Man's Chinese informal court robe

Contributed by: Australian National Maritime Museum

Front view of robe Robe lying flat Detail of dragon and floral motifs Detail of rounded neck Detail of floral and wave-bordered cuffs Detail of loop and toggle Loose thread at sleeve of robe Loss at hem of robe Possible water damage and discolouration to interior lining Fading and hand-stitched repairs Group portrait of Victorian Naval Contingent, including W. H. Stevens. Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
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Object information

Significance statement

This man's Chinese informal court robe, acquired by W. H. Stevens of the Victorian Naval Brigade when he was deployed to China during the Boxer Rebellion, is a fine example of a silk kosu tapestry weave robe. Such dragon robes were worn in China from the 17th to 19th centuries, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). They were hierarchical garments for male bearers of rank in the Chinese bureaucracy, though were also worn by bridegrooms on their wedding day.

Though it is not known if this robe was worn for a wedding or as an everyday item, it is believed that the robe was looted, or at the very least purchased by or gifted to W. H. Stevens, as a souvenir of the 'exotic East'. This is emblematic of a common wartime practice of Allied servicemen; souveniring is prevalent during significant historic events such as assassinations or significant military battles, campaigns or wars. What some view as stealing, others see as merely taking an object they have found and keeping it and or giving it to family or friends, giving rise to the term 'souveniring'.

Dragon robes (in addition to fringed embroidered shawls) were popularly souvenired items, functioning as a synecdoche- a part of a whole- where that whole is 'China' as Verity Wilson states within Studio and Soiree: Chinese Textiles in Europe and America, 1850 to the Present. As such, it was common for dragon robes to be displayed in English drawing rooms even before the fall of the Chinese empire. Though few robes had any antiquity at all when they were first acquired, they stood as symbols of an ordered empire at a time when Chinese society was going through a series of disastrous dislocations. Such robes were often used as fancy dress costumes, or reconstructed to form square or oblong pieces for use as draperies for pianos, table covers and or wall hangings.

Whether this court robe was gifted, purchased, 'souvenired' or looted, it certainly would have been a special and personally significant acquisition for an Australian sailor from Victoria at the beginning of the last century, all the more special in years to come as robes like this were no longer worn after 1911, whereupon the Chinese empire fell to Republican forces. In the Western cultural imaginary, dragon robes had courtly and aristocratic connotations that would have been particularly appealing to servicemen such as Stevens.

Author: Eloise Maree Crossman, 03.10.2013.

Description

Man's Chinese informal court, or dragon, robe, made in China during the Qing dynasty of woven kosu(/ kesi/ ko'ssu) silk. 

This silk kosu tapestry weave robe has a purple background, with four-clawed flaming pearl dragon and floral motifs. 

It is an A-line robe with a rounded neck, black with silver striped long sleeves, floral and wave-bordered cuffs trimmed with silver thread and blue silk or polished cotton interior lining. It wraps across and is held in place with five silver thread loops and brass flower bud-shaped toggles attached at the neck and along the proper right-hand side of the robe. 

History and Provenance

Family history has it that the robe was looted by vendor Gary McPherson's step-great-grandfather, W. H. Stevens while on services during the Boxer Rebellion. 

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

W. H. Stevens, 1865-1953, was a member of the Victorian Naval Brigade, one of the state naval brigades that later joined together to form the Royal Australian Navy. According to McPherson, Stevens was "very proud of his participation with the Victorian Naval Contingent and was President of its society for a number of years". 

Stevens was deployed to China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-1901. This engagement, also known as the Boxer Uprising, was a violent movement by the Righteous Harmony Society in China between 1899 and 1901 against foreign imperialism in China. The uprising took place against a background of severe drought and economic disruption in response to the growth of foreign spheres of influence. Grievances ranged from political invasion to economic incursions to Christian missionary work, all of which the weak Qing state could not overcome. Foreign navies built up their presences along the Northern China coast, and the rebellion was ultimately quashed by the Eight Nations Alliance, of which Australian was one, in a humiliation for China. 

The Victorian Naval Brigade were allocated as police to Tientin, the port for Beijing (Peking), under the command of Captain F. W. Tickell, as fighting had ended by the time they had landed. 

The robe W. H. Stevens acquired is exemplar of dragon robes worn in China from the 17th to 19th centuries (see Significance Statement). 

Though the robe is believed to have been looted, McPherson notes the dressing up box the robe was kept in "may... have been given to him [Stevens] as I do know they [the Allies] showed many kindnesses to people in distress after the rebellion". 

Where did this information come from?

