Beadwork Adorns the World Volume 41.1

Clockwise left: LAKOTA “CREATION NARRATIVE” SHIRT by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of wool cloth, antique glass beads, 2016. Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unattributed. OBA’S “BARRISTER’S WIG” CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, 21.0 x 17.0 x 15.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Sara and David Lieberman Collection. Photograph by Craig Smith. BABY CARRIER PANEL, Kenyah peoples, Orang Ulu group, Borneo island, Indonesia/Malaysia, of cotton, glass beads, pineapple leaf fiber, 31.0 x 33.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. WEDDING MOCCASINS FOR BRIDE’S IN-LAWS, Lakota peoples, North or South Dakota, of tanned hide, glass beads, 26.7 centimeters, circa 1930. MUKYEEM MASK, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, of hide, wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, plant fiber, 39.5 x 44.9 x 54.0 centimeters, pre-1935. Courtesy of the Field Museum. Photograph by John Weinstein.

Clockwise right:
LEOPARD HELMUT MASK, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of raffia, indigo-dyed cotton and trade cotton, glass beads, 53.0 x 79.0 centimeters, circa 1900. HORSE NECK COVER (ghughi), Kathi peoples, Saurashtra region, Gujarat state, India, of cotton, silk, glass beads, mirror, metal, 128.3 x 162.6 centimeters, circa 1930. David McLanahan Collection. OBA’S BRITISH CROWN-STYLE CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. GROOM’S WEDDING BAG, Banjara peoples, Wadi, Gulbarga, Karnataka state, India, of cotton, cowrie shells, metal, 49.0 x 30.5 centimeters, circa 1986. CHINA POBLANA BLOUSE, Puebla, Mexico, of cotton, glass beads, 62.3 x 53.5 centimeters, circa 1935. COLLAR, Saraguro peoples, Ecuador, of glass beads, nylon thread, 11.7 x 37.0 centimeters, 1963. BRIDE’S APRON (ijogolo), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of goatskin, glass beads, 60.5 x 42.0 centimeters, circa 1970. All photographs courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art and by Blair Clark, except where noted.

European glass beads, as author and curator Marsha C. Bol explains, are “the ultimate migrants.” In her exhibit “Beadwork Adorns the World,” which recently closed at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, and her accompanying book, The Art & Tradition of Beadwork, she explored how, in the nineteenth century, these trade goods not only went to the far ends of the earth, but also were transformed into an astounding array of cultural and social artifacts. In the West, beadwork became mostly decorative, more so these days in couture and formal wear. But elsewhere, beadwork endowed clothing and objects with formidable power and rich, metaphysical meanings. It became the most profound expression of ritual, of majesty, of identity, and of the spirit world.

Dr. Bol generously agreed to sit down and talk about the years-long process leading to the exhibit. The extended search for superb examples consumed many air miles and many conversations with artists, since so much knowledge has only been passed down orally, from mother to daughter or from an elder to an archaeologist or historian. Intended to dazzle and impress, the beadwork in the exhibit did all that and more.

WEDDING OUTFIT (ulu rajang), Iban peoples, Sarawak state, Borneo island, Malaysia. HEADDRESS of wood, paper, glass beads, cotton, sequins, 38.1 x 61.0 centimeters. DRESS of stone, glass and shell beads, 77.5 centimeters long, twentieth century. David McLanahan Collection.

Q.  What was your inspiration for “Beadwork Adorns the World?”

Actually, it was a book project first. Back in 2011, a tall, stately, white-haired man named Gibbs Smith walked into my office. He was a magnificent man. He wanted to do this; he thought that Lois Sherr Dubin’s book, The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present, had been out for quite a long time and he wanted to publish something new; not about beads, but beadwork around the world. He came to me partly because of my background—I did a Ph.D. in Native American art history with a dissertation on Lakota [western Sioux] women’s and men’s arts, and I continue to do fieldwork. And he knew, because of this museum’s holdings, that it was the right place for the project. I was the museum’s director, so it was going to take a while to get it done. Bless his heart; he died about the time the book went to press.




Q.  What types of beadwork were shown in the exhibit?

The whole exhibit included two hundred sixty beaded objects. I used a very broad definition of beads: metal, shell, ceramic—all different kinds of beads, from fifty-two countries and one hundred four known cultural traditions. There were many examples of women and men’s clothing, several crowns, jewelry, and masks. There was also a beaded pillow, boxes, a royal stool, voodoo flags, bowls, and quite a few amulets. The pieces ranged from the nineteenth century to the present day, so it was not just about the past. When you first walked in there was a “Grab Me” piece. Exhibit designers emphasize the importance of that, to pique curiosity and interest. An extraordinary piece, it’s a wedding dress from the Iban people, who live in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Fully beaded, it weighs about thirty-eight pounds, with very large carnelian beads.


HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940.  Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940. Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

Q.  Were there any surprises for you, while you were organizing the exhibit?

I always approach a project like this with two prongs. One is obviously that you need to work with the collections that you already have. But the other prong is to think about the themes and the content. The museum has an impressive collection, and I went through every drawer and every cabinet looking for beadwork. I ran through four part-time assistants during the project. The museum’s photographer, Blair Clark, and I would spend every Friday morning shooting pictures; we ended up taking about one thousand photographs.

As I was looking at objects, I started to realize that they fell into interesting groups of themes, beginning with life passages. It made me aware of something that I’m not sure that I had consciously understood, which is that beadwork is used for these peak moments in the lives of people in almost every culture. So if you start with childhood, from the cradle, then move on to puberty and adolescence, marriage and death, every beadworking society that I know of does it for an occasion, or to identify and set apart a king, a spiritual authority or someone of high status and position.

Then I got to thinking: beadwork is not a structure, like ceramics or textiles; it’s an adornment, an embellishment. It’s not something that can be used solely on its own—it’s almost always married with something else. That also pushed me towards thinking about how the embellishment, which did not stand alone, added to the effectiveness of the piece—maybe gave it more potency. The exhibit was arranged to follow those themes, which were developed in the book.

Click Image to Enlarge

BABY BONNET, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, 9.1 x 2.7 x 4.6 centimeters, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc. CHILD’S HAT, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, of cotton, silk, glass beads, buttons, metal, embroidered applied trim, 58.0 x 12.0 centimeters, circa 1950. BOY’S HAT, Bai peoples, Dali county, Yunnan province, People’s Republic of China, of silk, cotton, metal beads and objects, feathers, yarn, embroidered appliquéd applied trim, diameter: 14.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Photographs by Addison Doty.

Q.  What was the toughest part of the show to pull together?

Trying to be international! We were missing some areas and I couldn’t travel everywhere, which was frustrating. When I did get away for work, I searched for beadwork. I went to Uzbekistan, southwest China, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to look at the African collection, which is absolutely mind-boggling. I found a wonderful private collection of Lakota beadwork that is in two homes, here and in San Diego.

What is also special to me about the exhibit and the book is giving more recognition to the beadwork of Borneo. The examples we included came from a private collection in Seattle. Pieces like those are considered treasures in Borneo. Before glass beads came in through the trade network, they were getting carnelian beads from Java. Their designs are very recognizable, especially for the Orang Ulu people. Among indigenous people in Borneo there’s a hierarchy; certain designs belonged to the aristocracy and certain ones to the middle class. The beadwork on baby cradles serves a double function, to reveal social position and for protection. Babies’ souls like to wander, so the beaded panels distract evil spirits and keep them away from harming the baby.

BOY’S VEST AND PANTS, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc.

Q.  No matter where you looked, Venetian and Czech glass beads seem to have gone all around the world. How did they become so widespread?

First it was the Venetian, and then the Czech glass beads. Beads were always expensive; they had a lot of value as prestige items. In fact in some places in Africa, like among the Zulu, the king controlled the rights to the bead trade; only the king and members of his court were allowed to wear beadwork on their headdresses and clothing. There are three desirable things about glass beads. First of all, they are quite durable, and last a long time even though they are glass; secondly, they have a luster and shine that is very attractive; and thirdly they come in many different colors, which is also extremely appealing.

On the Plains, seed beads arrived around 1850. You cannot say that, among the Lakota, there was nothing before then, because there was dyed quillwork, and many of the old geometric designs carried over into beadwork. Later on, during the reservation period for the Lakota and other Sioux tribes, there was a lot of pressure from the U.S. government to abandon traditional ways, including traditional clothing. There was a big florescence of beadwork then on the reservations, part of which I believe had to do with trying to preserve the identity of the children. That’s why you saw a little boy’s vest and pants, which are very Western in style, yet they are totally Lakota because they are not made out of cloth; they are made out of hide completely covered in beadwork. This kind of outfit would be more acceptable to the Indian agent and government people, yet it let everyone in the family feel a strong sense of their culture.






Q.  So wherever you go in the world, beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

There’s a fascinating example of that, which is well-recorded, from Zulu beadwork in South Africa. Zulu beadwork does the talking for the women when it’s involved in courtship. Young women would make beadwork bracelets, cuffs, ankle bands, or necklaces as gifts for the young man they had their eye on.

We call them “love letters,” though they were not quite that. The necklaces in the exhibit dated from the late nineteenth century and were loaned from the Field Museum. Scholars disagree about this, but from the colors and designs, proverbs could be discerned. It was not like a personal message, but let a young man know her intentions. A young Zulu man could pile on beadwork from many girls, all at the same time; a piece didn’t obligate him. And of course the more he wore, the more status he had.

One of the most exciting things about doing this project was that every piece has a story to tell, because they are all deeply imbedded in the cultures that make and use them. I tried to share those stories in the label texts, though of course you’re limited in the amount of space you have. But one day I was at the museum after the show had opened and I overhead a man—a man, no less—come out of the show and say to his friends, “That show! There’s a story about every piece!” He was very excited, and I was doubly thrilled because it was a man—often we think of beadwork as women’s work—and because he understood there was a story with everything.

“LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. “LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0-19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. Photographs by John Weinstein.

Q.  Let’s talk about Western attitudes towards beadwork as “women’s work.” There was a thought-provoking section of the exhibit and the book called “Gender in Beadwork.”

We underestimate beadwork’s importance in other cultures. The idea in the exhibit was to honor and acknowledge women’s artistry and creativity in beadwork. In traditional societies, there has always been a division of labor by gender. Women worked with materials for the home, like making pottery or baskets. The fineness and beauty of what women produced brought them respect and rank: it gave them status. Even in our culture doing beadwork was a practical skill; it demonstrated a woman’s housekeeping capabilities, how she could produce useful things. Certainly in fashion today beadwork is prized.


Q.  Some beadwork from Africa radiates drama and power and grandeur. There were examples from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the Bamileke in Cameroon and the Kuba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why is that beadwork so imposing?

Those are magnificent pieces, all intended for the king. Again, the right to wear trade beads belonged exclusively to royalty. It’s very powerful, gorgeous stuff. Only a professional male beadworker can make the king’s regalia, and he actually does it at court. In hierarchical societies, the kings usually have both political and spiritual leadership. The star of that section was the great Yoruba crown. It reinforces the king’s divinity, separating him from other people; when he wears that crown, he embodies the oba, who can communicate with ancestral spirits. The long beaded veil covers his face, and he holds an elaborately beaded flywhisk to hide his mouth as he’s speaking. His feet can’t touch the ground, so they rest on beaded cushions. The faces on the crown represent the first oba, Oduduwa. When someone consults the oba, he is not asking about his future. In their belief system, you know everything that is going to happen before you emerge into this life. As you are born, you touch the tree of forgetfulness. You are asking the oba to remind you of what you used to know.

The king only wears that crown for major ceremonial occasions. He has day-to-day crowns, which resemble the British crown; Nigeria was a British colony during the nineteenth century. There are even beaded British-style wigs for court. That’s a good example of how traditional beadwork merged into modern society.

OBA ADEMUWAGUN ADESIDA II, in the courtyard of his palace, Akure, Nigeria, 1959. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art. OBA’S GREAT CROWN (adenla), Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of palm ribs armature (pako), cornstarch (eko), cotton, glass beads, thread, 114.0 x 22.9 centimeters, 1920s. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Dawson Gallery.


Q.  The world is changing so fast. Does beadwork still have a cultural role to play?

Beadwork is still essential to reaffirm identity. For instance, after the Boer War in South Africa, the Ndzundza Ndebele people were indentured out to farms all over the country, scattered far from their homeland and each other. Ndzundza Ndebele women, even under those circumstances, began again to hold puberty ceremonies for boys and girls in these faraway places, which involved beaded aprons. Ndebele women are identified by their age-stage beaded aprons: for little girls, as unmarried adolescents, and as married women, when the apron has five distinct lobes. They held onto making and wearing these beaded aprons and are known for them today.

It’s always evolving. Nellie Star Boy Menard from Rosebud on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and I were judging at an arts fair in Bismarck, North Dakota. She saw a piece of beadwork and said, “Oh, that’s not Sioux enough.” I have talked to Florentine Blue Thunder and Tom Haukaas, who make their own pow-wow outfits, and they keep to the more historic traditions, but they complain that the judges now don’t know how to tell the old styles and designs. The pow-wow and social-dance competitions help beadwork to continue. If you don’t have a market for your arts, whether internal, among tribal members, or external, among outsiders, they are not going to survive.

ZULU RICKSHAW PULLERS ON THE BEACHFRONT, Durban, South Africa, early 1980s. Photograph by Jean Morris.


Q.  How can these older cultures stay resilient and sustain their beadwork traditions?

One way is through re-invention. In South Africa, Zulu rickshaw pullers became celebrated for their outfits. In the 1890s, somebody from Durban went to Singapore and brought back rickshaws (this is before there were cars). Only Zulu men were allowed to pull them, but then someone said they needed to wear a uniform so the police could identify who they were.

The Zulu men themselves created these wild, wonderful, imaginative costumes with the enormous, amazing headdresses. The oxen horns associated the strength of the ox with the man. They were a tourist attraction, and the men would stage their own competitions for who had the best costume. In the past they were famous warriors, so it became a source of real pride for the Zulu men.

Another way is through the marketplace. A purposeful part of the exhibit was to let visitors know that beadwork is still very much a living tradition. Within various sections I included profiles of contemporary artists, or of women’s co-ops who are working today. An example was the netted-beadwork necklaces made by indigenous Saraguro women in Ecuador. They’ve joined together five local associations into one big co-op, for marketing purposes and for buying materials. They can still make part of their traditional ethnic dress and bring in income to support their families. Oftentimes they are the main breadwinners in their communities.

CHILD’S BLOUSE PANEL, northern Afghanistan, of cotton, glass beads, 38.0 x 32.7 centimeters, twentieth century. Anne and Bill Frej Collection.

I should mention here that the International Folk Art Market was a great help to me, because a lot of beadwork artists come to the market and I was able to connect with them. The world is getting smaller all the time, and more beadwork traditions are crossing into global awareness. Artists are finding ways to adapt their beadwork and introduce innovations yet keep it meaningful. As I discuss in the book, beadwork has even moved into contemporary art. At the opening, Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves told me she was so grateful to be included in an international show, and not strictly a Native American show. That made it all worthwhile.


Q.  As you were considering pieces for the exhibit and writing your book, you developed criteria for quality and excellence. Did you wind up with any personal favorites?

There were so many pieces I loved for different reasons, but some were standouts for me, because of the amount of incredible beadwork on them, the skill of the artists and the aesthetics. I’m thinking of Tom “Red Owl” Haukaas’s beaded Lakota cradles; the nineteenth-century double-headed elephant stool covered in red tube beads used by the king in Cameroon; the wonderful Brulé Lakota violin case; and a Ndebele married woman’s wearing blanket.

VIOLIN CASE, Brulé Lakota, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, of commercial wood case, native-tanned hide, metal trim, glass beads, 81.3 x 25.4 x 11.4 centimeters, 1891. Courtesy of Stars and Stripes Foundation.

“Beadwork Adorns the World” showed April 22, 2018 - February 3, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Visit their website at internationalfolkart.org. The 16th Annual International Folk Art Market takes place July 12 - 14, 2019, Milner Plaza, on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit their website at folkartmarket.org.


SUGGESTED READING
Bol, Marsha C.
The Art & Tradition of Beadwork. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2018.
Dubin, Lois Sherr.
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Liu, Robert K.
Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic. Vista, CA: Ornament Inc, 1995.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher.
“The Language of Personal Adornment.” In The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979.
Sumberg, Bobbie.
Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010.

 

Click Image to Enlarge

FON’S ROYAL STOOL, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of wood, raffia cloth, glass beads, 41.0 x 45.0 x 50.0 centimeters, nineteenth century. Photograph by John Weinstein. MITAKUYE OYASIN CRADLE by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of brain-tanned elk hide, cotton, glass beads, thread, 68.5 x 23.5 x 30.5 centimeters, 2005. Marilyn Eber Collection. MARRIED WOMAN’S BLANKET (irari), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of wool, glass beads, 269.2 x 381.2 centimeters, circa 1970.


Leslie-Clark.jpg

Leslie Clark is a freelance writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is endlessly fascinated by the variety, intricacy, technical prowess, and rich beauty of beadwork. “I kept going back to the recent exhibit ‘Beadwork Adorns the World’ just to feast my eyes and try to understand more,” she says. “Once you discover the complex meanings of beadwork in other cultures, you come away with a real sense of awe and wonder.” She has taken the Museum of International Folk Art exhibition to a more revealing level, with her Ornament interview with Marsha C. Bol, curator of the exhibit, as Bol discusses how throughout the world beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

Dressed with Distinction Volume 41.1

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, tablet weaving, Ottoman Syria, nineteenth century. WOMAN’S JACKET (salteh) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, toothed tapestry technique, Bedouin peoples, Aleppo, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early to mid-twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century.

MAN’S COAT ( damir ) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century.  Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

How we dress tells a story that, in the case of traditional clothing, can stretch back thousands of years. The world’s culture has been built, layer upon layer, as pivotal moments of history effect changes on textiles like the rings of a tree’s trunk. For a certain country residing in the Levant, that history goes farther back than most. Currently at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria” is an awesome display of clothing predating the rise of the modern Syrian state.

One California day, cloaked in the clouds of an unseasonably wet winter, I had the chance to see the garments up close and prior to installation, courtesy of Joanna Barrkman, Senior Curator of Southeast Asian and Pacific Arts. Donated to the Fowler by Dr. David and Elizabeth Reisbord, both of whom live in Santa Monica, their collection came as something of a mystery. In the spirit of properly documenting and identifying the twenty-eight garments that were donated (twenty-three are exhibited), the museum partnered with Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the nonprofit Textile Research Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, due to her expertise in Middle Eastern clothing and fabrics.

Syria’s long history and geographical position has served to enrich its textiles, lending an edge of refinement that can take one’s breath away. As the hub for multiple trading routes, Aleppo and Damascus received a bounty of raw materials and foreign influences. Two of the coats in the exhibition bear the vibrating patterns of ikat dyeing, where it is known by the Arabic term tarbit. Locally produced in both Aleppo and the city of Homs, these long, flowing clothes, with a narrow neck and a cut that tapers from a wide base to a narrowing beneath the arms, show the inclusion of lining cloth that originated from abroad. Barrkman mentions that a concurrent exhibition of Central Asian ikats at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also based on a gift by the Reisbords, features Russian cotton prints on the interior. From Uzbekistan to Syria, global trade made its mark on local textiles.

