Published on 2023.09.21

Foreshadowing of Costume in Dream of the Red Chamber (Part 2)

Lin Daiyu is described as a pure, beautiful celestial-like figure, akin to a heavenly fairy. Her clothing accentuates her exceptional grace and extraordinary charm. When she first enters the Jia Family residence, the author, Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹,c. 1715-1763), does not directly depict her external beauty. Instead, her celestial aura is conveyed through the praises of Wang Xifeng (王熙鳳) and Jia Baoyu (賈寶玉)'s gaze, shaping her into an otherworldly presence. Wang Xifeng exclaims, "Such a beautiful person exists in this world, and today I have finally seen her!" Although the author does not explicitly describe Daiyu's beauty, it leaves a profound impression of her exquisite appearance in the readers' minds. Jia Baoyu refers to her as a "lovely lady" and a "divine-like sister," describing her as delicate and ethereal, full of natural charm.

In one instance (Chapter 49), she is described wearing various accessories such as "golden embroidered in cloud patterned red fragrant lamb skin boots (掐金挖雲紅香羊皮小靴)," a "crimson gauze cloak with white fox fur lining (大紅羽紗面白狐皮里的鶴氅)," a "snowy white  hat (充雪帽)," and a "  green lazurite gem (青金閃綠石) in double ring ruyi (如意)belt." The focus is on her accessories rather than her clothes. This dressing style highlights her disdain for extravagance while appearing elegant and natural, showcasing her unparalleled and graceful temperament, similar to that of a fairy. Her "loose cloud bun (隨常雲髻)" and "scarlet gold hairpin (赤金匾簪)" on her head add to her natural and fresh appearance, avoiding excessive flamboyance.

Her overall attire reflects her aloof and pure nature, akin to a proud red plum blossoming in snow. However, her dressing style is not solely due to her special status as a celestial being descending to earth. It also reflects her inner emotional world. She disdains pursuing worldly extravagance and prefers to present herself with an elegant demeanor. Her external beauty is only a reflection of her inner beauty, transcending the mundane and exuding a sense of transcendental beauty.

Daiyu buried the flower
Fei Danxu (費丹旭,1802-1850), Qing Dynasty


After suffering from melancholy thoughts, Daiyu's health deteriorates. It is revealed that Nightingale (紫鵑,the maid of Dowager Lady Jia)'s            mention of her returning to Suzhou led to Baoyu's disturbed mental state, causing worry for the whole family, especially Dowager Lady Jia (賈母). She had always been opposed to Baoyu marrying Daiyu due to their blood relation as cousins. Daiyu's constant sadness and sorrow led to her weakening physically and emotionally. Her death due to excessive grief ("tears exhausted and perished") is the result of her sensitive nerves being triggered by the mention of her tragic fate by Nightingale, causing her to choose self-annihilation.

After Daiyu's death, Wang Xifeng sees the red clothes she wore, which deeply moves her, as she senses that the Jia Family will truly be doomed. Throughout Dream of the Red Chamber, though the description of Daiyu's clothing is not elaborate, it demonstrates Cao Xueqin's love and fondness for her character. This portrayal allows readers to feel the ethereal and unworldly image of Daiyu and her extraordinary talent, like a lonely fairy in a desolate forest, exuding a captivating beauty. Daiyu's combination of beauty and sorrow is touching and leaves an unforgettable presence in Dream of the Red Chamber.

Daiyu burns her poems to signal the end of her heart’s folly Painting Album of Dream of the Red Chamber
Shen Qian (?-?), Qing Dynasty

Xue Baochai (薛寶釵)

Xue Baochai is another character deeply cherished by the author, following Lin Daiyu. Her background is somewhat vague in the novel, merely one of the alluring love interests intertwined with the story. Although she is beautiful and gentle, possessing the demeanor of a refined lady, her charm is less ethereal compared to Daiyu. The author describes her as "reserved in speech, people regard her as simple; content to go with the flow, she considers herself unremarkable (「率言寡語,人謂藏愚;安分隨時,自云守拙。」)." Her long-term exposure to Confucian values makes her a "perceptive and diplomatic (「世事洞明滴水不漏,人情練達八面玲瓏」)" woman, akin to a "cold beauty (冷美人)" like a gold hairpin in the snow (雪中金釵). Her dressing style reflects a pursuit of natural simplicity and mature elegance. In one instance (Chapter 8), when Baoyu visits Baochai, she wears a "black shiny headdress," a "honey-color cotton padded jacket," a "rose-purple and white weasel fur shoulder cape," and a "light yellow silk cotton skirt (「頭上挽著漆黑油光的籫兒,蜜合色棉襖,玫瑰紫二色金銀鼠比肩褂,蔥黃綾棉裙,一色半新不舊,看去不覺奢華,唯覺淡雅。」)." Her clothing mainly consists of warm colors like honey-color (pale yellow-white, 蜜合; 淺黃白), white (銀鼠; 潔白), and light yellow (蔥黃; 淺黃), creating a warm and approachable feeling that complements her gentle and accommodating personality. Among this series of warm colors, rose-purple provides a balance, making the overall effect neither too warm nor too cold, harmonizing with her ability to maintain balance in interpersonal relationships. Her clothing is described as "semi-new and not too old (「一色半新不舊」)," matching her unpretentious demeanor as a dignified lady.

