As the Santa Barbara Museum of Art prepares to close its Asian art galleries for construction, Asian art curator Susan Tai has organized a special exhibition of more than 80 Chinese silk garments, representing approximately half of SBMA’s permanent collection. Everyday Luxury features robes, skirts, headdresses, and furnishings dating from China’s Qing dynasty-sumptuous, ornately embroidered textiles that are rarely displayed because of their great delicacy.
In the mid 17th century, China’s penultimate Ming Dynasty fell to the Manchu-a nomadic tribe from the north. The Manchu seized power in an ingenious way: by implementing key changes to Chinese society while retaining enough familiar customs to comfort the Han people. One area in which the Manchu asserted their authority was in courtly attire. The traditional dragon robe, worn by imperial and civil rulers for many centuries, became more streamlined, with slits on the sides to facilitate movement. But the familiar symbolism used in the embroidery of these robes remained the same: a cosmic landscape of suns and moons, clouds and dragons, fire and water, each an element of an intricate pictorial language understood by everyone, regardless of class. The wearers of such garments were literally dressed for success, robed in representations of health, wealth, and supremacy.
Among the most dramatic of the garments currently on display is a man’s dragon robe with shimmering peacock feather embroidery dating from the early 19th century. Nearby, two gold dragon robes from the same period incorporate the 12 imperial symbols reserved for the clothing of emperors and their wives-symbols like grains, for fertility. Women’s robes bear images of flowers: peonies, chrysanthemums, narcissi, and orchids, while children’s hats are made in the likenesses of tigers and elephants.
During the course of nearly three centuries, the Manchu maintained their authority, in part by co-opting simple symbols from the natural world-representations of greater forces whose power and beauty are indisputable. But beneath these shining, ornate surfaces with their intricate embroidery and flawless geometry lies the story of the Qing Dynasty society-the story of those who commissioned these garments, those who sewed them, and those who wore them-a society bound together by the threads of a common pictorial language, and by a fascination with power.