Ornate Asia: Extravagance in Clothing

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By: Anna-Maria Hand 

Some of the most decorated and beautiful clothing in history can be traced to Asia. Indian sari's, Japanese Kimono's, and Korean hanbok's are just some of the clothing that comes to mind when thinking of fabric, color, and design opulence. This week we were fortunate to come across a box marked "oriental clothes". This box had an amazing variety of costume from Asia, which sparked my interest.

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This Man's court dress or "qipao" (pronounced chipow) pictured above is from the late Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty is the most recent and final of the imperial dynasties, lasting from 1644 to 1911. The design of the dress was very important and symbolic; different animals represented different social ranks. For instance, civilians wore a bird, officers of the army wore tigers or bears, nobility wore python, and the Emperor wore the dragon. Certain colors were also used to separate the different circles. This particular qipao has a python on the middle front and back, and was possibly worn by Chinese nobility.

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The box also contained children's items from south east Asia. This red silk outfit, completed with shoes and a hat, is possibly from South East Asia because of the style and the thinness of the fabric, which is typical of hot, tropical climates. Although the location of the costume cannot be completely determined, the date of the costume can be more or less decided based off the donation records. The costume was given to MdHS in 1968 by Mrs. C.G. Ramsey Leigh who stated that this particular costume was given to the Murray family by Mr. William Wilkins. Mr. Wilkins was the first president of the bank of Pittsburg, a U.S. Senator, and the Secretary of War and Minister of Russia. Upon further research, we learned that Mr. Wilkins died in 1865, which helps narrow down the date of the costume to the first half of the 19th century.


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Not only did the "oriental" box hold items from East Asia, but also from the West. This Burqa was a very interesting find; more interesting was the card found sewn into the hem. It states "Turkish woman's dress, burnt orange", and unfortunately nothing else is conclusive about this item other than the origin. The colors are fantastic; red, yellow, black, and white are woven together to create the illusion of an orange dress. The cap of the burqa is quite small only measuring 19 inches in diameter, and the crocheted eye-space only measures 1.5 in. X 3. The length of the entire burqa is 57.5 inches which in feet is 4.8. Many girls started wearing burqa's when they started puberty or when they became engaged. Some girls were married as young as 14, so it could quite possibly have been a younger woman wearing this colorful burqa.


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This silk shirt had the same kind of card sewn into the hem. It said "Man's yellow robe, Eastern", which doesn't help determine its' origin in the slightest. However, judging by the fine and seemingly translucent silk and linen fabric we can determine that it was possibly worn in an extremely warm climate.


More research will definitely be done to determine the origin of these beautiful items, and how they ended up at MdHS. To learn more about how you can help save these treasures, click to read more about our Adopt A Box! program. We thank you for your support!

Resources and Read More:

Most of the information about Chinese clothing came from a direct personal resource, Frank Ran, from Bejing, China.

Qing Dynasty

The Burqa

Historical Perspectives on Islamic Dress