Sunday, 5 September 2010

You have got to have a system...

Yesterday EG sessions started again, the morning consisted of catching up, show & tell, eating cake, oh, there was a little bit of sewing too! The afternoon talk was from David Rosier, he has been collecting Chinese Imperial textiles for a number of years. He had some amazing samples on show, including some beautifully embroidered lotus shoes for bound feet. His talk however focused on the collection of rank badges (or Mandarin squares).
Imperial China had very defined clothing regulations, these became all the more rigid during the Qing dynasty. You would have been able to identify someones rank from a distance, by their badge on their chest, and also their hat. Often the badge would have also been on their back and sleeves of their robe. Round rank badges (dragon roundels) could only be worn by the immediate imperial family. If you were very important your dragon faced forwards, lesser members of the family had their dragon side-facing looking at the sun (the sun symbolised the emperor himself). And members of middle importance may have had a combination of 2 forward facing dragons and 2 side facing dragons! It didn't just end there, the background colour showed how important you were, with yellow (the colour of the emperor) being the highest, with apricot and brown closely following (as they were seen to be derivatives of yellow). Even the number of claws your dragon had was prescriptive, with 5 clawed dragons were the most superior, down to 2 clawed dragons being left for consorts or low ranking princesses!
This system of attire was spread throughout the civil service and the military, though these groups had square badges (hence, the name a Mandarin square). In both systems there were 9 ranks, with the civil badges represented by birds, and the military by animals. Again these would face the sun, to show their allegiance to the emperor. It was possible to move up (and down) these ranks, so some people had background squares made, and would applique the bird or animal on. On closer inspection the embroidery stitches were perfect, it was hard to believe that these were done by hand.
Couching of gold threads were frequently used with brightly coloured silk threads. The badges could be embroidered, brocaded or tapestry woven. Weavers could also incorporate peacock feather filaments into the weave, to add extra value and sheen.
The talk was fascinating and the collection stunning. To imagine what experiences these textiles have seen, it is amazing that they still survive so it is a pleasure to see them close up. Note the pictures here come from Millers Collecting Textiles.

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