This is Part IV of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.
You will recall from my previous installment that there was as much emphasis on the character roles as the plot of the play. This theme was carried through into the costuming aspects of Chinese dramas.
There were 300 standard items designed to denote a character’s type, age and social status, through a combination of colors, design, ornament and accessories. Materials included silks, satins and brocades, ornamented with motifs that included clouds, fish scale, rippling water, waves, plants, and and animals; costumes for imperial characters were ornamented with phoenixes (feminine) and dragons (masculine). Color was always symbolic. When a costume wore out, it was replaced with a replica in the same style and ornamentation, but never in the same exact shade.
Opera costumes were made for character roles rather than for specific plays. Although they were based on historic models, costumes could be a fusion of historic styles dating between the 7th – 19th centuries. It was not uncommon for robes to be mixed with footwear, hats and accessories from different periods, and costumes did not need to match the time period the play was set in. (It was this reference to anachronism that gave me leave to combine elements from a variety of costumes that I already had, to clothe the Monkey King for my One Monkey Show. Some of those pieces are collected in the photo that introduces this page.)
Between performances, theater costumes were stored in a chest, in a specific order. It became customary to place a patchwork costume called a fu-kuei i (garment of honor and wealth) on top. The patches were multicolored and symbolized uncertainty but with bright hope of the future, and was worn by those playing the roles of poor scholars or distressed women of virtue. It was placed at the top to bring good fortune to the actors who played those roles.
A small sampling of the more recognizable costumes
...A cap of the Three Mountain's Phoenix flying crowned his head, And a pale yellow robe of goose-down he wore on his frame. His boots of gold threads matched the hoses of coiling dragons, Eight emblems like flower clusters adorned his belt of jade...
The warrior’s robe evolved in more modern eras to include ‘armor panels’ that hung from the waist to the ground both front and back, and a round collar (like a cangue) at the neck that supported four pennants on the actor’s shoulders (which I believe symbolized the armor he led).
Mandarin patches on formal court robes came into being during the Ming Dynasty and would show up in opera costumes after that period. Horseshoe cuffs date to the Qing Dynasty. There are a number of other items like pants, shirts, vests, turbans and sashes that I do not cover here.
Some colors were reserved for specific styles of robes for specific roles. This is a general overview and is not delineated by robe style:
I have written an article for a separate series on Symbolism in Chinese Embroidery, which is accessible here via a downloadable pdf.
There were 100 types of headwear worn on the Chinese stage. You could tell how important the character was by how ornate their hat or headdress was.
Warriors wore k’ui helmets, made from beaten metal and augmented with pearls and colored balls of velvet suspended on wires. (I believe this is fairly modern, but may have been highly stylized versions of actual military helmets from the T’ang and Song Dynasties.)
Barbarian Warrior helmets included a pair of very long pheasant feathers, and also a pair of long animal tails (foxes possibly) that hung down their backs. (I have seen modern Chinese dramas where these pheasant feather helmet were worn by women warriors; I suspect the one at left might be an example.)
Warriors might also wear a soft beret (Monkey is often depicted with one).
Officials and Scholars wore a variety of hat styles, nearly always in black until more recent times, sometimes in stiffened gauze, with or without side flaps or back ribbons, embroidered or not, depending on their degree. Emperors wore a version of the hat listed above, usually with side or back flaps, and ornamented depending on the formality of the role.
Empress headdresses became quite elaborate, made from beaten gold, ornamented with phoenixes and covered with kingfisher feathers (Song Dynasty).
Noblewomen, especially courtesans or dancers, would ornament their hair with elaborate ornaments in lieu of a hat or headdress (T’ang Dynasty). Common people could wear broad straw hats, or head scarves or turbans, depending on their character. Men could also wear their hair in a topknot, women’s hairstyles were generally braids (for a young girl) or buns (for an adult woman).
Military commanders wore a high soled boot called a sueh-ts was developed exclusively for the stage. Made of silk, they were highly embroidered to match their robes. Soldiers and servants wore ankle boots with soft soles called k’uai-sie. The soft, short boots were necessary for the acrobatics that actors depicted as battle scenes.
Women wore soft satin slippers with flat soles, which could be ornamented with silk tassels and embroidery depending upon the social standing of the character. Common people and especially laborers could wear straw sandals.
The dynasties listed in this text point to the earliest time period that these articles would have been worn. Here is your secret decoder ring:
Materials I have referenced in this segment include:
“What I would learn next, will be explained in the next chapter”