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) outer front and inside back, of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, hand embroidery, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. WOMAN’S SILK HEADCOVERING (hatta) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, lance, Homs, Kasrawabiye/Homsiyye style, Ottoman Syria, mid-to-early twentieth century.

 

The silk itself was a foreign introduction. Silk production eventually was cultivated in Syria, but had been originally introduced through the Silk Road and Chinese trade. One of these ikat coats, a woman’s garment known as a qumbas, is an outlier among the collection. From post-Ottoman Syria, around the 1950s, an identifiable trait is its vibrant aniline dyes, which were in widespread use in the Middle East by the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike its sister garment, the piece sports delicate crimson cordwork along the cuff. The cordwork is associated with the Jordanian town of Ma’an, but it was possibly a response to the influence of being introduced to French exports, including lace.

Standup collars were a notable adoption into Syrian fashion, brought on by Arab admiration for the stiff collars of French military uniforms. A Bedouin woman’s jacket, one of two appearing in the exhibit, coquettishly sports this cultural adoption. These jackets differ from the largely silk garments of Syrian Arabs by being woven from sheep’s wool. Their cut, while still bearing a rectangular shape, possesses short sleeves, a nod perhaps to the more rugged life of these nomadic people. Bright pink flowers nestled in sea-green leaves chase each other up and down the lapels, flanked by detailed geometric designs. By this time aniline dyes from Europe largely replaced the natural dyes that had been used for hundreds of years. Most of the clothes in the Reisbords’ collection are thus aniline dyed.

The close aesthetic kinship between the Bedouins and urban Arabs is immediately apparent when one is introduced to the mainstay of the exhibition, the glorious silk abaya. These open-faced robes with voluminous sleeves appear in repose like a flat square, cryptically remote from the items of apparel that they actually are. Their construction is not unfamiliar, with long rectangles of cloth pieced together, bearing a close resemblance to the kimono. They, like the kimono, are overgarments, meant to be worn over a blouse or shirt, and in use by both sexes.

When not being worn, abayas appear inert, like carpets or tapestries rather than items of clothing; but when draped on the human form, they transform the wearer into a canvas upon which intricate designs, shimmering surfaces and bold colors dance. One can imagine how the streets of Damascus and Aleppo must have been filled with a bright parade of fashionable men and women.

WOMAN’S COAT (  qumbas, kumbas  ) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

WOMAN’S COAT (qumbas, kumbas) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

Many of the abayas are recipients of tapestry-weave, a technique so-called due to its traditional employment in tapestries. The weave is weft-faced, with no warp threads visible, and discontinuous, having different colored threads only in the areas of the surface design. This allows for complicated imagery and geometric patterns, rather than a repeated motif that extends end to end. With its application to a piece of clothing, the results are nothing short of magical. Sweeping triangles of the most subtle shades trail off into spiderweb thin strands of the same, with stylized flowers and shafts of grain spilling bright colors across the background. This is just the tip of the legacy of textile production in Syria. Aleppo was well known as a center of textile industry since the thirteenth century, an eight-hundred-year pedigree of excellence.

Beyond its fame for masterful tapestries, Syria was also known for its tabby-weave, or hermezi, a method where weft threads go over and under each individual warp thread. Laborious and time-consuming on a scale that is difficult to comprehend, Syrian artisans made their trade weaving these superlative textiles, which were also incorporated into their clothes.

One particular piece in the exhibition, a magnificent golden abaya with silvery columns enfilading in procession down the front and back of the garment, is an example of moiré and metallic threading. The otherworldly rippling surface of moiré is caused by pressing a wooden or metal plate or roller, incised with a pattern, to two layers of fabric under heat.

WOMAN’S BODY COVERING (çarshaf) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, interlocking tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century.

While these garments are different in cut, color and styling to modern wear in the twenty-first century, it is good to remember how much they inspired European dress at the turn of the twentieth century. Fascination with the Orient, that loose construct that played in one’s imagination as catchall for exoticism, led to a relaxing of the shape of European apparel. Boutiques took note of the voluminousness of Middle Eastern sleeves, a different approach to structure that no doubt had a few tailors stroking their chins thoughtfully. This shift away from tight corsets and forms that built upon and restricted the body was due at least in part to the interplay between cultures.

The message behind the exhibition is a subtle but important one; fabric weaves all of humanity together. The clothing in the collection, beyond its brilliant workmanship and sumptuous aesthetics, represents a culmination of historical trade, exchange and knowledge. Syria’s textile tradition has gone back over a thousand years, with the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus having survived over different incarnations. Throughout this expanse of time they built and refined an industry measured in lifetimes of skill. In this way it is rather like a tree’s rings, but in a form so beautifully abstract that it tugs the heartstrings.

This historical legacy has an impact on the present, one which Barrkman and Vogelsang-Eastwood are anxious to share. The living tradition of textile production in Syria has suffered greatly due to the civil war that has engulfed that region since 2011. These marvelous items of clothing represent a thread that may yet be severed. To the Syrian community in the United States, Barrkman hopes this exhibition provides them with a connection to their past, their memories and to their culture.

“Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria,” shows at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, 308 Charles E Young Dr. N., Los Angeles, California 90024, through August 18, 2019. Visit their website at www.fowler.ucla.edu. You can read more about the Textile Research Centre at their website, www.trc-leiden.nl/trc.


SUGGESTED READING
GILLOW, JOHN. Textiles of the Islamic World.
London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2010.
SULEMAN, FAHMIDA.
Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia: The Fabric of Life. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2017.
VOGELSANG-EASTWOOD, GILLIAN. Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019.

Get Inspired!


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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. His most recent journeys have taken him through two exhibitions, one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles. The common thread? World history in personal adornment. At the Neue Galerie, a private museum dedicated to Austro-German art and craft, a small one-room exhibition laid out the major players and the evolution of jewelry produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Building on the principles established by the Vienna Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte was instrumental in the development of contemporary art jewelry. A subsequent visit to the Fowler Museum at UCLA explored the influence of the Ottomans on Syrian clothing and textile production. From east to west, and west to east, he was impressed by the cross-section of human ingenuity and creativity.

Pierre Balmain and Queen Sirikit Volume 40.4

PIERRE BALMAIN escorts Her Majesty Queen Sirikit to a private showing of his Autumn 1960 collection at Maison Balmain in Paris, October 12, 1960.  Photograph courtesy of Pierre Balmain S.A.

PIERRE BALMAIN escorts Her Majesty Queen Sirikit to a private showing of his Autumn 1960 collection at Maison Balmain in Paris, October 12, 1960. Photograph courtesy of Pierre Balmain S.A.

SKETCH FOR NUIT A LONDRES. All photographs courtesy of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles.

As a participant on a tour to Thailand to study textiles, I had the opportunity to visit the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles (QSMT), Bangkok. Among the exhibitions on view was “Fit For A Queen,” a stunning showcase of the wardrobe the legendary Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain designed for Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. This was my second visit to the QSMT and I was again impressed by the quality of the content and installations of the exhibitions. I was particularly engaged by the concept and execution of the new exhibition and was delighted to discover the collaboration between the Queen and her French fashion designer. I had the pleasure to sit down recently with Melissa Leventon, one of the three curators who worked on the exhibition, and dive deeper into the back-story and development of this unique collaboration in fashion involving Thai and French culture.

You’ve been working as the Senior Museum Consultant for QSMT since 2006; when did the idea first originate of developing an exhibition and catalog on Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe designed by Pierre Balmain?

The idea originated a number of years ago with our director, Piyavara Teekara Natenoi. We began preliminary research on the relationship between Her Majesty and Balmain in 2009 when a team from the museum traveled to Paris and visited the House of Lesage to discuss his work with the Queen. Fortunately, we videoed that interview with François and we have used excerpts from it in the exhibition. In one of our inaugural exhibitions, we used quite a number of the Thai-style dresses made for Her Majesty by Balmain so the logical follow-up was to do an exhibition that focused on the Queen’s Western-style wardrobe.

Did Her Majesty gift the Balmain pieces to the museum?

Yes. Her Majesty has been donating items from her Balmain holdings to the museum since 2009. Earlier this year we were given another sixteen ensembles and some of those will be rotated into the exhibition in 2018.

In addition to Daywear, Evening Dress and Outerwear, did the collection include other components, such as accessories, luggage and archival materials?

QUEEN SIRIKIT WEARING Nuit a Londres from Balmain’s Spring 1960 collection. The Queen’s customized version was in Thai silk and had shoulder straps added.

      It did, yes. We have a number of the hats Balmain designed for the Queen, as well as quite a number of Her Majesty’s shoes. The museum’s collection includes only one or two pieces of the Vuitton luggage Her Majesty used on the tour but happily, we were able to borrow several additional Vuitton pieces from the Royal Household. The archival materials we have in the exhibition are all on loan from Maison Balmain and the House of Lesage—Balmain kindly lent us nine sketchbooks, representing the house’s regular summer collections from 1960-1969, and Lesage lent us a number of the embroidery samples prepared for Her Majesty’s dresses.

What were some of the challenges in readying the collection for exhibition?

Research and object selection are always lengthy and painstaking. For this project, we had a lot of information and photographs of some ensembles, and very little information for others. So we had both to determine how to choose among many options and make good choices where we had few options. Dating the ensembles for which we had no external information was quite challenging until we were able to see the Balmain sketchbooks lent for the exhibition by Maison Balmain, which happened fairly late in the process. Those sketchbooks were key to our understanding of how the Queen worked with Balmain in the early years of their collaboration, and they challenged a lot of the assumptions we had made. Fortunately, they arrived in Bangkok before the catalog went to press!

We were also fortunate that many dresses were in very good condition, but getting them to look right on their mounts is always challenging. The evening dresses and ball gowns are all on invisible mounts, which our conservators had to make for each dress individually. That was an arduous and time-consuming task.

Can you describe the process that went into the making of the audio-visual components that accompany and complement the exhibition?

 
The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Thailand is presenting more than thirty of the Queen’s daytime, cocktail and evening dresses in an exhibition that focuses on the twenty-two-year-long working relationship between Queen Sirikit and French couturier Pierre Balmain.

      A lot of time and effort went into the short animated presentations that show selected dresses putting themselves together. We commissioned five of them, and worked with a professional animation studio and designer/dressmakers. The designers replicated the patterns Balmain’s workrooms had used in constructing each garment, by studying the garment closely and taking careful measurements. The animators then translated the patterns into computerized form, and created a series of storyboards—just as if they were making a movie—that showed the shape of the pattern pieces and the order in which they were sewn together. We went through several drafts of each one, adjusting the views, construction order and pacing each time. So, a lot of work, but well worth it. The finished animations are not only informative, they are among the most popular features of the exhibition. 

Why did Majesties King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit decide to commission the renowned Paris couturier Pierre Balmain to design Her Majesty’s wardrobe for their 1960 state visit to fourteen European countries and the United States? 

AFTERNOON DRESS AND COAT, made entirely of Thai silk was worn both in New York and Rome during 1960 state visit.

      In that era, royal women and wives of heads of state commonly patronized either well-known fashion designers from their home countries or French couturiers. Her Majesty’s principal Thai dressmaker, Urai Lueumrung, advised her that there were no designers in Thailand in 1959 who were capable of producing the kind of Western wardrobe she would need for the tour, so a French couturier was the obvious choice. Balmain was an excellent choice for Her Majesty. He was experienced, widely traveled and had dressed other noble and royal clients, so the Queen knew that he would be able to advise her on the intricacies of royal dress protocol for European countries. Moreover, his couture operation was then one of the largest in Paris, so he had the capacity to produce Her Majesty’s orders quickly and reliably.

The Thai government had proposed that Her Majesty work with Dior and offered to pay for the Queen’s wardrobe. Their Majesties wisely declined the suggestion, as well as the payment offer. Dior was the largest and best-known couture house in Paris at the time, but Christian Dior himself had died and Yves Saint Laurent was at the helm. Saint Laurent was a great designer but he was very young and more interested in his generation’s youthful tastes than he was in classic style—not what Her Majesty was looking for.

What were the characteristics of Balmain’s designs that Her Majesty found so appealing? 

Balmain was known for elegant, classic designs—neat little suits, chic afternoon dresses and flowing, romantic evening dresses, all executed with close attention to detail. He was also willing to use Thai textiles in his designs for the Queen to help convey a sense of her Thai identity through her Western clothes. This, I think, was crucial to the success of their working relationship.

In the exhibition and catalog texts you make reference to the “seamless blend of Asian aesthetics and European high fashion” that Her Majesty and Balmain “developed and refined over their twenty-two-year collaboration.” This partnership resulted in a “fashionably Western and distinctively Thai” style. Can you talk about some of the pieces in Her Majesty’s wardrobe you feel best illustrate this concept?

EVENING DRESS of Thai silk and metallic brocade, 1960. This is one of several simple, Western-style evening dresses Balmain made for the 1960 tour.

      There are many. The Queen’s daytime ensembles from the 1960 tour, particularly the fashionable suits made entirely from Thai silk, exemplify the marriage of Western fashion and distinctively Thai textiles that created her characteristic style. Two of my favorites in this category are an orange Thai silk skirt suit that Her Majesty wore at least twice during the tour and for several years afterwards; and a Thai silk dress and swing coat ensemble, also worn in both the U.S. and Europe. Balmain also made evening dresses for the Queen in 1960 using this same approach, but substituting Thai gold-metal and silk brocade for the Thai silk.

The 1960 tour wardrobe firmly established Her Majesty’s style as utilizing this joint Thai/Western strategy. It carried over to her use of the Support Foundation’s village-woven textiles beginning in the 1970s, which were styled into Western garments by Balmain. It also applied, in a slightly different way, to Balmain’s work on Her Majesty’s Thai national dress. Modern Thai national dress was developed at Her Majesty’s behest for the 1960 tour. Stylistically, it incorporated modern Western tailoring with elements drawn from nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Thai court dress. Initially, it was made only by the Queen’s Thai designers. However, Balmain and the embroiderer François Lesage began to make some of Her Majesty’s national dress around 1963, adding European construction and embroidery technique, style and materials.

What was the reaction of the public and the press to the Queen’s style? Was she considered to be as fashionably and elegantly dressed as other women of royalty and position to whom she was introduced on the tour? 

The Queen, who was stunningly beautiful, attracted a lot of admiring public attention and was very popular with the press as well. A lot of the press coverage focused on what The New York Times rather breathlessly referred to as the “huge and wonderful wardrobe of fairytale proportions” and there is no doubt that she could hold her own with the most fashionable women in the world. She was elected to the Best Dressed List in 1960, which also included Princess Alexandra of Kent, Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy. She was re-elected to the list twice more, topping it in 1964, and then was elevated to the Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1965.

What role did the House of Lesage play in developing a design aesthetic for Her Majesty? Was imagery for the embroidery drawn from both European and Thai sources? 

THAI NATIONAL DRESS of silk brocade, shows how the House of Lesage enhanced the garment’s woven pattern with lavish embroidery, 1979.

      Lesage’s embroidery designs for Her Majesty’s dresses often reflected his signature use of varied combinations of materials to create richly textured surfaces, which in turn influenced Thai embroiderers. I think, in fact, that Lesage’s major contribution to the Queen’s evolving style was the successful application of his distinctive approach to embroidery to Thai national dress.

Lesage used both European and Thai sources for the embroidery on Her Majesty’s Western cocktail and evening dresses. Many of Her Majesty’s most formal clothes from the 1960s use both European materials and motifs. However, others incorporate classic Thai motifs, such as flames, palmettes and lotus flowers. For dresses made of Thai brocade, Lesage’s embroidery often echoes the brocade pattern as a way of amplifying it. The Lesage archives also include copies of motifs from books on Thai art so he plainly was looking beyond the information gleaned from the textiles themselves.

As cited in the exhibition catalog, Balmain provided every conceivable service to assure that Her Majesty’s wardrobe on tour met his high standards of craftsmanship and carried “the stamp of enduring elegance.” Can you share with us some of the preparations involved? 

In addition to designing Her Majesty’s clothes, Balmain provided matching hats as needed. His in-house furrier also designed her furs. Balmain commissioned her footwear from René Mancini, a French custom shoemaker who supplied bespoke shoes to a number of couturiers, and he orchestrated the purchases of accessories such as gloves.

Balmain was also very involved in making sure the wardrobe functioned properly on tour. Their Majesties were constantly on the move, especially during the American portion of the tour, and the Queen often had to change three or four times a day. It was crucial that the right clothes for the right occasions be easily findable and always in ready-to-wear condition. To ensure this, Balmain developed a chart for the women who were responsible for caring for the Queen’s clothes during the trip, which listed each outfit, its individual components, the number of the trunk in which it was packed, and the occasion(s) for which it was intended. The list included swatches for easy identification. Balmain also taught Her Majesty’s attendants to pack the clothes so that they would appear fresh and unwrinkled when they were unpacked.

Did Balmain present sketches and fabric swatches to Her Majesty for approval? 

We think so, although we have not yet located any. Erik Mortensen, Balmain’s assistant, mentions in his memoir that Balmain introduced new design ideas to Her Majesty using sketches and samples, and we have seen Mortensen’s own sketches and swatches for Her Majesty from the period after Balmain’s death. 

How were personal fittings handled? 

As would have been customary for a royal client, Balmain went to Her Majesty for fittings. It was and is customary for a couturier to have a customized dress form made for each client to be used as a stand-in when the client was not present, so Balmain would have used the form made to Her Majesty’s measurements draping, cutting, and the preliminary fittings in Paris. For the state tour, Balmain brought the clothes needed for the intensive month in the U.S. to Bangkok along with his assistant Erik Mortensen, and a fitter. They spent about three weeks fitting the clothes on the Queen, and did most of the necessary alterations in the workshop of Urai Lueumrung, Her Majesty’s dressmaker. For the second, European phase of the tour, which lasted for five months and was much less intensive, Balmain and his team would visit the Queen almost every weekend at Their Majesties’ base in Switzerland to fit the clothes needed for the following week or so of official activities.

Why did Balmain contract with Vuitton to make the trunks with customized interior fittings for Her Majesty’s wardrobe? 

VUITTON HAT TRUNK. The Vuitton luggage ordered for Queen Sirikit was striped with the colors of the Thai flag and monogrammed with the Queen’s cipher.

      Vuitton is known for its customized luggage and boasts a long and impressive roster of royal and noble clients. They were really the logical choice. And it made sense for Balmain to order the luggage rather than leaving it to the Palace to do directly, because Balmain would have known which interior fittings were needed to accommodate the royal wardrobe and how many pieces of luggage would have been needed.

Who, if anyone, assumed the role after Balmain’s death in 1982?

Erik Mortensen, Balmain’s primary design assistant, became the designer for Maison Balmain after Pierre Balmain’s death. Mortensen had been in charge of Her Majesty’s orders since 1960 and thus the two already had a close and longstanding working relationship. I think that for the Queen, the transition from Balmain to Mortensen was probably fairly seamless.

