Shells, mirrors, beads, seeds, metal disks, coins, sequins, feathers; these are only some of the items that have been used to make clothing and textiles jingle, sparkle, and jiggle. Throughout time, all over the world, in every society, humans have embellished their clothing in ways that signal status and religion or serve as talismanic, flirtatious, or protective charms. These days, many Westerners have lost touch with the symbolic power of ornament applied to apparel, dismissing such adornment as superficial, artificial, and even disingenuous. The group of objects in this exhibition spanning the Asian world reminds viewers of the pleasure and meaning that such materials may convey.
The English word “ornament” derives from the Latin ornare, meaning “to equip, get ready, or fit out.” Some have pushed this definition one step further, suggesting that the term also expresses completion. Although not a structural necessity, ornament makes an object whole. How differently might we look upon certain articles in this gallery if they did not include gold for its inherent wealth and homage to hierarchy, purity, and indestructibility; silver, metal, and sequins for their associations with prosperity and protection; mirrors for their power to ward off malevolence; beads and seeds for their correlations with fortune, resiliency, and fertility; and feathers for their regal connotations?
Lacking such accoutrements, these textiles would take on another function, causing the wearer to behave in another fashion and the beholders to interpret the behavior in other ways. The thread of meaning would dissolve. From a kingfisher-feather-covered Chinese woman’s wedding headdress to an Ottoman textile encrusted with sequins and gold thread, this group of costumes and textiles creates an aura of razzle-dazzle that confuses the spirits, intoxicates the beholder, and empowers the possessor.