Clothing As A Powerful Container Of National And Community Identity
Studies in clothing, as shown in Eileen Hooper-Greenhill's discussion of the return of a Ghost Dance shirt from Glasgow to the Lakota Sioux, confirm that dress can carry a profound talismanic weight of sacred meaning, related to the specific religious practices of their community of origin. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, museums that contained such examples, either looted by conquering and occupying forces or collected by missionaries, anthropologists, or traders, found themselves at the center of demands for their return.
The clash here lies between old imperialist museum approaches and the determination of communities to be respected as living cultures on their own terms. Many such communities see their sacred artifacts as defiled through storage and display in museums. In 1993 the Wounded Knee Survivors Association started a campaign for the repatriation of a Ghost Dance shirt to the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, South Dakota. George Crager had collected this shirt after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when nearly three hundred Lakota Sioux were killed by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Crager sold the shirt to Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1892. By then he was the Lakota interpreter on Cody's Wild West Show, which visited the city that year. In an awful irony, among the cast were Short Bull and Kicking Bear, both survivors of the massacre.
In the 1880s, Ghost Dance shirts were the center of Sioux ceremonies and were seen as so deeply imbued with protective qualities that they offered protection to wearers against the white man's bullets. As Eileen Hooper-Greenhill explains in her study Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, the Glasgow shirt, displayed since the 1950s, had been exposed in a large case with little explanation alongside mixed "Indian" items. Museum curators in Glasgow refused to return the shirt, suggesting that it was a fake. The Wounded Knee Survivors Association petitioned the city, arguing that, as a sacred symbol of their cultural heritage, the shirt's return home would bring healing and dignity to a community plagued with despair, alcoholism, suicide, and loss of identity. The City Council voted in favor of the shirt's return, and it was taken back to Pierre in 1999. Hooper-Greenhill comments that even if doubts over provenance remain, the sacred cultural weight of the shirt to the Lakota Sioux in the 1990s "merited serious consideration" (p. 156).
Dress exhibitions and debates also question the role of dress within concepts of national identity. National dress, as Lou Taylor confirms, "bears the weight of representation of an entire nation … stemming from an urban, knowing, intellectualised awareness of the concept of nationhood" (p. 213). The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History exhibition and book, Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente Cloth and African American Identity (1998), edited by the museum's director, Doran H. Ross, tracks the meanings placed on kente cloth from its "traditional" design, manufacture, and ritualized use in Ghana, including its use as national identity dress, to its consumption in the United States, where it has become a symbol of African-American identity. Ross explains that "the strength of kente [is] in the ideas that bind it to African American life and tie it to the Motherland" (p. 194). Research shows kente-inspired design has been used to mark out specific African-American identity through use in women's fashions, by children to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, for kente ornaments for the African-American Kwanza holiday, and to trim academic and church robes. Ross confirms that all of this anchors this cloth specifically within African-American culture, "enabling" increasing numbers of African-Americans to relate to and buy into their African heritage.
European peasant dress.
Dress in rural communities historically carries highly specific visual forms of ethnic identity because it is deeply embedded in local sociocultural tradition and practice. The design of dress is specific to each community, and clothes are worn with pride, uniting the village into one cohesive social and spiritual identity.
Peasant dress was worn in the more isolated rural communities of Europe until World War II. In Hungary, for example, over 50 percent of the population lived in the countryside until 1940. In Poland the number was 80 percent. European peasant communities led a parallel existence alongside urban cities (Hofer and Fél, p. 56). Their land was usually owned by wealthy urban families, and their art was informed by urban style, though always on their own terms.
As well as identifying a community, the use of artifacts and festive clothing in seasonal, religious, and life-cycle ceremonies was so central to community belief systems that Tamás Hofer and Edit Fél state that they "represent intentions, emotions and they solemenize human relationships and sanctify them" (Csillery, Fél, and Hofer, p. 3). Every step of a villager's life cycle (birth, courtship, marriage, and death) was celebrated by the entire community, following long-established rules that involved specific use of clothing, which represented their social and spiritual strength and unity.
Among the Matyó people of Mezokövesd, for example, if "a woman died young, her best clothes—followed her into the grave," while "a man's shroud was made from the loose sleeves of the shirt he had worn as a bridegroom" (Csillery, Fél, and Hofer, p. 23). Even though Mezokövesd was poor, interest in clothing was so strong that it was a "leading inspiration of peasant taste and style for surrounded area from the 1870s" (p. 50) because both men's and women's clothes were a riot of proudly flaunted decoration and color. Such clothes were central expressions of ethnic identity and reflected a community's "struggle, sacrifice and joy" (p. 60).
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