- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

The Textile Museum’s intriguing exhibit “Draped, Wrapped, & Folded: Untailored Clothing” invites visitors to examine clothing for its “messages”: meanings that certain societies read into the dresses.This may seem an offbeat, somewhat zany, way to look at cloth, but the museum effectively demonstrates that these loose garments or “wrappers” can transmit meaning as surely as the written word.

For this Collectors Gallery show, exhibit curator Lydia Fraser chose examples from 18 countries stretching from Ghana to Guatemala that signal such varied data as the wearer’s age, status, sex and spiritual beliefs.

An exhibit around this approach is unusual, and the museum should be congratulated for testing untried waters. In addition, Miss Fraser uses outstandingly handsome, first-rate objects from the collection to illustrate her point.

For example, the Ewe chiefs and queens of Ghana wear huge wrappers of kente cloth, as shown in the exhibit. Extravagant use of bountiful amounts of the beautiful, horizontally sectioned cloth indicates their royal status.

In Bhutan, women must wear the kira, or wrapped dress. In fact, everyone in the country uses it as the national dress. The cloth’s richness and the way it’s woven, the complexity of designs and significance of the social occasion indicate the wearer’s status, Miss Fraser says.

Most visitors will recognize the sari as India’s native dress for females. An expensive ivory silk one made for a rich, fashion-conscious woman gleams with gold thread designs. An attached exhibit label tells visitors that sari design and use vary in keeping with regional and ethnic differences. The label photo of sari-appareled lower-class women carrying heavy loads of freshly cut grass on their heads confirms this.

Sometimes, the ends of rectangles are sewn to the sides of others, as in the exhibit’s pre-Hispanic “Quechquemitl” woman’s garment. The accompanying photo of a Nahua woman wearing it adds much to understanding the weaving. Another contextual piece, a pre-Hispanic, Mixtec “Codex Borgia” showing a water goddess wearing the dress, is another welcome addition.

The first part of the exhibition displays wrappers made of cloth designed to fold about the body and believed to give physical and spiritual protection. This section also shows how artisans constructed the garments from basic rectangular lengths of cloth woven on looms.

“The idea of the show is to have visitors explore the belief that clothing reflects cultural messages through its simplest form, the rectangle. These rectangles, of course, reflect the looms’ shapes and differing dimensions,” Miss Fraser says.

Most magnificent of these wrappers is the aforementioned one from Ghana. Weavers sewed together narrow rectangular strips of gleaming gold and orange cotton created on small treadle looms.

Fortunately, the curator was able to drape mounds of kente fabric around a Ewe male mannequin, one of just three mannequins in the show because of gallery space limitations, to demonstrate how the cloth was wound around the body and draped over the left shoulder.

She also stretched a large, horizontally striped kente cloth across the wall next to it. Geometrically configured panels such as this often pack the exhibit’s most powerful punches. A photo of an Ewe wearing a kente-cloth wrapper completes the effective display.

The “Lamba” wrapper from the Madagascar Highlands placed next to it contrasts dramatically through its vertical stripes of hot oranges, earth browns, blacks and verdant greens. As elaborate, beaded silk burial cloths, lambas are revered and used only as burial shrouds.

Mounted next to it is a ruby-red “Woman’s Festive Costume” from Tunisia’s Islands of Kerkennah. The exhibit label describes the elaborate stylings and techniques the islanders used to distinguish themselves from mainlanders. In one method, the heavy cotton-and-wool fabric is reversed when embroidered on each side at the top so the dress can be folded over.

The crimsons and the intricacy of the decorating make this “Wrapped Garment” an exhibit standout.

At first, the Mapuche peoples’ red-and-white-striped “Poncho” on the far wall doesn’t look like a wrapper. However, the Mapuches adopted large, rectangularly shaped wrappers with neck openings such as this to fight on horseback. The exhibit label says they credited their success — they fought off the Incas, Spanish and Chileans until the late 1800s — to this kind of poncho.

For them, it came to stand for their strength and tenacity.

In most cultures, dress is made by individuals for personal wearing. Not so with the Bushong peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire). The exhibit label for a Bushong raffia “Woman’s Skirt,” and photo of men and women dancing explains the communal making and ownership of these skirts.

Guatemalan textiles have been admired in the West for centuries, and the museum’s “Woman’s Costume” on a female mannequin shows why. Rectangular panels created on a simple native backstrap loom are sewn together to make a woman’s tunic called a huipil. Rectangular sections are attached along the long edges and delicately sewn together for the tubelike skirt.

Previous exhibits in the museum’s Collectors Gallery — shows from the permanent collection, such as last summer’s “The Art of Resist Dyeing” — haven’t received the special treatments accorded larger exhibitions. Now, in placing these superb textiles in context through photographs, maps, drawings and mannequin displays, exhibits such as “Untailored Clothing” are receiving what they deserve in museum support.

WHAT: “Draped, Wrapped, & Folded: Untailored Clothing”

WHERE: Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, through June 6.

TICKETS: Free, with a suggested donation of $5

PHONE: 202/667-0441

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