When Mortensen left Balmain in 1990, Her Majesty followed him to Jean Louis Scherrer. He remained her couturier of choice until his death in 1998. After that, the Queen tried several other European designers—Dior, Givenchy, Valentino among them, and also increased her patronage of Thai designers such as Bha, Tirapan and Pichita.

You point out that the use of handwoven Thai silk brocades and ikats in Her Balmain-designed wardrobe were a deliberate strategy conceived by Her Majesty to promote Thai identity and elevate the textile arts of Thailand. In the 1970s, Her Majesty established the Support Foundation to promote the revival of Thailand’s traditional crafts, particularly weaving. Do you think the Foundation was a natural outgrowth of this strategy?

RENÉ MANCINI SHOES made for the Queen in a variety of materials. The Queen often wore this type of evening pump with Thai national dress.

      Not exactly. The establishment of the Foundation, in 1976, simply formalized an effort spearheaded by the Queen that had been underway for several years. So I think the strategy was born from Her Majesty’s desire to market the silks that were being produced at her behest in the most effective way possible. In other words, I believe the textiles came first, and Her Majesty’s decision to wear them followed.

One of Her Majesty’s objectives, through the Support Foundation, was to create a commercial market for the fabrics woven by local village women. Do you think the commercial channels have enabled these “humble village textiles” to now become fashionable? 

They are certainly popular in Thailand, and I think that is due to Her Majesty’s advocacy. However, they are not particularly prominent in fashion outside Thailand, so I don’t think they have achieved the lasting international recognition that Her Majesty may have hoped for.

What would you like visitors to “take away” from this exhibition?

I’d like people to understand something of the process of how Balmain and Her Majesty worked together, how important a factor Her Majesty’s appearance and style was in the success of the 1960 tour, how deftly the Queen exploited fashion to raise Thailand’s profile internationally, and how beautiful she looked. I’d also like people to appreciate how hard she worked to raise the profile and reach of Thai textiles.

“Fit For A Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Creations by Balmain” is showing through June 30, 2019,
at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok, Thailand.
Visit their website at
www.qsmtthailand.org.

 

      Get Inspired!


Jo Lauria is a Los Angeles-based curator, author and educator who is a specialist in the fields of craft and design. She has explored objects and environments that define the American lifestyle and culture through publications and exhibitions. The organizer of several museum-based surveys and national touring exhibitions, Lauria is currently the adjunct curator of the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA). Additionally, as Mentor Faculty at Otis College of Art and Design, she has guided students in their artistic pursuits and has contributed meaningfully to the academic environment. This issue she contributes a rare interview with Melissa Leventon, guest curator for “Fit For A Queen,” an exhibition showing at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Together they examine the collaboration between French couturier Pierre Balmain and Thailand’s Queen Sirikit.


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Melissa Leventon is a specialist in European and American costume and textiles, and has been a consultant to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles since 2006. Author of two books, she has also contributed to many exhibition catalogs and journals. Leventon is based in San Francisco, California, where she is principal of the museum consultancy Curatrix Group and a Senior Adjunct Professor teaching fashion history and theory at California College of the Arts.

Stepping Out Volume 40.3

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SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Aileen Ribeiro Volume 40.2

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HABIT DE PEINTRE by Jean Lepautre, Jean Berain, Jacques Lepautre, French, of handcolored engraving on paper, circa 1682. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914 is the latest—and possibly last—book from fashion historian Aileen Ribeiro, author of seminal studies such as Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe; Dress and Morality; Fashion in the French Revolution; Ingres in Fashion; The Art of Dress; Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England; and Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art.

      Published by Yale University Press, ambitious in size and scope, clocking in at five hundred seventy-two pages, Clothing Art unleashes the full range of Ribeiro’s powers as an interpreter of art and dress, offering new insights into her areas of established expertise as well as deep dives into new scholarly territory, such as the Dutch Golden Age, the Venetian Carnival and fin-de-siècle Japonism.

The book’s broad temporal and geographical reach allows Ribeiro to make illuminating connections that would be impossible in a more focused study, as she draws parallels between the Black Prince and the Romantic dandy, between Jacques-Louis David and Arthur Lasenby Liberty. It also makes room for hundreds of sumptuous images, including many that will be new to even seasoned students of fashion history. 

Ribeiro pays close attention to items of clothing stashed in the backgrounds and margins of these artworks, which are often overlooked or considered to be mere props. She gets inside the minds of artists, examining how they coped with the physical distortions caused by corsets and crinolines. William Hogarth, the eighteenth-century artist who figures prominently in the book, wrote in his book Analysis of Beauty that dress “is so copious a Topick, it would afford sufficient matter for a Large Volume of itself.” Clothing Art proves his point. 

MARCHESA BRIGIDA SPINOLA DORIA by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, of oil on canvas, 1606. Samuel H. Kress Collection. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

      The rise of fashion history as a discipline began with artists, who sought to give their historical paintings authenticity, often by using period garments as props or recreating them in their studios. Ribeiro points to the intense thought and debate artists have historically devoted to fashion, and the ways it has informed their work. Society painters like Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Alfred Stevens—often dismissed as “etoffistes”—were sensitive to not just the surfaces but the social nuances of clothing. The Pre-Raphaelites and the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte designed clothes that embodied their artistic philosophies; painter Mary Cassatt wore Paquin. For twentieth-century artists, fashion functioned as both signifier and scourge of “modernity.”

Bridging the still-wide gap between art historians and fashion historians, Ribeiro admonishes fashion historians to “never lose sight of the fact that works of art are works of art first and not just repositories of fashion references,” encouraging an art historical approach rather than indiscriminate cherry-picking of images. “As for art historians,” she adds, “who are sometimes too prone to think that, since we all wear clothes, they can easily understand them in art and interpret them accordingly, it has to be said that clothes in the past are nothing like the ones of today and cannot relate to them in any meaningful way.” But she cautions both groups that “every visual and textual description in the end relates to real clothes”—many examples of which are illustrated and analyzed in the text.

Ribeiro retired from her post as Professor of History of Dress at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art in 2009, but continues to be in demand as an author, speaker and consultant. She recently worked on an exhibition of portraits from the late 1880s to 1945 that coincided with London Fashion Week in September. She spoke with Ornament about her new book, the culmination of her long career of scholarship.

THE EMPRESS EUGÉNIE by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, German, of oil on canvas, 1854. Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow Gift. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      How has the field of dress history changed since you published your first book, Visual History of Costume: Eighteenth Century, in 1983?

There are two answers to this. The first is that the academic standards of much (not all) writing on clothing have tightened up, partly due to the impact of theory which, when used with perception and knowledge of the history of dress, makes for a more nuanced discussion on the subject. The downside of this is when writers on dress, particularly those working on twentieth and twenty-first century fashion, use theory without understanding, resulting in misleading and garbled work. 

The second is that periods before the twentieth century are no longer studied to the extent they should be, which limits the possibilities of historic clothing as an essential element of discourse in the humanities.

How has its relationship with art history changed? Have art historians fully embraced the importance of fashion history, and have fashion historians risen to the challenge of becoming art historians?

The abandonment of the earlier periods in the study of the history of dress has led to art historians entering the field, realizing the importance of dress and textiles to their work. 

I’m pleased that this is so, especially when they have knowledge of the subjects they write on—or feel free to ask relevant specialists for help—but sometimes this isn’t the case and errors, along with unscholarly work, are the result. On the other hand, when it comes to dress historians, they often seem frightened of art historical sources, unsure of how to make use of them in their work. Only when the history of dress is taught more widely—and more professionally—in art history departments at the university level might the situation be improved to the benefit of both sides.

HOMME DE QUALITE EN HABIT D’ÊPÉE by Nicolas Arnoult, French, of handcolored engraving on paper, 1683-1688. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

      Can you describe your research process? 

The research process begins with an idea, a concept, which requires quite a lot of work before a synopsis can be written. This doesn’t always mean I strictly follow the synopsis; thoughts and ideas change as part of the research process. But it provides a kind of template. Then comes a great deal of research into texts and images, the latter especially so with regard to Clothing Art. I like to collect all the information before writing as I need to see the book as a whole, as a unit.

Did you know this book was going to be five-hundred-plus pages when you began writing it? 

No, I didn’t. But about halfway through writing the book, I realized that I’d been over-ambitious in the scale of my project and thus needed many more words, and lots more images.  My wonderful editor Gillian Malpass [to whom the book is dedicated] agreed to an extended volume but was slightly taken aback at the length when I handed it in! As ever, she took it in her stride and produced a beautiful book, for which I’m most grateful.

In the book you discuss the “emotional aspects of clothes.” How does one research that elusive subject?

With difficulty! It’s still a somewhat nebulous notion in my mind, partly to do with the emotional charge of a great painting; Alfred Stevens referred to painting as “nature seen through the prism of an emotion.” To the historian of dress, things are important as ideas are, and surely emotions can reside in clothes and accessories. Lionel Trilling put it well when he talked of the “strong emotion about the life in objects, the shapes that people make and admire.” I’ve been thinking about the Five Senses recently—the subject for my keynote paper at the most recent Costume Society conference—and posit a sixth sense when looking at art, which might encompass ideas of love, understanding, memory, and so on. 

 

SELF-PORTRAIT by Judith Leyster, Dutch, of oil on canvas, circa 1630. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

 

      You studied under the late Stella Mary Newton, the pioneering dress historian who founded the graduate program in History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute, and eventually replaced her when she retired. How did she shape your approach to the subject? 

What seems so obvious now—that artists depict the clothes they see around them and that paintings can be dated by the clothing depicted in them—was Stella’s great and innovative contribution to the history of dress. This wasn’t surprising, as she had been married to an artist and art critic and spent many years at the National Gallery in London analyzing dress in art, identifying the clothing and textiles, and suggesting dates to undated works of art. To me, having studied history as my undergraduate degree with a focus on political events, it was a revelation to look at painting, to be totally immersed in it and how clothing made up such an important aspect of it. This approach inspired me to examine dress in art, what relations there were between truth and imagination, what meanings clothes might have, and so on.

MADEMOISELLE SICOT by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, of oil on canvas, 1865. Chester Dale Collection. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

      What was it like stepping into her shoes at the Courtauld?

As one might expect, it was somewhat intimidating. Although I was determined to follow her approach linking art and dress, I wanted to follow my own way, and to create my own style of writing. For this reason, I never asked myself: “What would Stella do?” Although I thought it was important for students to know about the history of dress from classical antiquity onwards, I was never enthused by medieval or Renaissance clothing, which was Stella’s forte, and I positively refused to teach the study of regional or folk costume.

In this wide-ranging study, were you consciously trying not to repeat yourself? There are significant investigations into periods and subjects not covered in your previous books. Are these new areas of interest or long-term projects that haven’t appeared in print before?

I didn’t want to write a survey of the history of dress—too old-fashioned an idea. So the answer was a general introduction, a chapter on portraiture and then a series of case studies in periods with which I was familiar—the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—and to write considerably larger chapters on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the last fifteen or so years, I have been involved in a number of exhibitions of nineteenth-century art—most recently Renoir at the Phillips Collection in Washington—and this has become a source of great interest and pleasure.

Do you have a favorite period or artist?

Tastes change. A few years ago, if you’d asked me this question, I would have said the eighteenth century, and possibly Jean-Etienne Liotard, not just his sumptuous portraits but the wonderful Levant paintings. And I still love Goya very much. But my favorite period now is the second half of the nineteenth century; it contains many of my favorite artists such as Manet, Whistler, Vuillard, and Lavery. In terms of a favorite period in fashion, I think I would go for the 1870s, which seems to me elegant and graceful, not too extreme like the crinolined 1860s or the harsh lines of the 1880s, with the square bustle.

PENELOPE by Charles-François Marchal, French, of oil on canvas, circa 1868. Gift of Mrs. Adolf Obrig. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      You caution that “it is through familiarity with surviving historical garments that we begin to understand what the artist aims to do in depicting clothes in his or her work.” Obviously, this becomes difficult with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from which relatively few garments survive. Even from later periods, surviving garments may be inaccessible to researchers for a variety of reasons. Do you have any advice for scholars on how to get around those obstacles?

Of course, the historian of dress needs to examine extant clothing where this is possible or desirable, but in periods before the late sixteenth century there are few surviving garments. Even in later periods, clothing in museums is often limited to garments worn by the elite, high fashion, ceremonial robes, and so on. The only advice I can give (and it may sound rather odd) is for the scholar to learn about the physicality of clothing by learning how to sew—not necessarily dressmaking skills, but an ability to note how clothing is constructed and to see how clothes work on the body. While extant clothes are limited in number, far more early textiles survive in museum collections, and a study of these, allied to contemporary documents such as inventories, and close examination of works of art, should help the scholar in getting to grips with early dress itself as well as working out “what the artist aims to do in depicting clothes” and how.

You point out that art historians often misapply labels like “showy” and “brazen” to dress in Victorian art, because it’s showy in comparison to what we wear today, while subtle class clues—like a top hat instead of a bowler—may be lost on modern viewers. How do we, as students and viewers of historic clothing in art, avoid projecting our own prejudices?

As creatures of our time, we cannot totally avoid projecting our prejudices; after all, critics and artists in the past did this, too. What we can do in mitigation is to familiarize ourselves with the social behavior—manners, etiquette, class, status, cultural assumptions—of the periods in which the artists we are working on lived. A knowledge of history is crucial in providing the background to any work of art.

ARRANGEMENT IN FLESH COLOUR AND BLACK: PORTRAIT OF THEODORE DURET by James McNeill Whistler, of oil on canvas, 1883. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      Why begin the book in 1600 and end in 1914?

Clothing Art does include references to images of dress before 1600 and after 1914, but I decided to concentrate on the Early Modern period, a vast span of years in itself! From the seventeenth century, artists seemed to be engaged in a greater variety of ways to depict clothes, including a growing sense of how dress could depict the past. From the late eighteenth century, I sense artists thinking at a deeper level than before about the ideas behind clothing, a process intensified throughout the nineteenth century. Why 1914? This isn’t easy to answer; a case could have been made for continuing up to the outbreak of the Second World War, and possibly to the mid-twentieth century. I think I felt 1914 was a symbolic date, the beginning of the “war to end all wars,” after which a very different society emerged, and radically new forms of art were on the horizon.

Artists have historically concluded that dress could be “artistic” but not “art.” Do you agree? In the book, you conclude that “art and clothing can be seen as indissolubly linked and yet at the same time separate entities, and this is how we should appreciate them.”

I certainly stand by my statement here. I’m not yet convinced that fashion—being so intimately linked to the body—can be art. But of course jewelry is art, or can be, and there may be a case for thinking that a suit of Renaissance armor—which, after all, is metal clothing—is art. It did cost more than, say, a portrait by Titian of the man who wore the armor. 

Do you consider yourself an art historian or a dress historian, or both? 

Both. The work I do, whether writing or lecturing, relies on being both. When I began my career, I thought of myself as a dress historian, but gradually I came to wear two caps, one as a dress historian, the other as an art historian. I suppose I’ve become more attracted to art than extant clothing, although I can appreciate the skill of a dress by Worth or Poiret, and there’s a frisson when I see garments with a historical resonance such as Lord Byron’s famous Albanian costume, which I discuss in Clothing Art, and was lucky enough to examine.

LA PROMENADE by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, of oil on canvas, 1870. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

 

SUGGESTED READING
Ribeiro, Aileen
. Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.
—. Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.
—. Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
—. Dress and Morality. London and New York: Berg, 2003.
—. Ingres in Fashion: Representations of Dress and Appearance in Ingres’s Images of Women. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.
—. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750-1820. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.
—. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1988.
—. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715-1789. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1985.
Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.

 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. For this issue, she interviewed her former mentor, Aileen Ribeiro, who recently retired as Professor of History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London. Chrisman-Campbell’s probing questions delved into the tensions inherent between fields, issues of academic research and the boundaries between art and fashion.

Veiled Meanings Volume 40.2

DETAIL OF GREAT DRESS (BERBERISCA OR AL-KISWA AL-KABIRA) of silk velvet, gilt-metal cords, braided ribbons, Fez, Morocco, early twentieth century. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. WOMAN’S OUTER CLOAK (ABAYA) of silk with gilt-metal thread, Baghdad, Iraq, later 1920s/early 1930s. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. WOMAN’S ATTIRE of silk, silk velvet, cotton satin, and gilt-metal cord embroidery, Mashhad, Iran, early twentieth century. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 

DETAIL FROM COAT OF RABBI SALIMAN MENACHEM MANI of broadcloth and gilt-metal-thread couched embroidery, Hebron, Ottoman Palestine, early twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

Housed in Felix Warburg’s former Fifth Avenue mansion on New York City’s “Museum Mile,” The Jewish Museum is one of the world’s oldest museums dedicated to the presentation of art and Jewish culture. Founded in 1904, and featuring collections from the ancient to the contemporary, its current focus highlights apparel from the collection of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Over twenty countries and one hundred examples of Jewish costume from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries illuminate the diversity and complexity of Jewish identity and culture in “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress.”

      Staged in a darkly lit room for protection of its textiles, the lighting serves as a successful aid to what turns out to be a fascinating and immersive ambiance. We understand that clothing serves to functionally cover our bodies (a form of shelter from our nakedness and to separate us from the natural world); but its cultural dimensions are far deeper and wider wherever it is worn, gaining ever more complicated meanings as it emerged from the mists of time. With Jewish migration historically worldwide, “Veiled Meanings” addresses this subject thematically in the exhibition’s four sections: Through the Veil; Interweaving Cultures; Exposing the Unseen; and Clothing that Remembers. Largely subsumed by non-Jewish cultures, it is not surprising that Jewish clothing was identical to, or a tweak of the dominant nationality, as well as having characteristics identifiably Jewish, such as badges, the color yellow, the Judenhut (the Jewish hat), and specific types of robes and face gear marking them as different from Christian and Muslim societies.

 

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      Female outdoor body wraps were the custom throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Through the Veil shows the degree that body wraps primarily masked female personal identity, shielding it from public scrutiny. As indicators of status or religion, one display of differentiation was the wearing of veils; in Baghdad, Iraq, Christian women did not cover their face, but Jewish women wore a fine-mesh black horsehair veil for more total concealment. 

Especially interesting is the amalgamation of cultural diffuseness brought about by migrations over time and place throughout the world. In the section Interweaving Cultures, there is seen a zesty embrace of contemporaneous internationalized fashions, motifs and materials in the making and wearing of dress. One delightful representative is an ensemble where the skirt was inspired by a ballet tutu. This shalita gained popularity and imitation after a European visit in 1873 by the Shah of Persia and his (favorite) wife.

As both a protection from evil and symbolic of fertility, a bride’s palms were painted with henna dye and reflected ongoing traditional beliefs. Sewn by her mother, the Henna Dress was made for Dakhla Rachel Mu’allem, who was married at eleven, and worn to the child’s henna ceremony prior to the marriage ceremony itself. The dress shows a mixture of cultural influences from the Ottoman coatdress worn by Muslim and Jewish women to the European-style gathered long skirt sewn to a long-sleeved top. Like this one with its decorative flourishes, many garments pointedly emphasized and amplified the breast area. Interestedly, and a curious conundrum, in a culture that was sexually restrictive and proscribed modesty as a critical indicator of the virtuous female, these dresses were not considered immodest. Today they might be considered a mixed message of what is a women’s traditional role in a culture experiencing worldly influences, vacillating between tradition and modernity.

