- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

One can easily picture hordes of “barbarian” horsemen galloping across 4,000 miles of the Eurasian steppes when viewing the Textile Museum’s spectacular exhibit, “Silk & Leather: Splendid Attire of 19th-Century Central Asia,” even though the clothing in the show dates from relatively modern times.

Iranian, Turkic and Mongol nomads invaded areas that stretched from the Central Asian territories of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to the borders of modern-day China. It was China where they found — and seized — the legendary silk they incorporated into their customary leather, fur and felt garments for the hybrid apparel on display.

The show focuses on the fusion of art and culture that produced the beautifully stitched leather boots, a girl’s wool conical hat decorated with feathers, and many embroidered designs, including a deerskin pouch and cotton “Woman’s Bridal Veil” from the Pamir Tajik region.

The nomads invented the versatile “steppe style” of caftans, tunics, trousers, hats, boots, belts and sashes as early as 2,000 B.C. — a mode suited to the harsh cold and need for mobility. Consider, as well, that recent archaeological digs in areas around the Taklamakan Desert in China’s Xinjiang Province uncovered mummies dressed in similar clothing. (Taklamakan aptly means “go in and you won’t come out” in Turki, and these poor people never made it out.)

It’s a big leap in time from these 2,000 B.C. to circa A.D. 500 mummies in “steppe style” clothing — you can see some of them at the Xinjian Provincial Museum in Urumqi — to the caftans that serve as the core designs for 19th-century Western jackets and coats, layered Japanese kimonos and Chinese robes and coats.

They demonstrate the practicality, variety and beauty of northern Eurasian steppe dress that developed over the centuries in conjunction with the nomads’ need for mobility on horseback and in wheeled wagons and chariots.

Exhibit curator John T. Wertime pulled off a major coup by including the rare, enormous silk-embroidered doeskin-and-fur “Man’s Caftan” from Tashkent, a gift to the museum from noted textile collector Caroline McCoy-Jones. Tashkent had a settled city population with clothing professionals who could have produced it for a wealthy man to wear for celebratory purposes, perhaps a Kazakh khan who would have purchased it for the equivalent of one or more of his prized horses.

Mr. Wertime also speculates that the garment’s large, blue-outlined motifs in front and back may have originated with the “animal style” of the steppes in the first millennium B.C.

Caftans were the most important article of male dress and regarded as “robes of honor,” he notes.

Eight of these dazzle in the first gallery, especially a rare, yellow-and-red geometrically patterned cotton “Man’s Caftan” from Shahr-e Sabz, south of Samarkand; a stunning “Woman’s Caftan” from Bukhara fashioned in brilliantly colored, ikat (tie-dyed) flowing geometric shapes; and an unusual, silk/satin “Woman’s Caftan” of block-printed, blue-and-green paired strips.

The weavers preserved their narrow-stripped ground looms from earlier times in making the later robes and accessories. One has to look carefully to see the delicately sewn threads that attach the narrow panels to appreciate what Mr. Wertime describes as “the continuum and conservative” nature of the art.

Caftan decorations are often geometric or floral, but the brilliant red silk blossoms of the deep indigo blue “Child’s Overshirt” are different and eye-catching because of their abstract” design. The matching cap in the adjoining gallery is an interesting complement that underscores the importance of warm but colorful clothing, subtly embellished to contrast with the bleak, arid steppes.

Also of note are the conical embroidered headpieces that look like our “witches’ hats” and were worn by Central Asian dervishes.

Handsomely embroidered tall boots (similar to those popular today), belts, pouches, purses and sheaths for women’s long hair — which was believed to be the crux of her fertility — round out this innovative, handsome show.

WHAT: “Silk & Leather: Splendid Attire of 19th-Century Central Asia”

WHERE: The Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. through 5 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 26

TICKETS: Admission free with a suggested donation of $5

PHONE: 202/667-0441

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