Sumptuous and extravagant — silk is fabric that has always been identified with royalty. A Chinese tale tells of Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the legendary Yellow Emperor, who made the first ever silk cloth and invented the loom on which the silk strands were woven. The invention of the silk cloth gave birth to the most luxurious robes embellished with the finest embroidery, exclusively used by the king and members of the royal family.
The process of silk-making was a secret the Chinese kept for over a thousand years until it was discovered by other cultures – those nearby like Mongolia, Korea and Japan, and as far as Europe via the Silk Road. And with many other cultures now able to produce their own silk, it was no longer a trade dominated by China. Soon afterwards, with easier and more affordable silk-making techniques developed by paper makers, fine robes were no longer exclusively for royalty or an elite few.
All who had reigned as king or emperor in ancient China, dressed in a “dragon robe” made of yellow silk. The robe was intricately designed with gold buttons, precious stones and beads, and the symbolic dragon and other powerful animals like the eagle, tiger and snake were skillfully embroidered on the robe.
The rest of the people wore the “hanfu” which consisted of different items of clothing worn together. The hanfu included a long robe wrapped around the body and tied with a sash.
Just like the Chinese emperor, the king of Korea also wore a long dragon robe made of red silk with the symbolic dragon embroidered with gold thread on the chest, shoulders and back. Men and women wore the “hanbok”, which like the Chinese hanfu, consists of several pieces of clothing including a robe of silk.
With domestically produced silk in Japan, a person’s standing in society was expressed in terms of the colors, the designs and the cut of the robes used. Men wore long robes in patterned silk. It is the women’s kimono though which to this day remains a prominent symbol of Japanese culture. The kimono consists of several layers of robes worn on top of another, and the layers can be distinguished by the colors of silk used.
These robes that were once everyday clothes for people of old are now worn only on special occasions. What were once simple items of clothing used for comfort have come to symbolize these countries’ rich, creative past.