The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is currently displaying “Everyday Luxury: Chinese Silks of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).” These silks epitomize the tradition and craftsmanship of ancient Chinese culture and show the beauty of silk production. Through the use of different techniques, these silks capture the viewer’s eyes and force them to focus in on the fashion, searching for every fine detail.
The museum is showcasing more than 90 silks from its collection, and the display includes a wide array of dragon robes, women’s dresses, theatrical wear and accessories. The museum also has women’s skirts on display, the same skirts that eventually became the common clothing as societies changed and progressed. The exhibition presents the imagery, forms and techniques utilized by these craftsmen to create such beautiful wear. Many of the garments are threaded with a single gold strand that was common of such fine fashions.
When first entering the exhibit, the visitor is overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the dragon robes that are first presented when entering the exhibit. These displays are fascinating, particularly when one thinks about how long it took to create the complexly interlocking gold lattice patterns that create a decorative background for the important imperial imagery of clouds, dragons, birds, flowers and bats that are on the robes. A quick turn to the right of the museum entrance reveals a history of the Manchu conquest of the Han Dynasty as captured in clothing. After the conquest, the Manchu imposed their ideology and complex system of court dress upon pre-existing tradition, beginning a blurring of the two fashions.
The Manchu based themselves on a class system, and therefore, the robes often have a patch on them representing different status levels. One robe exquisitely embellished with an embroidered peacock feather stands out and can be viewed at a closer distance through a magnifying glasses. The beauty and style of these garments is something to be admired.
While the dragon robes are quite fascinating and dominate the exhibit with their extreme amount of decoration, the female dress robes are more feminine and emphasize the detail of the embroidery. These robes have a soft look to them, which engages the eye with the beauty of the material as well as the creative craftsmanship. Flowers and dragons decorate the robes, which utilize extravagant colors that capture the eye.
The museum’s collection of traditional and formal dress is not the only collection of garments that the museum owns. Also on display are the overly extravagant reversible theatrical robes for the celestial women characters in the Cantonese Opera. One such robe is lined with beads outlining the figure of a bat. This symbol signifies blessing, marking the celestials as bringers of good fortune. The robe contains extreme amounts of color and embroidery that emphasize the outlined figure.
Also on display are traditional Chinese women’s skirts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Decorated in similar ways to those of the robes, these skirts are adorned with motifs depicting primarily flowers and plants. These motifs emit a feminine feel and beauty that symbolize good wishes for wealth, health and many sons. The turquoise skirt on display is embroidered with dragons and contains pleats that give the illusion that the dragon is moving when the fabric moves.
The traditional garments of the Qing Dynasty are on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until Feb. 17 and are worth the trip down to State Street. Admission is free on Sundays and $6 for students with ID on weekdays and Saturdays.