WOMAN’S COAT (KALTACHAK) of brocaded silk, ikat-dyed silk and cotton lining, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, late nineteenth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

HENNA DRESS of silk satin, silk and lace ribbons and tinsel embroidery, Baghdad, Iraq, 1891. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. GROOM’S ATTIRE WITH AMULETIC SYMBOLS of indigo-dyed goat hair and brocade jacket and trousers with silk-floss embroidery, cotton shirt, artificial silk sash, Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, early twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

      Two stunning garments, a woman’s kaltachak from Uzbekistan of brocaded silk and ikat-dyed silk, and from Iraqi Kurdistan a groom’s attire decorated with diamond-shaped amuletic symbols, are breathtaking examples of craftsmanship at work. In Zakho, from where the groom’s outfit derives, Armenian weavers were renowned for the high quality of their patterned goat-hair fabrics. The woman’s coat is a superb example of the compelling presentation that ikat-dyed fabric makes; and the combination of brocade and silk is elegant and luxurious. This kaltachak likely reflects the political and social changes that were taking place in Bukhara following the Russian conquest and Jews were free to emigrate to Ottoman Palestine. By the end of the nineteenth century some one hundred eighty Bukharan Jewish families had resettled in Jerusalem and it is surmised that this extraordinary coat is from one of these families.

The importance of family in Jewish life, ensuring its continuance and stability, is another feature of the exhibition with its examples of children’s clothing. Symbolic weddings of five-year-olds were held in Moroccan communities on Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and was meant to strengthen the children’s connection to the Torah and its commandments. Imitating a real groom’s attire, the boy’s suit here is decorated with hamsas (hand symbols), a North African emblem to ward off evil.

“Veiled Meanings” shows the degree to which Jewish dress is akin to other periods of history in timeless, essential struggles between religion, tradition and modernity, East and West, freedom and equality. Yet the exhibition’s power is its ability to synthesize what is visually unique and specific to Jewish life, experience and culture, by how dress has not only been regulated by those cultures that controlled Jewish daily life but the “way of life” (orah hayyim) proscribed by Jewish law itself.

In a subtle and understated way, the exhibition invites questions about how we live with a sense of respect, tolerance and accommodation for those who make up this world. How do we live safely and well in a turbulent world with forces that we, ourselves, cannot control, yet still rise to the challenge of expanding the inherent possibilities of what it means to be human? Many questions are there for answering.

“Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem,”
shows at the Jewish Museum, New York City, through March 18, 2018.

INSTALLATION VIEW of Interweaving Cultures, Section Two of “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress,” at The Jewish Museum. Photograph by Jason Mandella, courtesy of The Jewish Museum, Jerusalem.

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Bonus Gallery

These photographs were taken at the Veiled Meanings exhibition in New York, November 2017.

 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. In the waning months of 2017, she made her annual trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, a much beloved annual stop, adding a visit to New York City for more work. After one delightful morning spent at the Neue Galerie’s Cafe Sabarsky with artist Reiko Ishiyama, Benesh went on to The Jewish Museum to review “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress.”

Enduring Splendor of India Volume 39.5

BANGLE (kada) of gold, diamonds, cat’s eye, turquoise, enamel, 9.9 centimeters diameter, Jaipur, Rajasthan, circa 1900. All jewelry from the Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection, except where noted. Promised Gift of Ronald and Maxine Linde. Jewelry photographs by Don Cole, courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

‘Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert’ provided a tantalizing window into the five-thousand-year history of jewelrymaking across the Indian Subcontinent. Shown at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (February 19—June 18, 2017), it was the setting for a stunning array of magnificent jeweled objects, part of a promised gift to UCLA from the Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection of Jewelry and Ritual Arts of India. An important aspect, curated by Thomas K. Seligman, was the work of four living metalsmiths (sonis) from the fortress city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Exhibition co-curator Usha R. Balakrishnan authored two of the essays in the accompanying publication.

The jewelry featured in “Enduring Splendor” derives primarily from Rajasthan and Gujarat, on the westernmost periphery of India. The region in question once encompassed the silver-rich Aravalli Mountains, the Thar Desert (also known as the Great Indian Desert), and areas of the Sind region of modern Pakistan. It extended into Gujarat in the south and central India in the east, and it stretched to the foothills of the Himalayas in the north.

      For many centuries Rajasthan was the gateway to India and came into contact with the great ancient monarchies of Asia. Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Babur, Alexander the Great and the Greeks, and countless early European visitors, all brought their influence to bear on the region. Communities of pastoral nomads bartered camels and traded gold, silver and gemstones along these routes. Goldsmiths and silversmiths (known as sonis or sonars) who accompanied the caravans exchanged styles, designs and techniques and were subject to myriad influences with the result that jewelry forms often came to traverse great distances.

NECKLACE (nagapada tali) of gold, diamonds, rubies, 32.0 centimeters long, Kerala, nineteenth century. THE ANDROGYNOUS FORM OF SHIVA AND PARVATI (Ardhanarishvara) of black schist, 62.9 x 29.2 x 9.5 centimeters, Rajasthan, eleventh century. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Ancient Art Council and the Indian Art Special Purpose Fund. Photograph courtesy of LACMA. EARRINGS (bhungri) of gold, 3.5 centimeters diameter, Gujarat, early twentieth century. ARMBAND (nagothu) of gold, rubies, white sapphires, 7.0 centimeters diameter, Tamil Nadu, nineteenth century.

IDEALIZED PORTRAIT OF THE MUGHAL EMPRESS NUR JAHAN of opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 29.5 x 21.6 centimeters, Kishnagarh, Rajasthan, circa 1725–1750. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Gift of Diandra and Michael Douglas.

      The necklace, earrings and armband adorning an eleventh-century androgynous image of Shiva and Parvati, for example, are mirrored in a necklace from Kerala, a pair of earrings from Gujarat, and an armband from Tamil Nadu. This despite the fact that more than eight hundred years and one thousand miles separate the sculpture and the jewelry. Continuity in jewelry designs can also be seen in a stylized eighteenth-century portrait of the bejeweled Mughal empress Nur Jahan. Her earrings, armband and bangle are remarkably similar to pieces in the Linde Collection.

From birth to death, jewels form an essential part of samskaras, or rite-of-passage rituals in India. Marriage, pregnancy, the birth of a child—each significant life event is commemorated with special jewelry. A young child is adorned with black bead ornaments for protection from the evil eye. In ancient India sixteen rituals of beautification or adornment were prescribed for a bride in preparation for her wedding. Once ritually bathed, she was adorned from head to toe with jewels. These included ornaments for the braid, a forehead jewel, earrings, a nose jewel, necklaces, armbands, bangles, rings, a girdle, and anklets. Thus attired, she became the personification of a goddess and was elevated from human to divine.

EARRINGS (karanphul jhikka) of gold, rubies, pearls, 2.5 × 3.6 centimeters, Orissa, late nineteenth century.

      Names often provide clues to the tribal affiliation of ornaments, their purpose and their design inspiration. The borli derives its form and name from bor, or the Indian plum, a fruit endowed with powerful medicinal properties; hasli is from hansuli meaning “collar bone;” and champakali are the buds of the Michelia champaca flower. Flowers, leaves, fruits, and berries have been incarnated as ornaments and reflect the importance of agriculture. The pahunchi bracelet with its spikes simulates large thorns that grow in the desert and was worn to keep animals at bay. While it is highly unlikely that these spikes could actually function as an effective weapon, they symbolically provided protection to the wearer.

Ornaments have long been thought to enhance fertility; to protect against unsettling effects of the planets; and to serve as talismans against danger. The mere act of adornment—placing a pendant around the neck or encasing a wrist with bangles—does not, however, make a jewel work its metaphorical magic. The form of the jewel, its construction and the motifs or gems that decorate the surface, combine to unleash the requisite powers. Emeralds, for example, were carved with floral motifs and holy verses, and worn as an armband. Pendants were decorated with images of gods, goddesses and symbols to heighten their potency. A necklace, a pendant, a ring or an armband set with the nine planetary gems, navaratna, might be visually attractive, but the nine gems alone do not work any magic. When they are arranged with a ruby symbolizing the sun in the center, and surrounded by the other gems, however, they become able to harness the energies of the cosmos and draw those energies into the individual.

BRACELET (pahunchi) by Dharmendra Soni, of silver, 22.5 centimeters long, 2014. Fowler Museum at UCLA museum purchase.

HEAD ORNAMENT (borla) of gold, pearls, diamond, enamel, 4.2 centimeters diameter, Udaijpur, Rajasthan, circa 1920.

      Wearing jewelry is also believed to have physiological benefits. A branch of traditional Indian medicine known as Marma Shastra maintains that there are vital points, marma, located along energy pathways that run through the body. Gentle pressure and stimulation of these points enhances fertility and releases energies contributing to physical and emotional well-being.

PENDANT (navaratna padak) (reverse and obverse) of gold, emerald, rubies, white sapphire, citrine, amethyst, tourmaline, turquoise, coral, rock crystals, pearl, enamel, 7.0 x 4.2 centimeters, Deccan, circa eighteenth century.

RABARI WOMAN wearing a silver vadlo torque, Kutch, Gujarat, 2010. Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman.

      Men and women have long pierced their ears and suspending ornaments from them as this is believed to open the mind to learning, broaden the intellect and enhance fertility. Amulets are usually worn around the neck or are tied around the arm—both locations of vital marma points. The weight of an ornament gently stimulates the point while the power of its motifs (verses and symbols) and the potency of the material (gold, silver, jade, and so on) works the magic. Heavy torque necklaces, such as hanslis rest on the collarbone releasing energies that provided relief from muscular and joint pains, improved digestion and aid in the elimination of toxins. Cuff bracelets serve a similar purpose functioning almost like a brace and support for the arm, while an amulet with the coiled body of a snake not only promotes fertility but also activates energy points enhancing sexuality. The head is the seat of all consciousness and the spiritual fulcrum of the body, mind and intellect; thus head jewels metaphorically regulated spiritual energy. Jewelry ensured that the rhythm of the body was always in equilibrium.

Jewelry and gems feature in classical Indian literature through the ages with Rama’s signet ring and Sita’s head jewel, for example, playing significant roles in the Ramayana. In the Buddhist Jatakas, the jingling of bracelets by themselves is considered among the thirty-two good omens that appeared when the Buddha became incarnate. In the Kama Sutra, women were required to have knowledge of gold, silver, jewels, and gems, as well as of housekeeping and the arts of singing, dancing and composing poetry. They had to be well versed specifically in stringing necklaces and designing beautiful jewelry. The sound of tinkling bells on anklets, the sparkle of a diamond in the nose, and flower blossom earrings all worked to enhance sensuality.

A FARMER FROM THE GUJJAR COMMUNITY wears a pair of gokhru earrings, Pushkar, 2009. Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman. 

      Ornaments also serve to dispel anonymity, proclaim caste, religion and ethnic identity, and even unequivocally communicate an individual’s region of origin. This is particularly the case among tribal and pastoral communities. Massive silver vadlo and hansli torques are worn by Rabari and Fakirani Jat women in Gujarat and Rajasthan, while male members can be recognized by the single horse-shoe shaped bawaria earring and the thorny gokhru. Strikingly abstract thandatti and pambadam are unique to Vellalar women in rural Tamil Nadu, and large rings joined with faceted beads known as mekkamotiram are worn on the helix of the ears by Syrian Christian women in Kerala. The fabulous kali thiru marriage necklace is a trademark of the Natukottai Chettiar community in Chettinad. Devotees of Shri Nathji wear pendants bearing an image of the god. In fact, for women of the Bonda tribes of Orissa—as well as for Nair women in nineteenth-century Kerala—ornaments and costumes merge and become one with the body. Jewelry functions almost like clothing—row upon row of elaborate necklaces covering the entire chest.

Sonis in most parts of India, especially South India and Bengal, consider themselves to be descended from Vishwakarma and along with the four other communities (blacksmiths, carpenters, metal casters, and stonemasons) occupy an ambivalent position in the Hindu caste order, neither at the topmost nor at the bottommost rung. While Brahmanical texts refer to them as silpis and assign them the rank of sudra (lowest of the four traditional castes), they credit themselves with the primordial act of creation and trace their origins to the “pre-brahminic and pre-caste period.” By virtue of the fact that they “built temples, sculpted the deities, made their ornaments and these were pure and sacred acts,” they claim a social prestige equal to the Brahmins (the uppermost caste).

EARRINGS (durgla ihumar) of silver, 8.3 - 8.4 centimeters long, Rajasthan, early twentieth century. ANKLETS (kalla) of silver, 13.3 centimeters diameter, Rajasthan, nineteenth century.

      The process of transforming a lump of shapeless metal into a beautiful object of adornment was not only a manual task but also a spiritual ritual. For, as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the renowned philosopher-historian of Indian art, explains, “The craftsman is not an individual expressing individual whims, but a part of the universe, giving expression to ideals of eternal beauty and unchanging laws, even as do the trees and flowers whose natural and less ordered beauty is not less God given.” Though a piece of jewelry is not signed or stamped with a hallmark, it bears the fingerprints of its maker. No two jewelry items are identical and no two pieces within a pair are exactly the same. An extra granule, a wire that did not get perfectly twisted, a slightly off-center flower—each piece is unique.

BRACELETS (chood or kadla) of silver, 10 centimeters tall, Gujarat, nineteenth century. ANKLETS (sankhla) of silver, 12.5 centimeters diameter, Gujarat, late nineteenth century.

      There are no metalsmithing schools, and no technical manuals. In accordance with the guru-shishya parampara—the tradition of the father assuming the role of guru, or teacher, and transmitting his knowledge to his son, the shishya, or student—sonis were all formerly apprenticed to their fathers or to an uncle. Their learning consisted of watching, listening, practicing, performing small tasks, and eventually executing assigned pieces of work to the satisfaction of their teacher. The soni designs the piece of jewelry; casts, beats and twists metal into forms; sets gems; decorates surfaces with patterns and enamel; and finally polishes the finished piece. The vocation of a soni is strictly the domain of men, and women are neither trained nor allowed to work in the profession. Shyama Devi, however, the patua, or stringer, who threaded the individual spike elements made by Dharmendra Soni into a beautiful, flexible silver bracelet (pahunchi), is a woman from the Lakhera caste, a community traditionally associated with making shellac bangles. Throughout Rajasthan, women of the Lakhera caste string pendants and individual components into necklaces and bracelets.

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      An item of jewelry begins life as raw materials in the workshop of the soni. Silver pieces are handcrafted one at a time, mostly on commission, and the weight of the ornament is carefully calibrated to individual specifications depending on the budget. Soni workshops today are small and family run, and they are usually located in the front room of the home, overlooking the street, while the family resides in the back. Specialization in the various stages of manufacture, such as casting, repoussé work, gem setting, enameling, and so on, are all nurtured within the family. While one solid silver necklace in the Linde collection, for example, was made using the sand-casting process, another elegant torque was created by hammering silver into a thick sheet, cutting out the form, and then engraving peacocks and flowers on the surface with sharp tools; in other pieces, a nose ring is intricately decorated with minute gold granules; and extremely sophisticated repoussé work is conspicuous in the fine detail on an amulet.

HANUMAN SONI is cutting silver with a chisel. Note his working on the floor, with anvils mounted low, and the use of the foot to hold the workpiece.
Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman.  BRACELET (katria) by Hanuman Soni of silver, 10.5 centimeters high, 2014. Fowler Museum at UCLA museum purchase. JEETU, Hanuman’s son, is making a design in silver strip by striking a chisel with a hammer. Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman.

      An unknown smith made a pair of anklets known as sankhla using cire perdue, or lost-wax casting, to fashion an amazingly flexible set. In an exquisite armband (bazuband), the gem setter embedded precious and semiprecious stones within ribbons of pure gold, and the enameler formed cavities and filled them with vibrant colors in an astonishing pair of bracelets (gajre, see Cover). While the preferred metal for setting precious gemstones was gold, silver was usually set with synthetic stones and foil-backed glass to simulate real gems.

Transformations taking place in the artisan community straddle the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern as they reinvent themselves to adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Departing from tradition, another soni in “Enduring Splendor,” Bhagwan Das, no longer manufactures jewelry himself but has stayed true to his caste occupation by becoming a retailer of jewelry. He has seized the opportunity afforded by arrivals of large tourist groups in Jaisalmer to offer his expertise and knowledge to an international clientele, which he has assiduously cultivated.

Hanuman is perhaps the only one of the four sonis in “Enduring Splendor” who continues to conform to tradition, replicating traditional forms with the same decorative details, perhaps bound by the sanctity of meaning enshrined in them. While the price of the metal may be too high to allow for the liberty of experimenting with new forms and designs, Hanuman, like most sonis, follows a structured, coordinated and synchronous division of tasks in the workshop that is efficient and time saving and that he is reluctant to change to try something new.

He has trained his sons in jewelry manufacture, and they continue to be apprenticed to him, learning the many technical aspects of the art and executing assigned tasks. Hanuman’s son Jeetu has expressed a desire to forsake the family trade and pursue a career in computers in the city. As a Medh soni, however, Hanuman insisted that his son uphold the pride of his “warrior” lineage and learn the trade into which he was born. It is this hereditary transmission that results in the continuity of skills and the perfection of accumulated generations of artistry and finesse. The lure of the city and a nine-to-five, white-collar job, however, still tempts Jeetu.

Coomaraswamy reminds us “the best things are always well rooted in the soil.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful organic and geometric forms and decorative motifs inspired by nature that figure so prominently in Indian jewelry. The feathers of a heron, shells, jasmine buds, chrysanthemum flowers, and all manner of flora and fauna, including marine forms such as shells are stylized in objects of adornment and decorative motifs. Over time, the manifold original meanings and connotations of abstract motifs have become blurred, lost in transmission and set aside as a consequence of changed lifestyles. Even the craftsmen are no longer cognizant of these symbolic codes, merely adhering to long-established designs and motifs and replicating them with mechanical precision. While the abstract form of a silver torque made by Hanuman Soni with its solid cuboid centerpiece might look contemporary, minimalist and unusual, the genesis of its long-standing design is lost forever. The striking design of pieces like his allows them to transcend time.

In India, the relationships that exist between jewelry and society, artist and jewelry, and artist and society are profound. Inextricably intertwined are the historical and cultural contexts of ornamental forms, materials and techniques. Among the manifold varieties of human creation, it is instructive and exhilarating to understand that the art of personal adornment goes far beyond merely appending beautiful pieces crafted from gold and silver to the body.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Ornament thanks the Fowler Museum at UCLA, the assistance of Erin Connors, and with special recognition to Ronald and Maxine Linde. The Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection of Jewelry and Ritual Arts of India has been assembled over three decades, and guided by the Lindes’ belief that their collection will help to shape a continuing study of Indian jewelry—design, craftsmanship, spiritual interpretation, and cultural content.

