Looking At Border Designs
This section is under construction.
If we look at an object from another culture or period in isolation – be it a shawl, a veil, or a teacup – and bring to that experience only the culture we grew up in, our responses to it are likely to be personal, aesthetic, culture-bound and quite possibly embarrassing. We may be adept at reading class, ethnic, educational and professional background in the clothing of our own place and time, but we will almost certainly misinterpret those distinctions in objects that originated in other times and places.
We have to learn how to look, if we want to look intelligently. That means looking beyond the single object to the context in which it was produced and worn – including other clothing worn at the same time and place. This is true not only of the clothing of the past. Take a pair of jeans out of the middle school, and they lose almost everything that makes them important to the girl who wears them. Likewise, a shawl’s meaning, even part of its beauty, comes from its relationship to the other choices the wearer might have made. Neither really stands alone.
That is why this online exhibition is not just “here’s a page with a pretty shawl, and now here’s another page with a pretty shawl.” Instead we group and discuss objects in categories based on origin, period, style and quality. Stylistic elements often provide strong clues to date when no other history is preserved, and may help confirm or cast doubt on a proposed provenance. Seeing many different examples grouped together makes it easier to see what they have in common and what makes any one of them distinctive, thus making it possible to piece together the choices available to the women who wore them.
The following pages introduce four elements that it is helpful to notice when studying shawls, veils and other bordered textiles in the nineteenth century:
- Bilateral symmetry (both within an individual motif and across an entire piece)
- How the design area is arranged on the piece (the disposition of the figure on the ground)
- Density and contrast (how much open space separates figures and how clearly defined individual motifs are)
- Whether design motifs are architectural or floral, and whether they are stylized or naturalistic
The examples shown were chosen because each one embodies the concept being explained. Many are beautiful, but beauty was never the main reason to include them, and most of the photographs were taken under conditions that do not show them at their best. It was rarely possible to photograph the entire shawl, so the way you will see these fascinating objects is not the way you would see them in a public exhibition but the way you would see them if you yourself were the researcher, working in cramped storage areas and never quite sure what treasure the next box would reveal.
While the design elements presented in this exhibition are divided for convenience into separate pages, extant examples will typically combine more than one (a bilaterally symmetrical floral motif is almost certain to be stylized) and the point where any one element (such as high contrast) gives way to another (low contrast) is likely to be blurred. Thus the categories offered here, while meant to be useful, cannot be thought of as rigid. They are meant to help us get started, not to be final answers.
The photos below preview some of the design elements that will be discussed in greater detail on the following exhibit pages.