You Are What You Wear
Five artworks that show how the things you wear tell about who you are.
Idea One: How she wished to be seen
The wealthy Comtesse d’Egmont Pignatelli could afford to sit for a fine portrait by Alexander Roslin, one of Europe’s most famous painters. From life at the royal court of King Louis XV of France, she knew the importance of appearance. Her portrait should highlight her best qualities and draw attention to her accomplishments.
The countess’s glowing gown of white satin has sleeves slashed and woven through with ribbons and pearls, in the Spanish style. It hints at her husband’s connection to the Spanish court and the couple’s habit of entertaining Spanish ambassadors at their home. The countess’s pose was carefully calculated. Since other famous women had been painted reclining in the same manner, it showed that she too was important.
The picture contains clues to the Comtesse d’Egmont’s favorite activities. A talented musician, the countess played the guitar for her Spanish guests. She spent her days studying history and literature and conversing with artists and poets. The book she is holding may be a work by the famous philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The countess wears a raised lace Medici collar. It called to mind an earlier French king, Henry IV, and his queen Marie de Médicis.
Sheet music and a guitar are tucked beside the countess in her chair. The view of the outdoors recalls her favorite country home.
The Comtesse d’Egmont exchanged letters with King Gustav III of Sweden about her efforts to help the writer Jean-Jacques Rosseau. This book may be by Rousseau.
Idea Two: A crown that conceals and reveals
During the 11th century in Africa, the Yoruba of western Nigeria began to rule the region south of the Sahara. The lands of western Africa did not have strict boundaries at that time, and the Yoruba were not united into one kingdom. Many different Yoruba kings ruled over many different city-states. But each tribal king had to trace his ancestry to the original royal family of Oduduwa, the Father of the Yoruba. Kings descended from the god Oduduwa himself were considered divine. They were called obas.
The Yoruba became very powerful. In the 17th century they took control of the trade routes in western Africa, which brought great wealth to Yorubaland. From Europe, in the 19th century, came tiny glass beads that were highy prized. Such beads were used on objects made for the obas, including slippers and footrests, fans and flywhisks, and thrones and crowns.
Of all the beadwork created for an oba, the veiled crown, or adenla, was the most important. Worn only on ceremonial occasions, it gave the oba power to speak with ancestral spirits in order to help his people. The gathering of birds refers to the power of royal women, and the beaded veil protects ordinary people from the face of a living god. The crown was always treated with the respect due the oba, even when he was not wearing it.
The crown’s large face represents a royal ancestor. Vertical markings identify the king’s lineage. A pouch of magical herbs was placed inside the crown by a priest. It was thought that if the king looked at the inside of his crown he would go blind.
The birds on the crown represent the power of divine elder women called the Mothers, who help and protect the king.
Idea Three: Reuniting the living with the dead
For the Asmat people of Papua, on the island of New Guinea, family and ancestors have great importance. To honor deceased family members, especially those lost to sudden illness or injury, the Asmat perform various rituals and ceremonies. Every so often they hold a great celebration, called a Jipae, for those who have recently died. The whole village works together preparing it.
Relatives make a full-body mask, called a doroe, to embody the spirit of each deceased person. Creating a doroe takes a group of three to five men many months. The men work in secret because women are not allowed to see the masks until they are completed. Doroe are made of fibers from plants that grow in the tropical rain forest of Asmat. The doroe tops are crocheted, with pieces of shell or wood added for the eyes, ears, and nose. The masks are finished with long fronds of grass forming a skirt and sleeves that sway and rustle when the dancers wear them.
The families of the dead show great emotion at being reunited with their loved ones during the Jipae ceremony. They weep and dance with them and offer them food and gifts. Drums, flutes, singing, and bullroarers loudly accompany the ceremonial masks over a period of many days or weeks, bringing them to life. When the ceremony is over, the spirits are encouraged to move on from the land of the living into the land of the ancestors, called Safan. After a final round of tearful goodbyes, the men ritually kill the doroe, burn the fronds, and cast the crocheted tops into young sago palm trees in the jungle. As the palm trees grow, the masks rise toward the sky, symbolizing the journey of the spirits to the land of Safan.
