There is no doubt that this Chinese New Year is a special one because it’s the Year of the Dragon, which holds a special place as an auspicious and extraordinary creature. There’s nothing like it because it’s the only mythical one of all the animals in the zodiac. It’s the product of a fantastical imagination, with the body of a snake, the horns of a deer, the head of an ox, the mouth of a crocodile, the claws of an eagle, and the scales of a fish. How could such a magnificent creation not make it the most revered, symbolizing power, strength, and good luck?
It’s no wonder that the long represented the imperial authority of emperors since ancient times and the Chinese people saw themselves as descended from the dragon, which ruled the seas and the skies. Dragon-like motifs in stone existed in the Xinglongwa culture (6200-5400 BC), while dragon statues were made in the Yangshao culture of Henan in the fifth millennium BC. Other nations also saw it as the symbol of China itself and have used it to describe strong-willed, mysterious women as “dragon ladies.”
Sartorially, there is nothing quite as regal and magnificent as the long pao or dragon robe, which was used as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) for festival banquets and military inspections. Each robe worn by the emperor took two years to make because of the elaborate techniques employed like the forbidden knot, which was so fine and precise that it supposedly rendered the embroiderer blind. Although it became a more informal piece of garment in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), by the Qing (1644-1911) the dragon design on clothing became more significant and respected, worn not just by the emperor but by other high-ranking members of the court.
It was one of the 12 symbols of sovereignty, the placement of which represented the emperor as the Son of Heaven and his righteous rule over the universe. In 1759, these symbols were reserved exclusively for him, with the five-clawed dragon as his sacred insignia of imperial power, dignity, strength, and adaptability. The dragon that princes and nobles could use, on the other hand, only had four claws. More than exercising power, the dragon was a way to bring good fortune to the people.
Designers in the West could only be mesmerized by the grace, elegance, and mystique of the dragon, together with other aspects of Chinese culture and fashion, like the tight-fitting cheongsam, or qi pao. Yves Saint Saint Laurent referenced the creature in the 1960s to ’70s, and his successor, Tom Ford, was inspired by it, designing brocade, side-draped qi paos with sequined dragons in a 2004 collection.
John Galliano mixed it up with his other Oriental fantasies in his 2002 collection for Dior and even immortalized it in the brand’s signature saddlebag. Roberto Cavalli used the motif in a 2005 silk gown with a Chinese blue and white porcelain pattern. Style setter Daphne Guinness’ most unforgettable outing was in a dragon-emblazoned kimono by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, a piece that has since made the rounds of exhibits in the world’s museums. Ralph Lauren made the dragon chic in red brocade tuxedo jackets with black satin lapels, while Christian Louboutin used it to add pizzazz to his heels. Gucci went China-crazy in 2017 with many dragons in embroidery and patchwork combos featured in its pre-fall and cruise collections.
Back in China, Beijing-based couturier Guo Pei crafts exquisite pieces with painstaking embroidery that make waves in the West, landing at the Met Gala when Rihanna wore one of her sumptuous gowns with the longest train. The dragon was portrayed in all its majesty in the lavish golden dragon dress she created for Miss Universe China.
Our own Miss Universe contestant in 2021, Beatrice Luigi Gomez, donned an Alex Que gown featuring one of the Philippines’ versions of the dragon, the bakunawa, believed to cause eclipses and swallow the moon and is part of the shamanistic rituals of the babaylans.
In Canada, a Filipina designer named Fely Agader, originally from Cavite, presented D Fire, a collection that played on the dragon and yin and yang symbols.
For this special dragon year, designers have worked double time to reimagine this most auspicious symbol. Just walking around Greenbelt, we came across dragons swirling around Hawaiian shirts at Paul Smith and in the windows of Max Mara. Tanilla, a bubbly dragon character created by the Japanese Otani workshop for Dior, sits in the window beside jackets and shirts that it adorns.
Fendi has their own dragon mascots in Pokemon’s beloved Dratini, Dragonair, and Dragonite adorning their Baguette and Peekaboo bags to add some playful pop streetwear vibes that Pokemon’s designer, Motofumi Fujiwara, has been known for.
Bottega Veneta has new twists on their pieces for the Lunar New Year, like a dragon motif interwoven in their intreciatto technique in a tote and the beloved Jodie trimmed with a handle inspired by a dragon’s tail.
Loewe chose to highlight Chinese craft through a jade collection of jewelry executed by master carvers Xiaojin Yin, Qijing Qiu and Lei Cheng, who each created a series of five limited-edition pendants mounted onto gold chains. Their Flamenco series of Purse Mini bags have colors inspired by antique jade carvings and the keychains loop in the legendary zodiac star of the moment.
Hopefully, bringing one of these dragon charms for the New Year will attract luck and abundance and the mythical creature may just take you on exciting adventures across the seas and the skies where it reigns supreme.