THE PHANTOM'S CHINESE ROBE





"Stranger than you dreamt it...."


Highly based on the attires of official employees - Mandarins - of the Qing dynast, this robe and hat is used over his usual tailcoat as a dressing gown. It is quickly put over his tailcoat during the blackout after MOTN and in the next scene we see him composing his masterpeice "Don Juan Triumphant". It is also in this scene Christine unmasks him for the first time.

The Mandarin stage costumes used in "Phantom of the Opera" typically has a patterned black silk "dragon robe". The robe has wide sleeves, where the cuffs is decorated with 1-3 different fabrics and/or trims, very often blue shades. Over the robe is the tabard, often in blue and gold shades. It has two pointed or straight ends in front, and one end in the back, and is loosely tied together at the sides. This tabard is permanently attached to the "dragon robe", and it often has fringes on the hem. Having some sort of frog fastening in front is common, as well as a scalloped or curved collar with a smaller standing collar close to the neck. On the head a small winter "pill box" Mandarin hat in dark shades with gold decorations, and a knob on top. Costume workshops tends to use antique silk panels for at least parts of this costume.

What is the meaning of the costume?
So why is the Phantom wearing the robe and hat of a Chinese official? There can be two explanations. One, extravagant silk garments of the East became popular in 19th century Europe. Men wore them at home, as dressing gowns or smoking jackets. It was the ultimate luxury leisure garment, and even after they went out of use in China, they were produced there solely for export to the European market. For example, the legendary London company Liberty & Co had in their 1895-96 "Yule-tide gifts" catalogue such garments (Wilson: 12). So the Phantom also appears to be a fashionable gentleman when composing in such "leisure attire". A second explanation can be that designer Maria Bjørnson put in hints of the Phantom's travels through Asia. Now, this is not something the musical tells about. But in Gaston Leroux's original novel this background creates a rather vital background story. It's not impossible the Phantom got a Mandarin robe, either as a gift, as an honour, or as a souvenir, when traveling in Asia.

The Mandarin robe, or "dragon robe" is the most common Western names of traditional 19th century Chinese official attires from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). In Chinese, a "dragon robe" is usually called "long pao". Because this traditional style was worn over a long period of time, of both men and women, of native Chinese as well as Western visitors, there isn't ONE correct version. But there is some common features.

Typically for these robes is that they're straight and knee length with long, wide sleeves or horsehoof cuffs. For officials they're usually in blue/indigo shades, with a stripy hem. These stripes represent wavy water. The stripes are often, but not always, repeated in the cuffs. Over the water motif at the hem there's often clouds and mountains, and dragons. Traditionally there were nine golden five-clawed dragons on a mandarin robe. The latter has given the robes it names "dragon robes" (whereas "mandarin" was a name used on officials and scholars in the Ming and Qing dynasties). There exist a variety of other symbols as well, most wishing the wearer a long and prosperous life, happiness, wealth, family etc.

The front and back torso had a big square with decorations - well, to the Western eye it appeared to be decorations. For the Chinese it was an emblem describing exactly what rank and position the wearer had, it was a badge of office ("pu"). It also told of the sex of the wearer. If the front motif had an animal facing right, it was usually a man's robe. His wife would have worn a matching robe, but with the animal facing left, towards her husband (Wilson: 25).

Asymmetric and front closing seems to both have been common. The mandarin robe was usually not worn on its own in China, but with some sort of scalloped collar, tabard and/or overcoat ("pu fu" or "wai tao") overneath. Furthermore, it was worn with a bamboo summer hat or a brimmed "pillbox" winter hat with a crown of silk and a brim of velvet or fur. The top had a small spherical knot, often a glass bead or metal ring.

About the design and the stage costumes
Now, how accurate is the mandarin robe the Phantom wears in the musical? It depends. It depends on what's considered most important in the garment, what traditions one go by, and whether we're supposed to think he got the robe as a sign of an eventual rank he was granted in China, or if he just purchased it from a store in Europe.

