Court Robes

Robes also became institutionalized in various parts of the world at different times as a major component in in vestiture ceremonies for political leaders. Such was the case in Christian Europe, where the coronation of kings and queens relied heavily on symbolic regalia, especially crowns, robes, and scepters. Coronation robes were often based on the vestments of bishops—tunic, chlamys, dalmatic—which were thought of and revered as ancient garb dating back to the kings and priests of Old Testament times. As such, these garments were deemed appropriate vehicles for articulating the transformation of a royal candidate into the holder of sacred office. Similarly, the robing ceremony itself paralleled the ritual of Christian baptism. One prominent example is the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II of England. Held in Westminster Abbey, according to tradition, the ceremony began with the singing of a psalm dating back to the coronation of Charles I. Then came the entrance of the Queen, wearing her white coronation robe, an elegantly embroidered formal gown. Draped on her shoulders was a very long crimson cape, its train carried by six attendants. She was escorted by two bishops, resplendent in their brocaded ceremonial copes. The service consisted of four main segments: the recognition, when the queen was presented to her people; her swearing of the oath of office on the Bible; the anointing ritual, with the queen wearing a plain white robe; and, finally, the robing ceremony, during which the Mistress of the Robes helped her don the spectacular royal tunic and belt. A much more elaborate cape was draped on her shoulders for the final act, the crowning of the queen. Throughout, the term "robe" referred to the queen's garments—gown, cape, tunic—and the ceremonial changing of them to symbolize her ascension to the throne.

One of the most well-known examples of imperial robes is the Chinese "dragon robe" tradition. Although the emperor himself and his throne were symbolized by dragon imagery, this was not a garment reserved for him alone. The dragon robe proper meant a particular type of garment worn at court and by government officials, especially during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Over time, the garment style varied from ample, flowing forms to trimmer, more tailored ones. In all cases, the dragon motif was central, either brocaded into the textile or embroidered onto it with silk and gold threads. Early versions of the dragon robe included design features deemed appropriate for certain ranks, such as the placement of dragon motifs, their scale, and how the dragon was depicted. After 1759, a set of laws were put in place in an attempt to systematize the imagery and regulate who was entitled to wear it. For example, only the emperor's robe could be brilliant yellow, with nine golden dragon motifs, while the robe of the heir apparent was a shade of orange-yellow. Background color and the number of claws on the dragon were features that distinguished rank among the imperial princes. Although these rules were not strictly followed, the visual elements remained relatively constant until the ending of the dynasty and its costume traditions in 1911. Dragon robes, along with kimonos and other similar garments, have served as inspiration for modern designers of elegant dressing gowns and housecoats for men and women.

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