The newest exhibit at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies gallery, “Splendid Details,” is aptly named. The marvelous new display of men’s and women’s outer-garments and other embroidered pieces comes from two collections, one from the 1920s and one from the 1980s, and gives the viewer a sampling of Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan culture.
“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or be a Wes student to appreciate the lovely colors,” said Vera Schwarcz, director of the Center and chair of the East Asian Studies Department.
However, there’s much more to the garments than those beautiful colors.
The exhibit’s donors are the family of Mary Virginia Byroade—a wealthy Arkansas socialite who made a worldwide sightseeing trip with her mother in the 1920s that included China, Japan, and the Philippines—and Lothar von Falkenhausen, a professor of archeology at UCLA who delivered the annual Freeman Center archaeology lecture last fall. His collection of Chinese and Japanese garments dates mostly from his travels in East Asia in the 1980s.
One of the exhibit’s most striking pieces is a long black Mongolian horse-riding robe, purchased by von Falkenhausen at a state store in Inner Mongolia. Men traditionally wore this type of garment with an eight-meter silk belt, but the belt was unfortunately not included in this exhibit. In the gallery, a corner of the robe is folded up to reveal a highly detailed and aesthetically pleasing pattern of yellow and white flowers—not exactly what you would expect from a garment belonging to a people that conquered China on horseback in the thirteenth century.
Another second eye-catching piece is a mock civil official robe donated by the Byroade family. Ms. Byroade wore this robe herself and had it lined with rabbit fur so she could better withstand the cold during her travels. The robe is black and embroidered in golden thread with the large character, shou, or longevity. The center of the robe is distinctive: it portrays a gold pheasant perched on a stone in the middle of a lake, surrounded by golden peonies, the Chinese symbol of wealth and distinction. The pheasant’s head arcs gracefully towards a sky laden with golden clouds. This design is most likely an imitation of an insignia of a second-rank imperial bureaucrat during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but there is an error: the pheasant has five tail feathers, and the original embroidered pheasants from the Qing Dynasty had only two tail feathers. It seems like a minute detail, but a knowledgeable Chinese scholar would be on the lookout for such a discrepancy in the same way a connoisseur of designer handbags knows a Louis Vuitton knockoff from the real McCoy. This mistake is easily explained if we consider Chinese politics of the time; the robe was purchased during the 1920s, only a decade after the fall of the last dynasty, when the cultural knowledge of the imperial generation was already beginning to fade.
The Japanese kimonos, haori, are plain on the outside, but they were displayed open on the gallery’s walls to reveal designs of chrysanthemums and lilies— symbols of duration and long life. At the time these garments were worn in the 1920s, the print would not have been visible—the beauty would have passed unnoticed by the outside world. Another piece, on loan from von Falkenhausen, from the 1990’s is an orange vest adorned with forsythia, with wide-cut armholes to allow the sleeves of the kimono to pass through.
Of all the garments rich with flowers, birds, and Buddhist symbolism, one stands out: a bolt of plaid cloth that was hand-woven on a wooden loom by the grandmother of famous Chinese architect Dr. Chen Xingcan. Plaid cloth was a relatively popular export good in China during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of its foreign flair and its visually interesting pattern of crossing and blending colors. While conspicuously lacking iridescent embroidery or patterns of beautiful flowers, the plaid bolt nonetheless represents hours of labor and skilled technique, and is no less rich in color or sophistication than all the other pieces. If anything, the plaid cloth is the feather in the exhibit’s cap.
While exploring this exhibit, I learned so much not only about how the Chinese and Japanese wore their clothing, but also how they used what they wore to communicate social position in such a tiny detail, such as feathers on a bird. The embroidery, particularly on the Chinese jackets, is incredibly beautiful; it not only illustrates the scenery, but it also represents the Chinese people’s pride in what they wore. During Mao Zedong’s tenure as Chairman of the Communist Party, the traditional wardrobe was a plain gray uniform devoid of any decoration. Looking at the pieces provides a glimpse into a short period of history before clothing was revolutionized by Chinese politics and mass production—when beauty was prized not only for its external impact, but for its individual self-expression.