Archive for August, 2010

Steve Price on “Vintage Fashions from Around the World”

Posted in Uncategorized on August 16, 2010 by rjohn

On July 17, 2010, Steve Price

gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning at The Textile Museum here in Washington, D.C. on the topic “Vintage Fashions from Around the World.”

Steve, who describes himself as an eclectic collector of textiles, presented and discussed an array of clothing textiles from Africa, Central Asia, India, Japan and mainland Southeast Asia.

Tom Goehner,

the TM Curator of Education, introduced Steve, saying that he is well-known in the rug world, these days especially, as the editor and technical manager of, a rug and textile discussion board, now in its 13th year.

He added that Steve has also written and presented in a number of other venues.  He contributed actively to the Oriental Rug Review, in its day, and has written for Hali.  He has also contributed to ACOR conferences and to some by ICOC.

Tom quoted Steve as saying that “in real life” he is a professor of physiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

Steve started by saying that

he expected that most folks in the audience had come (as he does mostly himself at such sessions) to see the material and that he would get to that quickly.

But, he admitted that, since he is a professor, he finds that he cannot avoid entirely a little lecturing, and so he would begin with that, but would keep it brief.

(Editor’s note: To be fair, Steve delivered a short, crisp lecture and moved quickly to the material.  I have tampered with that by inserting some illustrative images.  Hope that turns out to be useful.)

Steve began by noting that we usually don’t stop and think about why we wear clothes.

He said that a first obvious reason was for protection from the weather.

Shielding from the sun

and providing warmth when things are cold

are frequent reasons why clothing emerged.

Clothes is also worn to protect from us other aspects of the environment.  Steve said that in some desert areas there are plants that will actually “fire” their needles at you, if you get close enough (that is, you don’t have to touch them for this to happen).

This is the sort of thing that might have led folks to create and employ such clothing items as the leg and ankle wrappings called “puttees.”

These may look like pretty Afghan embroideries, and they are; but they have a very real protective function when worn.

Another reason for clothing, Steve said, was modesty.  Most societies have conventions discouraging or prohibiting the public display of particular parts of the body.

The Islamic tradition that encourages the covering of the hair of women

is the source of controversy in some European countries at the moment.  But for many Islamic believers of both sexes, covering of the hair of women is seen as an essential aspect of female modesty.

A third reason for wearing clothes is personal adornment.

This frequently seen image of a Bokhara emir demonstrates this aspect of clothing well.

It is clear that this ruler wanted to “look good” and thinks that he does, compliments of his striking blue coat.   He would also want you to notice his belt.

The costume of this Turkmen woman also projects adornment objectives.

We are going to see more of the kind of heavily embroidered mantle she wears over her head.

Turkmen women also adorned themselves with heavy jewelry. You can see jewelry above her forehead in the headdress, in the image above.  Below, is a large, heavy pedant that would be worn hung on a Turkman woman’s breast.

You can gauge its size in comparison to the dime partly visible here.

We also wear clothing to protect from supernatural forces.

Here, Steve was referencing a subject on which Saul Barodofsky recently built an entire “rug morning” program:

that of “nazarlik.”

Nazarlik are devices seen to protect against negative supernatural forces, such as the “evil eye.”

They can be colors or things that move, like tassels, or bright and shiny decorations.  They can be components of  clothing (the child’s tunic below is covered with little shiny metal pieces),

or they can be as simple as the protective blue beads one sees all over Turkey.

Even a modern Turkish mother may find a way to include a blue bead on or among things her child is wearing or carrying, just in case.

Steve pointed out that we tend to indulge in clothing-related supernatural protection, ourselves, when we wear such things Christian crosses as items  of jewelry.

We also wear clothing in order to communicate various social messages.

Group membership might be one sort of social message of interest, and in traditional societies, clothing often said “I live in x village.”  or “I am a member of y tribe.”

The clothing assemblage below

indicates that its wearer is a Bulgarian, maiden girl from the village of Pirin, district of Sandanski, who is participating in a particular local ritual, in second half of the 19th century.  That’s a pretty specific and detailed social message.

Sometimes the message being sent is one of rebellion from the clothing styles of earlier generations.

Here is a male punk costume from the 70s.

and here is a girl Goth from more recent times.

Another function of clothing is to signal  various roles in society.

