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Ornate Asia: Opulence and Identity

By: Anna-Maria Hand 

This week for our blog posts us interns are uploading our presentations for those of you who missed the event this past Wednesday. Enjoy!

Ornate Asia MDHS – This PowerPoint accompanies the text below

Over the summer, it seemed like everyday we were surprised at what was found. However, nothing surprised me more than an unusual box marked “Oriental Costume” found a couple of weeks ago. Each of the objects in the box seemed to identify with a different Eastern culture. The box piqued my interest particularly because there are enormous differences in Eastern dress and culture, yet all the items are paired together in one battered box. In this presentation I will discuss my research of the small collection of Eastern costume here at the Maryland Historical Society. More specifically, focusing on the provenance, and individual cultural identity for the items titled “Mandarin Coat,” and “Turkish Woman’s Dress.” Bottom of Form


On first glance, this group of “Oriental” objects contained about 8-10 items, and included (From left to right) a Turkish woman’s dress (or burka), a child’s red outfit complete with shirt, trousers, shoes and hat, a ornately woven and pleated skirt, an infants blue shirt, and a heavily decorated mandarin coat. Items not pictured here included an infant’s red bib, and a man’s yellow robe. With my current education and knowledge of mostly western historic costume, I was completely stumped as to what everything was, and how it came to be at the Maryland Historical Society.


This small collection was donated it seems, by only two people, Mrs. Charles R. Weld, and Mrs. C.G. Ramsey Leigh. Finding information on these two donors proved to be a little difficult, but not impossible. Thankfully, Leo Witt, another Maryland Historical Society intern helped me track down the provenance on both donors. The objects donated by Mrs. Charles R. Weld, included: the man’s Mandarin coat, the man’s yellow robe, and the Turkish woman’s dress. Mrs. Weld, who was formerly known as Miss Frances Eaton was the daughter of George Nathaniel Eaton, who was President of the Board of commissioners of Public Schools in Baltimore. Frances married Reverend Dr. Charles Richard Weld, pastor of the first independent Christ’s Church, in 1898. The church was the only Unitarian church in Baltimore at the time. Frances’ birthdate was unknown, however upon her death in 1947, she bequest items to the Maryland Historical Society, her will stated “In my last will, executed today April 25th, 1944, I bequeathed to you, my friends, in the order therein set out the personal property therein described, absolutely…” Further digging proved that Mrs. Weld had before donated to the Maryland Historical Society. A correspondence found dated October 11th, 1932 states,

“My dear Miss Eaton and Mrs. Weld.

At a meeting of the Maryland historical Society held on the tenth instant, the following resolution was introduced… Resolved, that the Maryland historical Society extend to Miss Maria Lovell Eaton and Mrs. Charles R. Weld its appreciation and grateful thanks for the rare and choice collection of portraits, beautiful porcelains and glass with which they have furnished their room on the second floor. The Historical Society assures them that in the future it will take every care of this collection.”[1]

Many of the objects in the 1947 Weld donor file were of Eastern provenance, and included objects such as: Chinese dolls, eastern Kashmir shawls, Russian tent pieces, and Turkish embroidery. Throughout all of my research on this donor file, I did not come to a definitive conclusion on how Mrs. Weld came to have these items in her personal collection. Nevertheless, the items are unique and obscure, and deserve to be researched.

The items from Mrs. C.G. Ramsey Leigh included only the children’s costume. The only evidence of provenance found about the donor and the objects were detailed in an excerpt from the donor files, and in the 1972 obituary of Mr. Ramsey Leigh. Mrs. Ramsey Leigh who was previously known as Mrs. Elizabeth Murray died several years prior to her husband, and in 1968, she bequeathed the ‘children’s Oriental Costume’ to the Maryland Historical Society. The most interesting thing found in the donor file was the connection to a Mr. William Wilkins who gave this oriental costume to Elizabeth Murray’s ancestors. William Wilkins was a very prominent Pennsylvanian politician. In addition to holding office as Secretary of War, he was also Minister to Russia, and a member of the House of Representatives.

