Off the Cuff
Informal Chinese women's dress of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)--jacket and skirt or pants--was often trimmed with elaborately embroidered bands and collars. Further ornament was provided by the addition of detachable sleeve bands to the jackets, examples of which are displayed in this gallery. The motifs that decorate these bands belong to a symbolic vocabulary used throughout the decorative arts to express ideas and sentiments important to Chinese women. The motifs were derived from a variety of sources: the natural world, mythology, and classical literature. Each of these sources is explored in a separate case in this exhibition.
Informal dress allowed women more personal choice than formal dress, worn for official court functions to indicate the wearer's rank in the Chinese bureaucratic and military hierarchy, or in a women's case, that of her husband. The motifs chosen to ornament the bands worn on women's informal jackets or surcoats were visual representations of desires for a long life, many children, and a happy marriage. The Chinese easily recognized these symbols and literary references. Flowers had a variety of symbolic meanings: the peony served as an emblem of wealth and distinction; while the lily, which was often given to young women on their marriage, indicated a wish for many sons.
Literary references, too, were easily recognized. The story of the Lord Wei tells of a young lord who arranged to meet his sweetheart under the Blue Bridge. As he waited, the river water rose, but he remained and was drowned. This tale of devotion is depicted in the bands shown in the second case from the left on the north side of the gallery (acc. nos. 34.687a,b.).