Whether worn by the First Lady, celebrities at the Oscars, or society women at a Met Gala, high fashion appeals to us. Some believe that high fashion originated in the 15th century French Burgundian court, but looking back as early as the eighth century in China, the fashionable female had already been a favorite subject in art.
During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a period in Chinese civilization that had a stable economy and a flourishing culture, the genre of “beautiful women painting” reached considerable heights. And ranking above all Tang masters for utmost stylization in portraying the female figure was Zhou Fang. His exquisite silk hand scroll “Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses” (at the Liaoning Provincial Museum in China’s Shenyang province) is a rare jewel that allows us to glimpse the remarkable achievement of not only Tang female portraiture but of fashion at the time.
In this piece Zhou Fang portrays five court ladies with one maidservant. We see the ladies stand next to each other casting their eyes on dogs, a red flower, a crane, a butterfly, and a blooming magnolia tree.
To the right, two ladies play with a dog and one lady teases it with a duster. In the middle, we see another court lady admiring a red flower in her hands while a crane strolls past. A maidservant holds a fan and appears smaller, (not because of trying to show physical depth but rather due to an intentional hierarchical scale that signifies her lower status).
To the left, a court lady with clasped hands adds a sense of depth to the composition. Another lady stands beside a blooming magnolia tree and just as she catches a butterfly, she shifts her attention to a dog running towards her.
There is great intimacy between the court ladies and the nonhuman entities as they keep each other company. Their relationship can be interpreted to represent the pleasant past times of the carefree life of noble women in the imperial palace. Ironically, a mood of languor and a sense of poignancy permeate the ladies’ countenances, as perhaps they share each other’s loneliness.
Feminine fashion and beauty of the Tang dynasty can also be perceived through this piece. The rounded faces and slightly plump figures (by today’s standards) represent the idealized sense of Tang feminine beauty. Their fair complexions are a result of the powdered white pigment applied to their faces. Their eyebrows are depicted like butterfly wings while their mouths are painted as cherry-like lips. High coiffures were also characteristic of aristocratic Tang women and were often embellished with peony or lotus flowers and with gold ornamentation (jinbuyao).
Under their delicate silk gauzes can be seen long, elegant gowns embroidered with floral patterns and geometric motifs. Zhou Fang uses rich colors of scarlet, crimson, and ocher for the underlying dress while his color palate presents a more subdued tones to depict the translucency of the gauze. The relatively low neckline, nearly floor-length sleeves, and wide scarves worn as stoles or draped across the arms are all characteristic of the high court fashion of the Tang Dynasty.
The flowers that adorn the ladies’ hair speak to the title of this piece. Whether it’s wearing flowers in their hair or holding one in their hands, the court ladies seem to admire the beauty of the blossoms. Feminine beauty and the flower became one as they both evoked the ephemeral nature of youth. Just as a flower wilts, youth and beauty fade.
Famous Tang poets like Li Bai, frequently juxtaposed these two ideas in their poems. Literary accounts have also revealed that the Tang emperor Xuanzong would release a butterfly during his springtime banquets and choose a partner based on whose flower it landed on.
Mike Cai is a 2012 graduate from the New York Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and currently attends University of California–Berkeley.