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Costume in China

Cloth has been a significant item of trade between China and Europe ever since the rise of steady commercial contacts between East and West in the sixteenth century. In the so-called 'old China trade', silks and nankeens flowed one way while woollens, furs and, later, drills and shirtings flowed the other. Given the interest of Western merchants in procuring Chinese cloth, it is perhaps not surprising that they should have observed so closely what Chinese people wore and most of the early travelogues feature illustrations - or at least descriptions - of how people dressed in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

In the twentieth century, with the passing of the imperial order, these dress forms passed into history and late in the century the interest in them as historical artifacts begin to assume weight. When China embraced the 'Four Modernizations' in the 1980s, it set off on the classic developmental path by using textiles and clothing to enter the world economy. The study of textile and clothing production and design, including research into Chinese clothing history, is largely a by-product of this historical reorientation. The outstanding publication from this period, however, was by the great writer Shen Congwen, who had been virtually silenced during the Mao years but in his old age published a monumental study of Chinese dress, Zhongguo gudai fushi yanjiu (Chinese Clothes and Accessories of the Past) ( Hong Kong, 1981).

A growing corpus of Chinese publications on costume history is matched by a increasing interest in the history of Chinese clothing in the West. One sign of this interest is exhibitions on the history of Chinese dress such 'Evolution and Revolution', held at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum in 1997-8 and 'China Chic', held at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology Museum in 1999. Both these exhibitions were accompanied by lavish publications (see C48 and C47).

The University of Melbourne Library has rich holdings on Chinese costume and fashion history, many on display in this exhibition. The Chinese section of the exhibition falls into two parts. The first focuses on formal dress of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with some reference back to the Ming (1368-1644) (C1-C35). Incorporated in this section are displays of the robes worn by emperors and empresses; signs and symbols used in imperial and official dress; and the dress of officials or 'mandarins', both civil and military.

The second part of the exhibition draws attention to the recording and representation of Chinese dress and sources for its historicization, including British and French travellers' tales, Russian collections of woodblock prints, Japanese ethnographic works and Chinese collections of calendar posters (C36-C50). The history of the works inevitably parallels the history of changes in Chinese dress. By the 1930s, the heyday of the Chinese calendar poster, dress forms which had been recorded in the woodblock prints of the preceding century had already disappeared.

Related Web links

Dragon Robes of China's last dynasty

Evolution and Revolution: Chinese dress 1700 to now

Heavens' Embroidered Cloths: One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles

Silk Power: Qing Dynasty robes

Traditional Chinese Apparel


Eberhard, Wolfram. A dictionary of Chinese symbols: Hidden symbols in Chinese life and thought. London, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
UniM Bail REF 951.00321 EBER

Garrett, Valery. Chinese clothing: an illustrated guide. Hong Kong; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Bail 391.00951 GARR

Guoshiguan, eds. Qingshigao jiaozhu. [Annotated Draft History of the Qing Dynasty]. Taibei: Guoshiguan, 1986-90.
Bail EA 2741 C352Z2 v.4

Mailey, Jean, (curator). The Manchu dragon: costumes of the Ching Dynasty, 1644-1912: accompanying the exhibition ... December 16, 1980-August 30, 1981. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Museum, 1980.
ERC B 746.92 METR

Scott, A. C. Chinese costume in transition. Singapore: Moore, 1958.
ERC 391.009 51 SCO 1

Situ Yanran. Luoyi baizai: Xianggang fushi yanbian. [Dress in Hong Kong: a century of change and customs]. Xianggang: Xianggang shizhengju, 1992.
Bail EA f 4151 L601

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