African-Print Fashion Volume 41.2

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS  in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.  Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA .

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.

WOMAN WEARING DRESS printed with portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Union flags, black and white photograph, circa 1977. Photograph by Jacques Toussele, © Jacques Toussele.

In 2015 Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo expressed her affinity for African-print cloth, stating, “This is our cloth. Our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers have worn this cloth for too many years for it not to be ours.” Her passionate words suggest the fervor with which African-print cloth is linked to African identity as well as an awareness of its transnational history and present. Its story begins in the late nineteenth century, when the (mostly female) traders in what is now Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, encountered European merchants arriving with a new kind of fabric—vividly-patterned wax prints. These women, from communities that had for generations revered well-made textiles and appreciated imported goods, recognized the potential of the colorful wares and suggested to the merchants motifs and hues that would appeal to their customers.

One merchant in particular, Scotland’s Ebenezer Brown Fleming, who was working with a company in the Netherlands, listened to the feedback his agent received, and, around 1890, began offering printed cloths that—though manufactured by machines in Europe and inspired by handmade batik fabrics from Indonesia—became entirely African. Scholar Helen Elands states concisely that, “It was African interaction in design choices that enabled African aesthetics and cultural values to pervade these products, allowing them to carry connotations of tradition and authenticity.” Many contemporary fashion designers, both in Africa and the diaspora, continue to embrace African-print cloth, which is now manufactured in Europe, Africa and Asia, as a declaration of their connection to Africa. Though these fabrics are delicately entangled in the complexities of Colonialism, technology, consumerism, and style, they are, at heart, African and in innumerable ways, global. 

ALEXIS TEMOMANIN, DESIGNER FOR DENT DE MAN. LES TOILES D’ARAIGNÉE: MAN’S SUIT in wax print by Vlisco, the Netherlands, 2016. Courtesy of Dent de Man, London, UK. Photograph by Marc Hibbert.

Several recent exhibitions have focused on African design and fashion, including “Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design” organized by the Vitra Design Museum in 2015-2019; “South of the Sahara: Accelerated Urbanism in Africa” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2016; “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2016-2017; and “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” in 2017-2019. This last exhibition, conceived by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2014 just before an explosion in popularity of African-print fashion, focused on the cloth and fashion of West and Central Africa, addressing their history and contemporary iterations while conveying the multifaceted networks of international trade that shaped them and the intricate expressions of identity that they embody. Its lavishly illustrated catalogue, with essays by numerous scholars, including the four co-curators: Suzanne Gott, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine, stands as a permanent record of a dazzling exhibition.

The terminology used to describe and the technology used to create African-print cloth vary between countries and over time. In the standard hierarchy of African prints, though, “wax prints” generally are the most desirable and are produced with a resist-dye process employing engraved metal rollers that results in fabric printed on both sides and showing characteristic undyed areas of crackles and bubbles; additional layers of color are applied through a variety of methods. “Fancy prints” are printed on one side of the fabric through numerous methods, but do not use the resist-dye process, while “imi-wax prints,” or imitation wax prints, are a kind of fancy print designed to imitate the effect of the resist-dye process. All of these boldly-patterned and brightly-colored fabrics are considered African prints.

MEMBERS OF A GROUP wearing the classic God’s Eye pattern for the Cape Coast Fetu Afahye Festival, Ghana, 2012. Photograph by Betsy D. Quick.

The motifs on African-print cloth range from alphabets to handbags, iPods to chickens, radiating spirals to elaborate hair braid styles. Some early designs derive from Indonesian images, like Tree of Life or Bunch of Bananas (also called Shell), which initially represented the wing of the legendary Garuda bird of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. Others reflect patterns from traditional African textiles, such as Sun Ray or Target, a design based on tie-dyed fabrics, or Angelina, also called Dashiki and based on Ethiopian tunics with embroidered neck yokes and borders. Especially popular motifs include a hand with coins, a human eye, and fingers, and these often relate to familiar proverbs like “The palm of the hand is sweeter than the back of the hand,” and “I am left with only my eyes to watch you.” Some designs reflect significant current events, like Ghana’s independence from colonial rule on March 6, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the visit of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009, or International Women’s Day. Others are produced for specific occasions such as weddings or funerals.

IN A VILLAGE NEAR BROBO, CÔTE D’IVOIRE, an unidentified woman wears a wax-print featuring the distinctive skyline of Abidjan, 1992. The three-piece complet, made from six meters of printed cloth, is considered by many to be traditional Ivorian dress and is associated with propriety, discretion, moral fortitude, and a high regard for tradition. Photograph by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Though the earliest African-print cloth was manufactured in Europe, companies began producing prints in Africa during the independence era (late 1950s-1970s), and by the early twenty-first century, countries in Asia, especially China, made their own versions of African-print cloth. In many African countries the “original” wax prints from the Netherlands are revered as the most prestigious, while at times the pride of local manufacture has taken precedent. The purchasing power of Africans declined radically following the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the late 1980s and 1990s, creating an opening for less costly products from Asia. The recent influx of inexpensive Asian imports has both strengthened devotion to higher-end products and spurred popular interest in and use of African-print cloths as it has made them more accessible. Anthropologist Nina Silvanus describes the cloth as “full of irony,” and “a true hybrid—at once Javanese, Dutch, English, African, and now increasingly Chinese,” adding, “the archive of wax cloth complicates claims about origin, originality, and authenticity.”

