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Title: Embroidered figures : commerce and culture in the late Qing fashion system
Author: Silberstein, Rachel
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2013
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Contrary to Westerners' long-maintained denial of fashion in Chinese dress, recent scholarship has provided convincing textual evidence of fashion in early modern China. Research into this fashion commentary has complicated our understanding of Chinese consumption history, yet we still know little about fashion design, production, or dissemination. By prioritising the textual over the visual or material, this history remains confined to the written source, rather than asking what objects might tell us of Qing fashions. Though many fashionable styles of dress survive in Western museums, these are rarely considered evidence of the Chinese fashion system. Instead museum scholarship remains influenced by twentieth-century interpretations of Chinese dress as art; dominated by dragon robes and auspicious symbols, oriented around the trope of the genteel Chinese seamstress. Within this art historical account, nineteenth-century women's dress has been characterized by decay and viewed with disdain. This thesis questions these assumptions through the study of a group of late Qing women's jackets featuring embroidered narrative scenes, arguing that in this style - regulated by market desires rather than imperial edict - fashion formed at the intersection of commerce and culture. Contrary to the prevailing production model in which the secluded gentlewoman embroidered her entire wardrobe, I position the jackets within the mid-Qing commercialization of handicrafts that created networks of urban guilds, commercial workshops and sub-contracted female workers. By drawing the contours of Suzhou's commercial networks - a region renowned for its embroidery - I demonstrate how popular culture permeated the late Qing fashion system, and explicate the appearance and conceptualization of the embroidered scenes through contemporary prints and performance. My exploration of how dramatic narrative was represented in female dress culture highlights embroidery's significance as a tool to reflect upon contemporary culture, a finding I support by recourse to representations of embroidery as act and object in Suzhou's vernacular ballads and dramas. Thus, these little-studied jackets not only evidence how fashionable dress articulated women's relationship with popular culture, but also how embroidery expressed contemporary concerns, allowing a re-appraisal of women's role as cultural consumers and producers.
Supervisor: Vainker, Shelagh Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: History of Asia & Far East ; History of art and visual culture ; Visual art and representation ; Chinese fashion ; Chinese dress ; Chinese embroidery ; narrative imagery