The woman who would eventually become the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi (romanized as Cixi) was born November 29, 1835 in Beijing China. She began her career in the palace as the consort to the Xianfeng Emperor. She was a low ranking concubine, but she bore the emperor his only son. After the Xianfeng Emperor's death (and after a brief interlude of rule going to a regency council) the regency was transferred to the Xianfeng Emperor's brother, Cixi and Xianfeng' oldest consort. Cixi was able to rule indirectly through different means, for a little less than 50 years. As the Empress Dowager she was able to maintain control of her son and then her nephew after her son's death and rule through them. She died November 15, 1908. (1)
Since Empress Dowager Cixi's life was so recent there are a few portraits depicting her in all her imperial finery. She is dressed in silk robes embroidered with many different natural motifs. Both geometric and more organic motifs are incorporated in the same garment. Since these are official portraits she chose her robes with care. (2) There are also surviving robes that belonged to her as well. Many of the symbols that were incorporated into her clothing such as the wanshou medallions and shou characters represent longevity. The phoenix was another motif that would appear often on Empress Cixi's robes. The phoenix would be a symbol only the empress would wear and would demonstrate her station and her power. (3)
There is a somewhat apocryphal story that demonstrates Empress Cixi's opinion on western clothing. A wife of a Chinese diplomat came to visit Empress Cixi after she had been abroad in the west. The diplomats wife and her daughters were wearing stylish western dress. They complained to Cixi that their bound feet had made them a laughingstock in the west. Cixi replied that she heard that the western women wore something equally as horrible: the corset.(4) Cixi herself did not have bound feet, and she banned bound feet as well. She was not interested in binding her waist or her feet for any reason, but was happy to use her clothing to convey power and strength.
1 Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Cixi", accessed June 03, 2016,http://www.britannica.com/biography/Cixi.
2 Stamberg, Susan. "Powerful Portraits Capture China's Empress Dowager." NPR. December 19, 2011. Accessed June 3, 2016.http://www.npr.org/2011/12/19/143796431/powerful-portraits-capture-chinas-empress-dowager.
3 "Rare Imperial Lady's Informal Gauze Robe Qing Dynasty Guangxu Period." Sotheby's. Accessed June 3, 2016. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.384.html/2014/fine-chinese-ceramics-works-of-art-n09116.
4 "Dowager Empress Cixi." Reshaping the Body, Clothing and Cultural Practice. Accessed June 3, 2016. http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/clothes/dowager_empress/.