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Emperor's yellow dragon robe, 1736-1795. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

LONDON.- The magnificent robes worn by the emperors and empresses of the Qing Dynasty, the last ruling dynasty of China, shown for the first time in Europe, at the V&A. The exhibition will tell the story of a vanished court life within the confines of the Forbidden City, through exquisite and intricate clothes for grand state functions as well as simple, beautiful garments that were worn daily. This will be a rare chance to see these historic garments and objects, worn for everyday life and for important rituals, imperial banquets and travelling dresses for hunting and royal visits to provinces. It will also be an opportunity to study the intricacies and rich colour of the Chinese silk used to make them.

Imperial Chinese Robes features over 50 garments, alongside 20 accessories and 15 fabrics from the collections of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the former residency of the imperial Chinese dynasties and now the most visited historic site in China. The objects and garments tell stories from both public and private life. Highlights include an intricately woven brown gauze robe with golden dragon roundels dating back to the Kangxi reign (1662-1722), and a wedding dress robe with red dragon and phoenix worn by Yehe Nara Jingfen, for her marriage to the Guangxu emperor in 1889. A yellow doublesided dragon robe featuring exquisite embroidery shows the vibrant colours of the fabrics and superb workmanship. Both the dragon motif in different forms and a particular bright yellow colour had been the prerogative of the emperor’s garments for many centuries. It was against the law for Chinese people to use them on their own clothes.

From 1644 to 1911, the Forbidden City was the residence and workplace of ten successive Chinese rulers. Throughout the year the emperor carried out a great variety of official tasks inside the Forbidden City, some practical, some symbolic, and some ceremonial. The clothes he wore were designed to suit the tasks he performed. The Forbidden City was the innermost part of Beijing. Split into different Halls and Palaces, the spaces dictated the activity in each part of the City. Each space therefore dictated what the emperor wore.

Many of the robes were created for the emperors’ wives. The empresses were entitled to silk fabric and fur, and the dowager empress received yet more. Other wives of the emperor were given imperial robes. When not performing an official duty, members of the imperial family wore informal dresses, whose styles, colours and materials were left to the personal preferences of the wearers. When Empress Dowager Cixi took control of state affairs on behalf of her six year old son after her husband had died in 1861, in itself an unorthodox event, she wore informal robes. The result was the appearance of a large quantity of female informal dresses in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, all made from the finest materials with exquisite workmanship.

Chinese dynastic rule came to an end and a republic was proclaimed in 1912. The family continued to reside in the Forbidden City until 1924, from which date the clothes and accessories of the emperors and empresses were accessioned by the Palace Museum as part of the national heritage. Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, said: ‘We are delighted to be working on this exchange of exhibitions with the Palace Museum in Beijing, and excited to be able to show these amazing and beautiful Imperial robes for the first time here at the V&A.’

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Map of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City in Beijing was the workplace and residence of the ten successive emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Surrounded by high walls and imposing gates, it was forbidden to all but the nobility and state officials of the highest rank.

Within this vast complex of palaces, audience halls, shrines, service buildings and living quarters of the imperial family, every aspect of life was subject to regulation. In imperial dress, there were five categories of formal wear: official, festive, regular, travelling and military, all designed to suit the tasks performed by the emperor and empress.

Imperial rule ended in 1911, and some years later the Forbidden City became the Palace Museum. The clothes and accessories of past emperors and empresses, carefully preserved in the palace wardrobe for over two hundred years, became part of the national heritage. Worn for grand state functions as well as daily activities, they tell the story of a vanished court life.

Official dress

For important rituals the emperor wore 'official' dress. Its colour was symbolic of natural forces or seasonal order: blue for the Altar of Heaven, yellow for the Altar of the Earth, red for sacrifices at the Altar of the Sun, pale blue for the Altar of the Moon.

The ensemble included a court robe, hat, belt and boots, with a necklace of matching colour. Over the court robe, the emperor wore a royal coat, and in winter months a fur coat for warmth.

