Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Extending Knowledge of Costume Through Art Analysis

From the Casemate Academic website

From the Casemate Academic website
The two books I have obtained for my costume history library most recently involve very different historical periods but a common method; they both seek to increase our knowledge of clothing from their respective periods through a through analysis of period art.

These are the books I mean (links below are to the hardback editions, but e-book versions of both are available, and my copy of Woven Threads is an e-book):

I have finished reading Iconic Costumes, but am still thinking my way through the material, and I am still reading Woven Threads.  Even so, there are some observations I would like to make about both that, in my opinion, demonstrate that both books are well worth reading.

Iconic Costumes seeks to obtain information about costume from the Migration Period through the Viking Age by examining and analyzing the details of artistic depictions of human beings in of Viking and pre-Viking Age Scandinavian art.  Most of this art is in the form of carvings on artifacts such as the Oseberg cart, guldgubbar (tiny, thin gold-foil plaques found in graves), or jewelry.  In contrast, Woven Textiles primarily analyzes surviving frescoes from buildings erected by the Minoan and Mycenaean Bronze Age cultures in order to learn more about costumes and patterned textiles depicted in those frescoes.  Both books reference non-artwork archaeological finds to support their conclusions.

Professors Shaw and Chapin have an easier time than Professor Mannering, for all that few textile remains survive from either culture, because despite its peculiar lack of perspective to a modern eye, Minoan and Mycenaean art is much more representational than early Scandinavian art, and has the additional benefit of having been originally created in color (and the colors survive to a surprising degree) while early Scandinavian art is mostly sculptural in nature.  Early Scandinavian art is also highly stylized, and the human figures depicted are nearly always too small to show much detail.  The Aegean frescoes often showed human figures life-sized, or close to life size, and many of them survive nearly complete and in good condition.  Even the fragmentary frescoes have much to say about patterns that may well have been used to decorate fabric.

That being said, both books manage to answer a significant question relevant to the history of clothing for their period of study.   It's the same question for both books:  Does period art really reflect what people actually wore as costume?

The authors' answer in both cases is "yes."  Having observed and analyzed most of the human figure representations dating from Iron Age Scandinavia, Professor Mannering observes: 
The vast majority of the iconographical costumes recorded are encountered in the archaeological textile and clothing material.  At the same time, there is information on the depictions [sic] that is not seen in the archaeological textile finds and vice versa. ... 
A typical male outfit in the Late Iron Age consisted of trousers, a tunic with sleeves, a rectangular cloak, belt, and shoes, while a typical female outfit included various dresses, skirts, blouses, cloaks, hairnets, and shoes, demonstrating both continuity from previous periods and new trends. ...
Generally, the investigation shows that the depictions represent clothing items that occur in the archaeological record. ... Thus, the depictions reveal costume items, e.g., kaftans, female jackets, and skirt and blouse ensembles that most likely were present in the archaeological record in the Late Germanic Iron Age, but that have not been positively identified yet.  They also demonstrate that the female dress most likely was long-sleeved, something which has not yet been securely documented via the archaeological record. (pp. 176-177) .
Professors Shaw and Chapin focus more of their efforts on comparing Minoan and Mycenaean styles by means of the surviving pictorial art.  They rely heavily on Elizabeth Wayland Barber's work as support for their conclusion that the patterns observed in clothing shown in fresco art could have achieved on textiles.  Like Professor Mannering, they conclude that certain patterns likely were used on real clothing from the fact that the same patterns turn up in clothing depictions on multiple frescoes.   However, there are enough surviving decorated fragments of cloth in archaeological finds to support Professor Barber's belief that patterned cloth was produced in the Aegean during the Bronze Age.  There is also support in contemporary Egyptian tomb art, which shows foreigners wearing garments, decorated in patterns, that compare closely to the Aegean fresco designs.

In general, Shaw and Chapin show that the creation of patterned textiles (whether through weaving, embroidery, applique, block printing, or other textile-related arts) came from centralized workshops, centered upon the great palaces of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, and that such items were worn only by the elite; ordinary folk made do with plain cloth.  It appears that Mycenae produced less elaborate fabrics and costumes, and reserved the more elaborate ones they did produce for unusual occasions.
Artistic evidence for how the Minoans themselves defined the luxury in luxury textiles is not confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries surveyed in Chapter 2.  Artists working in the Neopalatial era depicted their best fabrics as finely woven with colorful and complex patterns and embellished with decorative borders, fringes, and tassels; these pictorial details are consistent with the bits of surviving textiles.
*   *   *   *
The few fragments of cloth--all linen--that survive from Mycenaean contexts support the impression that Mycenaean textiles were plainer and less decorative than textiles of the Minoan era.  Linen fragments found in Grave Circle B at Mycenae and in a tomb at Ayia Kryiaki on the island of Salamis, for example, were tabby-woven (a plain weave) and undecorated.
*   *   *   *
Some Minoan-styple forms of costume, particularly festal attire with flounced skirts, continued to appear in Mycenaean art, particularly in procession frescoes, but the fanciest rapport patterns of earlier generations were replaced by simple striped designs or by fabrics woven with uncomplicated all-over scatter patterns.  Decorative bands that reinforced edges, seams, and hems on bodices, skirts, and tunics were still made by the Mycenaean weavers, but even these were plainer than before.  (Chapter 9, italic emphasis in original).
Both books are well-illustrated with excellent photogtaphs of items of the period artworks that were analyzed.  Understandably, most of the illustrations in Iconic Costumes are black and white or line-drawings, but there are also some color pictures of actual clothing finds and guldgubbarWoven Threads includes both color photographs of surviving frescos and portions of frescoes as well as colored illustrations of particular pattern motifs.

There is a large amount of food for thought in both books.  (For example, Professor Mannering concludes that the scale of the female figures in period art makes it impossible to draw conclusions about women's wearing of the two-brooch costume--e.g., the "apron dress" or "smokkr".)  I think people interested in the history of clothing should read them, whether or not they are interested in the clothing of the Bronze Age Aegean or Iron Age Scandinavia, just to observe how the authors analyze and apply the different types of clothing evidence available to them.


  1. These books look really excellent. It's a good question, whether period art reflects real people's clothing, although I suppose it would be a little strange if ancient art didn't show clothing that at least some people wore some of the time. Do Shaw and Chapin focus much on what sort of occasions patterned textiles were used for, beyond of course the fact that they were worn by high status people?

    Given the evidence for centralized production you have to wonder how widely diffused the techniques for making decorative textiles actually were within Aegean society as a whole.