Costume & Culture: Ceremonial Dress from Southwest China

Featured image taken by Yilin Chen.

By Yilin Chen

The exhibition titled “Ceremonial Dress from Southwest China: The Ann B. Goodman Collection” is currently on view on the fourth floor of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG). It showcases the ceremonial clothing of ethnic groups in southwestern China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Denise Patry Leidy, the Ruth and Bruce Dayton Curator of Asian Art, and Dr. Ruth Barnes, the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art. It displays 96 objects drawn from the Ann B. Goodman Collection, a generous 2015 gift to the YUAG containing several hundred pieces of Chinese ethnic clothing. Most of the exhibits are assembled into complete sets of outfits demonstrating variety in style and material. The exhibition also features individual pieces of jewelry, baby carriers and headdresses.

Although the Han people constitute over 90 percent of the Chinese population, the 55 other ethnic minority groups each possesses unique and sophisticated cultural traditions. When organizing this exhibition, the curators prioritized “celebrating the skill that’s involved in making all [the clothing],” said Leidy. Each outfit was “laboriously” made by hand from start to finish, mostly by women. The process was lengthy: the women would start by making the cloth and then would proceed to raise the indigo, dye the material and sew the costume. Their final products showcase remarkable sophistication in patterning and cultural motifs, often conveying good wishes.

In addition to showcasing clothing, the gallery also features silver jewelry made by men and worn as symbols of status. These works, similar to the clothing sets, demonstrate astounding skills in “layering and visual thinking” in Leidy’s words. In one display case, a set of necklaces varying in size and pattern form a cohesive set of accessories, each one of them made by consistently twisting wire over and over again by hand.

The curatorial team specifically chose not to use mannequins to mount the clothing. According to Leidy, one problem with mannequins was that they come in set sizes, while the outfits in the collection were all tailored for individuals varying in measurements. Instead of using mannequins, conservators and art handlers at Yale West Campus created substructures that mimic the shape of the human body. The effect of the exhibition was a natural display of ceremonial dress mounted on concealed substructures without the lifeless, looming presence of mannequins. This makes it easier for the audience to visualize the real people who once wore these costumes and engaged in lively cultural practices.

Man’s Three-Piece Jacket, Undershirt, Trousers, Belt, and Headscarf, China, Yunnan Province, Malipo region, Yi, mid-20th century. Photo courtesy of YUAG.

Although the exhibition is dedicated to a specific region in China, it contributes to a greater conversation on cultural practices. “I think it helps us understand that all societies have life-cycle moments that they celebrate with special clothing,” Leidy said. She referenced wedding gowns and tuxedos as well as Catholic ceremonial clothing for baptisms and communions. The curators wanted to emphasize the common importance of life moments across cultures.

For example, one ensemble within the exhibit features a woman’s outfit with a baby carrier on its back. The curatorial team wanted to show how the carrier would be tied to women’s backs in a large and elaborate knot. “What do we call it now? A ‘snuggly’?” Leidy remarked while laughing. “You have a baby and you have to carry it. It’s very human.” This was a phrase that the curator emphasized several times. While baby carriers can vary greatly in material and form, they serve as an example of how human needs and values resonate across geographical region and time.

Most ethnic groups featured in the exhibition speak Tibeto-Burman languages, which are mostly concentrated in southeast Asia and are part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Object labels in the gallery, in addition to describing the costumes, provide helpful linguistic and geographical information about the people who once wore the clothing. Labels about the Miao people, for example, indicate that they are closely related to the Hmong of Vietnam and Laos, many of whom immigrated to the US after the Vietnam War. The Dai people, on the other hand, are closely related to the people of Thailand and speak a Tai -based language.

Labels like these form meaningful links between the ethnic cultures of southwest China and its surrounding regions. Bearing in mind that visitors might be unfamiliar with Chinese ethnicities, the curators wanted these labels to help them “calibrate,” said Leidy. At the same time, she hopes that some visitors can feel more personally connected to the displays if they see their cultural heritage mentioned.

According to Leidy, the YUAG prides itself as “one of the largest museums between the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.” Ethnic minority groups in China, compared to the dominant Han people, receive considerably less attention in international cultural institutions. By focusing on a subject that many visitors might be unfamiliar with, this exhibition strengthens the YUAG’s role as a global institution. More importantly, it creates an intimate space for visitors to appreciate the technical prowess of these wearable works of art and draw connections between societies.

The exhibition will be on view until January 5th, 2020.

Yilin Chen is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. You can contact her at