In Late Antiquity Textiles, a Long-Lasting Fashion Show
Archaeology is about more than rock-hard ruins of palaces and temples, royal mummies in remote tombs and obscure writing on clay tablets. Less durable remains, like fabrics of garments and home decorations that somehow survive time’s decay, can also be telling artifacts of early cultures.
One of their messages, it seems, is that dressing for success and putting on the Ritz are hardly new in the human experience.
Rare samplings of the motifs and materials of textiles in the Mediterranean world from the third through the seventh century A.D. reflect the wealth and social standing of the elite at the time of the Roman Empire’s greatest reach, and then its decline — a period known as Late Antiquity. Christianity was spreading through the region. “Barbarians” from the north menaced outer borders and Rome itself.
In time, an expanding Arab culture introduced Islam across the Middle East.
In recent studies, art historians and other researchers have recognized more clearly elements of continuity and only gradual change in how the wealthy elite in these lands, and their wannabes, used dress to define and celebrate their place in society.
Even as Christian crosses began adorning their tunics and mantles, the predominant garments for men and women, people had not entirely forsaken their mythological roots. Imagery relating to the god Dionysus, emblem of wine and the good life, appeared often on textiles. Tapestries evoking Dionysian revelries hung on the walls of homes, often, appropriately, in spaces for sumptuous dining and entertaining.
An exhibition of more than 50 such artifacts, “Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity,” has opened at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, in Manhattan, and will run through May 22. Thelma K. Thomas, the show’s curator, said the examples of clothing, curtains and tapestries “put hopes and desires on display in their motifs, designs and materials, rendering visible both social identity and the inner imagined self.”
Dr. Thomas is an associate professor of fine arts at New York University and editor of the exhibition catalog, published by Princeton University Press. Jennifer Y. Chi, exhibitions director at the institute, affiliated with N.Y.U. and an authority on Roman culture, said the displays illustrated “the widespread and deep-reaching iconographic power of Late Antiquity costume.”
The exhibit, Dr. Chi said, shows “how textiles were carefully created to convey specific images of self, society and culture, and offer glimpses of both the activities of daily life and the practice of religious rituals.”
Beginning in the late 19th century, a bounty of textile artifacts came to light in archaeological excavations far from Rome, often in Egyptian cemeteries from Roman times. Many people recycled their best tunics, ones with patterns like bird-and-vine lattice motifs or more artistic embellishments, as their burial shrouds. The arid desert climate was kind to the textiles through the centuries.
Organizers of the exhibition drew on collections of these Roman textiles at six American institutions: the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The exhibition’s bias toward textiles of the upper classes was perhaps unavoidable. Such well-preserved specimens understandably caught the eye of archaeologists, who found them irresistible. Many were shipped back to their institutions in the United States more than a century ago.
Others entered the antiquities market, winding up with wealthy collectors who may have felt a kinship with these earlier elites. A gold necklace with a cross from Cyprus and carved ivory objects representing mythic scenes of Dionysus, on display in the show’s galleries, were gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917 from J. Pierpont Morgan.
Other collections were eventually donated to museums, but often languished in back-room obscurity until they were dusted off and lent to the N.Y.U. institute for the Designing Identity exhibition. They have now undergone a reappraisal of the role of clothing and home furnishings in Late Antiquity.
The most popular motifs on garments, Dr. Chi said, related to “prosperity and well-being” or appeared to be charms intended to invoke good fortune or ward off evil.
Before the Industrial Revolution, textile production was especially difficult. The many decorative embellishments on dyed wool fabrics and undyed linen made these products even more out of reach to ordinary people. Only emperors or the superrich could afford tunics and mantles decorated with patterns colored with purple dye made from the glandular fluids of Murex sea snails in the eastern Mediterranean.
These dyes were some of the most expensive commodities in the ancient world. Likewise, silks beginning to trickle in from China were still a luxury few could afford. A tailored tunic on display combines the usual wool and linen, but with some silk trim. It was found in ancient Panopolis, a center of early textile production now known as Akhmim, in central Egypt.
Dr. Thomas, writing in the exhibition catalog, said these high costs meant that lavish textiles came to signify wealth and prestige. Their production and acquisition, she added, “were key aspects of household economies, in the sphere of women.” Spindles, looms and other textile-working instruments are often found in domestic contexts at the region’s archaeological sites.
Also, Late Antiquity textiles carried conceptual associations different from those today. “The busy loom evoked hallowed ideals of virtuous women working to contribute to and sustain the household,” Dr. Thomas wrote, citing the enduring example of Homer’s story of the faithful Penelope. She dutifully kept weaving and reweaving a shroud for her father-in-law while awaiting the return of her wandering husband.
Tunics appeared to be in fashion throughout Late Antiquity. They were often single pieces of fabric draped over the body, usually loosely and sometimes more form-fitting. For women they reached to the feet, for men to the knees.
Even children wore tunics. On exhibit is a garment with an ornamented hood to be pulled over a child’s head. The first hoodie?
Some experts were not sure what to make of one wall tapestry. It depicts a servant waiting for a command. Was this a tribute to the faithful household staff? Or a reminder to be more dutiful in their service?