Provenance within this collection is extremely important to my research, especially with the eastern costume because it allows me to pinpoint the dates and regions of each garment. For instance, the donor files titled “Turkish Women’s dress” and “Mandarin Coat” allow me narrow down my research to a few Eastern regions, which makes a monumental disparity in my investigations.


This dress was easily the most striking item I found in the box, and I immediately began to process it. The dress starts at the cap on the crown of the head. The fabric is attached in one piece all the way around the cap and drapes loosely to the floor. The only opening of this garment happens at the front – extending from the chest to the floor. Tan wool yarn is loosely woven over the eye space. Colors of red, yellow, black, and white are woven together to create this burnt orange color. The orange/gold satin edges surround the front opening and the hem of the dress. In my catalogue process, I didn’t find any tears or stains on the dress but there was some slight fading between the creased parts of the dress. The measurements for this dress are exceptionally small, the diameter of the head is only 19”, the eye space is 1.5×3”, and the length of the garment is 57.5”, which translates to about 4’8”. To put these measurements into perspective, my head for instance, measures to about 21.5”, and the total width of my eyes are at least 4”. These measurements and the color of the dress helped me identify within my research the age and religious background of the wearer.


The wearing of veils or the burka has universally been associated with the religion of Islam for centuries, but the religion was neither the first nor the only to establish this practice. The custom was adopted from the Arabic culture, which for centuries, believed that “it is better for a woman to see than be seen.” [2] Veiling of the face and hair was purposely used for protection. Women used face coverings as an extra shield against abusive or violent men. Men needed the defense of the veil because they found female presence sexually distracting. In late nineteenth century Turkey, a woman’s nose was regarded as sexually attractive, and if someone saw it, she could be accused of being an infidel or a prostitute.[3] Veiling was also not always an Arabic or Islamic tradition, there are numerous biblical references regarding the covering of women’s hair, and how her hair should be shorn if she was no longer regarded as respectable. [4] In any case, the religion of Islam implemented the practice of the burka, niqab, and hijab and it still continues today.

My research on this particular burka with its brightly colored fabric, small measurements, and extensive covering led me to believe that it either belonged to a young girl, or that the garment was not from Turkey at all, but rather from the Bandar region of Iran. Gillian Eastwood-Vogelsang, a specialist in near eastern textiles and dress states that, “the color of a woman’s head or face veil indicate her age and social status… Girls tend to wear bright colors; married women wear somewhat duller tones [and] the color for established matrons moves toward the darker colors.”[5]

Later, in the same article, Gillian states, “Many Shiite women in the Bandar region wear bright red, burqas decorated with various patterns.”[6]

Although the region of this garment could be either Turkish or Iranian, the small measurements can indicate the young age of the wearer. The date of the costume, based on my research remains unknown, but one could guess that it is an example of late 19th – early 20th century Islamic dress based on the time of its acquisition to the museum.


From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the wearing of the burqa became a choice rather than a necessity. Today, wearing the face veil remains a form of personal and family honor as well as religious integrity. However, to non-observers of Islam, it is seen as a form of oppression, and is sometimes feared. In 2011, France banned the wearing of the Niqab or Burqa in public because it isolates women and takes away from their humanity. Niqab and Burqa wearers don’t see it that way; they see it as an emotional experience, and as a way to respect god and their husbands.[7] A look into the history of this fantastic garment not only helps me to understand a specific time and culture, but it also helps me to embrace the way that certain society progressed.


The last item I will discuss is the Mandarin Coat, or the “Qipao” as it is more commonly known. Aside from the brightness of the burqa, this highly decorated blue Qipao was next on my mental list of Eastern object processing. The coat is broken down into four separately woven panels, which are sewn together from the shoulder to the knee; the panels flow freely at the base of the coat to allow leg movement. Threads of pink, yellow, green, red, and white are woven together to create a snake-like animal above a beautiful landscape. Metallic thread and leather are found at the collar; and 5 gold beads and cloth loops hold the coat together. The shoulder and upper arm of the coat repeat the same animal styled pattern seen in the center, from the upper arm to the wrist has a ribbed section made from the same color as the basis of the coat. The wrist area flares out and is composed of a decorative piece consistent with the coats’ design. I was so excited to share this item via “we chat” with two of my Chinese friends, and they both immediately responded saying that this coat was from the Qing Dynasty based on the design and style. It was very interesting to me that they could determine those qualities based off one photo. National identity regarding cultural dress was exceptionally important to the Chinese throughout their many dynasties.


