Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Christmas in October

Why is it Christmas in October, you may ask? Because today, the copy of NESAT XI I ordered from The Book Depository finally arrived! 

For those of my readers whose costume interests different greatly from mine, NESAT is an acronym. It stands for "North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles". Such a symposium has been held every three years since 1981, and has grown from a tiny event for a few textile specialists into, in the words of co-editor Johanna Banck-Burgess, "an interdisciplinary and international symposium, whose members have significantly contributed to the recognition of textile archaeology in many disciplines concerned with culture history." (page 15)

The parcel I ordered today contains the papers presented at the eleventh such meeting, which was held in Esslingen, Germany in 2011, and a CD-rom containing shorter presentations called "posters". I became interested in the NESAT volumes when I learned, two decades ago, that many of the papers in those volumes involve archaeological research with a strong bearing upon the history of costume in my period of greatest interest, i.e., before the year 1000 CE in northern Europe. As Ms. Banck-Burgess points out in her Preface, now the NESAT includes articles about finds from all over Europe (there are articles in NESAT XI about finds in Italy and in the Balkans, for example), but the majority of the papers still involve northern Europe. 

In the next few weeks, as I grab precious minutes to read through the articles (and enjoy the CD-rom), I will write brief posts sharing tidbits about the articles that have interested and enlightened me the most.  Apologies in advance to those of my readers who have already bought and read this fascinating volume.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Visiting a Magyar Jurta

While I was looking for pictures of interesting items to add to my Pinterest board, I found an interesting website called "A Magyar Jurta". According to the author's description, this blog was started as a place to house her research into "Magyars of the conquest era," though she also writes about the costume of the Iron Age Finns and the Vikings (which were roughly contemporaneous) and other cultures as well. She has supervised the construction of a reconstructed costume of a ninth-century CE Magyar woman, and posted excellent pictures of its components.

I commend her site to my readers for its attempts to assemble information on difficult-to-research subjects.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Another pair of Roman earrings to make

A day or so ago, I discovered the new webpage of Laura Storey, an SCA member who has done some good research, and prepared some excellent, clear articles, on ancient Roman clothing, as well as other SCA-appropriate subjects.

I had read a number of Laura's articles and handouts before, but the page included an interesting tidbit that was new to me; a link to a photographic tutorial she prepared on how to make your own version of a pair of earrings from Oplontis, which are in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.  Oplontis was a town located near Pompeii in the first century CE   Like Pompeii, Oplontis was buried by the Mount Vesuvius eruption that simultaneously took many lives but also preserved some choice items of Roman material culture for study by archaeologists.

Laura's tutorial clearly shows that a pair of earrings with pearls or beads dangling from little posts, called crotalia, can easily be made with suitable beads and 22-gauge wire. Perhaps I'll make a pair after I complete my Roman necklace project.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Vikings and Silk

One of Sofie Krafft's watercolors, depicting a silk fragment
from the Oseberg grave along with reconstruction of the full
 pattern. Photo:   Kulturhistorisk museum/Museum of Cultural History, Norway
Recently, I obtained and read Marianne Vedeler's latest book, Silk for the Vikings(Ancient Textiles Series Vol. 15, Oxbow Books, 2014).  Silk for the Vikings is a well-written piece of research that will be the most useful to historical costumers who have made themselves familiar with a goodly proportion of the published archaeological finds, and the existing scholarship about Viking era costume.  

