When fashion draws inspiration from dragon robes

January 21, 2016
Prof. Lin explains the details on the dragon robe

Creativity and inspiration have always been the bread and butter of fashion design. For some, this staple is rooted in China’s famous imperial dragon robes.

Through the initiative of the Ateneo Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies, dragon robe expert Prof. Shu Hwa Lin flew in from Honolulu to talk about the original significance of these robes and its influence in modern fashion.

Lin is an Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM). She is also the curator of the Costume Collection at the university’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences in the Fashion, Design and Merchandising program.

In her talk, Prof. Lin explained how the rank of the one who wears the dragon robes could be identified and how tedious it was to make a single robe.

“Can you guess how long it takes to make a dragon robe?” she asked the audience. “One dragon robe takes 2 years.” This was because there were so many techniques being used in the process.

Lin explains that the left side of the design is deliberately different from the right, portraying the yin and yang

The robes also had different motifs. The most common, she said, was the 8 Buddhist Symbols of Good Fortune while the most important one was the 12 Symbols of Sovereignty. The emperor’s robes were usually designed with all 12 symbols. There were also robes with motifs about the yin and yang and the 5 elements.

"That's how we define the motif,” Prof. Lin said. “It's a bit busy but if you know what you are looking for, you can determine who wears what."

She also pointed out that there are many modern fashion designers who draw inspiration from the Chinese culture, particularly the dragon robes. These could be seen in the collections of designers Vivienne Tam, Jason Wu and even Ralph Lauren and Valentino.

When asked, Prof. Lin said that she acquired her knowledge about the dragon robes when she came to the United States in 1989.

"When I went to the US, people expected me to know everything about the Chinese. They were always asking me about the dragon robes. So I started reading about it," she said.

When she started working in Honolulu, she found out that there were 10 Qing Imperial robes at the UHM Costume Collection. She became even more interested and kept studying.

"It was so exciting," she recalled. "I tried to read more books. I found research grants and I just kept moving up. It became my hobby. To read about dragon robes is my hobby."

Lin says that this collection from designer Vivienne Tam is more mass produced and can be worn casually

Despite the criticisms singer Rihanna faced for wearing her "pizza" gown, Lin says that it was actually inspired by dragon robes

Miss Universe China 2012, who won the Best National Costume award, wore a gown inspired by the Qing dynasty

Prof. Lin receives a token of appreciation from Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies Director Sidney Bata