Many of the robes have distinctive cuffs in the shape of a horse's hoof. The Qing were originally a nomadic people from Manchuria in north-east China. Although they adopted many elements of Chinese culture, they also liked to be reminded of their Manchu heritage

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Emperor's winter court robe. 1662-1722 (Kangxi period) Blue satin with woven pattern, brown sable. Length150 cm x width 208 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The emperor wore this robe when he offered sacrifice at the Altar of Heaven on the day of the Winter Solstice, which was one of the most important events of the year.

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Emperor's winter court robe, 1796-1820 (Jiaqing period). Red satin with embroidered pattern. Length 144 cm x width 200 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Red was the colour designated for the Altar of the Sun.

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Imperial concubine's winter court hat, 1644-1911 (Qing dynasty). Sable, pearls, gold, tourmaline, red silk floss. Height 21 cm x width 25 cm x depth 26 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum, Beijing

With the full court dress ensemble the imperial concubines would wear a phoenix crown.

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Emperor's fur coat, 1796-1820 (Jiaqing period) . Black fox, sable, yellow silk lining. Length 136 cm x width 174 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

To protect the emperor from the biting cold of north China winters, he would wear a fur coat like this over his court robe.

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Emperor's summer court robe, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Length 140 cm x width 182 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

This court robe is embroidered with twelve small motifs: sun, moon, constellation, mountain, dragon, flowery creature, axe head, back-to-back ji, sacrificial vessels, waterweed, flame and grain; known as the Twelve Symbols.

The symbols represented the emperor's utmost authority and were worn by him alone. The Twelve Symbols undoubtedly have ancient roots that were much older than 1644. Emperors from the previous dynasty, the Ming, also wore robes adorned with these symbols.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Sun, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The sun is depicted as a red disc with a three-legged bird inside it. Along with the moon and constellation represented things from heavens. Two beliefs - that a bird lives on the sun and a hare on the moon, had been circulating among the Chinese people for at least two millennia.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Moon, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The moon is a disc with a white hare pounding the elixir of immortality. Along with the sun and constellation represented things from heavens. Two beliefs - that a bird lives on the sun and a hare on the moon, had been circulating among the Chinese people for at least two millennia.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Constellation, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Along with the sun and the moon, the constellation represented things from heavens.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Mountain, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The mountain, the dragon and the flowery creature represented things on earth.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Dragon, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The mountain, the dragon and the flowery creature represented things on earth.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Flowery creature, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The flowery creature is depicted as a pheasant, as that bird has colourful plumage. Along with the mountain and the dragon, the flowery creature represented things on earth.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Axe head, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The axe head, the back-to-back ji characters and the sacrificial vessels were used in ancestor worship ceremonies in very ancient times. The Qing emperors no longer used those items at temples and altars, but had retained the symbols on their robes. The sacrificial vessels have the tiger motif on them, another ancient tradition.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Back-to-back ji character, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing

The axe head, the back-to-back ji characters and the sacrificial vessels were used in ancestor worship ceremonies in very ancient times. The Qing emperors no longer used those items at temples and altars, but had retained the symbols on their robes. The sacrificial vessels have the tiger motif on them, another ancient tradition.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Sacrifical vessels, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The axe head, the back-to-back ji characters and the sacrificial vessels were used in ancestor worship ceremonies in very ancient times. The Qing emperors no longer used those items at temples and altars, but had retained the symbols on their robes. The sacrificial vessels have the tiger motif on them, another ancient tradition.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Waterweed, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Waterweed, flame and grain represented three of the Five Elements. Waterweed grows in water and grain is born out of soil. The Five Elements is an ancient philosophy about direction, growth and destruction.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Flame. 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Waterweed, flame and grain represented three of the Five Elements. Five Elements is an ancient philosophy about direction, growth and destruction. Fire is associated with the south, metal with the west, water with the north, wood with the east, and soil with the centre.

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Detail of Emperor’s summer court robe showing one of the Twelve Symbols: Grain, 1851-1861 (Xianfeng period). Bright yellow gauze with embroidered pattern. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Waterweed, flame and grain represented three of the Five Elements. Waterweed grows in water and grain is born out of soil. The Five Elements is an ancient philosophy about direction, growth and destruction.