Regardless of where the cloths are printed, they acquire their names in Africa. In her essay, Kathleen Bickford Berzock explains that “the long-standing practice of the naming of wax-print patterns by the consumers who purchase, wear, and collect them is part of its enculturation into local frames of meaning and value,” adding that the popularity of a print increases once it receives a name. 

A cloth’s name, motif or related proverb speaks clearly to its wearer’s peers. One popular print for mothers, midwifes, or women desiring children is Children are Better than Money, while a particular fancy print from the early 1990s incorporates the proverb En attendant mon grotto (“Waiting for my grotto”—an Ivorian slang term similar to “sugar daddy”) below an image with a young woman pointing to the desirable possessions of a Mercedes-Benz and a single-family home, against a pattern of coins. 

Berzock quotes folklorist Susan Domowitz on how, among the communities she studied in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, prints based on proverbs sometimes offered “an acceptable public voice to those who are constrained to silence.” 

KEN TRAORÉ, DESIGNER. KENYA’S STYLE: Pagne et marinière of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.

African fashion was, and in many places still is, primarily custom rather than ready-to-wear, and Suzanne Gott, in one of her contributions to the catalogue, describes the process as “an ever-changing, grassroots phenomenon.” The first, and most crucial step, is for the woman to select the cloth. The woman then takes her special fabric to a seamstress or tailor to be made into a traditional form, like the ntoma (the equivalent of “cloth”) ensemble in Ghana with a sewn blouse, wrapper or sewn skirt, and an unsewn cloth (an outfit typically requiring six yards of cloth) or the taille basse in Senegal (a fitted top with a peplum worn over a wrapper), or into something contemporary. Examples of these garments featured in the African-Print Fashion Now! catalogue include Senegalese designer Ken Traoré’s taille basse and head scarf from 2016 in bright yellow with orange flowers and olive-colored leaves, and Ivorian designer/seamstress Delphine Kouassi’s trois-pagnes (the Ivorian national dress) in a brilliant print of greens, turquoise and brown with sparkling metallic trim edging the ruffles—the sparkles surprised Saundra Lang, who commissioned this as a daytime dress, but when she expressed that, Koaussi replied, “This is how we dress in the daytime!”

Portraits from the 1960s and 1970s—described as “West and Central Africa’s ‘golden age’ of black and white photography”—emphasize the role these fabrics and garments have played in communicating identity, status, wealth, style, and ideas. Images by Francis K. Honny, working in coastal urban Ghana, show relatives posed in formal settings wearing matching prints to visually emphasize their familial ties, while ones by Mory Bamba, an itinerant photographer from Mali, depict young subjects outdoors in elaborate, chic ensembles. The photographs give faces, emotions, settings, and accessories to the African prints, and bear witness to the Ghanian proverb, “A beautiful cloth does not wear itself.”

BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS: Portrait of man and woman by Francis K. Honny, Elmina, Ghana, circa 1975. Courtesy of Tobias Wendl. Portrait of young Peulh women and men by Mory Bamba, Sikasso region of southeastern Mali, circa 1978. Courtesy of Adama Bamba, © Mory Bamba. Portrait of woman and child by Jacques Toussele, 1970s. © Jacques Toussele. Photography spread quickly in the 1960s and 1970s with people in rural villages inviting traveling photographers to their communities to take their pictures.

One of the key manufacturers of African-print cloth is Vlisco, which formed in 1970 with the merger of two much older Dutch companies, P. F. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co. and Deventer Katoen Maatschappij voorheen Ankersmit & Co. (DKM). In 2006, Vlisco changed its approach from “a production-focused to a brand-driven fashion textile manufacturer,” and through its dynamic advertising campaigns, established itself as a significant fashion force. Vlisco created numerous outstanding garments considered “communication fashion,” described in the catalogue as “one-of-a-kind outfits created solely to ‘inspire’ Vlisco’s targeted consumers—well-educated elite and upper middle-class African women.” A 2013 example of this type of garment is a dress ensemble, in red, yellow and green, by Dutch designer Inge van Lierop (who was looking to nineteenth-century tailoring for inspiration), which features a fitted, long-sleeve top with a high collar and puffed shoulders of one pattern and an extravagantly voluminous skirt of a second pattern depicting traditional icons of African-print design, like fans, hands with coins and Bunch of Bananas, on pedestals—regally celebrating the cyclical nature of African-print fashion.