Some clothing signals authority. The photo below is of an Ashanti “paramount chief” in his “kente cloth” robe.

The uniform of this German policeman also signals authority.

Steve pointed out that the rules of war indicate that members of opposing side are prohibited from wearing the uniforms of their opposite numbers, and if they do, and are captured, they will be treated differently than will prisoners wearing uniforms appropriate to their side.

Here is the uniform of a French infantry captain in the early 1800s.

Below are members of the opposing Russian militia from the same period.

Religious roles are also usually marked with distinctive dress, be their encumbents Catholic priests,

or Siberian shamans.

We wear particular clothes for particular rituals.  Steve mentioned “mating” rituals in particular.

If you see a woman dressed as the one below is

you can be pretty sure that she is expecting shortly to be married.  Such sumptuous gowns may be one reason some say that all brides are “beautiful”

Steve said that that was the end of the “theoretical” part of the program, and moved to look at the material in the room.

He began with African pieces.


Steve described this piece as a Yoruba man’s robe, a status textile, sometimes called a “Grand Boubou.”


Below are two additional details of this piece.




The second piece was a item of “Kente” cloth.   Woven by both the Ashante and the Ewe in Ghana.


It is weft-faced and was woven in strips.  The background patterns have meanings.


The motifs over the base patterns are brocaded.


This is a Ewe example.  The strips near the edges of Ewe cloths don’t generally have as much brocading as the strips in the main part of the field (notice the left hand strip in this photo).


One more close detail as it was passed in the audience.



This is an Ashante piece, made of silk and cotton, woven no later than the 1930’s according to the folks at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art.




It has a finer handle than the Ewe cloth.


Steve moved to the Central Asian material.


This is an ikat chapan (coat, or robe).


June Carmichael, who was assisting, modeled some of these coats.

Most readers will know that Central Asian ikats are warp-faced an carry their designs on their silk warp threads.  The wefts are typically cotton.


This is this same piece modeled from the back.


These ikats were dyed and woven in urban Uzbekistan.

One more detail below.


The next piece is also a chapan.


Here it is modeled from the front.


And from the back.

This is also an urban Uzbek piece.  The wefts and warp are both silk, which is usually taken as an indicator of later production (probably late 19th century).



Another sort of woman’s garment is the Turkmen chyrpy.


Steve held part of it up for a closer look.

The chyrpy is not a coat; it is a mantle, worn over the head, with false sleeves that hang down its back.


Steve modeled for us.


Many readers will know that Turkmen chyrpys are dense silk embroidery on a silk ground.


The next piece was another Turkmen chyrpy.


Again, Steve demonstrated, with some approximation, how it looks when worn by a Turkmen woman.


The ground color of Turkman chyrpys is significant.


A gold-ground chyrpys signals that its wearer is a married woman.

The darker ground previous one is typically worn by an unmarried girl.

White ground chyrpys are said to be honorific – awarded to Turkman women, over 60, who have been “good mothers.”


Again we see the false sleeves, held together at one point, by a small rectangular connecting piece.  Wonderful embroidery.

Steve said that, in deference to any animal rights people in the audience who might know that there is often in rug and textile producing areas serious animal “clothing” and feel that this aspect of costume is being neglected, he had brought a camel trapping.


The part composed of connected squares would go over the camel’s back and hang down it sides.


A little closer look at it.

Here Steve called attention to the part of this assembly that comes down over the camel’s forehead, its head decoration part.

The head decoration parts of this trapping are “complete” (that is,  they were made as complete, independent units and then sewn into the larger trapping, not cut down from something larger) and are sold and collected as attractive holistic fragments (I own two).

Steve next moved to textiles from Mainland Southeast Asia.

He said that despite the fact that textiles from this area can be quite wonderful, he doesn’t encounter many people who collect them and he thinks they may be a bit neglected.


This is a shoulder cloth woven by Tai-speaking hill tribe members in Laos.


It is decorated with brocade and embroidery.


It was worn by a shaman and its designs feature elephants.


The next item, below, is a skirt done in tapestry and brocade.

Again, made by a Lao hill tribe weaver.  Skirts like this are said to be worn only at the funeral of the wearers’ mother-in-law.




A second of these Lao hill tribe skirts was the one below.

This one features “cloud band” motifs.