Festive dress

The emperor's festive dress is also known as 'dragon robe', since it is usually adorned with the dragon motif. It was for happy occasions such as weddings, birthdays, festivals and imperial banquets. It was also for meeting foreign ambassadors. When Lord George Macartney, the first British ambassador to China, met Emperor Qianlong in 1793 the Chinese sovereign was wearing a dragon robe.

The empress was entitled to wear the dragon robe like her husband but she could choose other patterns as well. At imperial banquets the empress dowager, the empress, imperial concubines, princesses, and wives and daughters of Manchu noblemen would sit at tables away from the menfolk. Those were occasions when they put on their prettiest outfits.

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Emperor's yellow dragon robe with gold dragons, bats and longevity characters, 1736-1795 (Qianlong period). Bright yellow satin with embroidered pattern. Length 147 cm x width 182 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

This particular shade of yellow, known as 'bright yellow' could only be worn by the emperor and high-ranking members of the imperial family.

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Emperor's festive winter hat, 1644-1911 (Qing dynasty). Sable, pearl, gold, red silk cord fringe. Height 18 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Sable is the soft pelt coming from a weasel-like mammal living on the northern Sino-Siberian border. It was widely in demand in China for coats and trimmings of all kinds.

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Empress' dragon robe, 1736-1795 (Qianlong period). Bright yellow gauze with double sided embroidered pattern. Length 152 cm x width 174 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

A female dragon robe has slits on the sides, but not on the front and back.

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Empress' court boots, 1662-1722 (Kangxi period). Satin, leather strips, wood, starched white cotton. Height 45 cm x width 10 cm x depth 28 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

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Imperial concubine's festive robe, 1736-1795 (Qianlong period). Yellow silk with woven pattern. Length150 cm x width 176 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The phoenix motif, traditionally a symbol of the empress, was allowed for imperial concubines and princesses as well.

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Empress' festive headdress, pheonix design (dianzi), 1875-1908 (Guangxu period). Rattan strips, silk netting, kingfisher feather, pearls, gold, semi-precious stones. Height 20 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The dianzi was often worn with the festive dress although it was not mentioned in Qing regulations.

Travelling and military dress

The Qing rulers, conquerors of all China, took pride in their military heritage. Emperor Qianlong carried out great military reviews, some in the imperial grounds south of Beijing. He also went hunting. As Emperor Kangxi said, 'The hunt is a training for war', a test of discipline and organisation, horsemanship and archery.

The travelling robe was designed to allow movement on horseback. The emperor would wear it when he went on hunting excursions, or when he visited other parts of China's vast empire. Travelling was often a major undertaking. A four-month tour might require 3000 persons, 6000 horses and 1000 boats.

The emperor inspected his troops regularly. His ceremonial armour was for such events, not for battle. The jacket and apron are padded with cotton instead of protective iron strips. The sleeves are banded in closely sewn strips of gold thread to resemble shining metal.

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Emperor's padded travelling robe, 1662-1722 (Kangxi period). Red satin with woven pattern, sable. Length 130 cm x width 172 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Travelling robes have an asymmetrical cut, with the right half of the lower front one Chinese foot shorter than the left.

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Emperor's riding apron, 1723-1735 (Yongzheng period). Deer skin, dark blue cotton waist band. Length110 cm x width 113 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

This is a very practical garment designed to keep the emperor warm when he was on horseback.

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Emperor's helmet, 1736-1795 (Qianlong period). Silk, cotton, pearl, gold, bronze, other metal. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The Sanskrit magic formulae on the helmet are from Tibetan Buddhism, indicating that the emperor saw himself as the supreme ruler of a multi-ethnic empire.

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Emperor’s ceremonial armour, 1736-1795 (Qianlong period). Silk, bronze, gold, metal and cotton. Length 147 cm x width 182 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

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Painting of Emperor Qianlong wearing ceremonial armour, 1758. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The poem is in the Emperor's own handwriting.

Informal dress

The emperor wore an informal robe when he was alone, or when he enjoyed family life with his wives and children. There were no regulations stipulating how those robes should be tailored or what materials to use. The emperor could freely choose whatever styles, colours and materials he liked.

