From the Collection: Women & Clothing

In honor of National Women’s History Month, we are featuring some unique women’s clothing and clothing created by women pulled from our collection to share.

These artifacts span a variety of insights from the maintaining ethnic identity of cultures to political statements in changing worlds. Take a look as we explore items from Ecuador, India, Ivory Coast, China and Ireland.

Preserving ethnic identity

“Yana Anacu” from Ecuador

High in the Andes Mountains north of Quito, you can still find the indigenous ethnic identity in the clothing of the Otavaleno women. The traditional costume, called “churajuna” in Quechua, is worn on a daily basis and is considered to be the closest to the Inca costume worn anywhere in the Andes Mountains. It is a connection to the their history and a way to express their ethnicity.

The Otavalo women’s traditional dress consists of a long dark skirt (called “yana anacu”) with pale underskirt, fastened with a woven belt, an embroidered white blouse with full, lacy sleeves and a shawl. The skirts are actually two separate pieces of cloth with no tailoring at all, simply wrapped around and held in place by the belt.

The outfit would be completed by layers of mostly gold-beaded necklaces and bracelets. The many strings of the tiny gold bead necklaces represent grains of maize and signify the woman’s importance in the Otavalo community; the more beads, the higher the status. Red coral bracelets are traditionally believed to ward off evil spirits.

Politics in clothing

Cheongsam from China

Cheongsam is a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress for women, also known as “qipao”.

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), certain social strata emerged, the Manchu. Manchu women typically wore a one-piece dress that retrospectively came to be known as the “qípáo”. The original qipao was wide and loose. It covered most of the woman’s body, revealing only the head, hands, and the tips of the toes. The baggy nature of the clothing also served to conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age.

With time, though, the qipao were tailored to become more form fitting and revealing. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China began to have more freedom and wanted to modernize their clothing. The cheongsam represented a compromise to western dress and their traditional dress, using traditional Chinese fabrics, like silk and a traditional collar, but the form-fitting cut and lack of binding ties were Western.

The cheongsam soon came to represent the politics of a modernizing China. It was advertised heavily and worn by famous actresses, often with high heels popular in the West. However, when the Communist Party took control of mainland China in 1949, the cheongsam quickly went out of style. By 1966 it was banned by the ruling party. In Hong Kong, on the southeast coast of China, however, which until 1997 was a crown colony of Great Britain with a majority Chinese population, the cheongsam never went out of style. The dress was particularly popular during the 1950s and 1960s, for it marked Hong Kong’s resistance to the changes being brought to China by the Communists, who severely restricted what the Chinese people could wear. (Source)

Stitches as family heirlooms

Aran sweaters from Ireland

At the mouth of Galway Bay are the Aran Islands, home to clans of fisherman and farmers at the mercy of the Atlantic Sea. The wool Aran sweaters, knitted by the women of the islands, reflect this environment and are water repellent. In fact, the Aran sweater can absorb 30% of its weight in water before it feels wet. What also makes these sweaters unique is the craft behind them.

Historically, each family or clan had their own pattern made from a unique combination of stitches. These patterns were closely guarded within clans and passed down from mother to daughter. The sweaters are a reflection of the lives of the knitters and their families. Often the patters were used to identify bodies of fisherman washing up on the beach following accidents at sea. There is even an official register of the patterns recorded and registered at the Aran Sweater Museum on the Aran Islands.

Many of the stitches used in the Aran Sweater are reflective of Celtic Art, and comparisons have been drawn between the stitches and patterns found at Neolithic burial sites such as Newgrange in Co. Meath. Each stitch carries its own unique meaning, a historic legacy from the lives of the Island community many years ago.

The Cable Stitch is a depiction of the fisherman’s ropes, and represents a wish for a fruitful day at sea. The Diamond Stitch reflects the small fields of the islands. These diamonds are sometimes filled with Irish moss stitch, depicting the seaweed that was used to fertilize the barren fields and produce a good harvest. Hence the diamond stitch is a wish for success and wealth. The Zig Zag Stitch, a half diamond, is often used in the Aran Sweaters, and popularly represents the twisting cliff paths on the islands. The Tree of Life is one of the original stitches, and is unique to the earliest examples of the Aran knitwear. It again reflects the importance of the clan, and is an expression of a desire for clan unity, with long-lived parents and strong children. (Source)

Tradition on the wrist

Bangles from India

Bangle bracelets are part of traditional Indian customs. In fact, archeologists have excavated protohistoric ancestors of the bangle from the remains of Indus Valley Civilization dating as far back as 2500-1750 BC.

These ancient bangles are of gold, silver, copper, stone, shell and fired ceramic. In the earliest layers, ceramic bangles are most common.

Today they are usually worn in pairs by women, one or more on each arm. Most Indian women prefer wearing either gold or glass bangles or combination of both. Some are also made of lac,  a natural resin produced by a unique scale insect indigenous to Indian forests.

Bangles are also an important part of the wedding custom for women. Wearing bangles made of glass, gold or other metals signify the long life of the husband as well as good fortune and prosperity. The bride will try to wear as many small glass bangles (using oil to aid as lubricant) as possible at her wedding which signifies that her married life would be full of love and affection. Traditionally, breaking of the bridal glass or lac bangles is considered inauspicious. Every region has a separate set of rituals that are associated with bangles, from how they are gifted and by whom to the materials and traditional colors.

But, it’s also a tradition to wear bangles after marriage for the sake of health, luck and prosperity. In the Indian culture, different colored bangles traditionally signify different things. Red signifies energy and prosperity, while green denotes good luck and fertility. Yellow bangles are meant for happiness, white is for new beginnings and orange is for success. Silver bangles denote strength and gold bangles are the ultimate symbol of fortune and prosperity. (Source)

Intersection of cultural influences

Senufo dress from Ivory Coast

The Senufo live in a region spanning northern Ivory Coast, southeastern Mali, and western Burkina Faso. This dress was woven by hand at a women’s cooperative in the Senufou tribal area of northern Ivory Coast. The blue coloring comes from indigo and the foundation of centuries-old textile traditions throughout Africa. Indigo dye was also known to ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa. Clothes dyed with indigo signify wealth and prestige. The color came to the area with Muslim traders as long ago as the Middle Ages. The style of the dress reflects the Muslim influence as well.

The Senufo are also known for their mud cloth textile technique. Locally-made mud cloth is cotton cloth decorated and dyed with natural materials that blend into the colors of the Senufo landscape. You can learn more about mud cloth here.

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