Despite being considered "a beauty among beauties (「艷冠群芳」)," Baochai's one flaw is her plumpness. Hence, in this scene, she wears the "rose-purple and white weasel fur shoulder cape (玫瑰紫二色金銀鼠比肩褂)." The shoulder cape, also known as "bei-da (背褡)," was a commonly used accessory by women during the Qing Dynasty, and it was believed to make plump figures appear slimmer and slender figures more delicate. This ingenious use of the shoulder cape shows her meticulous attention to detail, aligning with her reserved and subtle personality. For example, in Chapter 30, when Baoyu jokes and compares her to the historical beauty Yang Yuhuan (楊玉環,719-756, the consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty), she abandons her usual calm and composed demeanor and immediately refutes him. Her annoyance is primarily due to being compared to the Yang Yuhuan who was notorious as a femme fatale (紅顏禍水), but the main issue is that he pointed out her physical shortcomings: "Baochai heard this and couldn't help getting angry." It shows that she has always been self-conscious about her figure, and any mention of it makes her feel ashamed and indignant.

The stone blue fur clothing with blue flower and bottlefly coloured embroidery
National Museum of China


In Chapter 49, the gathering at the Village of Fragrant Rice is the only occasion where Baochai is dressed up. She wears a "rose-purple and white weasel fur shoulder cape (蓮青斗紋錦上添花洋線番羓絲的鶴氅)" during this event, giving a glimpse of her noble status as a daughter of a noble family. The deep purple color is         considered too mature for a young girl like her, but it aligns with her rich and imposing yet cold and unfeeling temperament. Additionally, Baochai's plump figure benefits from the dark-colored clothing, which makes her appear slimmer, enhancing her smooth and fair skin. Her simple and elegant dressing style matches her personality, preferences, as well as her traditional education and family background. As she is a relative staying in the Jia Family residence after her own family's decline, she has a sense of being a guest and must gain the affection of both upper and lower classes in the Jia Family. By wearing slightly worn but not outdated clothing, she receives praises from the upper class for her frugal virtues and bridges the gap with the lower class, enhancing her affability. Unfortunately, a beautiful woman like her marries a husband who does not love her, and although they have a harmonious relationship, Baoyu's heart is always yearning for that "lonely fairy in a desolate forest (世外仙姝寂寞林)." Baochai's life seems to have been frozen by ice and snow!

Wang Xifeng (王熙鳳)

"Wang Xifeng" is a character in the Chinese classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber. She is portrayed as a capable and beautiful but cunning and ruthless woman, someone who dares to use any means to achieve her goals. Wang Xifeng is a complex character with a strong artistic appeal. When author Cao Xueqin created this female character, he paid great attention to describing her attire. During her first appearance, Wang Xifeng is dressed in splendid clothing: "She wore a golden headwear adorned with eight treasures and pearl ornaments, with a phoenix-shaped hairpin inlaid with morning sun and five phoenix hairpins. Around her neck, there was a circle of pink gold hornless dragon wreath necklace, and  green palace tassels along the skirt hem, as well as a pair of rose and magpie-patterned jade pendants, hanging down at waist. Her outfit included a crimson tight jacket trimmed with golden threads, and  patterned in "hundreds of butterflies flying among flowers, overlaid with a lined weasel fur robe in lazurite ground with multi coloured patterned Kesi (緙絲又名刻絲)and an emerald colored with floral patterned satin crepe skirt (「頭上戴著金絲八寶攢珠髻,綰著朝陽五鳳掛珠釵;項上帶著赤金盤螭瓔珞圈,裙邊繫著豆綠宮絛、雙衡比目玫瑰佩;身上穿著縷金百蝶穿花大紅洋緞窄裉襖,外罩五彩刻絲石青銀鼠褂;下著翡翠撒花洋縐裙。」)." This magnificent attire makes people pretend she is a "fairy" who has descended to earth. Lin Daiyu is deeply impressed by her and finds her alluring and fascinating.

