Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City Exhibition Review

 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
 mperor's winter court robe, 1662-1722. On loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing

 Imperial robes on show in the Palace Museum in 2008

The Victoria and Albert Museum have once again brought the British public a rare opportunity to admire objects of great value that they would otherwise never get to see. For the first time in Europe we are able to admire a capsule of China’s Imperial Robe collection.

Ming Wilson, Senior curator at the V and A, has provided a perfect storytelling mix of garments, accessories and fabrics. To truly appreciate every precious garment or accessory it is well worth reading the panels of information, there is so much to devour.

The exhibition goes back in time to China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty. After storming the Beijing Palace the Qing dynasty ruled for nearly three centuries. Their rule ended in 1911 and court life vanished. Imperial dress in the Forbidden City was traditionally divided into five occasions; official, regular, festive, travelling and military. For each category there are a couple of garments and accessories from both the Emperor’s and the Empress’s collection.

For those who appreciate true craftsmanship the exhibition is a goldmine of skill and man-made beauty. The detail and intricacy of the patterns and embroidery is overwhelming. You could easily sit for hours staring at one garment, continuously finding different motifs and patterns. The feature of the exhibition for me was the wedding dress of Yehe Nara Jingfen. The dress is displayed so you can see the inside of the garment which is to the exact same standard as the front; for me it was hard to believe that a human could create such detail.

As I read every scrap of information going I soon began to realise that each garment had regulations and meanings behind the choice of motifs and colours. I was intrigued by the fact that only the Emperor and the Empress were allowed to wear bright yellow; princesses, concubines and princes could wear apricot yellow.

I was particularly drawn in by the textures of the fur and the colours of the silks. Sable was often used on the Emperor’s winter coats and hats; it is an expensive fur I had never seen before; taken from a weasel-like animal near the Siberian border the fur was reserved only for the Emperor and his sons. Silk and satin are the foundations for every garment on display, but the colours are so vibrant, it’s a shock to the eye, I have never seen such saturated colours and on garments aging more than 400 years old.

The preservation of these garments, alone is breath taking, some date back as far as the 17th century. Having miraculously survived the 1911 Chinese revolution, two world wars and a cultural revolution; the garments remain in immaculate condition. To look upon them you would think they had only just been made.

One thing that drew my thoughts away from the craftsmanship however, was the discreet hint of westernisation. The westernisation of China had already begun back in the 17th century. The introduction of Europe’s mechanised looms and the presence of European women had begun this western influence on Chinese traditional dress.

As I left the exhibition in my topshop jeans and black leather jacket I felt slightly ashamed of the lack of colour and craftsman ship in my choice of dress; a trail of thought that lead me to truly appreciate the genius of dying craftsmanship.

Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City: is showing at the V&A until 27th February 2011.

Louisa Kilburn