Tibetan Silk Dancing Dress (American Museum of Natural History)

The Robe

The sleeves are identically decorated, each with three distinct horizontal patterns. Closest to the shoulder is a wide strip of dark grey silk brocaded with multi-color and metal dragons, clouds and various symbols. This is followed by a slimmer strip of bright red silk damask. After which is slightly wider strip of bright red, green, purple and pastel damask clouds diamonds sitting within squares. This marks the half-way point, at which the bright red silk damask pattern repeats, followed by a narrow strip of the dark grey silk brocaded pattern.


The pointed sleeves of robe are characteristic of a costume that would have been worn during a masked dance performance that would take place at a Tibetan Monastery. The sleeves would resemble normal sleeves, except that hanging triangular cloth allows them to undulate gracefully while dancers swing a gesture flamboyantly with their arms [1].The width across the sleeves is 168 cm (about 5.5 feet).


The upper part of the robe is quite plain because it is intended to be embellished by other parts of the dancing costume [2]. The body of dark grey silk is worn and threadbare, with holes and tarnished metallic threads. The costume is lined with dark red cotton.


A white silk ribbon, embroidered with houses, people, lotus flowers and trees and other domestic images emphasizes the waistline. The trimming leads to a very full skirt; the lower part of the robe is decorated with patterns resembling those on the sleeves. The length of the robe is 108 cm (about 3.5) and it flows out below the knees.



Chinese Dragons

The four-clawed dragon that appears on the skirt and part of each of the sleeves is, “normally associated with nobles and imperial officials from the Chinese court [7].” The dragon symbolizes good fortune, power and success. Scholars believe that this motif may have “found its way to Tibet through the gifts of silks and embroideries that the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) regularly sent to the monasteries[8].





Gyatso, "In the Sacred Realm," in Reynolds 1999. From the Sacred Realm, 171-179, "Symbols," 254-261. (9 pp text)

Silk Embroidered with Cloud Motif

Along the strip of dark grey silk, closest to the shoulder are multi-colored clouds. The cloud motif represents the whole universe or a part of the foundation of the universe. “In the Ch’ing dynasty this symbolism was quite obvious, especially on the dragon robes, where the cloud-studded upper part of the garment represented the canopy of the sky, supported on the world as indicated by the mountains and seas at the base of the robe. But even earlier when the actual decoration did not demonstrate this so clearly, the robe was thought to represent the all-encompassing sky [9].”The cosmic symbolism of the robe itself seems to indicate that the wearer has achieved qualities of the celestial by surpassing worldly existence and achieving purity of mind. One may notice that the representation of the cloud is similar to the omnipresent lotus flower motif.

Festive Dancing & Dress

The British Museum has an item that is similar this dress, donated by the Government of India (see below). The costume is from Tibet, during the late 19th or early 20th century. At this time, “most monasteries in Tibet had a collection of masks and elaborate silk costumes, which were brought out for performances during a variety of celebrations [18].” Examples of the types of festival at which this ceremonial dress would have been worn are Losar, the Tibetan New Year or Saka Dawa, the celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment. See the object biography of the Deer Mask for more examples of the masks and costumes associated with such festivals.

Silk Dancing Dress (The British Museum)

Saka Dawa Festival
In the Tibetan calendar, it is traditional for Tibetans to celebrate the day when, “Sakyamuni was born, achieved nirvana and passed away [19].” It is a long established custom among Tibetans to dress in their best clothing and “assemble at the Dragon King Pool behind the magnificent Potala Palace to celebrate this grand religious festival [20]." This practice has developed into a large gala during which Tibetans visit parks and pray for a good harvest. “During this festival, some people set up colorful tents; some prepare barley wine and butter tea, families resting beside the pool with great joy. Then young Tibetans dance in a circle while singing following the rhythm by stamping their feet [21].”

Tibetan New Year
Tibetans prepare for the important ceremonies which surround the New Year for weeks prior to the event. During their preparations, Tibetans infuse barley seeds in basins. On the eve of the holiday, a variety of foods are presented to images of Buddha. Traditionally, on the first day of the celebration, one family member is sent to take a barrel of water home from the river, the first barrel of water in the New Year is called auspicious water [22]. The second day signals the beginning of the social visits which friends and family make to one another. During the 3-5 days following, there is festive dancing, “at the squares or open grasslands with the accompaniment of guitars, cymbals, gongs and other musical instruments. Hand in hand, arm in arm, Tibetans dance in a circle while singing following the rhythm by stamping their feet. Children, on the other hand, will fire firecrackers. A happy, harmonious and auspicious festival atmosphere will pervade the whole area [23].”

Song and Dance

Each region of Tibet had its own, distinct style as well as songs and dances. “The most ancient songs are sung without any accompaniment and one can imagine them being sung high in the mountains as shepherds took care of the animals [24].”


Those dances performed at religious institutions follow different customs than those practiced by common folk. Religious dances customarily depict aspects of the Buddhist philosophy. “They can be amazingly spectacular, involving the use of masks, extremely colourful costumes, and the playing of horns, cymbals, and other traditional Tibetan instruments [25].” The elaborately decorated masks and color give the costume a striking overall appearance.

Ordinary Tibetan Dress

Back View of Chuba
Front View of Chuba

“In most areas the traditional dress for both men and women consists of the chuba, a long wrap-around cloth tied at the waist, with men tending to wear a shorter chuba with pantaloons. There are many distinctive variations in how the chuba is worn, each indicating the wearer's area or a particular symbolic significance [26]."

[1] http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/s/silk_dancing_dress.aspx</span>
[2] IBID.
[7] http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/s/silk_dancing_dress.aspx
[8] IBID.
The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar Motif by Schuyler Cammann P 5
[18] http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/s/silk_dancing_dress.aspx</span
[19] [[http://www.tibettravel.info/lhasa/lhasa-festivals.html%3C/span%3E%3C/span|http://www.tibettravel.info/lhasa/lhasa-festivals.html
[20] IBID.
[21] IBID.
[22] IBID.
[23, 24, 25, 26] http://www.rokpauk.org/tibcultureheritage.html

Chinese Cloud Collar with extra folliations, Johns Hopkins University Museum
Simple Chinese Cloud Collar, Johns Hopkins University Museum