The bronze cotton gown with golden butterfly coloured embroidery
National Museum China

The stone blue gown with butterfly and flower embroidery
National Museum China


In the second description, when Wang Xifeng receives Grannie Liu (劉姥姥) as a guest while taking on the role of the second mistress in the Rong Mansion, she had on a Zhaojun cap of sable (紫貂昭君帽), dressed in a sprigged peach-pink gown (紅桃撒花襖) with an ermine-lined skirt of dark-red foreign crepe (大紅洋縐銀鼠皮裙) underneath it. Her clothing is not only rich and colorful but also sometimes includes foreign fabrics like satin crepe silk, which are splendid and eye-catching. This showcases her pursuit of wealth and power while also allowing her to flaunt her authority to those of lower status, thereby increasing her prestige as a person in power and highlighting her noble and proud nature.

However, in the third description, during her confrontation with You Erjie (尤二姐), who was the concubine of Jia Lian (賈璉), she wears entirely different clothing as the legitimate wife. She dons a plain white outfit with dark lazurite satin and silver embroidery, appearing sharp clean and pretty temperament on the surface, but hiding a scheming and malicious heart, symbolizing the cold and dark side of her inner self.

Wang Xifeng's clothing includes everything and even things she shouldn't have, making her a highly attractive character and a symbol of her bold personality and scheming nature. Cao Xueqin skillfully portrays Wang Xifeng's internal contradictions and dual personality through these descriptions. She is a tragic character initially described as "exquisitely beautiful, eloquent, and deeply cunning, far surpassing any man (「模樣又極標致,言談又爽利,心機又極深細,竟是男人萬不及一的」)," and after Jia Lian marries her, "everyone praises Madam Wang (「上下無一人不稱頌他夫人的」)." Jia Lian is willing to submit to her authority and he does not mind taking a step back. While Jia Lian enjoys indulging in romantic affairs outside, Wang Xifeng shifts her affection to pursuing power, accumulating wealth, and arrogantly showing off her riches. She dresses extravagantly, with heavy makeup and adorned with various jewels, all to fill her inner vanity and emptiness, but it makes her too ostentatious and eye-catching. She embezzles Jia's wealth and lends money in his name, which leads to his imprisonment and eventually forces him to demote her to a concubine while promoting Patience (平兒,Wang Xifeng's personal maid) as his legitimate wife. This shaping also highlights the contrast between the prosperity and wealth of the Jia family and the retribution of good and evil.

Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉

As for Jia Baoyu, his clothing is described multiple times in the first eighty chapters. Each description vividly portrays his diverse and colorful attire. Baoyu is the beloved boy in the Jia family, and his clothing reflects him as the "Golden Lotus (金叵羅)" of the Rong Mansion, possessing all the love and care in one person. Due to his pampered upbringing, he is unruly and indulges in romantic affairs. In the Grand View Garden, he spends his days composing poems, singing songs, meditating, appreciating tea, reading novels, and enjoying opera with his sisters. When first introduced, Daiyu sees him had a small jewel-encrusted gold coronet on the top of his head and a golden headband low down over his brow in the form of two dragons playing with a large pearl (束髮嵌寶紫金冠,齊眉勒著二龍戲珠金抹額) and wearing a narrow-sleeved, full-skirted robe of dark red material with a pattern of flowers and butterflies in two shades of gold (二色金百蝶穿花大紅箭袖). It was confined at the waist with a court girdle of coloured silks braided at regular intervals into elaborate clusters of knotwork and terminating in long tassels (五彩絲攢花結長穗宮絛). Over the upper part of his robe, he wore a jacket of slate-blue Japanese silk damask with raised pattern of eight large medallions on the front and with tasselled borders (石青起花八團倭緞排穗褂). On his feet he had half-length dress boots of black satin with thick white soles (青緞粉底小朝靴). After this, Baoyu changes into a different crown and robe, wearing a big braid golden eight treasures pendant headwear in vivid magenta color, and carrying items like jade pendants, a name lock, and amulets. The bottom reveals the pine floral satin trouser panels, paired with brocade edge binding fick-ink printed socks and thick-soled red shoes.  His attire is colorful and diverse. Baoyu often wears costumes with arrow sleeves, which were originally designed for ease of archery but later became a typical formal wear for men in the Qing Dynasty. Even though Baoyu is not skilled in archery, wearing such clothes gives him a heroic and refined appearance, displaying his noble temperament. Many of his clothing items are made of luxurious materials like python silk and high-quality fur, often inlaid with gold and silver, appearing particularly extravagant, symbolizing the high expectations placed on him. However, Baoyu is not driven by fame and is uninterested in following formalities. He admires freedom and loves nature. He usually wears soft shoes, hem spreading his trousers, casually draping his clothes, and often lounging in a half-lying position, fully showing the relaxed and leisurely appearance of a young nobleman living a life of luxury. He only enjoys spending time with his sisters at home, showcasing his modest and unassuming side, and these casual attire and lifestyle are completely in line with each other. The story often describes Baoyu eagerly taking off his formal attire and changing into comfortable casual clothes upon returning home, much to the reprimands and reminders of Dowager Lady Jia, Lady Wang, and Aroma (花襲人). However, this haste to remove formal wear and switch to casual attire is Baoyu's way of resisting and freeing himself from the burdens of social engagements and other constraints. Just like in Chapter 78, Jia Baoyu bid farewell to Dowager Lady Jia and went back to the Grand View Garden, screaming hotly, taking off his hat and belt as he walked…. Uncover the green gauze underwear to reveal a small part of the red underpants. (「只穿着一件松花綾子夾襖,襖内露出血點子大紅褲子來。」)