The empress had fewer official duties to perform than her husband. The empress dowager and imperial concubines had still less, so they wore informal robes most of the time. There was no hierarchy in dress style among the emperor's wives, but bright yellow remained the prerogative of the empress and the empress dowager.

In mid 19th century the 'riding jacket' became extremely popular and was worn by both men and women even when they were not on horseback. The changyi, a loose-fitting outer gown, was a particular favourite of Empress Dowager Cixi, as photographs or portraits of hers often show her in that type of dress.

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Empress' outer robe, 1875-1908 (Guangxu period). Bright yellow silk with embroidered pattern. Length142 cm x width 123 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The grape pattern on the body of the robe is echoed in the matching trim.

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Boy Emperor's informal robe, 1862-1874 (Tongzhi period). Orange gauze with woven and painted patterns. Length 57 cm x width 72 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Emperor Tongzhi ascended the throne at the age of six. He wore this summer outfit when still a boy.

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Boy Emperor's informal leggings, 1862-1874 (Tongzhi period). Orange gauze with woven and painted patterns.. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

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Imperial concubine's riding jacket (magua), 1875-1908 (Guangxu period). Green satin with woven pattern, sable and lace. Length 80 cm x width 125 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

This jacket has three different borders, one made of fur, one of woven satin, and one of lace. Lace making was not a Chinese technique but one introduced by Catholic nuns in late 19th century.

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Woman's shoes, 1875-1908 (Guangxu period). Satin, wood, starched white cotton, glass beads and silk tassel. Height 17 cm x width 21.5 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Manchu women did not bind their feet and so their footwear is distinct from the tiny shoes that Han Chinese women adopted. This pair is known as 'flower pot shoes' because of the shape of the soles.

Fabrics

The production of clothing for the imperial family was managed by the Imperial Household Department. The silk fabrics were produced in the imperial manufactories in southern China, in the cities of Nanjing, Suzhou and Hangzhou. These were weaving mills with centuries of experience. Supplying exclusively to the court, they worked regardless of cost and could devote all their resources to creating exquisite materials of the very highest quality.

Finished textiles and clothing items were couriered to the capital and then tailored, embroidered and made into garments in the specialised workshops within the Forbidden City complex. The court also received silks as tribute from other Chinese cities and from subordinate states. The mechanised loom reached China in the late 19th century and 'western' fabrics were welcomed as a novelty.

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Length of green satin with multi-coloured flowers and fruits in auspicious symbols, 1796-1820 (Jiaqing period). Length 500 cm x width 76.5 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

The flower and fruit pattern is made by introducing supplementary weft yarns into the foundation weave. More than ten colours have been used, and a high level of skill would have been required to make the pattern a success.

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Length of brocaded damask, 1875-1908 (Guangxu period). Multi coloured threads on a lilac ground. Length 770 cm x width 78.5 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

A damask is fabric with a background patterning, in this case a bamboo motif. The multicoloured brocaded patterning is then incorporated to complete the whole design.

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Length of uncut fabric for festive robe, 1796-1820 (Jiaqing period). Red satin embroidered floral roundels. Length 296 cm x width 152 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

This piece shows how imperial robes were produced. The red silk was woven in south China, then sent to Beijing. There, the lengths of silk were sewn together and embroidered. The final stage would have been sewing and finishing at the palace workshop.

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Length of 'western' gauze, 1862-1908 (Late Qing dynasty). Blue threads on white ground. Length 736 cm x width 57 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

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Length of Sichuan brocade, with white flowers and fruits on multi-coloured stripes, 1875-1908 (Guangxu period). Length 288 cm x width 72.5 cm. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum, Beijing

Sichuan in west China was another textile-producing centre. This material was intended as a quilt cover.

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Imperial robes on show in the Palace Museum in 2008

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Imperial robes on show in the Palace Museum in 2008

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Informal sleeveless coat worn by Emperor Kangxi while at leisure. Victoria & Albert Museum

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Empress' 12-symbol Dragon Robe, 1800-1911 (Qing Dynasty). Embroidered yellow silk with coral and pearls. Length 144.7 cm x width 199.5 cm. Museum no. T.253-1967. Victoria & Albert Museum