SUGGESTED READING
Seligman, Thomas K. and Usha R Balakrishnan. Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017.
Balakrishnan, Usha R. and Meera Kumar. Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India. New Delhi: India Book House, 1999.
Borel, France. The Splendour of Ethnic Jewelry: From the Colette and Jean-Pierre Ghysels Collection. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
Hendley, Thomas H. Indian Jewellery. Repr. Ed. Delhi: Low Price, 1896.
Neubauer, Jutta. Chandrika, Silver Ornaments of India. New Delhi: Shisha, Manchester, in Association with Timeless, 2001.
Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Click Photos to Enlarge

ANKLETS (kadla) of silver, 11.5 centimeters diameter, Gujarat, early nineteenth century. TORQUE NECKLACE (hasli) by Hanuman Soni of silver, 15 centimeters diameter, 2014. Fowler Museum at UCLA museum purchase. ARMBAND (bazuband, obverse and reverse), of gold, diamonds, emeralds, enamel, 3.7 x 10.5 centimeters, Jaipur, Rajasthan, nineteenth century. NOSE RING (nathad) of gold, topaz, showing miniature granulation, 5.1 x 4.4 centimeters, Gujarat, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

 

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Usha R. Balakrishnan is a freelance scholar based in Mumbai, India. After obtaining a post-doctorate degree in Museum Studies at New York University, she worked as a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum. Her publication Dance of the Peacock: Jewelry Traditions of India (1999) reflects her research on the five-thousand-year history of Indian jewelry. In 2001 the government of India invited her to study the fabulous collection of gems and jewelry that formerly belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad, where she published her book Jewels of the Nizams. She has also curated “Alamkara: The Beauty of Ornament,” an exhibition of the permanent collection of Indian jewelry at the National Museum, New Delhi, and been a guest curator for “India: Jewels that Enchanted the World” at the Kremlin Museum, Moscow, while contributing essays to or authoring the catalog.

Degas and the Paris Millinery Trade Volume 39.4

 
An inveterate window-shopper, Degas often foregrounded the hats in his paintings, turning these overlooked accessories into the main event. Some of the same hats appeared in different Degas images, suggesting that he kept a collection in his studio.
SELF-PORTRAIT IN A SOFT HAT   by Edgar Degas, oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 26.0 x 19.1 centimeters, 1857.  Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

SELF-PORTRAIT IN A SOFT HAT by Edgar Degas, oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 26.0 x 19.1 centimeters, 1857. Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

In the late nineteenth century, hats were essential accessories for both men and women across the social spectrum. As an informal group of avant-garde artists—dubbed the Impressionists—began to reject traditional academic subjects in favor of painting scenes of everyday life in Paris, hats took center stage in canvases capturing the minutiae of the modern world. A new exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” unites intimate Impressionist paintings of Belle Epoque milliners and their clients with surviving examples of the chic chapeaux that inspired them.

      These flowered, feathered and frilled confections were works of art in their own right, with price tags to match; the Impressionists recognized their creators as kindred spirits. The milliners in their paintings are depicted as not just window dressing, but as fellow artists; in some scenes, such as The Milliners in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection, the colorful hats in their hands even resemble artist’s palettes. At its height, the Paris hatmaking industry employed nearly one thousand milliners, most of them female, ranging from famous names like Caroline Reboux and Jeanne Lanvin to anonymous ouvrières and trottins. In addition, the industry encompassed the major secondary trades that provided its materials, notably fleuristes, who created artificial flowers, and plumassiers, who prepared bird plumage. Although centered in Paris, millinery was a global trade, as feathers imported from Africa and South America adorned hats exported to New York and Chicago.

PARIS, RUE DU HAVRE by Jean Béraud, oil on canvas, 35.2 × 27.3 centimeters, 1882. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

      While milliners appear on streets and inside shops in the Impressionist paintings of Pierre-August Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Eva Gonzalès, no artist was more attuned to this engine of modern mercantilism than Edgar Degas, who explored the theme of millinery in twenty-seven paintings and pastels. Like the ballerinas and jockeys Degas is best known for painting, milliners occupied a marginal social space, where working-class artisans could mingle with the upper crust. An inveterate window-shopper along with his friend and fellow artist Mary Cassatt, Degas often foregrounded the hats in his paintings, turning these overlooked accessories into the main event. Some of the same hats appeared in different Degas images, suggesting that he kept a collection in his studio.

For Degas, hats represented modern commodity culture, as well as offering an endless source of variety, color and texture. While the capacious bonnets of the early nineteenth century protected the wearer’s face from the elements and her modesty from prying eyes, by the 1870s, women’s hats were purely ornamental, offering little protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement. “It is placed on the head, not to protect it, but so that one can see it better. Its great usefulness is to be charming.”

The capote (French for “hood”) popular in the 1850s and 1860s made a resurgence in the late 1880s for evening and reception wear. It was considered flattering to most faces and, though small in size, could be rich in ornamentation; one example in the show is made of silk tulle, velvet and pongee, a lightweight raw silk, topped by ostrich feathers. “The tendency now is to make [capotes] very decorative,” Vogue reported in 1893. “All sorts of jeweled passementerie, embroidered crêpes and tulles enter into their composition, and notwithstanding their diminutive size they are sometimes very costly.” In 1893, the duchesse de Maillé attended an exhibition opening wearing a capote “covered with mistletoe, the berries being represented by gigantic pearls and the leaves by emeralds, which attracted much notice, so close to nature was this costly imitation of Christmas ‘blossoms.’ ”

THE SHOP GIRL by James Tissot, oil on canvas, 146.05 x 101.6 centimeters, 1883-1885. Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

      Instead of shielding their wearer, hats increasingly served as blank canvases for all manner of trimmings and decorations, including not just feathers but the wings, heads and even entire bodies of birds. These avian ornaments lent dimension and visual interest to the low, brimless toque hats popular around the turn of the century. “Birds, alas, entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. These small toques quickly ballooned into wide, mushroom-shaped nests for pheasants, birds of paradise, hummingbirds, peacocks, and even owls, all mounted with glass eyes. Curiously, Degas never painted these birdlike hats, preferring to depict ostrich feathers, although probably for aesthetic rather than moral reasons.

In nineteenth-century France, colibri (French for “hummingbird”) was used as slang for a frivolous person, making the frolicsome creature an especially fitting fashion emblem. European and North American incursions into Central and South America made hummingbirds found there readily available to fashion dealers as well as specimen collectors. The tiny birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats and jewelry, including hummingbird-head earrings and brooches.

In 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of three hundred million birds per year. Growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 and America’s Audubon Society in 1913. The use of game and poultry feathers remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. As the tide of public opinion turned against so-called murderous millinery, French modistes increasingly employed their talents to lend exoticism to materials from non-endangered, domestic fowl like ducks and chickens, or create artificial “birds” out of feathers and glue.

Almost as popular as feathered hats were hats trimmed with artificial flowers, which tended to be worn in the summer and at the theater. Fashion designer Paul Poiret recalled in his memoirs that women’s hats transformed theaters into flower gardens. Fleuristes used a vast array of stamps, irons and goffers to transform delicate silks and muslins into flowers of astonishing botanical accuracy. Of the estimated twenty-four thousand fleuristes working in Paris between 1896 and 1906, eighty to eighty-five percent were women. Flowermaking was the profession of Nana, Emile Zola’s heroine, and Mimi, the title character of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème”—as well as Marie Dupuis, who became one of Renoir’s favorite models.

MME GEORGETTE: WOMAN’S HAT of black lace and artificial flowers on wire frame, 50.8 x 29.8 centimeters, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. WOMAN’S HAT of straw with ostrich feathers, silk lace and artificial flowers, 24.1 x 48.3 x 41.3 centimeters, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. MAISON VIROT: WOMAN’S HAT of plaited straw over wire frame, silk velvet and maline, silk roses, leaves, and ferns, with alterations, 39.4 x 38.1 centimeters, circa 1900. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. WOMAN’S HAT of silk faille, velvet, cord, jet beads, and African starling, 10.2 centimeters crown height, 21.0 x 22.9 centimeters overall, circa 1890. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

      Maison Camille Marchais was known for creating remarkably lifelike imitation flowers. The roses on the hats the firm exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 were so realistic “that a bee tried one,” a visitor observed. Customers could purchase artificial bouquets as well as flower-trimmed hats. “The extrachic... is to offer a mass of flowers from Camille Marchais,” the magazine La Grande revue reported in 1880. “The mass is stuffed with huge bunches of violets, gillyflowers, roses, daffodils... and at the base a clump of natural lily of the valley with one or two roses to complete the illusion; impossible to imagine anything more successful... because this bouquet is durable, whereas the bouquet from Nice is withered before it arrives.” So convincing was the illusion that the butler to a Russian princess allegedly ruined a bouquet Marchais had sent from Paris by plunging it into a vase of water. 

Artificial flowers could transform the humble shepherdesses’ sunhat into a garment fit for a queen. Flat, flower-trimmed straw hats in the bergère (shepherdess) style evoked the rustic wardrobe Marie-Antoinette had adopted a century earlier for playing milkmaid in her model village, Le Hameau. Le Magasin des Demoiselles dubbed similar hats “chapeaux Trianon,” after Le Petit Trianon, the queen’s miniature palace in the gardens of Versailles. These historical revival styles were popular during the reign of Empress Eugénie, who was fascinated by Marie-Antoinette and frequently dressed as the martyred queen for court masquerades.

THE MILLINERY SHOP by Edgar Degas, oil on canvas, 100.0 x 110.7 centimeters, 1879-1886. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

      A very different type of straw hat was the boater, so named because it was originally worn by men for yachting and other summer sports. It began to appear on women during the 1880s, often paired with tailored ensembles inspired by menswear. In 1884, Maud Watson won the first women’s singles championship at Wimbledon wearing a boater, which lent a masculine touch to her corseted and bustled tennis ensemble. It was a rare example of a unisex hat style in the Impressionist era and quickly became associated with the active, independent “New Woman” who so fascinated Degas and his contemporaries. In 1894, when a bicycling craze swept France, fashionable sportswomen paired voluminous bloomers and with tiny boaters perched on the tops of their heads. By the 1890s, boaters could be seen on city streets, trimmed with artificial flowers.

YOUNG GIRL ON THE GRASS by Berthe Morisot, oil canvas, 74 x 60 centimeters, 1885. Courtesy of Ordrupgaard Museum.

      Women’s hats grew in size along with fashionable hairstyles. The large, full coiffures of the early 1900s—often augmented by false hair—brought a corresponding inflation in hat size. Hats were worn perched atop these full coiffures, anchored by hatpins, which could be highly ornamental in their own right. A large bouquet of artificial flowers was one visual trick used to mask the gap between the smartly tilted hat and the hair.

While women’s hats were one-of-a-kind works of art created by modistes, men’s hats were typically made by male chapeliers (hatmakers) in a much more standardized style—a quality emphasized by Édouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera. Despite their uniformity, however, hats were one of many essential male accessories that enlivened and complicated the comparatively limited palette, range of garments, and choice of textiles available to men in the late nineteenth century. The top hat (chapeau haute de forme) was a formal hat worn day and night throughout the nineteenth century. Originally made of beaver felt, by the 1850s it was covered in gleaming silk. Although the top hat underwent minor changes in shape over time as the size and curvature of the crown and brim evolved, its phallic silhouette remained a distinctive aspect of menswear.

Degas abandoned his millinery subjects in the mid-1880s, only to return to them in the late 1890s, when he shifted his focus from the milliner’s customers to the milliner herself. These works, which experimented with color and abstraction, were very personal, not for sale; at the time of his death in 1917, Degas had several millinery pastels and paintings in his studio. By this time, millinery itself was on its last legs. Widespread backlash against the plumage trade and the outbreak of World War I doomed the once-ubiquitous hat. It shrank and shed its ornamentation, finally disappearing from everyday life. 

MASKED BALL AT THE OPERA by Édouard Manet, oil on canvas, 59.1 x 72.5 centimeters, 1873. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” exhibits
at the Saint Louis Art Museum through May 7, 2017 and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco,
from June 24 to September 24, 2017.

 

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, and a frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. She contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” currently showing at the Saint Louis Art Museum and then moving on to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. Next up for Ornament is her article on Aileen Ribeiro.

Virginia Dudley Volume 39.4

 
Everything I do is related to arts and crafts… It’s not a way of life, it is life to me. If not for that, I’d see no point in living.
— Virginia Dudley
CONTEMPORARY VIEW OF VIRGINIA DUDLEY’S PROPERTY.  Photographs by Ashley Callahan .

CONTEMPORARY VIEW OF VIRGINIA DUDLEY’S PROPERTY. Photographs by Ashley Callahan.

Virginia Dudley was born in 1913 in the small town of Spring City, Tennessee, and grew up in Chattanooga, an industrial city nestled around a bend in the Tennessee River amid the dramatic scenery of the Cumberland Plateau. She practiced many artistic media—photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, ceramics—and is best known for her award-winning enamels of the 1950s. The records documenting her life and career are fragmentary, but enough survives to indicate the impressive diversity of her artistic pursuits, her remarkable skill and vision, and her determined and independent personality. In an interview for the Chattanooga Times in 1962, she firmly expressed her passion for her vocation: “Everything I do is related to arts and crafts… It’s not a way of life, it is life to me. If not for that, I’d see no point in living.”

FISH BRACELET of enamel on copper with silver, 5.08 x 17.15 centimeters, circa 1955, illustrated in Design Quarterly, 1955. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. 

      Dudley’s parents were not wealthy, but her mother encouraged her interests, and through a series of scholarships, Dudley pursued an art education. She first received a scholarship to the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga), where she studied photography and painting from 1937-1940, earning a certificate of completion of art training. Then she won a scholarship to study in New York—a city she loved—at the Art Students League, where her instructors included William Zorach and Wil Barnet. While in New York, she also studied at the Craft Students League and served as Berenice Abbott’s photographic assistant at the New School for Social Research.

In 1943 she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and left New York to spend a year traveling in the South making photographs and sketches. Though most fellowships went to African American artists, some went to “white southerners with an interest in race relations,” as noted by the Spertus Museum in Chicago for an exhibition of Rosenwald-supported art. Dudley, as her niece Patricia Antonia Collier recalls, was staunchly opposed to segregation. Around this time, she acquired property in Rising Fawn, Georgia, on Lookout Mountain (near Chattanooga) and built a small home. She also married Oscar “Mac” McElhaney (1897-1944), a retired commercial photographer, who died near the end of her fellowship period.

After this loss, Dudley returned to the Art Students League, also studying at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17, which he had relocated from Paris to New York when World War II began. During this second period in the city she met Joseph Spencer Moran (1923-2005), a graduate student in English at Columbia, and they married in 1946—though she again kept her given name.

Moran took a teaching job at New Mexico College in Las Cruces (now New Mexico State University), but Dudley told the Chattanooga Times (1955) that she did not relish the role of faculty wife. She enrolled in school briefly at New Mexico College, then in 1948 accepted a scholarship to Scripps College in Claremont, California, near Los Angeles, and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate School. Dudley had become enchanted by enamels while in New York, where she had seen an exhibition of medieval enameled objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Claremont was one of the few places in the country that offered enamel instruction. She studied with leading enamelist Jean Ames (1903-1986), who, with her husband Arthur (1906-1975), was part of “the development of a dynamic enameling movement in Southern California,” as Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson note in their book Little Dreams in Glass and Enamel.

VIRGINIA DUDLEY working in her studio, circa 1954.  Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by A. Glenn Hanson, Max Keister or Guy Hayes.

VIRGINIA DUDLEY working in her studio, circa 1954. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by A. Glenn Hanson, Max Keister or Guy Hayes.

      During this time, Dudley also traveled to northern California where she visited Pond Farm, an artists’ colony founded by Jane and Gordon Herr that offered the Pond Farm Workshops from 1949-1952. There she encountered, as reported in the Chattanooga Times (1952), “artists from Austria and Germany who had, as she had, the thought that enameling was an art that should be revived.” She received her M.F.A. in 1950, creating a series of large enameled wall panels for her thesis as well as her own kiln.

American studio craft in all areas grew quickly in the post-war years—as returning G.I.s filled schools, academic programs expanded, and opportunities to exhibit and purchase craft multiplied—and the field of enamels was no exception. A relatively small niche within the craft world, enamels often was linked with ceramics, as both use kilns and involve the application of vitreous surfaces to grounds. Exhibitions like the Ceramics Nationals, which originated in Syracuse, New York, at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now the Everson Museum of Art), then traveled nationally, brought important media and public attention to contemporary ceramics and enamels. Dudley’s work appeared in many of the Nationals between 1949 and 1959, including the 16th in 1951, which featured two of her trays, Metropolitan and Golden Fishes, and the 19th in 1956 for which she won an award for enamels.

METROPOLITAN TRAY of enamel on copper, 20.32 x 20.32 centimeters, marked “rising faun enamels/virigina dudley” on back, circa 1951. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by John Poehlman.

GOLDEN FISHES TRAY of enamel on copper, 22.2 x 25.4 centimeters, signed “rising faun enamels/virginia dudley” on back, circa 1951. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by John Poehlman.

      In 1950 Dudley returned to her home in Rising Fawn with Moran and they established Rising Faun Enamels—with a “u” rather than a “w” to distinguish from the town and to reference the mythological woodland creature—and created pins, pendants, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, tie clips, cufflinks, trays, and wall plaques or mosaics, that “sold in fine stores all over the country from New York to California” (Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, 1952). They worked with the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, and Dudley explained, “The guild encourages craftsmen of the area by helping to exchange information, market products, and obtain raw materials.”

During the 1950s Dudley and Moran expanded the one-room cabin by adding a studio, living room and kitchen. Andrew Sparks described the home in the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution (1953) as “constructed largely of love and tarpaper, second-hand windows, old doors and lumberyard bargains.” He also referred to it as “one of the most interesting modern houses in Georgia,” noting, “the front yard is a cantilevered slab of sandstone that projects over an 87-foot vertical drop into a gorge that looks like a
green-and-blue Grand Canyon.”

BIRD BROOCH/PENDANT of enamel on copper, 6.99 centimeters diameter, circa 1950-1957. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by Ashley Callahan.

      The house sits on the edge of a bluff overlooking Johnson’s Crook, a scenic bend in the valley, and is near both Tennessee and Alabama. Though the address is Rising Fawn, that town—the closest with a post office—sits at the base of the mountain, and the community at the top is referred to as New Salem. The area had developed a reputation as an artists’ colony, thanks to Fannie Mennen’s (1903-1995) efforts, starting in 1947, to organize annual art sales known as the Plum Nelly or Clothesline Art Show.

Dudley was resourceful and fiercely self-reliant, and the couple lived in the home without electricity for a couple of months, without a car for four years, and without running water. They enjoyed the seclusion, and the Chattanooga Times (1952) reported: “Here on Lookout Mountain, they found the freedom to build as they pleased, paint and draw when they wanted to, to fire up the furnace at midnight, if that hour is convenient for them.”

In 1954 Craft Horizons included a six-page illustrated article by Moran that details Dudley’s process. He wrote: “She is demonstrating through her studio-workshop that enameling can be an artistic medium of variety, subtlety and elegance, providing a modest livelihood for the hard-working practitioner.” He offered this description of her studio: “The nucleus of the workshop is the large table on which Virginia applies enamel to copper. This table, flanked on two sides by shelves containing jars of enamels, is directly beneath a skylight. To the right of the table stand the two kilns where the enamels are fired. A wood-burning space heater stands close to the chimney in the south wall.”

