Friday, February 20, 2009

The Meaning of Clothing -- A More Informative Post

Many who are interested in this topic may be unaware of the fine material (pun intended) that is sitting on college and university library shelves or in online academic journals. As I have STILL not yet completed the paper that I am writing (been stalled by surgeries and recoveries), and because people are interested in "the meaning of clothing" and in how "cloth communicates", I will devote this post to pointing a few fingers in a few directions. My own interest is both world historical and ethnographic, focusing on India as the "mother lode" for the production, design and diffusion of textiles. I am particularly intrigued in how the meaning and symbolism of what people wear varies according to context (ex: how members of diaspora communities maintain or reinvent "traditional" identities). I do not approach this topic from the angle of "fashion", though of course much has been written on that aspect as well. Getting to the point: if you are interested in "the meaning of clothing" the place to start is with social and cultural theory. For me, it began with the late Annette Weiner's essay on "The Anthropology of Cloth" that appeared in the Annual Review of Anthropology in the late'80s or so., followed by contributions to her co-edited volume of multi-authored essays, Cloth and the Human Experience. Depending on your particular (global or temporal) area of interest, I would then head to JSTOR and Project Muse, both online archives of academic journals, which, if you work or are a student at any college or university you have free access to. Even if you are not a student or staff member, you might get limited guest privileges on the premises at a private college or university library, and as a taxpayer you are entitled to use (again, with limitations), computer terminals at any state funded library. In either case only a few computer terminals will available for guest users, your time will also probably be limited, but at least the situation is not hopeless. I doubt that small public libraries subscribe to databases of academic journals, but ones located in very large cities might, ex: New York Public Library. In the U.S., if your local state university library is "open stack" then you are in luck and can have a field day. But note that you will not find relevant books on "the meaning of clothing" in any single LC or Dewey category; again, depending on your topic you will be hopping from sociology, to politics, history, folklore, anthropology, art, area studies, cultural studies, communication, and so on. In fact, art books with reproductions of European paintings or Indian temple reliefs or the Ajanta caves are wonderful sources for documenting cross-cultural influences over the course of centuries, including such surprising things as priests in Italy or England wearing vestments produced in Aleppo or Damascus, inscribed with calligraphic verses from the Qur'an. If you are looking at anything that is woven, don't leave out the so-called "Oriental rugs", which can be seen in so many Renaissance paintings and even traced back to their locus of production through close examination of tribal or urban workshop designs. Which reminds me of Amy Greenfield's A Perfect Red, on the history of cochineal, and Brian Murphy's The Root of Wild Madder, both very readable and informative. I refer in two recent published pieces (one on Dutch art, the other on "Big History in Little Places" --- scroll below) to the hats atop the heads of 17th century Dutch burghers made of beaver pelts that likely originated through trade with Native American tribes in southern New England, spread as a fashion statement across the English channel, surviving today as icons of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving in the U.S. If you are writing a paper for college your theoretical framework or hypotheses must be generic (even before Annette Weiner reminded scholars of this fact, it has long been a commonplace that universally, cloth and the body "communicate," especially on ritual occasions), but the subject of cloth and textiles is too vast to be comprehended on a world scale. You will have to narrow your focus to the meaning of clothing to particular people in a particular place and at a particular time and purpose. Perhaps someone is working on a comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Textiles, maybe one exists and I don't know about it yet (for example, there is a Cambridge U.P multi-authored series on the world history of food). Even for India, I have chosen to limit my topic to the west coast, to what are now the states of Gujarat and adjacent Rajasthan because they are of most interest to me. If your interest is India and you get to Amdavad/Ahmedabad consider yourself lucky when they let you into the private Sarabhai haveli collection for an hour, where you get to rush past magnificent stuff in near darkness on condition that you don't radically deviate from the canned tour. I don't mean to criticize them, after all the family bankrolled Gandhiji and is now taking flak from the Gujarat state government for reasons too complicated to go into here. Delhi national museums occasionally mount world-class textile exhibitions, and the V & A in London is a treasury for the imperial and colonial periods. In the U.S. there is the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. All have websites and publications. If you are in Gujarat you should go Patan where there are 2 or 3 caste/families still producing one or two saris a year called "patolu", an incredibly labor intensive work of double-sided and dyed silk ikat "tie-die". They were invited some years ago to the Smithsonian's "Silk Road" festival on the D.C. mall. Keep in mind how many of our common English words for different types of cloth / textiles are of Indian origin, and even when not (ex: paisley) can still be traced back to central Asia and the beginnings of industrial production in Europe and North America. What, after all, did high class and eventually middle-class people want most of all that came originally from "the East?" After porcelain and spices comes cloth. See Susan Bean's wonderful work Yankee India, which is devoted mainly to Bengal but is so important for shedding light on a trade that is less well-known in the U.S. than the early American China trade. She also has a marvelous essay on "The Indian Origins of the Bandanna" and on the khadi movement led by Gandhi during the freedom struggle. somewhere. C.A. Bayly has a piece on swadeshi movement in general, that pre-dates Gandhi, Lisa Trivedi devoted an entire monograph to Clothing Gandhi's Nation: Homespun and Modern India, and more recently, Fr. Peter Gonsalves has written on the same subject from the perspective of major theories in cultural/communication studies (see comment below for book title). Emma Tarlo, working as an ethnographer in Gujarat, was the first to treat clothing as used in Gujarat from a holistic, anthropological perspective in her book, Clothing Matters. It includes a chapter on Gandhi as well. Bernard S. Cohn has two wonderful essays on the multiple meanings of cloth during the period of Mughal rule, and Arjun Appadurai's "The Social Life of Things" is also a starting point. For American studies, Laurel Ulrich's The Age of Homespun is both pioneering and brilliant in its interdisciplinary conception. Finally, random keyword Google searching using Google "Scholar" or "Books" is likely to be more useful than Blog searching. You found me, but I haven't had much to offer until now. The photo above was taken by me in Patan in 2006. The Salvi family produced the garments of Southeast Asian royalty, prized pieces of which are hanging in the V & A right by the Ardebil carpet. Good luck in your researches. I hope that I have been somewhat more helpful with this post, though this is still but the tip of a very large iceberg!