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Chinese Dress Accessories by Valery M. Garrett

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From tiny bound-foot shoes to dragon robe collars, A Collector’s Guide to Chinese Dress Accessories is a fascinating look at Chinese Qing dynasty culture.

If the title conjures up mental images of heavy boring text and fuzzy black-and-white photographs, then hit “ctrl, alt, delete” and get that image out of your mind.

Chinese Dress Accessories is a colorful and addictive book, even for those who do not collect these intriguing accessories. If you are one of those people fascinated by how others lived a century ago, here are some reasons that you will find this book hard to put down.

First there is the subject matter, itself intriguing and a visual feast. The accessories are dramatically colorful, with incredibly fine craftsmanship. They include famous lotus shoes, some as tiny as five inches in length, for bound feet. Other items include Manchu hats, embroidered purses, jewelry, hair ornaments, silk chamber hangings, and collars and emblems for dragon robes. They are made out of extraordinarily beautiful embroidery, dramatically-colored silk, bright blue kingfisher feathers, burnished gold and silver, and even red-dyed horse hair.

Second, there is the large number of stunning photographs. A few photographs are in black and white, but those are mostly historical photographs from the end of the Qing dynasty in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. The historical photographs are remarkable in their own right because they include such infamous figures as the decadent Dowager Empress Cixi, who is blamed for contributing to the fall of the Qing dynasty. One photograph shows her bedecked literally from head to toe with jewels, including strings of pearls cascading from her exotic, elevated Manchu shoes.

But the best photographs are in color – and what color! A number of the items are photographed against a black background, which makes them doubly dramatic. And the high number of full-page close-ups makes it possible to study the accessories in detail.

Third, there is the well-written and interesting text. Garrett, a scholar of Chinese dress items, has that rare ability to write in understandable language. She adds to the interest of her subject by explaining mores and customs of the age. Consider her description of the custom of foot binding, which conjures up a visual that is both horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time:

    “The smell and size of the small foot, together with the woman’s teetering gait, produced erotic associations for men, and few mothers would risk their daughters being unable to marry if allowed to have natural feet.”

Collectors of Chinese dress accessories will find the book essential. Collecting Chinese accessories is rather in vogue right now. With China’s new spirit of capitalism, a good supply of these items is coming out of China and showing up for sale on eBay and elsewhere on the Internet.

An individual of modest means can still amass an impressive collection of high quality examples of dress accessories.

That’s unlike many other areas of Chinese art and artifact, where high prices and forgeries (could so many Tang dynasty horses possibly have survived the Tang dynasty?) have soured collectors.

But irrespective of whether you are a collector, this is an absorbing book for anyone interested in history or other cultures.

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