Professor Vedeler focuses primarily upon the availability of silk fabrics to the Vikings and the social and cultural signals given through its use. Nonetheless, the book also contains some lovely full-color photographs of silk finds, as well as some useful information to fuel the deductions of  archaeologists, reenactors, and costumers interested in Viking age clothing.  Some of the details that form the basis of Vedeler's deductions about how silk fabrics ended up in Scandinavia are more interesting than the deductions themselves. Here are some of the details that surprised or intrigued me:
  • Of the Viking age Scandinavian graves where silk has been found and a determination of gender has been made, the overwhelming majority were female graves.   Vedeler notes, "Silk has been found in 94 graves in total.  Of these, 52 are interpreted as female graves while 19 are male.  Nine graves contained both a man and a woman, and in 14 cases the silk were [sic] found in graves where the gender of the deceased is unknown, or in another context."  (Page 33, fn. 147).  
  • There is clear evidence that some women, at least, used strips of samite silk to trim the tops of their apron dresses.  Vedeler says:  "In some cases, samite silk has been found on the back side of oval brooches, indicating that the silk was part of the suspended dress in the chest area."  She cites examples from Veka in Voss (Norway) and in Tuna in Badelunda (Sweden).  (Page 37).  However, silk strips have also been found in graves without tortoise brooches, indicating that silk was used to trim other kinds of clothing also.  (Page 38).
  • Most of the silk found in Viking age graves is from Central Asia, Byzantium, or other regions close to those areas.  However, a few that appear to be Chinese have been found at Birka.  (Page 38).
  • There is evidence that Vikings who served in the Varangian Guard in Byzantium were sometime rewarded with silk collars and strips taken from skaramaggia.  A skaramagion is a overtunic with long sleeves associated with the Emperor of Byzantium and other Byzantine men of high rank.  This suggests that some of the silk strips found in Viking graves may have come to Scandinavia in that condition, and not as larger pieces.  (Page 106).
After reading the book, I started searching for real silk fabrics with a design similar to the Sogdian samite silks of the period, since they are a known Central Asian type, though Vedeler notes that most samites found in Viking graves are too faded to be identified readily by pattern.  (Page 35)  Unfortunately, judging by Google, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for reproductions of the stylized patterns characteristic of Sogdian silks.  I will just have to keep looking out for plausible patterned silks to cut into suitably-sized strips to decorate my Viking clothing.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Girl wearing yếm
Woman in áo tứ thân
While looking for pictures of Sogdian silks, I learned about a Vietnamese garment called a yếm.  A yếm is a backless underbodice that was, and is, worn with Vietnamese traditional clothing; a picture of a girl wearing one (from Wikimedia Commons) appears to the left.  It ties at the neck, and also around the waist (though it's not possible to see the waist-level tie in this picture).  

The yếm in the picture appears to be made from silk, but different fabrics were used by women of different classes in Vietnam.  They could also be made in different colors; vermilion was a common color for festive wear, but blacks or whites were worn for everyday clothing.  Some were round-necked, like the one shown in the picture above, but others were v-necked.

Traditionally, the yếm was not worn as the only upper body garment.  It was part of a type of costume called áo tứ thân, or "four part dress" which, as the name implies, consisted of four garments: 1)  A nearly-floor-length, coat-like outer tunic, with two flaps in the front that can be knotted together or left dangling: 2) a long skirt worn under the tunic; 3) a yếm, worn underneath the outer tunic, and; 4) a sash knotted around the outer tunic at waist level.  The photograph to the right (also from Wikimedia Commons) shows this type of costume. The áo tứ thân costume has largely been abandoned in favor of the áo dài, a long-sleeved, form-fitting shin or calf length tunic worn over narrow pants, in the modern era.

I found the yếm interesting because, though it looks to my Western eyes like a modern halter, it is a garment of great antiquity, and because it demonstrates the principle that the most successful garments are often very simple ones.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eura Mitten Reconstruction

Former Finnish President
Tarja Halonen
As my fellow fanatics about early northern European costume can tell you, one of the more interesting early archaeological finds is the grave of a woman buried in Eura in Finland, around the year 1000 C.E.  For reasons I do not presume to understand, the recreation of this woman's costume became very popular in Finland, almost rising to the level of a folk costume; former Finnish president Tarja Halonen was photographed wearing a reproduction of the Eura woman's costume as reconstructed by Finnish archaeologists (see photograph).

What many people may not know is that a scrap of fabric, made with the nalbinding or "needle binding" technique, was found among the other jewelry and textile finds in the Eura grave, at a position suggesting it was part of a pair of mittens stuck into the woman's belt. Today, I found this web site, in Swedish, showing a picture of the writer's own reconstruction of the Eura woman's mittens in red, yellow, and blue--the original colors. A short English translation appears on the site, as does a link to a Finnish language site containing a  copy of a thesis, in Finnish, about the mittens. I wanted to share this little discovery because it's so easy to think of grave finds as consisting of formal, sober clothing. It's good to know that a cheerful pair of mittens was part of one of those finds.

I'm going to contact the blogger who made those mittens and if she agrees, I'll show a picture of her mittens here.  If not; go to her site and look at the picture there; it's a sight worth seeing.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Clothing of Roman Prostitutes--Still a Mystery

Wall painting from the Villa San Marco, Stabiae.
Is she a prostitute?  How could we tell?
More than two years ago, I did some reading in an attempt to learn what kinds of clothing were likely worn by prostitutes in ancient Rome.  The short answer to that question appeared to be that scholars don't really know what the prostitutes wore, because the written evidence on the subject is, at best, lacking in context and difficult to interpret.

