Step 2 of 10

Cixi’s dress

After getting to know Cixi better, it’s time to take a look at her beautiful dress. The dress she’s wearing is a winter gown. The way Cixi is dressed in the painting is not the original version. Katherine Carl described in her book what Cixi originally wore and how she was positioned during the sketching phase of the portrait.

I finally began the sketch. Her Majesty was dressed in one of her official winter gowns. Its fur lining rendered the already heavily embroidered satin stiffer than ever, and any stray folds that might perchance have appeared, were pulled out by a heavy fringe of pearls around the hem. She had on her famous pearl mantle over an official jacket. In her coiffure she wore her long tassel of pearls, and many curious ceremonial jewels. She had on fur-lined undersleeves, which hid half her beautiful bands. The effect of her tiny finger-tips, with their long curving nails and jeweled shields, the palms not being visible, was most unfortunate. Added to this, she held them tightly together in her lap, and the lines were obscured by a large, pale-blue handkerchief in one hand.[Cf, p 216-7]

Katherine tells us that Cixi often changed jewels and ornaments. Even though Katherine knew that some of them didn’t go well with the composition, she didn’t make any adjustments as Cixi wouldn’t allow it. [Cf, p 238] Instead, she painted those parts in a thin wash of color and believed in the judgement of Cixi. Fortunately, the Empress Dowager came to the same conclusion that some details indeed should be changed, such as removing the fur undersleeves and resting her left hand on a cushion instead of her lap.[Cf, p 280-1]

Katherine’s description of the dress tells us little about the design. As you can see, the dress is filled to the brim with symbolism; there’s hardly any spot left empty. We will study one part of the symbols here and the other half of the symbols more in-depth in separate markers. Before we dive into the world of symbolism, I would like to mention that some details on the dress are hard to decipher. A plausible explanation for this could be that Katherine didn’t have enough time to study the details of certain parts of Cixi’s attire due to her strict deadline and limited sittings with the Empress Dowager.