Kowtowing to Chinese fashion in a dazzling display

After having figuratively saluted the rich peasantry of Russia two seasons ago, then curtsied to the Hapsburgs this fall and winter, will fashion soon be doing the Chinese kowtow to the Manchus?

We might tune in next year around this time to find out. The exhibitions of Diana Vreeland, the forceful high fashion personality who is special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have had prodigious effect on the work of certain American and European designers. They have been heavily influenced by the productions she has organized for the museum, which have included spectaculars on Hollywood and imperial Russia.

Mrs. Vreeland's latest, "The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch'ing Dynasty," which opened in mid-December and will be on display through August 1981, takes the same route as Bloomingdale's China promotion but gives a more opulent view of Far Eastern clothing. The ninth of her annual shows, the current display may produce the same sort of fashion reverberations as did previous Met exhibitions of clothes from the heydays of the czars and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

To look forward to any duplications of the densely ornate embroideries with which the Chinese covered silk damask, cut velvet, and brocade robes of state would, however, be foolish. Such work would be utterly impossible in modern times. "I don't think embroidery ever reached a higher level," Costume Institute curator Stella Blum said at a preview before the exhibition opened to the public.

The sybaritic elegance of the costumes, which were selected by Mrs. Vreeland and Jean Mailey, the curator whose province is Far Eastern textiles, reflects enthusiastic compliance with the Confucian maxim to "cultivate your person." Understatement was not a characteristic of the Peking court -- particularly not of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi, a scarifying personage who rose from fifth concubine to a position of dominant power in the last dynasty. Some of the elaborate garments she fancied are among the 150 pieces shown.

Nearly all the costumes come from the museum's own collection of dazzling 18 th- 19th-, and 20th-century clothing of the ruling classes, extravagant costumes from the imperial Chinese theater of which the Dowager Empress was an enthusiastic patron, as well as vestments of Buddhist and Taoist priests.

Included are the so-called "Poverty Patches" -- robes cut from different silks and pieced together with borders of black and bandings of embroidery -- worn by actors in the roles of nuns or priests. According to Jean Mailey, "Patchwork was the religious person's way of identifying with the poor." It would seem that some poor Chinese were less poor than others, for, as one simple display demonstrates, even coolies wore silk.

The Manchus, as Ms. Mailey reminds us in the exhibition catalog, were Manchurians who captured the imperial city of Peking to rule China from 1644 to 1912. Unlike the earlier Chinese, they suffered females gladly (they did not drown their girl babies).

Although upper-class Manchu women did not bind their feet and wore either flat embroidered slippers or shoes with heels under the arch of the foot, examples of tiny slippers worn on the deformed "lily foot" are represented in the exhibition.

Symbolism played a great part throughout the history of design in China. The richness of the Met's costumes can be measured by the wealth of five-clawed dragon embroideries in the snow. Like many other emblems of imperial China, the mythical beast with five talons was an indication of rank, five being a great deal better than four. If the splendrous embroidery on one's robe included a dragon or two with five claws, one was the emperor, the empress, or a member of their family -- not some lesser aristocrat. Sumptuary laws were firm on such matters.

Among the greater treasures at the Met are the so-called 12-symbol emperor robes of state. These are embroidered with emblems placed in specific positions: a sun on one shoulder, a moon on the other; a constellation over the dragon on the chest of the robe; a mountain over the back dragon. The geometric symbol, the az head, flames, and other signs associated with sacrificial ceremonies make up the rest of the dozen symbols. As curator Mailey explains in the exhibition catalog, the emblems go back to the ancient Han dynasty, when the emperor presided at yeary sacrifices.

Embroidered roundels or medallions of the sort that occasionally turn up today at antique dealers or in consignment shops may originally have been rank badges on outer robes. Easily removed from threadbare garments, many such badges have survived to interest collectors.

Birds, beasts, and various other insignia used in the patterns all had certain meanings. Waves, rocks, and clouds symbolized the universe; bats denoted happiness; peaches or cranes, longevity; berries, fortitude.

Such motifs are bound to have an impact on next year's styles. If lily-foot shoes and 12- symbol robes seem unlikely candidates for 1981 fashion revivals, prints adapted from Ch'ing-dynasty costumes are probably already on fabric designers' drawing boards. Silk damask robes with skinny trousers would seem to have a fashion future. And the market for antique Chinese embroideries -- with or without five-clawed dragons -- should be looking up.

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