Today many African fashion designers, regardless of whether they are trained and based in Africa or the diaspora, embrace African-print fashion, according to Kristyne S. Loughran, who notes that, “Its aesthetic creates a direct and immediate visual link to Africa.” Lisa Folawiyo created a short dress in 2016 that combines two prints with detailed hand-embellishment—small beads sewn on the wedge of leaf-patterned fabric in the skirt and in the white dots above the waist, while Ituen Bassey, an award-winning designer from Nigeria who is partly based in London, designed a short dress in 2009 with glowing rainbow bands of African-print cloth that reference a tradition of patchwork. A standout example of this transnational connection is a dress designed by a teenager in New Jersey in 2015 to wear to prom; Kyemah McEntyre captured the attention of social media with her long-sleeved, décolletage, full-skirted gown of the Angelina pattern, quickly becoming a fashion sensation and sparking a vogue for African-print prom dresses.

BÉATRICE MANOVAN, DESIGNER. DRESS, Abidjan, 2016. SALOME LENANA wears a two-piece West African-style taille basse outfit, locally made in Nairobi, Kenya, 1994. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine. NICOLE AMIEN, DESIGNER. TWO-PIECE ENSEMBLE, wax print, Uniwax, Côte d’Ivoire, 2016.

WALÉ OYÉJIDÉ, DESIGNER FOR IKIRÉ JONES. MAN’S JACKET, trousers and scarf of African-print cloth, Untold Renaissance collection, 2014.

Alex Temomanin, from Côte d’Ivoire, who established his Dent de Man brand in London, handpicks each print used in his garments based on its emotional resonance to his own experiences and its universal storytelling capacity. His trimly tailored man’s suit of a Vlisco spiderweb print, Les Toiles D’araignée conveys how as a teenager he felt trapped in a web—trying to figure out his identity, dealing with the fragility of poverty—and how he found comfort in fabrics, which were often his only toys as a child.

A man’s black-tie ensemble, designed by Nigerian-born Walé Oyéjidé for Ikiré Jones, the Philadelphia-based label he established with his partner Sam Hubler in 2013, features a red-printed jacket, black pants and a silk scarf. The scarf, from the Untold Renaissance collection, depicts an African man in eighteenth-century European garb against a collage of conventional European imagery. The textile raises issues related to immigration and, according to the label’s website, “the absence of persons of color in Medieval and Renaissance-era European art,” while relying on “the sampling method used in hip hop culture.” (A related Ikiré Jones scarf appeared in the recent blockbuster movie and fashion tour-de-force Black Panther.)

Diablos (Maguette Traore), a graffiti artist and designer from Senegal, explains, “I use African elements, like le wax. You just have to delve into your parental values, your ancestral values,” and Leslie W. Rabine writes that, “like other Dakar streetwear designers, he makes African print a deeply symbolic component of Senegalese hip-hop.” One of his outfits comprises a handpainted T-shirt with shrimp-printed chaya (traditional baggy, low-crotched pants).

DEEP DAKART, DESIGNER FOR MIZÉRABLES GRAFFF. HOODIE AND T-SHIRT of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.


In this increasingly interconnected world, African-print fashion is an appropriate rallying point for African cultural identity. The catalogue for African-Print Fashion Now!, as did the recent exhibition, allows room for and even celebrates the complexity of its subject. The project brought together work by award-winning couturiers, unidentified seamstresses and many young designers, augmenting it with selections of accessories wrapped in prints, photography and contemporary art to convey the range of production and the cultural permeation of African-print cloth. Hassan Hajjaj’s stunning Afrikan Boy from 2012, a large photograph in a frame of sardine tins, combines art with fashion, showing a well-dressed man with an umbrella and a myriad of patterns. Essayist Hansi Momodu-Gordon writes of “the empowered individuality of [Hajjaj’s] subjects, who are not bound by singular definitions but appear as citizens of a global exchange of ideas,” words that could apply to all who wear African-print fashion.

 
 

HASSAN HAJJAJ. Afrikan Boy, 2012, My Rock Stars Volume 2 series; Metallic Lambda print on 3mm Dibond in wood frame with Geisha maquereau tins, 136 x 93 centimeters. Private Collection.

 
 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The quotations cited are drawn from essays written for the catalogue African Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style.

SUGGESTED READING
Gott, Suzanne, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine.
African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017. 
African-Print Fashion Now! Videos from the Fowler Museum: https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/african-print-fashion-now

“African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” showed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 7, 2018 - April 28, 2019; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, February 24 - August 12, 2018; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, March 26 - July 30, 2017.

 

Click for Captions

 

Get Inspired!


Ashley-Callahan-Contributor2017.jpg

Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts and craft. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York, and Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens. In 2015, the University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion. This issue, she writes about the use of Dutch Vlisco wax print fabrics by African designers, in an article entitled “African-Print Fashion: Transnational Flair.”

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.

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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.

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.