The Historical Sew Fortnightly ‘Eastern Influence’ challenge, and my Chinoiserie promenade gown seem like the perfect opportunity to show you my 19th century Chinese ‘cloud collar’ – or what remains of it.
My cloud collar really isn’t a full example – it’s missing one full lobe that would sit on the proper left shoulder, and half of the back lobe, and is quite damaged in other places
I found the cloud collar in a bin of textile rags at the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-use in 2002 or 2003. At the time, I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that it was Chinese, and I knew that it was old, and I knew that it was interesting, and I knew that at $5, even on a student budget, it was well worth buying!
It’s been carried around in my stash ever since – brought out for talks, and as a study piece for my students. I’ve learned quite a bit about cloud collars in general since, and about the materials and make of my particular collar, but I still wonder how it came to be in the rag bin, and how it came to be in California in the first place.
Cloud collars are worn by women for auspicious occasions, particularly for weddings. Was it brought to America by one of the few Chinese brides to be allowed into the US in the 19th century? Was it brought later, in the early 20th century, by one of the many Western collectors who bought up Chinese textiles in great quantities (usually with more enthusiasm than taste). Or was it a quite recent import? And how did it come to be completely discarded?
All the motifs on the collar have symbolic meanings, and I believe the different colours of lobes mean different things, so collars with red closest to the face, instead of green like mine, might mean something different.
I know some of the symbolism of the motifs on the collar. The pumpkin in the fruit bowl symbolizes fertility (lots of seeds), and the weird green fruit on the other side of the bowl is a Buddha hand lemon, symbolizing, obviously, the Buddha (and something about immortality and purity etc.). Clearly a suitable garment for a wedding!
I don’t think my cloud collar was the highest quality example of its type, even when it was new and un-damaged. The pattern is woven, not embroidered, indicating 1) that it was post the introduction of Industrial Revolution weaving machines in the East, and 2) it would have been considerably cheaper to make than a hand-made example would be.
There is hand-applied couching on top of the machine brocading, but the application is quite large and rough. The gold couching isn’t the only gold in the collar. The damage and disintegration has revealed a hidden secret. There is a layer of gold foil between the brocaded outer and the support fabric and backing.
What is the point of the gold foil? We wondered about this for a bit, and then realised the gold might subtly reflect and sparkle in candlelight through the tiny holes in the brocaded outer. Clever!
While the gold foil is clever, the backing of the cloud collar also makes me think that it wasn’t the most expensive item. Each different petal of the cloud collar is constructed separately, and then roughly basted together.
The construction almost suggests mass production – make a ton of each petal in each colour, sew them together after the fact, quicker and cheaper.
If you’d like to see more examples of Cloud Collars, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a similar one with one fewer layers of petals, but with fringe. The Textile Museum of Canada has one with the same three layers of petals, in the same colours, as well as a selection of other types.