail signals the power and confidence of an imperial family ruling a prosperous multiethnic empire.

Fastened at the side, chaofu are tailored with long sleeves and a hip-length bodice attached to a pleated skirt. In English, the style is known as either a court or a ritual robe, since such garments could only be worn by the emperor and individuals of rank for rituals or important court assemblies.

Along with its astonishingly pristine condition, this robe—which was exhibited in our 2001 exhibition Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits—is rare in several regards, including for its exceptionally intricate open-work gauze pattern. The airy material suits Beijing’s hot summers (winter chaofu were of heavier silk with fur lining or trim). The embroidery is extraordinarily fine, with the silk threads worked so that the stitching is equally finished on both sides of the fabric. An embroidered character reading “universe” is inside the neck.

The robe on view in our 2001 exhibition "Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits."
The robe on view in our 2001 exhibition “Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits.”

Imagery on court robes depended on the owner’s status, and the decoration here was for a prince of the first rank. The five-clawed dragons on the chest, back, and shoulders are surrounded by five-colored clouds and other auspicious symbols, hovering above a cosmic mountain at the center of the seas. The number eighteen is special as a multiple of nine, the number most closely associated with the emperor; here, eighteen dragon roundels appear on the skirt, sixteen of which are visible (two are hidden beneath the skirt’s front-opening flap). The robe glitters in the light with its dragons worked in gold- and silver-wrapped threads and gold printed trim, outlined by more golden threads.

A detail of the robe.
A detail of the robe.

The imperial family was proud of its Manchu ethnic identity and long success as a conquering dynasty that ruled China and mastered its culture. The rulers broadcast this by incorporating distinctive elements of Manchu dress into the cut of the chaofu, which otherwise borrows heavily from native Chinese dress, including for the pleated skirt and dragon decoration­. The horse-hoof shape of the cuffs, for example, recalls the protective sleeve-ends worn by Manchu horsemen and archers, from whom the imperial family descended.

The first costume to enter the Freer’s collection, this chaofu allows the museum to embody and project the power, status, and grandeur of the ruling elite in a personal way—through a garment that must have been worn by a first-rank prince. The donor of this major gift, Shirley Z. Johnson, has generous plans to follow it with other Chinese textiles from her stellar collection.

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