Hat featuring embroidery and applique, silk and cotton, China, late nineteenth century, 7x11x8in.
By Katie Larson, a third-year student in the School of Human Ecology.
This colorful headpiece contains many culturally symbolic details significant to the history of late nineteenth-century China. I was drawn initially to this item by its unique appearance. In my experience and cultural upbringing, I have not seen anything like this. Many aspects of the work’s physical characteristics intrigued me to learn more about the cultural and historical implications of the time period and place in which it was constructed, including questions regarding its purpose, who was meant to wear it, and when it was worn. The small size of the hat indicates that it was intended for a child’s head. My first exposure to the item was a digital photo so I didn’t know until seeing it in person that the hat would be as small as it is. The utilization of silk in the creation of this hat has geographical significance, considering that the cultivation of silk originated in China.
In Chinese culture, dynastic tradition and social class influence the types and styles of clothing that is worn. According to the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection website, the hat dates to between 1875-1899, near the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty spanned from 1644-1912, well over 200 years. During this time, hand stitched embroidered hats such as these were used to protect children from evil spirits, unhealthiness, and unhappiness as well as for physical protection. This genre of hats commonly display symbols such as dragons representing strength, fish representing good luck, and lotus flowers representing the holy Buddha. The crown-like structure on top may signify an individual’s higher social class as determined by Qing Dynasty standards.
It is clear that this textile was crafted with great detail, and this piece is a particularly good example of well-executed embroidery techniques. The embroidered designs are done so well that the images appear to be printed onto the hat. When I think about Chinese textiles, I think of beautifully elaborate embroidery that immediately catches the eye, and I infer that the technique and design of this object are both culturally and historically significant. This beautiful Chinese textile embodies rich cultural and spiritual symbolism in its physical appearance and history, while the materials used indicate its Chinese origins.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.