An additional detail of it below.


A third Lao hill tribe skirts is the one below.


The designs in this one feature serpents, resembling the edges of Thai temple roofs.


A couple more close details of it.



Steve now moved to a series of  Khmer skirts and hip wrappers from Thailand.

He used the first of these to demonstrate how they were put on and worn.


This is a silk ikat.

Some other close looks.




Steve said that while he admires the dramatic coloring and bold graphics of central Asian ikats, he is always struck with how much more sophisticated mainland southeast Asian ikats are.

Now, how such pieces were put on and worn.

First, one took the wrapper around the waist with the long end ending at the front.

Then one twists the long end and takes it between the legs to the back and tucks it in over the back edge.

(A lady from the audience, wearing white shorts agreed to model this piece.)

In the photo above the end has been taken between the legs and is being tucked over the back edge.

Below is a closer view of how such a wrapping looks from the front when worn.

Here is how it looks from the back.

A closer view of the back shows the tucking in of the end that comes through between the legs.

Steve said that if you can conjure up your memories of the movie The King and I, this is the kind of garment in which Yul Brynner cavorted about.

Here is a second of these skirt/wrappers.


This is an older silk ikat.


Woven in Cambodia.



Estimated to have been woven no later than about 1920.

The next piece was another Khmer hip wrap.

Also estimated to be older.

A another closer detail image below.


Steve showed one other type of mainland Southeast Asian garment, the “Khmer tube skirt.”

For some reason, I did not successfully photograph those he brought, but Steve treated one of these tube skirts, once, briefly, on Turkotek, and I have retrieved two images of it from that site, with the comments he made on it then.

First, here is the more comprehensive image.

Here is a somewhat edited version of what Steve said about this format and piece on Turkotek:

“…Within the mainland southeast Asian group Cambodian textiles get less attention than any other.  I don’t know why this is so, although it may be that the rather low level of contrast in Cambodian silks contributes to this.  They are very difficult to photograph without studio lighting, and their vary large size adds to this.  Another factor is that they are mostly urban or court textiles, rather than folks art.

(Ed.  The image above is of such a) “…silk tube skirt.

“It is worn by having the woman step into it and then make a large fold in the vertical direction to make it fit.  Opened up the length is more than 36”, much too large for the waists of Cambodian women, hence the fold.

“Like all the old Cambodian silks I have handled it is incredibly light.  I find the field design nearly hypnotic; the borders are a lot like those of the large hipwrappers worn by Cambodian royalty at the time.”

Here is a closer detail of the Khmer piece above:

Now Steve moved to an Indian piece.

He described the long piece below as a “Varanesi (Benares)” sari.


This piece is in silk with a twill weave.


It has silver threads in some areas.

Its age is unknown.

Quite a few pieces had been brought in by members of the audience, and we began to examine them next.

The first is another Central Asian ikat coat.

S18 (Ed. There is no S17)

Again, urban Uzbek with bright colors and dramatic graphics.



A couple more close details below.



The next piece was an embroidered Uzbek ikat.


Large, dramatic “medallions” everywhere.

Below is a large detail of its front.  Note that this style has no front opening, but instead slips over the head.


And on of its back.


The next piece was the woman’s dress below.


This piece is from the Swat valley of Pakistan.


It is decorated with metals disks, beads and embroidery.

Here is a closer look at a detail of its bodice.

And another of one sleeve end.


The next piece was the tunic below.


It is embroidered.


Its owner attributed it to Georgia.

The piece below is a child’s size jacket of suzani.


Here is its back.


Its owner said that is seems to be a “constructed” item.  That is, made of a piece of larger Uzbek suzani and cut down and adapted to this jacket usage.

The following piece was said to be from either India or Pakistan.  It seems mostly of silk.


Its back is not as heavily decorated.


Here is a detail of its embroidered bodice.


And of its lower half.


The next piece was another Uzbek ikat coat.


The Russian commercial cotton often used to line these coats is visible.

Here is the back.


Here is a closer detail of this back.


Next was still another Uzbek ikat coat.


Its designs can be seen uninterrupted on its back.


Here is a closer detail of the back.

The next piece was simpler.


This is a Turkman woman’s dress.

Here is a closer detail of its bodice.


One of its side stripe areas.


And of its back.