A drum is used to accompany the dancers in the Jipae.
For special occasions, the Asmat paint their bodies and wear headdresses decorated with feathers.
Photo by Amy Fistler, University of St. Thomas
Idea Four: Bags of beauty and power
The Anishinaabe of the Great Lakes/Woodlands region of the United States, are known for making decorative bandolier bags. Such bags have a wide strap that goes across the chest, like the shoulder belts (called bandoliers) worn by European soldiers to carry their ammunition bags. Anishinaabe bandolier bags were used mainly for show rather than for carrying things. They are sometimes worn in unmatched pairs, one on each side of the body, as part of a man’s dance outfit.
Early bags, which were quite small, were made of deer or buffalo hide and embroidered with dyed porcupine quills. Later, cotton or wool was used, with colorful glass seed beads for decoration. Women made the bandolier bags. They learned as young girls how to make the intricate designs and also learned the meanings of the abstract designs. The bags became precious heirlooms, worn during ceremonies and celebrations. They were once so valuable that one bag could be traded for a pony.
The geometric shapes on this bag represent manitos, or spirit beings. The rectangles going up each side of the pouch symbolize the Underwater Panther. On the left side of the strap, two triangles joined at their tips, in an hourglass shape, stand for the Thunderbird. Thunderbirds signify the power of the sky. Using symbolic decoration was a way of paying respect to these powerful forces.
The thunderbird is a manito of the upper world. Its realm is the sky.
The abstract images on the bandolier bag refer to the power of nature. Tracks of animals and birds coexist with symbols of the manitos.
Idea Five: Only the best for baby
High in the mountains of southern China, the Miao live in remote villages. Most of them are farmers who spend a lot of time out in the fields and live in homes without electricity or modern plumbing. Miao mothers need a safe and secure way to carry a baby while they live and work in harsh conditions. Miao baby carriers hold the baby with a sturdy panel that is tied around the mother’s body with long straps.
In Miao culture, babies are a sign of wealth, happiness, and family. Baby carriers symbolize the ties between mother and child. Carriers form part of the ceremonial costumes that young women wear at festivals, even women who are not yet married. By wearing a baby carrier, a young woman announces that she is ready for marriage and hopes to have a child.
The most intricate and skillfully made Miao textiles are the baby carriers, with their colorful embroidery, woven appliqués, and batik. Sometimes a grandmother makes one as a gift for her new grandchild. Magic charms and talismans cover the carrier to protect the child from harm.
The Miao live in the south of China.
Auspicious (good luck) images are meant to protect the baby from harm.
A Good Keepsake
The Asmat use a doroe, or full-body mask, to represent a relative who has recently died. Think about someone you never see anymore, who died or lives far away. Do you keep something to remind you of that person? What makes a good keepsake? What do you do with it? Write a description of your keepsake and share it with a friend.
Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art to view more portraits. Find a painting or a photograph that includes as many personal items as the portrait of the Comtesse d’Egmont. In your favorite portrait, how does the person’s clothing help you understand more about him or her?
What you wear can tell people something about who you are or what you do. Imagine you are designing a crown for a friend or family member. What shapes and colors would you use? How would you decorate the crown? Now make a drawing or cut and paste images from magazines to show how the crown would look. What do the designs and materials you chose reveal about the person this crown is for?
The beadwork designs on Anishinabe bandolier bags were used on many types of clothing. Search (https://new.artsmia.org/art-artists/) to see examples. Then search the Internet to find photos of Anishinabe wearing traditional garments. You can also use the key words Ojibwe, another name for the Anishinabe, and Chippewa, often used for this Native American tribe in the past. A good place to start your research is the [Minnesota History Center website](http://www.mnhs.org/historycenter).
The Miao people use baby carriers to protect and transport little children. How are babies carried in your community? How do the baby carriers you see compare to those used by the Miao? Which do you prefer? Draw a baby carrier and decorate it with designs and symbols that have meaning for your community.