For centuries eastern civilization used clothing to define their culture. The Japanese have the Kimono, Koreans have the Hanbok, and in India they have the Sari. Chinese culture had so many alterations in traditional costume based on the many shifts in power throughout time. “For more than half of its history, part or all of China has been conquered and ruled by inner Asian pastoral nomads; as a result, the history of dress in china is fraught with identity problems.”[8] Throughout its Dynastic changes, China was a multicultural empire with many different orientations of ethnic groups; the attire worn differentiated those ethnic groups. The Qing dynasty lasting from 1644-1911 struggled to enforce styles of dress related to the northeast Chinese ethnic group called Manchu. So much was their desire to uniform China in one distinct costume that a penalty of death was executed if the rules of dress were not obeyed. The most exciting component of the Qing dynasty style of costume was the symbolism associated with court dress. A photo found in John Vollmer’s 2002 edition of “Ruling from the Dragon Throne: Costume of the Qing Dynasty,” matched almost identically with the qipao we found. The arrangement of the design referred to the land division known as the Jintien System, “it symbolized the idealized relationship between farmers who worked the field and the lord who owned the land. The lower border of diagonal bands and rounded billows are water representing the universal ocean that surrounds the earth, the prism-shaped rocks symbolize the earth mountain, and the dragons writhing above symbolize imperial authority. When the coat was worn the human body became the world’s axis.”[9] Different animals also separated the different buzi or classes of the imperial court. The Emperor and nobles were assigned dragons. The number of claws represented the rank of nobility. The Emperor however was the only one to wear the dragon with 5 claws, which symbolized the imperial family. Officers of the court were assigned animal insignia, such as bears and lions based on their rank, and civil officers wore a bird.

From the comparison of the qipao located in Vollmer’s book, to the “Mandarin Coat” found in the Oriental box I can determine that the coat is from the 19th century, and it belonged to a high ranking person in the Qing Dynasty’s imperial court.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, traditional dress was mostly discarded, because people saw it as a way to free themselves from Manchu rule. Modernizations to traditional dress took place, which created a desire for personal identity within the nation.


Slide 9: TODAY

Today, China exhibits traditional dress such as the qipao and hanfu for special occasions such as weddings. Chinese men and women are usually seen wearing western-styled clothing and western designers, but even western modernized clothes continue to exude designs and symbolism of their epic history. Even the traditional qipao was modernized as early as 1920. Costume played a huge role in Chinese history, and represented infinite national identity throughout the last imperial dynasty.


All in all, my summer interning here at the Maryland Historical Society was an extremely rewarding experience. The collection is so extensive and so deeply rooted in Maryland and United States history. And now, it is also rooted in the history associated with the east-meets-west culture that was and still is representative of an interest in the different and the exotic.


[1]“Correspondence,” Donor file of Mrs. Charles R. Weld, property of the Maryland Historical Society, dated Oct. 11, 1932, date extracted: August 3, 2015.

[2] Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “The Coming of Islam and Its Influence on Dress.” The Berg Fashion Library. Sept. (accessed 11 Aug. 2015).

[3] Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Face Veils.” The Berg Fashion Library. Sept. (accessed 11 Aug. 2015).

[4] Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Face Veils.”

[5] Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Face Veils.”

[6] Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Face Veils.”

[7] Beardsley, Eleanor, “France’s Burqa Ban adds to Anti-muslim Climate, NPR, Baltimore. April 11, 2011.

[8] Bulag, Uradyn. “Wearing Ethnic Identity: Power of Dress.” The Berg Fashion Library. Sept. (accessed 7 Aug. 2015).

[9] Vollmer, John E. “In Service of the Dragon Throne,” Ruling from the Dragon Throne: Costume of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Speed Press: Berkley, Toronto, 2002, Pgs. 107-124