SEA BIRDS PANEL of enamel on copper, sand, paint, 81.28 x 48.26 centimeters, circa 1954. Collection of Georgia Museum of Art, University
of Georgia. Photograph courtesy of Georgia Museum of Art.

      For larger works, like enamel plaques, Dudley made preparatory oil paintings, often dividing them into sections to plan basic colors and shapes. Moran prepared the copper, cutting and forming it as needed, and polishing it. Dudley applied the enamel—she had about three hundred colors—to the metal through a variety of methods to create different effects; Moran described how she sprinkled powdered enamel through a fine mesh screen, trailed it gradually between her fingers for a loose and linear effect, and painted “moistened enamel with a brush” for “the greatest control and precision.” Each piece, whether a pendant or a section of a mosaic, would be fired multiple times—usually just for a few minutes each time—to melt the enamel and fuse it to the metal, creating a thin, glassy surface. Small earrings usually required about six firings, while larger, more complex elements might require up to twenty-nine firings. Moran wrote that Dudley was “fascinated with the rich, latent possibilities to be wrought by the fusing of metal and enamels through intense heat,” and there was “always a tremor of excitement when we [opened] the kiln and [took] out an enameled piece.”

The Rising Faun Enamels are sophisticated in their range of techniques, variations in form, color combinations and complexity of layers. The metal is carefully shaped and the objects are finished on the back (counter enameled). Dudley achieved an impressive depth with her enamel, sometimes creating objects with opaque surface colors punctuated by small open areas revealing a translucency below that suggest dappled light shining into mountain streams. Her color combinations—even in miniature—are striking, with hot pink next to bright orange, or golden green below a vivid aqua. Her designs ranged from cubist-inspired geometrics to mid-century biomorphic forms, and she favored natural motifs,
especially fish.

While Dudley incorporated her last name into the designs of most of the larger trays and plaques, or added her name, “rising faun enamels,” or “virginia and joseph” in enamel on the back, the jewelry is less consistently marked. Some larger pins and pendants have her name on the front, and some jewelry has paper labels on the back with “RISING FAUN ENAMELS/VIRGINIA AND JOSEPH” (sometimes with the line “FROM THE SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS”), but many items are unmarked.

While Rising Faun Enamels fit into the small world of studio enamels, it also fit into the growing field of modern studio jewelry, another area for which Dudley was recognized. In 1955 and 1959 the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—a leader in promoting mid-century design and craft—included her work in two important issues of its publication Design Quarterly that were dedicated to contemporary jewelry. The 1955 issue, a who’s who of American mid-century jewelry, showed black and white photographs of two of Dudley’s bracelets, both composed of free-form sections, one abstract with light speckles on a dark ground and the other with fish. The 1959 issue included a pendant described as a “gold and silver encrustation on enameled copper,” and includes this quote from her: “I consider each piece of jewelry important within itself, a compatible object which intensifies the being of the wearer by heightening the presence and expanding the reality of the person.”

 
FISH BROOCH/PENDANT, 7.78 x 3.81 centimeters, paper label on back marked “VIRGINIA DUDLEY.”

FISH BROOCH/PENDANT, 7.78 x 3.81 centimeters, paper label on back marked “VIRGINIA DUDLEY.”

 

      In 1954 Dudley explained, “When we built our studio, we were striving to solve a problem perplexing to many artists and craftsmen today: the problem of creating and marketing objects made by hand, with skill and sensibility, for those seeking not just the unique or unusual, but objects, well-made and functional, to gladden the discriminating who are so often wearied by mediocrity and monotonous repetition.” This goal may have been too idealistic, though, especially given their remote southern setting, and the next few years saw a shift in their approach as they worked to supplement their income. In 1955 they opened a retail shop in their home, American Craftsmen, selling Rising Faun Enamels as well as the work of about nine other craftsmen. By 1956 Dudley was teaching classes at the University of Chattanooga Evening College and at the Hunter Gallery of Art in Chattanooga, and in early 1957
she took a job with the Army directing arts and crafts recreational programs at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Though likely determined largely by financial concerns, this change may also reflect Dudley’s inclination to move on to new projects after she mastered a technique, a characteristic her niece remembers well. Dudley once stated, “A constant wariness of being trapped by one material, one approach, lives with me.” Her new job soon was followed by divorce, which marked the end of Rising Faun Enamels.

ABSTRACT BROOCH/PENDANT, 8.26 X 5.56 centimeters. 

      Dudley continued to include enamel work as part of her roster of activities in the following decades, but its prominence diminished. Also, by the 1960s, making enameled jewelry became a popular hobbyist activity, and kits with pre-cut flat forms and limited colors resulted in a saturation of the market that, as Jazzar and Nelson note in their book Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980, “began to undermine [enamel’s] status as a legitimate and highly regarded form of contemporary art.” Dudley returned to her earlier pursuits of travel and education, and maintained her Rising Fawn home as a weekend or summer retreat. From 1958-1959 she did post-graduate work at the College of William and Mary, and in 1959 at the University of Maryland’s overseas branch in Uijeongbu, Korea, where the Army transferred her to oversee more than a dozen craft shops, which she did until 1961 when she took up a similar role for the Air Force for two more years.

      Even though she was moving on to new activities, Dudley’s reputation as an enamelist was well established. In 1957 Oppi Untracht, instructor in enameling at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, published the how-to book Enameling on Metal, which featured illustrations of several of her plaques/mosaics, including Sea Birds. Also, in 1959 the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City (now the Museum of Arts and Design) included Dudley in its seminal exhibition titled “Enamels,” which included five of her works, from an early tray to recent jewelry.

NECKLACE with metal choker. Shield is 6.03 x 9.21 centimeters. Jewelry is enamel on copper, circa 1950-1957.  Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by Ashley Callahan.

NECKLACE with metal choker. Shield is 6.03 x 9.21 centimeters. Jewelry is enamel on copper, circa 1950-1957. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by Ashley Callahan.

During a visit to Rising Fawn in 1962 she discovered that her home had been burglarized, and that many of her finest works, both paintings and enameled plaques, as well as a box of clippings and catalogs, had been stolen. The local newspaper reported, “A quantity of ‘Rising Faun Enamels’ jewelry also was removed, including one-of-a-kind pendants, medallions and cuff links.” None of the material, valued at ten thousand dollars, was recovered, and the event remained a source of bitter frustration to Dudley. 

From 1963-1971 she taught art at Shorter College, in Rome, Georgia, then, as her eyesight began to fail, retired to Rising Fawn. She died in 1981 at age sixty-seven. Though Rising Faun Enamels existed for only seven years—a brief passage in her productive life—that period of creative focus, entrepreneurial collaboration with Moran, and immersion in the natural beauty of her region resulted in a body of work that reflects both the captivating qualities she admired in the medieval enamels that first inspired her and the modernism of the mid-twentieth century.

SUGGESTED READING
Jazzar, Bernard N. and Harold B. Nelson
, Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America, 1920 to the Present. Los Angeles: Enamel Arts Foundation, 2015.
     —Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980. Long Beach: Long Beach Museum of Art, 2006. 
Stevenson, Margie and Patricia Collier. “Virginia E. Dudley.” Chattanooga Regional Historical Journal 10: July 2007, 49-70.
Thomas, Joe A. Virginia Dudley and American Modernism, exhibition brochure, Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, July 1-August 2, 2014.
Virginia Dudley website: http://www.virginiadudley.org.

EARRINGS ON RISING FAUN ENAMELS CARDS of enamel on copper, varying sizes, circa 1950-1957. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by
Ashley Callahan.

     Get Inspired!


Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. After repeatedly encountering Virginia Dudley’s name for years while working on various research projects about craft in Georgia and modern jewelry, she became an admirer of Dudley’s accomplishments in the field of enamels, especially jewelry. She was thrilled when family friends Sally and John Poehlman of Rising Fawn put her in contact with the current occupant of Dudley’s amazing home, David Lyons, and with Dudley’s niece, Patricia Antonia Collier. Callahan appreciates the support, enthusiasm and warm welcome she and her husband enjoyed in Rising Fawn.

Chinese Silver Hairpins Volume 39.4

CHINESE SILVER HAIRPINS, an excellent representative sample of the numerous styles, from single to multi-tine examples. A number are decorated by enameling, gilding or set with glass simulations of jade and coral. These are fabricated, cast or die-struck, some with multiple techniques. Sizes range from 8.5 to 21.2 centimeters (cm) long, and 0.6 to 13.4 centimeters wide.  Courtesy of Leekan Designs. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/ Ornament .

CHINESE SILVER HAIRPINS, an excellent representative sample of the numerous styles, from single to multi-tine examples. A number are decorated by enameling, gilding or set with glass simulations of jade and coral. These are fabricated, cast or die-struck, some with multiple techniques. Sizes range from 8.5 to 21.2 centimeters (cm) long, and 0.6 to 13.4 centimeters wide. Courtesy of Leekan Designs. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

Hair adornments were a vital part of women’s jewelry in many parts of East Asia, recently reinforced during a visit in 2016 to the Asian galleries of the Newark Museum of Art. Metal hairpins were not numerous among the Japanese, Korean and Chinese jewelry on display, although Chinese metal examples have been well documented (Duda 2002, Hang 2005, Lingley 2007, Liu 1999). Perhaps this results from many such ornaments being from the lower classes or general populace, and not from the upper classes, thus not of significant crafting or preciousness to warrant inclusion in museum collections.

      While on this same trip, I was able to study a large selection of relatively simple Chinese silver hairpins at Leekan Designs of New York, well-worn and dating from the early twentieth century or possibly even earlier, obtained from Beijing in the 1980s. Later, Paddy Kan sent me a more comprehensive collection of hairpins. The twisted wire hairpins shown on the facing page do not appear to have been published before, although some of the other more elaborate ones are shown in Duda (2002), Hang (2005) and Lingley (2007). Given the large populations of this country during the last centuries, such hairpins would be expected to be numerous, especially since some were worn in multiples, although all vintage Chinese jewelry is now scarce. Most hairpins were stuck into buns, to hold this hairstyle in place, while flat ones had hair wrapped around them. Interestingly, the very simple twisted hairpins have been employed as defensive weapons by women in Chinese martial arts movies. To anyone with an interest in metalsmithing, these hairpins are most likely products of small, unsophisticated workshops, but demonstrate a surprising number of clever techniques, also used in the manufacture of the metal portions of Chinese bangles (Liu 2013).

I do not know if such jewelry techniques have been covered in the Chinese literature, since I do not read Chinese, although Hang (2005) does mention the use of press-molding for rattan and silver bangles. Hang is also the most comprehensive in coverage of Chinese hairpins, historic and vintage. Najdowski (2011) has described and shown images of dies used by the Miao minority in making repouseé silver or base metal jewelry. It is very likely that Han jewelers also used similar tools and techniques, given that dies were widely used in hairpin manufacture. Due to the extensive and repeated use of popular motifs in Chinese jewelry, which all have significant meanings as rebuses (Bartholomew 2006), it makes sense to use dies to replicate these complex, yet standardized designs.

REFERENCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bartholomew, T.T. 2006 Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art. San Francisco, Asian Art Museum: 352 p.
Duda, M. 2002 Four Centuries of Silver. Personal Adornment in the Qing Dynasty and After. Singapore, Times Edition: 208 p.
Hang, H. 2005 Precious Adornment Kit. Ming, Ching to Republic of China Era. Female Traditional Silver Ornaments. Beijing, Sanlian Bookstore: 422 p.
Lingley, K. A. 2007 Excelling the Work of Heaven. Personal Adornment from China. Featuring the Shyn Collection. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Art Gallery: 158 p.
Liu, R. K. 1992 Wholesale to the Trade. Overseas Trading Company. Ornament 15 (3): 104-105.
—1999 Collectibles. Chinese Hair Ornaments. Ornament 23 (2): 8-9.
—2013 Vintage Chinese Bangles. Rattan, bamboo, coral, and more. Ornament 37 (1): 16-19.
Najdowski, P. 2011 Guzang Miao Festival. Ceremonial silver. Ornament 34 (5): 70-73.

 

Click on Photos for Captions

 

     Get Inspired!


Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. Recently he has been giving one-on-one photography lessons at our office, as well as teaching workshops on bamboo and matrix jewelry. In this issue Liu writes about vintage Chinese silver hairpins of the general populace, an important item in the personal adornment of many Asian women in the past centuries.

Tufted Tales: Chenille Garments Volume 39.3

Georgia and textiles, cotton in particular, have a long association, and the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail is bringing increased recognition to the history of the industrial growth resulting from that union. In addition to the expected cotton mills, the trail highlights numerous factories devoted to the production of garments and accessories including hosiery, underwear and—in Bremen—menswear. In the northwestern corner of the state, especially in the town of Dalton, the trail focuses on the old highway where small roadside businesses sold souvenirs like tufted peacock bathrobes and on the mills that manufactured chenille bedspreads and garments before focusing on the production of carpet. My book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion, published by the University of Georgia Press, is part of a growing body of research into the region’s textile history and the first to focus on tufted fashion.

      In the spring of 2015 the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail organized a conference focused on using the arts to tell textile stories; the event included presentations about mill town music, life in a mill village, using theater to convey information about the past, and incorporating narrative elements into the promotion of historic destinations. I shared stories about the makers and manufacturers of tufted garments, encouraging the careful reconsideration of well-known stories and the inclusion of individuals at all levels of production, as well as stressing the importance of preserving objects. Following are five tufted textile stories.

CATHERINE EVANS WHITENER AND CANDLEWICK KIMONOS

CATHERINE EVANS WHITENER with a candlewick bedspread, circa 1960. Courtesy of Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia, Carpet and Rug Institute Photograph Collection.

      Almost any recounting of the history of Georgia’s tufted textiles begins with the story of Catherine Evans Whitener (1880-1964) and her “rediscovery” of the traditional candlewick technique for decorating spreads in the late nineteenth century. Actually, there was increased interest in these historic textiles in many parts of the United States as part of the Colonial Revival. As Americans celebrated the country’s centenary and reflected on the people, places, and objects associated with its founding, they turned to forms like candlewick spreads, originally popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for inspiration. 

Whitener, inspired by an antique candlewick spread in a relative’s home, made her first few spreads as gifts, then began selling them. Orders quickly outpaced her individual production capabilities and she taught neighboring women her process. She either drew her own pattern or copied an existing spread by placing it fluff-side down with a fresh sheet on top that she rubbed with a greased tin (or other “stamping iron”) to transfer the pattern. Then she stitched the pattern with plain running stitches, clipped the stitches with scissors, and boiled the fabric to shrink the weave and hold the stitches in place. Finally, she dried and fluffed the spreads, creating the familiar pompom decorations. The women she taught in turn instructed others, and a cottage industry developed. By the mid-1910s department stores throughout the Midwest and New England carried the popular southern bedspreads. As automobile travel increased (especially by the late 1920s), Dalton also developed a thriving culture of roadside stands, known as “spreadlines,” selling tufted products.

As consumer demand for the textiles increased, and due to government pressure for fair wages, the industry mechanized in the early 1930s. The new machine-tufted textiles were called chenille, French for “caterpillar,” to distinguish them from the earlier hand-tufted candlewick goods. As the mechanization process progressed, the machines evolved from single-needle converted sewing machines to large, multi-needle machines that could produce tufted yardage. Later, carpet became the dominate tufted product, eclipsing chenille in the 1950s. 

MRS. RALPH HANEY wearing a candlewick kimono with a peacock design, circa 1920. Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, gor466.

      The tufted textile industry whole-heartedly embraced and promoted the story of Catherine Evans Whitener by the 1930s. For example, in 1953 a buyer for Rich’s department store in Atlanta wrote an article for the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association Directory, the industry’s annual publication, advising stores to tell their sales forces “about the young farm girl, Catherine Evans, who made the first modern tufted spread in 1895 and launched a multi-million dollar industry.” As Philis Alvic details in her book Weavers of the Southern Highlands, other textile production centers in southern Appalachia in the early twentieth century offered similar stories in order to connect their modern textiles with antiques and capitalize on the popularity of the Colonial Revival.

Though rarely mentioned, Whitener made garments—aprons and kimonos—as well as spreads. While none of her garments are known to survive, a single photographic image from the region showing Mrs. Ralph Haney (née Exzene Carter, 1894-1962) wearing a kimono suggests the type of work Whitener would have done. Haney’s kimono appears to be hand tufted in a single color on a solid color background and shows a peacock next to a vase in a trellis setting.

I found several advertisements from 1923 in northeastern newspapers for candlewick kimonos, and while the ads do not mention Georgia, the garments are similar in style and description to Haney’s. One ad, for the Joseph Horne Company in Pittsburgh, lists some of the color combinations of these garments as “gray with rose designs, orchid with lavender, orange with blue, pumpkin with white, black with rose, old blue with white, yellow with yellow, leaf green with green.”

These were part of a vogue for Orientalism in fashion, and the butterflies, peacocks, and kimono form are relevant to that theme. The production in southern Appalachia of kimonos that were handcrafted using a traditional technique related to the Colonial Revival and reflecting a Japanese-inspired contemporary fashion trend, represents a remarkable combination of influences that enriches Whitener’s story and helps expand its significance beyond local history.

A PINK CANDLEWICK DRESS

CANDLEWICK COTTON DRESS, circa 1930s. Photograph by Michael McKelvey. Collection of Bradley Putnam.

      While visiting with a collector in Tunnel Hill, a small town north of Dalton, I encountered an unusual pink dress and bonnet. The dress was a mystery to the collector; he purchased it because it was tufted, but did not know its history.

At the time, I was well into my research and particularly interested by how in the late 1920s and early 1930s women from the region helped promote candlewick spreads by traveling to department stores throughout the country to give hand-tufting demonstrations. Often these women wore Colonial Revival style costumes with bonnets. An ad for a demonstration at Macy’s in New York in 1931 reads, “You’ll have to imagine the log cabin and the cotton fields background. But the girls themselves, in cotton frocks and sunbonnets, will be here, tufting the spreads by hand, just as they do in their native Georgia.” Other evidence suggests that these “native costumes,” as they often were called, were sometimes tufted.

As I examined the pink dress—hand tufted then dyed, assembled with a sewing machine, a silhouette that recalls a French shepherdess—the details all suggested that this was a rare survival: an example of a costume worn by a hand-tufting demonstrator. It is not an accurate copy of anything that existed historically and it is not a style that was ever popular during the twentieth century, but it is appropriate as a circa 1930 interpretation of something from “golden olden times.”

The marketing of candlewick spreads was not the only entrepreneurial enterprise that benefited from the incorporation of Colonial Revival style costumes. Fashion historian Beverly Gordon, in an article on Colonial Revival fashion published in Dress, explains that by the interwar years the practice was popular in businesses such as Colonial-style tea rooms (with costumed waitresses) because the high moral associations with the style helped increase profits. She also notes that historical accuracy was less important than conveying a sense of a charming and picturesque past. The lovely image that the candlewick demonstrators presented helped sell bedspreads, but it was actually a far cry from the experiences of many of the tufters, often desperately poor women working long, hard hours for very little pay.

