Collecting vintage Chinese silk robes

Imperial gowns interweave intriguing dynastic provenance with a festival of colour and embellishment. No wonder they are now captivating a new crowd, says Ming Liu

From left: 19th-century silk robe, £30,000 from Teresa Coleman Fine Arts. One of a pair of informal robes, sold for £30,000 at Christie’s. Imperial robe, £26,000 from Jacqueline Simcox
From left: 19th-century silk robe, £30,000 from Teresa Coleman Fine Arts. One of a pair of informal robes, sold for £30,000 at Christie’s. Imperial robe, £26,000 from Jacqueline Simcox

Chinese textiles, long cast into the shadows by porcelain, paintings and jade at Chinese art auctions, are now emerging into the light. “Chinese textiles were always considered a very minor artwork,” says Phyllis Kao, specialist in Chinese works of art at Sotheby’s New York. “There are horror stories of them being used as packaging material for other antiques.”

The new interest in these exquisitely embroidered works is partly fuelled by the current enthusiasm for Asian-inspired fabrics, silhouettes and embellishment in womenswear. The much acclaimed China: Through the Looking Glass show in 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art saw sumptuous gowns by Tom Ford, Valentino and John Galliano displayed alongside equally lavish 19th-century festival robes. 

“There’s a buyer who is now attracted to the beauty, colour and quality of Chinese textiles,” says Kate Hunt, specialist head of Chinese art and ceramics at Christie’s London. Robes that went for a couple of hundred pounds 15 to 20 years ago now fetch around £1,500 – or more. A pair of vibrant-blue informal robes with embroidered red apron skirts went for £30,000 at Christie’s last November, far exceeding their £1,500-£2,500 estimate. “It was an extraordinary price,” recalls Hunt, “way beyond anyone’s expectations.” The robes were from W Stuart, a well-known textiles restorer who amassed a collection over 35 years, including wall hangings, silk rank badges, fans and even rolls of uncut fabric. 

Connoisseurs are captivated by the workmanship that has gone into the textiles. Weaving an imperial brocade was intensely laborious, with craftsmen only able to produce 5cm a day. The most masterful embroidery is often referred to as the Forbidden Stitch, thought to be named after the Forbidden City. Many of the techniques were kept secret and some later lost, adding to collector intrigue. “Textiles were the most valuable thing you could own,” says dealer Jacqueline Simcox, who currently has a c1900, purple imperial robe (£26,000) trimmed with butterfly motifs. “The Chinese paid taxes in silk; 40 bolts could buy you a top breeding horse – or a slave.”

Some of the most coveted pieces are 18th- and 19th-century Qing dynasty robes, thanks to emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) who issued a detailed royal decree outlining design specifics for imperial robes, from their patterns, emblems and colours, to which ranked court official could wear which one. “It was quite a lengthy guideline,” says Kao, but resulted in textiles infused with history and character.

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Yellow was reserved for the emperor and his family, the hue symbolising the sun and power. Hong Kong-based dealer Teresa Coleman Fine Arts has several examples (£1,500 to £300,000) including a 1821-1850 jifu, a formal court or dragon robe made for the empress or first-rank imperial consort. Auspicious symbols such as bats (for joy) and the word shou (longevity) adorn the piece, while the nine five-clawed dragons (the ninth hidden inside the robe) indicate a top-tier position – only the emperor’s family and the upper aristocracy could wear five‑clawed dragons; other courtiers wore eight dragons with four claws.

The closer the robe’s colour to imperial yellow, the higher the wearer’s rank. “The robe represented a hierarchy,” says Simcox. “You knew instantly where someone stood in the pecking order.” A vibrant apricot-yellow, five-clawed-dragon robe (£95,000) belonging to an imperial concubine is currently for sale at Brandt Asian Art. 

Minor princes or noblemen were permitted to wear blue, the Qing dynasty’s official colour, or brown. Simcox has a c1900 summer robe (£12,000) in a transparent blue gauze, while Teresa Coleman has a surcoat (1861-1875, £12,000) featuring a silver pheasant that denoted a fifth-ranking civil official. Niche house Chiswick Auctions is known for its more affordable Chinese pieces, and its recent autumn sales featured several blue Qing-dynasty dragon robes (from £400). Brandt Asian Art carries brown robes, including an early‑19th-century jifu (£28,000) with azure and orange accents, and a rare c1870 children’s dragon robe (£15,000) embellished with gold and floss silk

Some collectors eschew hierarchy and simply seek the prettiest robes to decorate their walls; others buy them as occasionwear. Teresa Coleman has a beautiful 19th-century pink damask robe (£8,000) embroidered with butterflies and plum blossoms, and a light green one (£30,000) scattered with flowers. Quality and condition are important, as silk is prone to deterioration and staining, while pieces hung on walls risk being bleached by the sun. “Ironically, if these robes were neglected or forgotten, especially in a dry climate, they probably survived,” says Kao. 

One Hong Kong collector, an executive assistant-turned-artist, has a black robe in a leno weave, offset with cream and blue embroidery. “I was impressed by the very fine embroidery typical of the early 19th century,” she says. “It was my first piece and kicked off my exploration of Chinese textiles.” Today she has around 100 pieces, almost half of which are early 19th to early 20th century. “Each one is a work of art.”

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