I received a copy of one of the books I mentioned when I originally discussed this topic, Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (Faraone, Christopher A. & McClure, Laura, eds., University of Wisconsin Press, February 6, 2006), as a birthday present this year.  Thus, I've had the opportunity to review not only Olsen's article about the clothing distinctions between matrons and whores, but also to read the other articles in that book about prostitution in antiquity.

When I first wrote about this topic, a Roman-era reenactor commented to chide me for (apparently) accepting the idea that there was such a thing as sacred prostitution in ancient Rome. Having read Prostitutes and Courtesans, it's clear that, if anything, he understated the case.  The weight of modern scholarship maintains that there is no evidence for sacred prostitution anywhere in the ancient world, period. The belief that there was such a thing appears to have arisen from a variety of translation errors (and perhaps some overheated scholarly imaginations) during the Victorian period and afterward.  

With that idea in mind, I re-read Kelly Olsen's essay in this volume, "Matrona and Whore:  Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity" with a view toward ascertaining whether I had missed any useful information in it.  Unfortunately, Kelly's conclusions amount to saying that there is no way to be certain what Roman prostitutes wore.  As I read her essay, those conclusions are:
  • Roman society attributed specific symbolism to different types of costume; for example, the stola and palla denoted the proper Roman matron, and, due to Augustus's statute, the toga, when worn by a woman, denoted loose morals (either as an adulteress or a whore).  Male costume also carried symbolism of various kinds.
  • However, we have no evidence that women typically wore the costume symbolic of their rank and status, and some evidence that many of them did not. 
  • Thus, to quote from Olsen's conclusion, "Matron and whore were surely distinguishable from each other on the street but perhaps not as easily as our authors [i.e., the Roman authors whose remarks form a large part of our evidence for prostitutes' clothing] could have wished (and certainly they are exaggerating the similarities between matron and prostitute for rhetorical purposes)." (pages 200-201).
A logical conclusion from Olsen's research is that real women in ancient Rome varied their clothing choices deliberately, to evoke clothing symbolism that suited their individual purposes.  This topic is squarely addressed in a more recent article on Roman women's clothing, by Mary Harlow of the University of Leicester, titled "Dressing to Please Themselves:  Clothing Choices for Roman Women," in Dress and Identity (Harlow, Mary, ed, University of Birmingham IAA Interdisciplinary Series: Studies in Archaeology, History, Literature and Art 2, 2012).  A copy of Harlow's essay can be downloaded for free from this page.

In  the "Dressing to Please Themselves" essay, Harlow seeks to determine to what extent Roman women had and used free choice in selecting particular attire to present a particular image of themselves to the public.  Her conclusion, based largely upon the quantity of Roman cosmetic tools found by archaeologists and literary evidence of the wide availability of fabrics in different fibers (including silk, which was expensive and available in improper transparent weaves) and colors, is that women likely did alter their public image by varying their clothing and cosmetics--though the evidence of their having done so remains sparse:
Evidence demonstrates that within a relatively limited repertoire of styles a range of choice existed in terms of colour and textiles, and also that colour was very much part of the Roman visual world. The constant refrain against female adornment throughout the time span of the Roman empire suggests that women certainly were exploiting the market that was available to them despite any disquiet it might cause their menfolk. Roman writers were adept at manipulating the image of the dressed (and undressed) woman to suit their agenda and presumably women were equally as adept at manipulating their own draped clothing to suit their agenda, or at least give them power over their immediate social space. (page 43)
My conclusion, after reading the analyses of Olsen, Harlow, McGinn, and others, is that we cannot generalize about what Roman prostitutes wore for the same reasons we cannot generalize about what modern prostitutes wear--because individual women choose whether and how to signal their status by their clothing, or may decide to give false or misleading information about that status in different situations.  A woman may choose dress like a prostitute to conceal her identity, or for sexual stimulation, and a prostitute may dress like a high-class matron to conceal her status as a prostitute, or to attract a different sort of customer.  Moreover, prostitutes are not, to our knowledge, depicted in sculpture or fresco art, so we cannot even discern what the conventional "prostitute's toga" looked like.  Without further evidence, the clothing of Roman prostitutes likely will continue to remain a mystery.