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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003

Story of art, servitude stitched into Qing costumes

By Victoria Gail-White
Advertiser Art Critic

 •  'Chinese Costumes of the Qing Dynasty'

Through Sept. 14

10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays

1 to 5 p.m. Sundays

Honolulu Academy of Arts

Textile Gallery


The 25 drop-dead-gorgeous "Chinese Costumes of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)," part of the Honolulu Academy of Art's textile collection, were acquired as gifts to the museum in memory of family members and from individual collectors.

Opulent and exquisite, they hang in the gallery as evidence of a vanishing art form from the last dynasty of imperial China, a time when embroidery and weaving reached levels of unparalleled magnificence.

The costumes, worn inside and outside the palace walls, are a hybrid of the nomadic Manchus, who conquered China in 1644, and the sedentary Han people's silk-weaving skills. The cut, shape and construction are indicative of Manchu hunting costumes.

The "dragon robes," court garments worn on formal and semi-formal occasions by Manchu officials, contain a mystery. Stitched into the exquisitely embroidered imperial five-claw dragons and other auspicious cosmic symbols borrowed from previous Chinese dynasties is the Manchu message of political potency and social privilege.

The time-consuming stitches on some of the garments are the "forbidden stitch." Some say the stitch was called forbidden because it was created in the Forbidden City. Others contend the stitch was so named because embroidering it eventually made women blind. For a more detailed account, read "The Forbidden Stitch" by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, winner of the American Book Award for 1990.

The stitch — and the way it wove its way through Chinese history — is connected to the struggle for women's liberation.

The forbidden stitch also is referred to as the Peking or Chinese knot stitch, and is similar to the French knot except that the manner of twisting the thread (usually silk) creates a more precise luster than in the French version. The intense, precise color shadings of thread and stitches in this 7,000-year-old art form developed into the meticulous thread paintings in the exhibit.

It all begins with a tightly woven silk garment, usually 600 to 700 thread counts per square inch. The embroidery threads are separated by color onto needles less than a half inch long — the eye is hardly visible. Look closely at the garments and you will see no poke marks or mistakes. Total concentration is essential, as it would be impossible to rip out stitches without damaging the silk. Tiny, tiny stitches, fragile silk, poor lighting and elaborate designs — it sounds like a nightmare for the stitchers.

A "Manchu Woman's Robe" illustrates another complicated process, a woven kesi tapestry technique, which elegantly articulates the garment's feminine design. The time-consuming results of these artisans' labors are breathtaking.

Curator Reiko Brandon's installation is captivating. Groupings of theatrical robes, women's jackets, celebratory robes, men's semi-formal Manchu court robes and Taoist priest's robes stand at full attention on their display braces. Colors and patterns whirl around the room in a dizzying Qing Dynasty image-fest.

"Some of the most exquisite garments in the show are the court costumes," said Brandon. "I don't think anybody can do work like that now. It is a lost art."

Beautiful roundels and pieces of embroidered garments were cut out and recycled, as in the "Theatrical Robe" (late 19th century, silk, gold-paper-wrapped thread, satin weave and embroidery) and the "Woman's Sleeveless Jacket" (last quarter of 19th century, silk, gold- and silver-paper-wrapped thread, metal buttons, kesi tapestry and appliqué.) Sleeve and sleeve bands were salvaged and sewn on newer garments.

Today, these textiles can command high prices from collectors. In an Internet search, I found a soiled Qing Dynasty collar that sold for $450 at a reputable Asian art and antiques gallery in New York City.

Garments of this type are not easy to care for. Each costume must be stored individually and flat with soft cotton cloth padding in the shoulders and sleeves. Air-conditioning — with optimal temperature and humidity controls — is necessary to discourage excessive drying, mold and mildew growth. The costumes must be cleaned regularly with a weak-suction vacuum that has a fiberglass screen between the textile and the vacuum, because dirt particles can cut the delicate fibers through friction and abrasion.

The narratives in the exhibit are filled with details describing the symbolism of the images and the occasions when different robes were worn. The Eight Immortals of Chinese legend along with pagodas, dragons, bats, fish, tiger, phoenix, panther, peacocks, mountains, waves, clouds, peaches, butterflies, wisteria, chrysanthemums, irises and other blossoms embellish the costumes and create miniature stitch-worlds of their own, shiny and soft. Silk backgrounds of aqua, bright yellow, red, black, blue, orange and mint-green sparkle with gold- and silver-wrapped paper, and a rich palette of embroidered threads. The celestial decorations (replicas of Ming prototypes) distinguished court garments more than a millennium ago.

It takes an enormous amount of will power to not stroke these garments. There is a perceptible sense of awe that the wearer must have felt. In many ways, dressing the Qing Dynasty court was seen as an act of spiritual significance.

A description of the "Emperor's Jifu or Semiformal Manchu Court Robe" (late 18th to early 19th century), reads, "A robe's symbolism becomes complete when it is worn. Its wearer becomes the axis of the world — the neck opening is the gate of heaven, separating the wearer's head, the spiritual realm, from the material world represented by the robe."