Lecture: Formation and Meanings of “Chinese Dress” Collections in the 20th Century American Museum


Presented by Rachel Silberstein

Saturday, April 23, 2022, 10am PT Presented In-Person and Virtually via Zoom In-person: Gunn Theater, Legion of Honor Museum, Lincoln Park \ 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco, CA In-Person Admission: Free Purchase Virtual Tickets Here

Zoom link will be emailed to all TAC members


What did it mean to collect Chinese dress in early twentieth-century America, and what impact does this collecting past hold on collections of Chinese dress today? This talk explores the contested meanings of “Chinese dress”: how it was framed in an early, formative period of collecting Chinese material culture, the process by which dress objects entered the museum, and the collectors, curators, and dealers involved in their purchase and display.


With the fall of the dynasty in 1911, and growing Western presence as diplomats, missionaries and tourists in China, there was increased interest in establishing collections of Chinese art and material culture, including dress. A major mediator in enabling this object transfer was the second-hand clothes dealer, a little-considered figure in this history. But equally, the arrival of the foreign buyer transformed the circulation and valuation of second-hand dress, along with other media categorized as “Chinese art”. Thus, the collecting of second-hand dress objects presented an area of disputed meaning, exposed by the contrast between the parameters of materiality, workmanship, and geography through which dealers assessed garments, and the collector’s evaluative tools of connoisseurship and imperial symbolism.


But conflicts in how Chinese dress should be defined are visible not just in their purchase in China, but also upon display in America. In early exhibits, we find forgotten exhibition spaces and a tussle between the art and ethnography museum which demonstrates not only the challenges of defining dress as art, but furthermore the contemporary associations of Chinese dress in a period marked by exclusionary immigration laws and racism. Whilst for the connoisseur community, Chinese dress was an object of aesthetic beauty and skilled handicraft, fixed in form during the Qing dynasty, and redolent of often fetishized court nostalgia; for the immigrant community, Chinese dress was a visual signifier of difference, expressive of concepts of modernity and diaspora, and a means of negotiating generational evolution of transnational identity.


Thus, in conclusion the talk considers ways in which the twenty-first-century curator can escape the tastes and worldviews of previous generations, whilst still protecting collection integrity, in order to more fully illuminate upon the disparate meanings of Chinese dress for museum audiences today.


Rachel Silberstein is a historian of Chinese material culture, specializing in textiles and dress in Qing and Republican history. She earned a DPhil in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford in 2014. Her monograph, A Fashionable Century: Textile Artistry and Commerce in the Late Qing (University of Washington Press, 2020) – a study of fashion and textile handicrafts in early modern China – won the Costume Society of America’s Millia Davenport Publication Award 2021. Previously ACLS / Henry Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at Rhode Island School of Design, she is currently a lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Puget Sound. Rachel has published widely on Qing fashion in the journals West 86th, Fashion Theory, Costume, and Late Imperial China. Forthcoming publications include an essay on Ming-Qing Fashion in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Global Fashion.



Image Credits: 1. Harriet Monroe wearing a Chinese dress, Vanity Fair 14.6. New York (August 1920) 2. Croft album images (Tomb 89_0001), Croft Archives, Royal Ontario Museum