EMILY BENNETT AND U.S. 41

TWO VIEWS of Mrs. J. H. Bennett’s chenille business, with Willie Jean Chitwood, Helen Bennett (Mrs. Bennett’s daughter), and Aveline Chitwood seated at left, circa 1937. Photographs probably taken by Iduma Chitwood. Collection of Helen Johnson.

      Many small businesses existed along the highway, first called the Dixie Highway and later U.S. 41, in northwestern Georgia. One belonged to Mrs. J. H. Bennett (née Emily Mealor or Mealer, 1904-1997). Select records from her business survive in the collection of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society in Dalton, and one of her daughters, Helen Johnson, who lives a few miles from where her mother worked, recalls many details about what she made.

Bennett began working as a hand tufter while her husband farmed; they lived out in the country at the time and she sold her wares on the spreadline of a friend who lived near the highway. Then the family moved to U.S. 41 and she set up her own spreadline near the Resaca Confederate Cemetery, just south of Dalton. In the early 1930s her husband built her a little log cabin and she worked there alone. In many ways, she epitomized the popular notion of a traditional Appalachian craftswoman; she almost always wore a bonnet, she used an old-timey needlework technique, she was near a Civil War historic sight, and she worked in a log cabin, albeit a brand-new one. In 1936 the Atlanta Journal even included two photographs of her business on a rotogravure page about Bedspread Boulevard, as the highway was called at the time. In addition to bedspreads, she made pillows and aprons, which the newspaper described as “novel.”

CHENILLE COTTON APRON by Mrs. J. H. Bennett, undated. Photograph by Michael McKelvey. Courtesy of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, Crown Gardens & Archives, Dalton, Georgia, gift of Helen Johnson.

      Bennett soon acquired a single-needle tufting machine, adding bath sets, capes, jackets, and robes to her inventory, then moved to a new spreadline down the road. Her daughter believes that Bennett’s ability to sew clothing—a skill learned of necessity because she had four daughters and limited income—helped her translate the tufted textiles into appealing garments.

Bennett had regular customers who would visit her when traveling U.S. 41 to vacation in Florida and who would write to her during the year to place orders. Sometimes travelers would make purchases as they traveled through and she would ship the goods to their far-away homes. She also sold to a few department stores in Chicago. Bennett continued her business until Interstate 75 opened in 1965 and drew away the tourist traffic from the older highway, though she still tufted until she was eighty years of age.

ARTHUR RICHMAN AND THE ART-RICH MANUFACTURING COMPANY

MATCHBOOK COVER advertisement for Blue Ridge Manufacturing Company, circa 1945. Private Collection.

      As chenille garments became increasingly popular in the late 1930s, several big spread companies realized that they needed to bring in specialized talent. They knew how to manufacture and design and market spreads, but clothing was new to them. Samuel Hurowitz (b. Russia, 1898-1975), who had founded Blue Ridge Spread in Dalton in 1933, added a garment department and in 1939 had hired Arthur “Artie” Richman (b. Poland, 1904-1965), an experienced garment designer in New York, to run it.

Richman’s designs for Blue Ridge included a series of chenille robes with playing card motifs, recorded through patent applications. He filed for the patents in April 1943 and was granted them in December 1943, but during that time much of Blue Ridge’s production was turned over to the war effort.
Blue Ridge featured the heart design in an advertisement in Glamour in 1944 that acknowledged the reality of wartime retail. Part of the text reads, “We are still trying to make shipments… to at least one store in each city so that you may have yours.”

Sometime before World War II ended Richman left Blue Ridge to start his own company, Ann-Lee Chenilles, which existed only briefly. By 1947 he had established Art-Rich Manufacturing Company, a large, long-lived business that focused on chenille robes for women and children. The overwhelming majority of chenille manufactories were in northwestern Georgia, and in 1949 the industry produced almost five and one half million chenille robes. Even though Richman’s business was one of the younger ones in the region and it never manufactured hand-tufted candlewick products, he still capitalized on the appeal of the industry’s early southern roots by adding paper tags to his robes that read, “This chenille robe is made where the candlewick tufting industry originated,” with an image of cotton.

MODEL wearing a chenille robe by Art-Rich, circa 1953. Courtesy of Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia, Carpet and Rug Institute Photograph Collection.

      For many years robe companies used the same basic pattern to make traditional wraparound robes, but as chenille robes started to lose favor in the 1950s—as national fashions changed and as carpet became the dominant tufted product in northwestern Georgia—robe manufacturers introduced a variety of different styles to try to maintain market share. Richman even wrote an article for the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association Directory in 1954 addressing how the production of robes had shifted from employing single-needle machines (as multi-needle machines that could produce tufted yardage were common by that time) and one pattern that was used for years with just some variation in the decorative motifs to an industry with “constantly changing” styles requiring “new patterns... to keep pace with the trend.” He pointed out that the small changes, including the buttons and buttonholes and various trimmings, required additional materials and labor.

During the 1950s duster robes surpassed the popularity of traditional wraparound robes. These new robes, typically three-quarter-length, could be styled a variety of ways and appealed to the growing youth market. Chenille robes, though, never regained their former prominence and began to fall out of fashion. Art-Rich diversified its offerings, adding terrycloth robes. Shortly before Arthur Richman died in 1965, his son Martin Richman (1929-2007) took over the company. Art-Rich continued experimenting with new styles
and other materials, but could not compete as cheaper imported goods hit the market, and closed in the early 1980s.

MARILYN WOLF AND THE CHENILLE REVIVAL

POSTCARD of children’s recycled chenille bathrobes, 1997. Photograph by Michael Scott Studio, New York City. Marilyn Wolf Designs, collection of the artist.

      Chenille fashion experienced a revival towards the end of the twentieth century. Beginning by the early 1970s, crafters and designers began cutting up old tufted bedspreads to make new products, especially garments including jackets, robes, bloomers, aprons, bibs, skirts, pullover blouses, and hats. Many were motivated by nostalgia as well as an interest in recycling encouraged by the burgeoning environmental movement.

One of the designers to repurpose old spreads was Marilyn Wolf of Narberth, Pennsylvania. She had established a small manufacturing business around 1970 and in the mid-1990s she made a small collection of chenille robes using chenille yardage she had purchased from a close-out sale. Then, through an acquaintance who happened to own a rag factory (a business that collected leftover fabrics from thrift stores and other sources), she gained access to a seemingly limitless supply of vintage spreads. By the 1980s and 1990s, as many original owners of tufted bedspreads downsized their homes, secondary markets were flooded with inexpensive materials.

MARILYN WOLF JACKETS FLYER, “Jackets fashioned from vintage chenille,” circa 1997. Marilyn Wolf Designs, collection of the artist.

      Wolf used these to make colorful one-of-a-kind robes and jackets for women, as well as teddy bears and baby blankets, that are notable for their playful patchwork aesthetic and postmodern profusion of colors and patterns. As the supplies of chenille dwindled and material became more precious, and, she notes, as the market for high-end art clothing for children increased, Wolf turned her attention to small robes, rompers, and jackets for children. She often added non-chenille materials like marabou or vintage buttons. She sold her designs through exclusive stores including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s and in children’s boutiques across the country. When she could no longer find adequate supplies of quality chenille, she turned to other materials.  

 

Though the tufted textile industry was centered in the South, it became a national phenomenon. While Hollywood helped cement the iconic status of the chenille robe—with appearances ranging from glamorous actresses like Katharine Hepburn in Holiday in 1938 to Oscar-winner Shirley Booth’s downtrodden character in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952 to Michael Douglas as a creative writing professor in the Wonder Boys in 2000—its presence in the lives of everyday Americans led to innumerable personal stories and memories about the material. In sharing my research for Southern Tufts, I have heard many recollections—about a mother’s favorite aqua robe with flowers, a child’s fascination with the rows of tufts on a bedspread, a family member who devoted a lifetime to the industry—and I welcome more stories and encourage the preservation of tufted textiles and their histories.



SUGGESTED READING
Alvic, Philis. Weavers of the Southern Highlands. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2003.
Callahan, Ashley. “From Roadside to Runway: A History of Chenille in Fashion.” Ornament 34.4: 26-31, 2011.
The Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia. Images of America: The West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Deaton, Thomas M. Bedspreads to Broadloom: The Story of the Tufted Carpet Industry. Acton, Massachusetts: Tapestry Press, 1993.
Gordon, Beverly. “Costumed Representations of Early America: A Gendered Portrayal, 1850-1940.” Dress 30: 3-20, 2003.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. The University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion in December 2015. She grew up in Dalton—known over time as both the Bedspread Capital of the World and the Carpet Capital of the World—and is pleased to be able to share information about the tufted textile industry’s history and about her home state’s contributions to American fashion.

Glitterati Volume 39.2

Glitterati
Portraits and Jewelry From Colonial Latin America

TIARA of gilt silver, emeralds, pearls, Colombia or Ecuador, circa 1690. 

Despite its titular implications of spectacle and vanity parade, the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glitterati: Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America” offers an unexpectedly intimate and contemplative experience of some important pieces from the institution’s core holdings. The general scarcity of Spanish sixteenth- to early nineteenth-century jewelry with documented or even plausible New World provenance precludes the kind of overwhelming display that can be found just one room over, where the museum’s collection of colonial silver hollowware dazzles the eye through sheer expanse of gleaming surfaces. Moreover, the exhibition’s curators Donna Pierce and Julie Wilson Frick seem to have deliberately cultivated an effect of dignified reserve. Surrounded by deep red walls and guarded by somber portraits enveloped in baroque gloom, even the most bejeweled objects in the exhibition appear as small, bright accents rather than aggressive contenders for the spotlight. This is entirely appropriate. The portraits, selected because of their in-situ depictions of jewelry, suggest that Spanish fashion of the colonial period, even in its farthest forays into ornamentation, conveyed a somber strength that restrained the impulse to excess and resisted the frivolity that at times thrived in the salons of Europe. Even in the colonies, the subdued aesthetic of Velazquez and Murillo seems to have been more reflective of Spanish taste than the exuberance of Rubens or the delicacy of Watteau.

      Pearls figured prominently in the jewelry of wealthy colonial women, though given the high rate at which bracelets, necklaces and pendants were later cannibalized in the interest of keeping up with mercurial fashion, it is not surprising that only three pieces among the jewelry displayed in the exhibition actually contain pearls. The portraits serve as more accurate indicators of historical practice. A painting of Doña Maria del Carmen Cortés Santelices y Cartavio Roldán, the creole wife of a Spanish-born judge in Trujillo, Peru, depicts the blue-eyed eighteenth-century matron adorned with earrings of gold-framed mother-of-pearl disks with triple pearl drops, pearl bracelets of four strands on each wrist, and a silver foliate cross suspended from a three-strand pearl necklace. From a century later, a staid three-quarter-view portrait of an unknown elderly Colombian woman, whose presumably thin gray hair is entirely hidden by a close-fitting black cap, features a single gold and large pearl drop earring as sufficient proof of her wealth and social status.

 

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Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University and a frequent writer on jewelry and metalwork, has a longstanding interest in the decorative arts of Latin America. The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glitterati: Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America” provided a rare opportunity to study some particularly fine surviving examples of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century work in gold and silver, but he was most impressed by the juxtaposition of jewelry and its representation in period paintings: “what may be the best way to look at historical objects and remember why they were made.”

Heavenly Bodies Volume 39.2

Heavenly Bodies: The Exhibition
An Idea, Its Implementation and A Compelling Result

WILHELM BUCHERT BANGLE of gold, opal and pearl, 1969. Collection of Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim. Photograph by Rudiger Floter.

It all began in Saint Petersburg in the fall of 2013, during a conversation with Anna Vladimirovna Ratnikova, one of the jewelry curators at the Russian Museum of Ethnography, which, along with the Hermitage, the State Russian Museum and the Kunstkamera Museum, ranks among the city’s major museums. We talked about potential exhibition projects, about themes hitherto not contemplated, about new approaches to showcasing the rich diversity of jewelry in terms of appearance and forms of expression. Anna sparked a great idea by asking whether there had ever been an exhibition themed around celestial bodies, i.e. the sun, the moon and the stars in jewelry.

      An idea was born: an idea that was intriguing, an idea whose implementation opened up a new area of research, an idea that eventually led to the “Heavenly Bodies: The Sun, Moon and Stars in Jewellery” exhibition at Pforzheim’s Jewelry Museum (Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim), probably a worldwide first and with the participation of renowned international partners, such as the Louvre and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History) in Vienna, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen (State Art Collections) in Dresden, to name just a few, as well as private collectors and contemporary artists from both Germany and abroad, who all responded generously and unhesitatingly to the Jewelry Museum’s request for loans.

From the start, the intention was to cover the theme, both in the exhibition and in the accompanying book, in a manner that reveals the global dimension of “heavenly jewelry.”

The preliminary work was widely ramified. Our considerations included the visual arts, literature and music, as well as religions and myths from many of the world’s cultures and regions, and we explored the diversity of the celestial bodies’ representation in the artistic crafts, for example. New dimensions regarding our understanding of the cosmos, of the universe, emerged, also and particularly in terms of its extensive relations to jewelry. After all: the Ancient Greek word for cosmos, κόσµος, means universe, order and jewelry as well!

 

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Fritz Falk, a master goldsmith and jewelry historian, began his career as a research assistant at Pforzheim’s Jewelry Museum, and became its director in 1971. Since then, he has significantly expanded its collection, and has developed it into a specialized museum that is unique worldwide, one whose exhibits are much sought after as exquisite loans for exhibitions all over the planet. While the main focus of Falk’s activity was on collecting jewelry from classical antiquity, the Renaissance and the Art Nouveau period, he also felt particularly committed to highlighting modern, contemporary jewelry trends. After retiring in 2004, he curated “Serpentina: The Snake in Jewellery From Around the World” in 2011 to mark the Reuchlinhaus’s fiftieth anniversary.

Stone Beads and Their Imitations Volume 39.1

Lapidary Skills & Imitations In Stone Beads

FOUR ANCIENT TABULAR/LENTICULAR HARD STONE BEADS FROM AFGHANISTAN AND TWO REPLICA AGATE BEADS; these carnelian and agate tabular beads are very similar to Mesopotamian third millennium beads, 2.8 - 3.5 centimeters long, 0.6 - 0.9 centimeters thick. Courtesy of Anahita Gallery and J. Lafortune, 1978. Two lowest beads are new replica tabular agate and leech beads from Iran and Cambay, 0.6 - 1.0 centimeters thick; Courtesy of W. Seifried, 2006 and Beadazzled/Kamol, 1999. Due to better lapidary equipment, especially drills, many replica beads are now thinner than the prototypes. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament; shot with studio strobes, using softboxes for both transillumination/reflected lighting or just reflective lighting when shooting on black Tufflock. 

Recently we relocated our office of the past twenty-six years into a much more manageable space. This entailed examining, sorting and discarding old files, as well as other material collected over forty-two years of publishing. While packing our study bead collections, I was struck again by the beauty of ancient hard stone beads, the lapidary skills of their makers, and how skilled contemporary stone beadmakers had become in producing imitations, replicas or their own designs. Such observations and insights are very similar to the pleasure of re-discovering books in your library that you have not read for years.

      I have always regarded tabular hard stone beads of the third millennium as among the most aesthetic uses of stone, as well as so-called leech beads, which can date as early as 2200 to about 300 B.C. (Liu 1999). If one is cognizant of bead history and technology, the roles of stone beads in ancient world trade and exchange, then the importance of simulations would be readily apparent...

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. In this issue Liu writes about the Ethnic Costume Museum in Beijing, which he visited with Carolyn and Patrick in 2013, on a return to China after sixty-seven years in the United States. While going through the recent move of the Ornament office, he restudied some ancient stone beads in its study bead collection, marveling at both the skill of ancient and contemporary stone beadmakers, especially those who did replicas or imitations.

Mood Indigo Volume 39.1

 

JAPANESE BEDDING COVER (futonji) of cotton cloth with indigo dye (kasuri), Meiji period 1900-1912, Gift of the Christensen Fund. Background: NIGERIAN ADIRE ONIKO with full moon (osu bamba) of cotton cloth with indigo dye, twentieth century. Gift of the Christensen Fund. All textiles collection of Seattle Art Museum; photographs courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

 
 

Spend an hour wandering through the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s seductive exhibition of indigo-dyed textiles and you will understand why blue is just about everyone’s favorite color. From Japanese kimonos and bedding, to Nigerian garments, Flemish tapestries, Korean wrapping cloths, and a Guatemalan huipil, the brilliant, saturated blue achieved with indigo dye gives the textiles a richness and depth that are unimaginable in any other color.

      Take the large, sumptuous cotton cloth from Nigeria that shows an abstract pattern of full moons. The panel is a midnight sky of swirling moons, exuberant and wild even though, unlike many textiles in the show, it is monochromatic. The Nigerian artisan who made this piece seems to have been inspired by the same pulsating full moon that fascinated Vincent van Gogh. The dark indigo gives the cloth the look of an endless, cosmic night sky. More tranquil, and plusher, are the quilt-like yogi from nineteenth-century Japan. The thick cotton ‘kimonos’ were made as bedding rather than garments to be worn. The thought of sliding yourself underneath one for the night is delicious. The bedding kimonos are indigo though many are also decorated with imaginative scenes relating to dreams and sleeping. One especially charming scene shows hares leaping through frothing ocean waves. As a soporific, counting fat white rabbits leaping through a seascape is probably at least as effective as counting sheep—and far more magical.

JAPANESE COVERLET (detail) in kimono form (yogi), of cotton cloth with freehand paste-resist decoration (tsutsugaki). Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright.

      There are many antique kimonos in the show, most of them beautiful. An indigo-colored, nineteenth-century child’s kimono is decorated at mid-body with an ivoryand celadon design. Another kimono-shaped bedding quilt has light blue borders and a spectacular display of peach, orange and yellow fans across the back. As always when contemplating the beauty of antique kimonos of this caliber, it is striking how the long, boxy shape of this traditional garment is perfect for ornamentation. Like nearly everything in the exhibition, the kimonos come from the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection, which is particularly rich in Japanese and African textiles and artworks.

JAPANESE CHILD’S KIMONO of bast fiber (asa) cloth with freehand paste-resist decoration (tsutsugaki) and handpainted pigments and ink decoration, nineteenth century. Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright. JAPANESE SUMMER INFORMAL KIMONO (yukata) of cotton cloth with indigo dye (katazome), Taisho period, early twentieth century. Gift of the Christensen Fund. JAPANESE KIMONO of cotton cloth with indigo dye (shibori), Taisho period, early twentieth century. Gift of the Christensen Fund.

      Indigo dye has a fascinating history. Natural indigo comes from plants of the large Indigofera genus. The species used for indigo dye require tropical or sub tropical climates. They resemble basil plants and making dye involves drying the leaves then creating cakes of dye, a painstaking process. Indigo has always been grown in Asia, West Africa and parts of Central and South America. Europe lacks the climate to grow indigo successfully, so for centuries indigo dye came to Europe through trade with Asia and Africa. India was the first major producer and exporter of indigo, and it supplied the wealthy in ancient Greece and Rome. The name “indigo” is believed to be based on the ancient Greek word for India.

