The notion of becoming is inherent in fashion: our clothing choices can tell a story of who we are or who we want to be. In many ways, donning an outfit can be one of the most powerful acts of self-expression, and it’s a tool people around the world have used for millennia.
“Today, we often dismiss fashion as frivolous,” Senior Curator Lauren Ristvet said in a statement. “But our appearances matter. The way we dress communicates who we are and what we do.”
Here are five more historic garments that demonstrate the power of fashion as a tool for self-actualization.
Headdress of a 16th century Buddhist priest from Nepal
The crown of a 16th century Nepalese Buddhist priest can be found in the “Dressing for Ceremony” section of the exhibit. Credit: Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania
“Our crown and other similar crowns are extremely heavy. So they wouldn’t have been the kind of thing you would want to wear for every ritual you perform,” Ristvet said in a telephone interview.
Those who put on the Mukuta became the most important figure in their religious tradition.
The ancient burial of a Chief Coclé of what is now Panama
The funeral insignia of a Coclé chief (circa 750-1000 AD) glow in the “Dress to Govern” area of the exhibit. Credit: Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania
On each plaque is engraved a human figure with sharp teeth and legs that turn into alligators or crocodiles. Crocodiles have often been associated with dominance and power, Ristvet said. “The man who transforms into a crocodile was also understood in terms of esoteric or shamanic powers that a ruler might have.” And the jaguars – enclosing the emerald in the pendant – have been a symbol of power across Mesoamerica.
A 1930s velvet dress worn by Marian Anderson
The velvet merlot dress that belonged to contralto Marian Anderson is the star of the “Dress to Play” section of the exhibition. Credit: Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania
This velvet merlot dress was likely designed by Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, one of the first black fashion designers to open a boutique on Broadway in 1948, according to Ristvet. Valdes has dressed contralto Marian Anderson – the first black woman to perform with the Metropolitan Opera – for much of her career, Ristvet said.
A court robe worn by an official during the Qing dynasty in China
A public dress worn during the Qing Dynasty in China (19th century) can be found in the “Dressing to Rule” section of the exhibit. Credit: Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania
Donated to the Penn Museum in 1898 by a Miss Livingston, the Chaofu (audience robe) was the official costume of a second-rank civil servant, according to the museum. The silk and brocade gown, adorned with embroidered dragons, waves and clouds, was only worn on some of the most important occasions in the lives of officials, Ristvet said.
“In China, every aspect of official dress is fundamentally tightly controlled, and there is a lot of symbolism that goes into all of these results.… The blue-black color of this dress is something that is only worn by officials. of the court, “says Ristvet.
Blue was one of the main colors of the Qing Dynasty flag. “Of course, the dragon is a symbol of the emperor of power in China. And the number of claws on the dragon actually corresponds to the rank of an official.”
Gold floral crown of a Scythian warrior
A Scythian warrior crown is on display in the “The Stories We Wear” exhibit at the Penn Museum. Credit: Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania
The rosettes of this gold tiara were made of gold leaf and wire and probably adorned a headdress or garment of an elite Scythian woman.
“This idea of military prowess, we tend to really think of it as masculine down the centuries,” Ristvet said. “It is interesting to note that almost all of the (Scythian) material we have in our museum appears to come from women’s graves, which is cool and unusual, as much of the high-ranking material from this era comes from graves in ‘men.”