Dragon robes (ji fu吉服, lit. auspicious dress) originated in the Liao dynasty (907-1125), and were regulated as court dress under the Ming (1368-1644). The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) continued this usage, and standardized the nine-dragon design (the ninth dragon was positioned beneath the robe’s overlap). The dragon robe was worn with an ensemble of hat, surcoat, collar, belt, necklace and boots, and every element featured details to distinguish the rank, status, and gender of the wearer. Only the emperor and his consort could wear bright yellow (ming huang明黃) robes, and only the emperor could wear robes with four skirt slits (front, back, and the two sides). Robe slits were also used to indicate gender: women wore two side slits, and men slits at front and back.
This robe’s brown color and two front and back slits suggest that it belonged to an official during the Jiaqing 嘉慶period (r.1796-1820) of the Qing dynasty. Although five-clawed dragons were theoretically restricted to emperors and princes, they circulated more widely during the late Qing, and compared to a later dragon robe (1949-41-1) in the Museum’s collection, this example has shorter, more undulating stripes (representing waves), and the crashing waves and rocks atop the stripes appear more substantial.