Indigo has always been valuable because it is the only reliable natural blue dye. After Europeans colonized North America and Caribbean Islands, indigo plantations on the islands and in South Carolina produced great wealth for their owners. Indigo was known as “blue gold.” Synthetic indigo was invented in the early twentieth century, and most jeans and other blue textiles today are made with synthetic indigo since it is cheaper to make and easier to work with. Unfortunately the exhibition offers almost none of this history, which would have been a welcome addition.

FLEMISH WOOL TAPESTRY OF ASIA by Jacob van der Borcht, late seventeenth century. Gift of the Hearst Foundation, Inc. 

      Among the most dramatic pieces are the three late seventeenth-century Flemish tapestries depicting allegorical scenes of the continents of Africa, Asia and America. At a square thirteen feet they are stunning and they are examples of indigo as the color of splendor and luxury in seventeenth-century Europe. In each tapestry the continent is represented by a woman who sits, queen-like, on a throne in what the Flemish tapestry designer presented as an idealized natural setting. In each tapestry the magnificent woman is surrounded by a cornucopia of plants, animals and rosy, cherub-like children. The visual clichés are amusing to our twenty-first-century sensibilities: Asia is shown with a camel and a fanciful pagoda in the background, for instance. But all the women wear blue clothing. Asia’s gracefully draping gown is a particularly deep, rich indigo—perhaps the designer’s homage to India as the traditional source of the dye.

Also of interest are the historic Japanese fire fighters’ suits. These remarkable mid-nineteenth-century outfits consist of pants, boots, gloves, short kimono, and full head and face covering, all made of thick indigo-dyed cotton. The entire outfit turns the firefighter into a superhero, which is what they were to the communities where they lived and worked. According to the exhibition notes, fire fighters put on these outfits, then soaked themselves—fully dressed—in water before entering burning buildings. Wrapped in thick, wet cotton, they were able to withstand the heat longer than they would have otherwise. Firefighters were important and much respected members of the community, and this was reflected in the indigo color of their protective uniforms.

BLOCKS QUILT by Annie Mae Young, 2003. General Acquisition Fund.

      Much of this handsomely installed exhibition focuses on textiles from Asia and Africa, but there are pieces to admire from the Americas. An early twentieth-century rug from the southwestern United States and a Guatemalan blanket of the same period are both designed to show off blue fibers. Both are classic examples of native weaving, with designs in indigo as the focal point. Another remarkable abstract composition is seen in a contemporary quilt by Anna Mae Young, one of the famous quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Her quilt suggests a Mondrian painting in which rich bands of indigo cloth play the starring role.

This exhibition will not travel. But if you are in Seattle before October, “Mood Indigo” is worth a visit. If the sun is out, the Seattle summer sky and the waters of the Puget Sound will be intensely blue. Our associations with the color blue, since it represents our natural world, are primal. “Mood Indigo” makes that crystal clear.

 
 

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Robin Updike is a Seattle-based arts writer with a deep attachment to artist-made jewelry. As a former newspaper art critic she also has an interest in artists and the difficult choices they often face when it comes to their careers. For both reasons, she was pleased to have the opportunity to interview Julie Shaw, a jewelrymaker whose life as an artist is notable not only for the remarkable work she has made, but for the joyful, open-hearted way in which she has created a life wholly dedicated to art. In this issue Updike also reviews a handsome exhibition about indigo-dyed textiles at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The exhibition is a serene reminder of why blue is such a primal color for us all.

Reigning Men Volume 39.1

SILK COAT with silk embroidery, France, circa 1800. ZOOT SUIT of wool and twill, with spectator shoes of leather and suede, United States, 1940-42. Photographs courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Museum Associates/LACMA.

For much of human history, it has been a man’s world—except in the museum world, where menswear is often overlooked in favor of the more colorful, ornamental fashions worn by women. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new exhibition “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015” serves as a powerful corrective to the long-held notion that menswear is boring and drab. “Everyone thinks the gray flannel suit still exists!” says curator Kaye Spilker. “It was a wonderful journey to find out how interesting menswear really is.”

      The show covers three hundred years of male style, from the macaroni to the metrosexual. Despite the subtitle, it is not limited to fashionable dress; there are some utilitarian pieces, including a redcoat’s red coat, a Brooks Brothers blazer, blue jeans, and, yes, a couple of gray flannel suits. But they are juxtaposed against examples of cutting-edge fashion, both historical and contemporary. 

 

HELMUT LANG VEST of leather, synthetic/cotton felt, bottle caps, laminated foil, from Spring/Summer 2004.
JOHNSON HARTIG FOR LIBERTINE ENSEMBLE (detail) of silk twill jacket, silk vest, cotton shirt, silk twill, satin, and damask scarf, Fall/Winter 2009-10.
JOHNSON HARTIG FOR LIBERTINE ENSEMBLE (detail) of wool twill and felt, mother of pearl buttons, with wool cap, Fall/Winter 2012-13.

 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, anda frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. In this issue, she goes behind the scenes of LACMA’s groundbreaking menswear show, “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015.” Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press.

Fashion Victims: Q&A Volume 38.5

“FASHION VICTIMS” INSTALLATION   featuring a nineteenth-century English or French dress and William Morris wallpaper, both containing arsenical green. Like many of Morris’s wallpapers this pattern was tinted with arsenic for the simulated garden and mercury for the vermilion red roses. 

“FASHION VICTIMS” INSTALLATION featuring a nineteenth-century English or French dress and William Morris wallpaper, both containing arsenical green. Like many of Morris’s wallpapers this pattern was tinted with arsenic for the simulated garden and mercury for the vermilion red roses. 

 

“Fashion Victims. The Pleasures and Perils of Dress” is an exhibition of fashion objects from the nineteenth century that demonstrates how fashion seduces while ignoring the potential harm to both wearer and maker.

Dr. Alison Matthews David (School of Fashion, Ryerson) approached her friend and colleague Elizabeth Semmelhack (Senior Curator, Bata Shoe Museum) with the idea of researching an exhibition that could be a companion to her forthcoming book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present (Bloomsbury, September 2015). They received an SSHRC grant (Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to fund research on issues related to toxic chemicals and the impact on makers and wearers, as well as issues of constriction within fashion. Their research took them to England and Paris, to medical libraries and chemistry labs.

Many complexities are demonstrated through the objects shown, from the very narrow, uncomfortably straight shoes which were more economical to make because they only used one last, to the celluloid combs that could provide a simple luxury by replacing endangered animal products yet also caused factory fires, putting workers at risk due to their high flammability. The popularity of arsenical green, a bright emerald hue that retained its color in artificial light is evident in shoes, dresses and wallpaper. Testing showed that even some of the objects in the exhibition were positive for arsenic. It was usually the maker who was most affected by the use of toxic chemicals yet new technologies also created a democratization of fashion by reducing the cost and making fashion more accessible to the lower classes.


HAND-EMBROIDERED BOOTS by shoemaking firm of François Pinet, French, late nineteenth century. Much of Pinet’s footwear was factory-made but he also employed seven hundred embroiders who labored in less than comfortable conditions creating botanically accurate floral embroidery. Photograph by Ron Wood. Photographs courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum.

 

Semmelhack  One might imagine a glamorous woman cramming her foot into these uncomfortable hand-embroidered boots by Pinet, but we wanted the viewer to think about the women embroiderers working in poorly lit garrets who might never even be able to own the objects they were making. With the introduction of department stores consumers shifted from having things made by a visible person to going into stores and picking out things with a brand identity. With readymade goods there is no sense of labor anymore.

Avila  It’s amazing how what went on in the nineteenth century parallels what is going on in today’s society. We still don’t know who makes our clothes or what chemicals are being used.

Semmelhack  In the nineteenth century industrialization was not only changing and democratizing fashion, but one of the reasons Victorians were so obsessed with flowers and arsenic green was that artificial nature met the needs of this new age after the denuding of nature in the industrial landscape. As this craze for green in the middle of the century hit a high point, doctors began to notice that their upper class clients had rashes associated with arsenic and recognized connections to the seriously ill dressmakers or artificial flower workers they would see at the hospital clinic. 

Matthews David  The introduction of synthetic colors created a giant chemistry experiment on the public. New dyes might leach from shoes or socks worn next to skin depending on the acidic or alkaline quality of the wearer’s sweat. Doctors were seeing stripy skin burns from boldly striped red or magenta socks that continued to be popular products since not everyone was affected.

Semmelhack Women were being expected to dress in all the new invented colors while men were supposed to dress like the machinery and the factories where they acquired their wealth, so you have black stove pipe hats and pants. Bad blacks would discolor or turn yellow so a good shiny black was also a status symbol. Shoeshine boys littered the landscape because the dirty street conditions made it difficult to stay clean.

CELLULOID COMB, English, circa 1880s. “Hair jewels” like this celluloid comb were popular gifts from husbands to wives however they were highly flammable.


Matthews David  One of the aniline by-products, nitrobenzene, was used for shoe polishes and liquid blacking. Highly toxic nitrobenzene oxidizes the iron in human blood; people were at danger, when, instead of buying a new pair of boots they dyed their old stained yellow pair black to look respectable. They often put them on before the polish dried and the toxins would be absorbed through the skin.

Semmelhack  Likewise, hatters went mad from the use of mercury for felting animal hair into desirable top hats.

Avila  Obviously there were people aware of many of these dangers, why didn’t concerns have more influenceon fashion?



Semmelhack  In the nineteenth century there were also social movements to help the upper classes understand about animals’ rights and the plight of workers. So there was social concern at the same time that there was social injustice. Desire and economics are powerful forces. All of these chemists and entrepreneurs believed that science is better, so they put these things out on the market and then when things went wrong they blamed the consumer—‘oh she’s so vain.’ Friedrich Engels claimed that bourgeoisie women caused the most harm to the workers but who were wearing top hats? Who invented mechanical tools? Who required women to dress in an ornamented way? Those questions never came up because women who dressed like men ran into trouble—it was even illegal in some areas. Fashion drives the economy; often the greatest risk is to not follow fashion.

Matthews David  Even today, how many of us would wear something that is not socially acceptable? Social pressures are often more risky than potential health risks.

“Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century” shows at the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, though June 2016. Learn more at www.batashoemuseum.com.


Susan T. Avila is a textile artist, professor and Chair of the Department of Design at the University of California, Davis. She encountered the “Fashion Victims” exhibition while researching a new body of artwork related to health and wellbeing. While Avila’s new work is aimed at using fashion to promote awareness of health, in particular women’s cardiovascular health, the number one killer of women, her visit to the Bata Shoe Museum added another dimension to how fashion has affected health over the years. She was surprised how much information is left out of most fashion history books and was especially dismayed to realize that green, her favorite color, is fraught with a scandalous past.

Comment

Susan T. Avila

Susan T. Avila is a textile artist, professor and Chair of the Department of Design at the University of California, Davis. She encountered the “Fashion Victims” exhibition while researching a new body of artwork related to health and wellbeing. While Avila’s new work is aimed at using fashion to promote awareness of health, in particular women’s cardiovascular health, the number one killer of women, her visit to the Bata Shoe Museum added another dimension to how fashion has affected health over the years. She was surprised how much information is left out of most fashion history books and was especially dismayed to realize that green, her favorite color, is fraught with a scandalous past.

Immortal Beauty Volume 38.4 Preview

Immortal Beauty
Highlights from the Robert and Penny Fox
Historic Costume Collection

 

“ZODIAC” EVENING DRESS and detail by Elsa Schiaparelli, Winter 1938–39. Gift of Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee. All photographs by Michael J. Shepherd, courtesy of Drexel University.

In a sense, “Immortal Beauty” marked a debut more than a century in the making. As the first full-scale retrospective drawn from Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC), the exhibition and its catalogue showcased the depth of this remarkable assemblage of more than fourteen thousand garments, accessories and textiles.

      Seventy-five objects were selected by FHCC curator Clare Sauro “both for their historical significance and their aesthetic beauty,” as well as to give an “overview of more than two hundred fifty years of fashion change.” Indeed, the offerings ranged from an Italian textile fragment of about 1550 to a pair of heel-less platform leopard-print “booties” designed by Giuseppe Zanotti in 2012–13, but the focus was primarily on international haute couture of the twentieth century, including garments by fashion luminaries such as Cristobal Balenciaga, Gabrielle Chanel, Halston, Mary Quant, Oscar de la Renta, and Elsa Schiaparelli...

 

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David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which makes use of his incisive writing for exhibition catalogues and other publications relating to the museum. A frequent contributor to Ornament, he recently gave his observations of jewelers Rebecca Myers and Holly Lee, residents of Maryland and Pennsylvania respectively. This issue David covers the “Immortal Beauty: Highlights from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection” from Drexel University, where he gives a blow by blow of each gorgeous dress from the university’s extensive holdings.

Cochineal Volume 38.4

Cochineal
The Red That Colored the World

 

FIREFIGHTER’S CEREMONIAL COAT of wool with gold- and silk-thread, Japan, eighteenth-nineteenth century, Edo period. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor. All photographs provided by Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A first-class exhibition stirs up a sensation like jumping off into the unknown. “The Red That Colored the World,” originally at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art, did that and more, taking the novel approach of investigating the long-lost legend of a color. Called “an epic story of art, culture, science, and trade” by Camilla Padilla, exhibition co-curator with Dr. Barbara Anderson, it led one, like going through the Narnia closet, on a great adventure to seize upon marvels of red.

The essential marvel is cochineal: a tiny bug that lives and breeds on prickly pear cactus in the Americas. The female stores in her body enormous quantities of carminic acid, which produces a deep crimson-red dye. For close to two thousand years in Mesoamerica it was cultivated as an ideal colorant for protein fibers like silk and wool. Not until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s in Mexico did cochineal pass into recorded existence and become an invaluable dyestuff in global trade. As an archetype of a brilliant collaboration between nature and human ingenuity, cochineal was and still is applied to almost everything conceivable: textiles and clothing, books, murals, sculpture, furniture, oil paintings, as a varnish on violins, and in cosmetics, food and candy.

PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG WOMAN WITH A HARPSICHORD, artist unknown, Mexico, early eighteenth century. Photograph courtesy of Denver Art Museum.

It took six years to locate and organize around one hundred and twenty-five magnificent examples of art with cochineal, loaned from museums and collections in London, New York, Denver, and Austin, and from Mexico, Peru, Spain, and Italy. The exceptional quality and craftsmanship of the selection celebrates how much red mattered. Whatever the culture or the epoch, red connoted rank and wealth and symbolized the sacred. It was hard to produce. The exhibition included samples of other natural sources of red dye—vermilion, cinnabar, lac, kermes, madder, even Polish and Armenian cochineal. They were expensive, toxic to extract, and not very stable. By comparison, cochineal was a dream, because of its super-saturation, its colorfastness and its ability, combined with mordants like lime or alum, to create an amazing spectrum of colors, from pink and salmon to apricot, magenta, scarlet, and a rich plum purple. A gilded beech armchair, upholstered in warm red wool dyed with cochineal, came from Napoleon’s council room at Malmaison. Cochineal was so coveted (and everyone was forking over such a fortune to the Spanish to buy it) that Napoleon offered a hefty “prize of 20,000 livres to the person who will find how to give wool by means of madder a solid vivid color… which most closely resembles cochineal scarlet.”

Maybe to stymie competitors, the Spanish claimed it was a grana, a little seed. Europeans never realized it was an insect until the invention of the microscope in the late seventeenth century. By the same token, everything in the exhibition was tested. Mark MacKenzie, head of the museum’s conservation department, did approximately twenty-five hundred analysis runs using primarily HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) technology to confirm wherever American cochineal was present. The point was not for viewers to figure out that a particular red comes from cochineal, like finding Waldo in a crowd, but to amplify our appreciation for its singular and inexplicable beauty. 

THE SAVIOR by El Greco, from the Apostles series, Toledo, Spain, circa 1608-1614. Photograph by Tomas Antelo, Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España

Cochineal travelled everywhere. A sixteenth-century painting by El Greco of El Salvador in a red robe, and a Van Gogh picture from 1888 of a pair of worn boots both contain it. Spanish colonial artists lavished cochineal red, called carmine lake by pigment makers, on sumptuous rococo-inflected devotional art. Cochineal turns an eighteenth-century Japanese ceremonial firefighter’s coat bright red, and animates embroidered silk flowers with a vivacious wine red in an early nineteenth-century valance from Samarkand in Central Asia. From Mexico, the pièce de résistance is an eighteenth-century lacquerware papelera (writing chest) made in Michoacán and intricately painted with mythological figures, flowers and landscape views containing a soft berry red.

Once synthetic dyes came along in the late nineteenth century, red went into decline as a precious color. But since the 1970s, a revival of interest in natural dyes has steadily grown. Today Peru produces over eighty-five percent of the cochineal on the market, with the Canary Islands close behind. Fashion and textile artists especially favor cochineal. Two dresses from designer Mariano Fortuny were one of the crowning glories of the exhibition. Fortuny had a passion for color and experimented with cochineal to produce a palette of superb reds. To see an iconic pleated-silk Delphos gown up close is to realize just why he was called the Magician of Venice.

“The Red That Colored the World,” an integral part of Santa Fe’s 2015 Summer of Color, has now closed. Fortunately, there is still an opportunity to see this thematic presentation in another venue. It is showing at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, through March 21, 2016. 

PAPELERA, writing desk of pine, lacquer and iron, Mexico, eighteenth century. Photograph courtesy of Museo Franz Mayer.

 
 

Leslie Clark is a freelanced writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Clark, who claims red is her favorite color, was flabbergasted by her visit to the “The Red That Colored the World” exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art up on Museum Hill. “I had no idea how exhaustively people worked, for centuries, to produce a red color. No wonder kings and prelates hogged it for themselves. Cochineal changed everything. Even now, with synthetic dyes around, its amazing properties are still the best. It makes you grateful to Mother Nature and those little bugs.”

Orientalism Volume 38.4 Preview

Orientalism
Where East Met West in the Court of Versailles

 

MADAME D’AGUESSEAU DE FRESNES by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1789. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Samuel H. Kress Collection (1946.7.16). 

"Fashion victim” is a very modern term for a very old phenomenon. In eighteenth-century France, petite-maîtresse—meaning “little mistress”—was the preferred term for someone who followed fashion for its own sake, regardless of how arbitrary, expensive, ugly, or unflattering it might be. Like today’s “fashion victim,” it could be an insult or a compliment, depending on your perspective; after all, you had to be fashionable in order to be called a fashion victim. It was even said that Marie-Antoinette—perhaps the ultimate fashion victim—was “prouder of the title ‘petite-maîtresse’ than ‘Queen of France.’ ” The petite-maîtresse and her male equivalent, the petit-maître, may have been fashion victims, but they were also fashion role models, appearing in fashion magazines and fashion plates...

 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian specializing in fashion and textiles, and a frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. This issue she investigates the surprisingly extensive impact of the Orient on European culture... and most importantly, clothes. Though refracted, interpreted, and distorted through the prism of the West, the styles of East Asian and Middle Eastern fashion had an indelible effect on Parisian couture. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette published by Yale University Press this year.