About the Artist
We don’t know much about who made this wedding hat, but five kinds of materials are used—bird feathers, metal, glass, ceramics and silk. This suggests that a number of artisans who specialized in different techniques collaborated on its construction. Of all the techniques, the use of kingfisher feathers (most of the turquoise and deep blue parts of the hat) is the most exacting. An observer in 1908 described the process:
"The wonder worker . . . takes a single hair from out of the bird’s wing, draws it through a bit of glue and lays it on the silver foundation. Then another hair, which he lays beside the first. Then another and another and another . . . until he has laid the filaments . . . so closely together that they look like pieces of enamel.”
The artisans who made the glass parts were also masters of their craft, to the point where they could make glass look like many other, more precious materials. There are green glass wings on a butterfly that look like jade, pink glass used for bodies of small butterflies that look like coral and much use of white glass beads made to look like pearls.
An elaborate hat like this one was made for a bride, perhaps a Manchu princess (the Manchu were the rulers during the Qing dynasty, 1644–1911), to wear at her wedding. The fringe of beads partially covered her face, like a veil in Western bridal fashions.
What Inspired It
In Chinese society during the Qing (CHING) dynasty major life events like a marriage followed exacting rituals that included what the bride wore. Virtually every bit of ornamentation on the bonnet has a symbolic, auspicious meaning. You can see some of these details close up in the "Details" section. Filling a wedding hat with symbols for good wishes made it likely the bride and groom would have happy lives.
A headdress like this was usually a wedding gift to the bride from the groom’s family and may have been a family heirloom. Weddings were alliances between families, rather than love matches, and most brides and grooms never met before the ceremony. Chinese brides were carried to their future husband’s house in a sedan chair. According to custom, on this day the bride’s feet never touched bare earth. Wealthy brides would step onto a red silk carpet. Poorer brides might step onto plainer cloth, or even rags if necessary. All families, regardless of wealth, honored the couple as “emperor and empress” for their wedding day.
On the top of the hat is a band of flowers and under the flowers there are curved streamers in the shape of wish-granting clouds and the characters for “double happiness,” the two characters often used for weddings
The veil of this wedding bonnet consists of strands of tiny glass beads made to look like seed pearls strung with auspicious symbols in the center. These symbols are glass or ceramics made to look like various semi-precious stones. The auspicious symbols include the bat (blessings) and the crab (harmony). The bat and the crab acquired these symbolic meanings because their names (fu and xie) are pronounced the same as the Chinese words for “blessings” and “harmony.”
Today we have many negative associations with the swastika, but this symbol is one of the oldest in the world, and for the Chinese it was a lucky emblem. The Chinese word for this symbol, wan, means “ten thousand.” It often multiplies nearby symbols, as in “ten thousand blessings.”
This bonnet uses two different colors of kingfisher feathers, a deep bright blue and a brilliant turquoise blue, cut to fill shapes outlined in wire and painstakingly glued in place.
Metal artisans would coil wire into a sort of spring to create movement—the white glass beads on the ends would bounce as the wearer walked or turned her head.