ANMM object record 

Email exchange with Gary McPherson

Naval Historical Society of Australia website 

Verity Wilson's Studio and Soiree: Chinese Textiles in Europe and America, 1850 to the Present

M. A. Hann's Dragons, Unicorns and Phoenixes - Origin and Continuity of Technique and Motif 

This garment has been exhibited

Previously on display at the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, as well as in the ANMM exhibition 'Trash or Treasure: Souvenirs of Travel' from July 2008 to May 2009, and the Boxer Rebellion Navy exhibition of February 1995.

  1. Place of origin:

    China

  2. Owned by:

    Now in the Australian National Maritime Museum's collection, inherited by Gary McPherson and formally owned, as well as possibly looted, by W. H. Stevens. 

  3. Occasion(s):

    Though it is unknown if this garment was ever worn by Stevens, it was purportedly looted by him in China.

  4. Place:

    China

  5. Made by:

    Hand-made. 

Trimmings / Decoration

This robe is trimmed with silver thread. An important characteristic of Qing dynasty costumes was rich ribbon decoration on borders. The number and quality of borders was an indication of the value of the garment. This robe, however, only has one centimetre of trim, and its floral and wave borders are partly painted not woven to save time, suggesting it may not have been a very valuable piece. 

Other decorations include the brass flower bud-shaped toggles, and fine piping around the neckline. 

Piping

Fine piping around neckline

Fibre / Weave

The body of this robe is made from a fabric consisting of un-dyed silk warp threads and brightly coloured floss silk weft threads (dyed with mineral and vegetable dyes), which make up the decoration. 

Silk tapestry weaving, known as kosu in Chinese meaning 'cut silk', is an old artform that originated in Suzhou, China, and now exists in Suzhou and surrounding areas. It entails the intricate hand-weaving of decorative designs, brocades and or iconography. Tapestry weave is a plain weft-faced weave, having weft threads of different colours worked over portions of the warp to form the design. 

Though the tapestry technique lends itself to very intricate pictorial and patterning effects, it can be woven on the simplest of looms. 

It appears, however, that some parts of this particular robe are not woven, rather hand-painted (for example the wave borders). This may have been a short-cutting technique utilised to save time. 

Silk tapestry weaving is very durable; the image is identical on both the front and back and both sides are neat and smooth so it can be stroked, rubbed and or pinched without sustaining any damage. That said, there is also no way to fix a flaw once a piece has been finished, and robes in some instances took up to thirty months to create. As such, in ancient China, an inch of Kosu was worth the same as an ounce of gold. 

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

Hand-woven and in some places painted. 

Label

No label. 

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

Five silver thread loops and brass flower bud-shaped toggles are attached at the neck of the robe and along the proper right-hand side. 

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

This tapestry woven robe is most likely paper-backed. 

Measurements

gown
Girth
Neck 240 mm
Waist 1390 mm
Cuff 470 mm
Hem circumference 1680 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 1350 mm
Back neck to hem 1425 mm
Sleeve length 745 mm
Horizontal
Cross back 670 mm
Underarm to underarm 640 mm
Convert to inches

This robe is to be worn loosely; chest, waist and hip measurements comparable. 

Dress Themes

This informal, everyday court or dragon robe was possibly looted for fancy dress. 

Robes of this type were also worn by bridegrooms on their wedding day. 

The dragon (or lung) is China's oldest mythological creature and was featured on ancient bronzes long before the invention of writing according to M. A. Hann's Dragons, Unicorns and Phoenixes - Origin and Continuity of Technique and Motif. The dragon was deemed to be charged with yang, the positive principle of the cosmos, and was selected as a symbol of the emperor. Depending on the ranking of the wearer, dragon motifs depicted on robes would have five, four or three claws on each foot. This robe features four-clawed dragons. 

Additional material

Other related objects

Attached is a group portrait of the Victorian Naval Contingent that went to China for the Boxer Rebellion. W. H. Stevens is pictured. 

The robe was inherited by Gary McPherson in addition to a number of other garments and insignia badges belonging to Stevens, though these were unfortunately lost in a robbery. 

Condition

Overall the Chinese court robe is in good, worn but physically sound condition. There are inherent stresses in areas of colour change in the floss silk woven fabric which has led to distortion and breakage of some of the silk warp threads. There are also a few loose threads at the sleeves of the robe, and a minimal amount of fraying and loss at the hem, the elbows of the sleeves, as well as along the fold lines of the sleeves and shoulders.

There is a crease along the centre back seam. This is possibly as a result of Stevens’ textiles being kept in a “family ‘dressing up box’”, according to Gary McPherson. 

There is also possible water damage, discolouration and fading to a portion of the centre bottom interior lining, and some small hand-stitched repairs. 

Evidence of repairs

Some hand-stiched repairs to the interior silk lining

State

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor

Damage

  1. Crease
  2. Discolouration
  3. Fading
  4. Frayed
  5. Parts missing
  6. Water damage
  7. Worn

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