The next piece shown was long and narrow.  Its owner said that it was a Syrian sash.


Here is a closer detail in a horizontal orientation.


As you can see, it edges are decorated in color but there is also subtle stripe effects that move across the entire width of the piece.

Here is a detail oriented vertically.


Such sashes were worn folded over on their long side, wrapped around and around the body and then tied so that the decorative sides (sometimes ends are even more heavily decorated) show.

They serve not just as a kind of belt but can accommodate one’s purse, dagger, pistol and tobacco pouch.

The next piece was also attributed to Syria.


This is a woman’s shawl of silk, with gold and silver thread used in some areas.

Here is a closer detail of its center section.


And of one corner.


The decorations include seeming quadrapeds, that may be lions.

Here is a closer look at one of these “lions.”

Below is a comprehensive image of the back of this piece which is patched in places.

The next piece was the one below.


The owner described it as a Turkish woman’s dress with an embroidered skirt.

Here is a detail of the embroidered area showing an apparent openings.


Here is an even closer look at this same area.


The next piece was Chinese.  But not of the sort that word might connote.


This is a child’s rain cape from southwest China.  It was made by the Miao, a non-Han ethnic groups there.

Despite looking like a bear skin it is made from plant fibers.

Here is a look at its back.



Its owner said that it’s not entirely clear to him whether this piece is knotted or woven (it seems to have no visible structural level).  He does know that it is reputed to shed water efficiently.

He added that his wife hates it and wants it out of their house.

The next piece took us back to Africa.


This is a Dida tube skirt from Africa’s Ivory Coast.

It is made of raffia and is heavily textured on the outside.  Despite the character of its outside surface,  it is form-fitting and said to be smooth on the inside and very comfortable to wear.


These skirts are attracting some attention.

The Textile Museum was given one not long ago and the NYC “Met” took out space in a recent Hali, to announce their acquisition of one.  The owner said that he knows nothing about the accepted merits of such pieces, but likes his better than the one the Met owns.

The next piece was Coptic.


It looked like a little rug, but was on-topic because it is composed of various parts of Coptic garments.


The borders, with clear “bird” designs, served as the decorative edges of Coptic clothing, while the densely decorated field area


was taken from more central parts of Coptic garments.

The owner said he sometimes thought he could see human forms in this field,


but is not sure.

The next piece was the ikat fragment below.


Also taken from a garment of some sort, the striped ikat portion is very finely woven and thin.

It is so fine that if mounted on black directly its pattern “washes out.”  It was necessary to resort to a red backing.

This piece has blue wefts which some see as an indicator of a special ikat group.

Here is a detail that shows the edging strip, the material of which is distinctive.

The owner said that he bought this fragment from an experienced dealer who thought it came from central Asia, and some central Asian experts have estimated that it is the oldest piece of ikat they have seen. But more recently an experienced person has insisted that this piece was made in Syria.

Someone had brought a very small piece and offered it as an session-ending “snap quiz” to determine whether folks had been paying attention to earlier parts of the program.

This piece is silk embroidery and measures 5.25 inches long and 2.25 inches wide.

The quiz question was “What is it?”

Sadly, the question was too easy for this group.

Several spoke up immediately to say that it was a piece used to connect and hold together the false sleeves hanging down the back of a chyrpy.

The owner said that when he first bought it he thought perhaps it was a kind of Turkman bookmark, but found it too thick for that use.

Steve answered questions

and adjourned the session.

The usual sorts of things ensued.

One of the regulars at these RTAM sessions had brought a rug that was off-topic in order to get the opinion of some of the experienced people who often attend.

So we ended by examining and conjecturing about this piece.

The initial impression one has is Balouch.

But then one notices pretty extensive Turkmen usages, that despite the fact that the Baluch were ready borrowers, especially of Turkman designs, seem plausible Turkmen renditions.

People poked at its warps and wefts and knots, and felt its wool,

but I don’t think there was a consensus by the time we left.

I want to thank Steve Price for a fine, focused, interesting program; for agreeing to permit me to build a virtual version of it; and for substantial editing of my draft.

Thanks, too, to June Carmichael, who provided good holding and modeling assistance, and to Tim Hayes to took a good set of notes for me.

I hope you have enjoyed what was a “fun” Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning.


R. John Howe