The Empire's New Clothes

Civil Costumes and Uniforms of the Chinese, Russian and Ottoman Empires

These three societies demonstrate some of the ways that governments use costume, color and design to indicate rank and authority.


Nearly one-tenth of the male population of St. Petersburg wear some kind of uniform, including not only the numerous military officers, but civil officials, and even students, schoolboys and others.

—Karl Baedecker, Russia with Teheran, Port Arthur and Peking: A Handbook for Travellers (1914)

Russia 1883 winter uniform for a law court courierThe civil and military uniforms of the Russian Empire were the subject of extensive laws and regulations. These laws were published as part of the Polnoe sobranīe zakonov Rossīĭskoĭ Imperīi (PVZ), the first attempt to systematically compile Russian legal materials.  Several supplementary portfolios containing full-color illustrations of the details of military and civil uniforms and insignia were also created, probably for public display and presentation to the imperial libraries.  HLS has an extensive collection of these portfolios. These two plates show how a properly turned out law court courier was expected to dress in the summer and winter of 1883. 


Portrait of a Seated Civil Official, Harvard Art Museums 1929.14The vivid robes and delicate embroidered birds in this portrait from the early 17th century show more than just the subject’s fashion sense. They also pinpoint his position in society. The red robes are characteristic of officials from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), while the “mandarin square” with images of birds indicates his civil rank. Civil officials were designated by birds while military officers wore badges with animals. These rules were first codified in the Ming Dynasty. While details of cut and color changed through time, versions of the ranked bird and animal emblems remained in use until the 20th century.  

Ottoman Empire 

19th century Ottoman law professorThis well-dressed scholar models the costume of a professor of law in the late 18th/early 19th centutry Ottoman empire. According to the European travelers who created this image, Ottoman legal professionals were required to move up through a series of graduated ranks from student, through various judicial positions,, until they could reach the highest level of Kadiaskar,  superior judge of Europe and Asia. Each office holder's rank was marked by the size of his turban.