Yuhang Li
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Wearing a gendered tree
A new style of garments from early modern to twentieth-century China
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In the late Qing Empire of China (1856–1911), a novel design appeared on robes. Unlike the conventional design of using flowers and plants as a repetitive pattern, in this new style, the shape of a costume was treated as a canvas and a complete single tree or a cluster of assorted plants was arranged on both sides of a full-length garment. The anatomical body of the wearer beneath the attire and the vegetation on the clothing coincided. This new design was widely reproduced through woven and embroidered textiles and was used for both male and female outfits. Accordingly, the image of the plants was also prescribed with a masculine or a feminine attribute. Scholars have addressed the long-established tradition of anthropomorphizing plants in Chinese paintings and decorative arts from social, political and cultural perspectives. However, the allegorical meaning of the embodiment of painting-like vegetation on garments has not been studied. This chapter traces the historical development of this style and then discusses how such a new design intertwined with different notions of body and nature as China transitioned from empire to nation state. In particular, it shows how textiles enabled such a new relationship between body and nature.

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