Tasting the tea in Long Cui Cottage Poetry in the night of autumn
Painting Album of Dream of the Red Chamber
Shen Qian, Qing Dynasty


Baoyu differs from the prevailing view at the time, valuing women and believing that they are pure while men are coarse and obnoxious. As a result, his clothing also carries feminine elements, both masculine and charming. Cao Xueqin uses phrases like "a face as if powdered and lips as if painted (「面如敷粉,唇若施脂」)" and "eyes like autumn waves (「目若秋波」)" to depict Baoyu, making him wear more colorful and luxurious crowns, embroidered robes, casual wear, summer clothes, and winter clothes than other female characters. You Sanjie (尤三姐) once admitted that Baoyu, who cherishes women, has a bit of a feminine nature. This reflects Baoyu's appreciation of women and sends a message to the world that women indeed have many virtues.

Baoyu appreciates every woman around him, but the one he truly loves and is emotionally attached to is Lin Daiyu, whose personality is similar to his own. However, the elders arrange for Baoyu to marry Xue Baochai in disguise, and Daiyu, full of anger, attempts suicide, and Baoyu ultimately enters monastic life.

In Dream of the Red Chamber, besides the main characters mentioned above, the description of clothing for other minor characters is also quite rich. These descriptions not only showcase their physical characteristics but also reveal their personalities. For example, when Aroma goes home to visit her family, she wears a peach-red silk weasel fur jacket (桃紅百花刻絲銀鼠褂), which signifies prosperity and abundance, reflecting her cheerful and lively personality. Dowager Lady Jia often wears red-colored clothing, particularly favoring bright red. This kind of clothing highlights her authority and nobility while also showing her attachment to family tradition and family honor, reflecting her hope for the continued prosperity of the family. On the other hand, Xing Xiuyan (邢岫烟) wears old and worn clothes at home and does not have a raincoat, indicating her family's poverty and also implying the strictness of Lady Xing (邢氏), the wife of Jia She (賈赦), towards her natal family. These descriptions of minor characters' clothing occupy a significant place in the novel, and through the intricate portrayals of clothing, readers can gain deeper insights into the characters' personalities and social status. The choice of clothing colors corresponds to the characters' personalities, destinies, and emotions, adding rich layers and colors to the entire story.

Admire the Mood and fluting under the osmanthus
Painting Album of Dream of the Red Chamber

Shen Qian, Qing Dynasty


In conclusion, the deep descriptions of clothing culture in Dream of the Red Chamber allow us to have a more comprehensive understanding of the historical background and the values and meanings of clothing culture at the time. The characters' attire not only complements their personalities but also vividly showcases the prevailing societal values, making the novel more vivid, magnificent, and colorful. However, it is regrettable that in the later additions by Gao E (高鶚,1758-1815) in the last forty chapters, the description of clothing and aesthetic perspective is less elaborate and less meticulous than in the original text by Cao Xueqin. Perhaps this is due to Gao E lacking the same background in clothing and textile craftsmanship and knowledge as Cao Xueqin. Such a situation is regrettable because through the author's portrayal of character clothing, readers can more deeply immerse themselves in the lives and psychological states of the protagonists. Clothing is not merely an external decoration but an art of expressing personality and emotions. Cao Xueqin's meticulous descriptions make the characters in the novel come alive, and their clothing reflects the values of the era and social customs, giving them richer connotations. Through the portrayal of clothing culture in Dream of the Red Chamber, we can catch a glimpse of the past era and gain deeper insights into the cultural values it encapsulates, adding deeper significance to the characters in the story. While the later additions may lack the same level of clothing description, we can still appreciate Cao Xueqin's careful portrayal of details, which makes Dream of the Red Chamber an enchanting and touching classic work.

Major Reference 








Mr. Pun Chi Seng

Mr. Pun Chi Seng, Andes, graduated from the course of Fashion and Garment Technology in the Hong Kong Polytechnic, and studied in the Department of Business Administration of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1990s.
Chinese literature, philosophy, culture and history and geography are his favorite fields.
In his spare time, he likes to compose Chinese poetry and lyrics.
Tasting traditional cuisines from all over China is an indispensable part of his business trips. Now engaged clothing trade, specializing in European and American markets. He loves fashion design, tailors it himself, and presents it to his loved ones.

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