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Courtly Coral: Red Coral and Coral Motifs at the Chinese Imperial Court

Dr Pippa Lacey

In 2024, the C&TA celebrates our Coral Anniversary: 35 years as an independent charity supporting the Norfolk Museums Service’s costume and textiles collections

Mediterranean red coral, shanhu, was traded along the Silk Roads to China from ancient times. From at least the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), coral motifs were incorported into the design of imperial Chinese robes. Shanhu is considered one of the spiritual treasures of Buddhism.

Throughout the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911), coral motifs were woven or embroidered on silken robes, rank badges and other courtly textiles. Extraordinary textiles were ornamented with tiny coral and pearl bead decoration. Larger red coral beads were incorporated into imperial necklaces worn by the emperor and his family. Qing courtiers sporting a red coral button on their court hats – together with peacock feathers – indicated the achievement of highest rank and success at the Qing court.

Coral motifs were part of a set of auspicious and apotropaic (protective) symbols that enwrapped a Chinese emperor and his courtiers. Costume historian John Vollmer, defines the five functions of the institution of emperorship as: sacral, administrative, scholarly, martial and private. Coral motifs were placed on the various ritual robes worn by the emperor while undertaking his various imperial duties through the year.

**If you are unable to make the live talk, Pippa has kindly agreed that we can record her talk and send you a link afterwards. Sign up to Eventbrite to be on the list for the recording.**

Images: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Pippa Lacey gained her PhD in Art History from the School of Art History and World Art Studies, University of East Anglia, with a study of the trade and uses of Mediterranean red coral, in Qing dynasty China. She explored the construction of identity and status through material culture, with a focus on colour and coloured materials.

Publications include: ‘Imperial Coral: The transformation of red coral from natural material to Qing imperial treasure’ in Sea Currents in Nineteenth-Century Art, Science and Culture: Commodifying the Ocean World, edited by Kathleen Davidson and Molly Duggins (Bloomsbury, 2023) and ‘The Coral Network: The trade of red coral to the Qing imperial court in the eighteenth century’ in The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World, edited by Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).

She is a curatorial researcher for the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and a trustee of the Costume & Textile Association (C&TA).


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In 2024, the C&TA celebrates our Coral Anniversary: 35 years as an independent charity supporting the Norfolk Museums Service’s costume and textiles collections

The Costume & Textile Association (C&TA) host regular online events via zoom, in addition to in person events in Norwich, Norfolk, UK

Online Programme for Spring / Summer 2024

Tuesday 23 January 7 pm Tartan with Jonathan Faiers, Professor of Fashion Thinking at Winchester School of Art, author and co-curator of Tartan exhibition at V&A Dundee

Wednesday 21 February 7 pm Dressing Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with Jane Pritchard, curator of Dance, Theatre and Performance at the V&A. 2024 celebrates the 150th birthday of Nicolas Roerich, the 100th anniversary of Leon Bakst and the 111th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ballet

Tuesday 12 March 7 pm Jane Austen’s Wardrobe with Dr Hilary Davidson, dress, textile and fashion historian, curator and author



Free Exhibition in The Gallery, The Forum, Norwich Daily 10 am – 4 pm. 13 – 21 April 2024

ONLINE EVENT Saturday 13 April 2 pm Agony & Ecstasy: History of Corsets with Joy Evitt, C&TA (Free, donations welcome)

ONLINE EVENT Sunday 14 April 2 pm Spinning a Yarn: Women Spinners in Norfolk’s Medieval Worsted Industry with Jenn Monahan, Geoffrey Squire Memorial Bursary Award 2019 (pre-recorded talk followed by Live Q&A with Jenn)(Pay what you can)

**IN PERSON EVENT @ THE FORUM, NORWICH 12 noon Monday 15 April 35 Years of C&TA Support with Ruth Battersby, senior curator, Norfolk Museums Service (NMS) (Pay what you can)

ONLINE EVENT Tuesday 16 April 7 pm Double Weave: Modernist Designers Bourne & Allen with Dr Jane Hattrick, co-curator of exhibition at Ditchling Museum


Tuesday 23 April 7 pm Print Pattern & Narrative with Kate Farley, associate professor in design at Norwich University of the Arts

Tuesday 21 May 7 pm The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes: Secrets from a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe with Dr Kate Strasdin, author and senior lecturer in Cultural Studies at the Fashion and Textiles Institute, Falmouth University

Wednesday 5 June 7 pm Courtly Coral: Red Coral and Coral Motifs at the Chinese Imperial Court with Dr Pippa Lacey, C&TA

Tuesday 23 July 7 pmThe Pastons: Clothes Maketh the Man (and Woman) with best selling author Anne O’Brien

August Summer Break

Tuesday 24 September 7 pm Fashion on the Silk Roads with Professor Susan Whitfield, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC)

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June 05 2024


Date: 5 June
Time: 19:00 - 20:30
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