Conservation Stories: Butterfly Robe

The Scripps College collection of Asian textiles consists of more than 1,000 objects. Working directly with the textiles allows students to explore the material’s design and purpose. Students learn about the history of textiles, which informs modern understandings of the time and place from whence they came. Whether functional or decorative, each textile in the College’s teaching collection puts the fabric of Asia’s historic, cultural, economic, and social life within the students’ grasp.

Through Scripps College’s teaching collection, undergraduate students from various disciplines handle precious textiles—an opportunity rarely found at other schools. In one popular seminar taught by Professor Bruce Coats, “Arts of Late Imperial China,” class members collaborate and draw from the collection to prepare an exhibition. Scripps students may also create exhibitions for the Clark Humanities Museum independently. For example, in the spring of 2013, Johnson Research Award recipient Tara Contractor (SCR ’13) organized an exhibition entitled Pashmina: A Hundred Year Journey. The Gallery’s many student interns also work closely with the textile collection. Over the years, Getty, Turk, and Wilson interns have helped staff clean, organize, photograph, and electronically catalog a wide variety of objects, from elaborate Jifu imperial robes to the most delicate of silk slippers.

Ongoing conservation efforts are essential to preserving these culturally and aesthetically significant works. Many of the collection’s magnificent Chinese garments, dating from between 1550 and 1900, need professional cleaning and repair to return them to a condition acceptable for use in classes and exhibitions. In spring 2013, the Williamson Gallery received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to treat some of the highest-priority textiles in the collection—one of which is highlighted here.

19th Century Reversible Peking (Beijing) Opera Butterfly Robe

Scripps College’s extensive collection of Asian Textiles includes this magnificent 19th-century Reversible Peking (Beijing) Opera Butterfly Robe.

This double-layered Chinese costume is designed for a quick, on-stage outfit change. The first layer on the outside is a white, floor-length coat, but when flipped inside out, an elaborately embroidered, sleeved cape made of orange satin is revealed. The complex costume allows the actor to transform into a spectacular butterfly in a flash. The surfaces of both robes are densely embroidered with butterfly and floral patterns. Tiny mirrors have been sewn onto the designs; couching stitches affix lustrous, gold-wrapped threads that impart a brilliant shimmer to the butterfly’s wings.

Such a costume would have been worn during performances for imperial and aristocratic audiences in the 19th century. Hidden within the garment’s linings are handwritten notes, not yet translated, that may disclose what theater troupe owned the robe; which character would have worn it; and when the performances took place.

Further testing is needed to determine whether the dye bleeding on the white satin and other discolorations is reversible.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) conservation grant awarded to Scripps in 2013 has provided funds for the treatment of this robe by textile conservator Yadin Larochette. Currently, this costume is in poor condition; there is general fraying, stress creasing, and discoloration from water damage throughout, as well as dye bleeding on the white satin. Many of the couching stitches used to hold the gold thread in place are deteriorating due to friction (caused by rubbing against the metal), which has resulted in tangles. Glass mirror studs and decorative metal ornaments are broken or missing, and many of those remaining are soiled. For display purposes, the garment needs to be relined.

Ms. Larochette’s treatment plan first calls for a general cleaning and vacuuming. A fine nylon mesh will protect the delicate fabric at this stage. The conservationist will use solvents to clean the mirrors and perform further testing to determine whether the transferred dyes can be removed. New couching stitches will refasten loose metal threads, and a fine silk overlay of crepeline will protect the abraded hems from further damage.

Much of the edge binding, especially along the neckline, is severely frayed. Crepeline, a fine silk overlay, will protect the abraded hems from further damage.

Few examples of fine quality Chinese theatrical costumes exist in American museum collections. Once stabilized, this robe could be loaned to other institutions or displayed on campus to showcase the Chinese arts. Professor Bruce Coats of Scripps College regularly offers a seminar-style course that provides students with the opportunity to create an exhibition on Ming-Qing culture. Students choose Chinese textiles, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, cloisonné metalwork, furniture, and illustrated books from the Scripps collections to stage interiors of Chinese residences. Unfortunately, due to the fragility of the Chinese opera costume, students have been unable to include it in their exhibits.