It should also be noted that original POTO designer Maria Bjørnson made TWO sketches for the Mandarin robe, one showing a standing Phantom, the other showing him composing at the organ. At the second sketch she's specified: "Chinese robe. Old pieces of Chinese embroidery appliqué. Robe put on stage after 'Music of the Night'."

The first sketch shows a "plain" knee-length robe worn over his tailcoat suit. It has a wide neck opening with a small collar, frog fastening in front, and wide hanging cuffs. The hem of the robe has the "water wave" stripes, and above that there's wavy gold pattern which might be intended to show dragons. The sketch appears to show a robe made in a greyish indigo and gold. On his head a small winter hat. Now, the second sketch - identified as such, cause it shows the mask on the correct side, whereas the original Phantom sketches shows him with the mask on the "wrong" side - shows a more decorated blue robe with gold, black and red details. It's still worn over his tailcoat, and it still has the "water wave" hem, but in addition it's gotten an ornamental scalloped collar with points and tassels. The width of the sleeves appears the same, as does the hat.

A striking detail here is that both robes lacks the badge of office, the square decorated field on back and front torso. It can mean he got a civil rather than an official attire when in China, or that he - as earlier suggested - bought one in a fashionable shop in Europe. The wavy water hem is present in both designs, but not always done for the stage costumes. It also varies whether the stripes is added for the main robe or the tabard.

Another quirk is that stage costumes usually have the Phantom wear a mandarin robe with a frog-fastening tabard overneath. The tabard is open at the sides, and sleeveless, and often it has colourful fringes at the hem. The hem can be pointed, or straight. Such tabards were usually worn by women at the court, over a mandarin robe. It was not common for men to wear such tabards. Mandarin officials typically wore a "dragon robe" with horsehoof cuffs, with a darker robe with wide sleeves and the square badge of office. Furthermore, the distinct trim around the edge of the tabard is only found in female attires (Wilson: 40). Since the tabard is not present in the actual designs by Maria Bjørnson, it must have been instructions she's given, or liberty taken by various costume makers. But traditionally it's not something Chinese men wore.

In short, the Phantom's mandarin robe seems like a combo of what Mandarin officials wore and what their wives wore. The basis, with the straight knee length coat, was the same for men and women, and the "pillbox" winter hat was exclusive for men. So far, so good. But the tabard over the mandarin robe, and the lack of the square badge of office, makes it a looser interpretation than an exact recreation of the attire of a mandarin official. Furthermore, the two layers has been morphed into one in the stage costume.

Since many costume makers has used antique Chinese silk panels in the costume, it's also possible they have used the "wrong" type of silk, or used it differently than how it was historically used. One example is a West End Mandarin robe, made with a tabard and a pointed collar, and where the tabard has the wavy water hem whereas the mandarin robe itself has not. Typically it would be opposite, or both layers would have it. The various roundel motifs and trims has also lost their meaning in their new context.

That is not to say the Phantom's Mandarin costume is "wrong". As mentioned, a large quantity of the robes reaching Europe was made solely for export, to the preferences of the Westerners. Antique silks and garment pieces - like the badge of office, and the scalloped collars - also found their way to Europe, put together with the wrong foundation, or made into something else, like a pillow, a bag, a tablecloth etc. So it gives a good impression of how these robes were often worn and/or how they looked in 19th century Europe. So it's plausible to interpret it as the Phantom getting such a robe as a gift when traveling Asia. He might also have bought one in the growing second-hand market in China (Wilson: 100), or a brand new robe in a fancy department store in Europe. Either how it IS a nice reminder of the Phantom's background story as told in Leroux's novel.

Sources:
1986: "Chinese Dress", Verity Wilson (Victoria and Albert Museum)
1986: Maria Bjørnson's costume design 2 for the Mandarin robe (V&A)