Clothing maketh the people

“Tiraz: Local Embroidery” exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Islamic Art last month and will run until February 20, 2016.

The Islamic Museum’s new ‘Tiraz: Local Embroidery’ exhibition demonstrates the ‘significance of women producing their clothes themselves (photo credit: HANAN BAR ASSOULINE)
The Islamic Museum’s new ‘Tiraz: Local Embroidery’ exhibition demonstrates the ‘significance of women producing their clothes themselves
(photo credit: HANAN BAR ASSOULINE)
These days it is practically impossible to divine a person’s national identity or culture from the clothes on their back. You might see a Chinese teenager in a T-shirt and baseball cap strolling by the McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and his British counterpart walking along London’s Oxford Street in the same getup.
But less than a century ago, you could often tell a person’s cultural origins from their attire. That certainly comes through in the “Tiraz: Local Embroidery” exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Islamic Art last month and will run until February 20, 2016.
The show comprises a collection of Palestinian women’s dresses and accessories created between 1880 and 1948, although most of the works date from around 1920-1930. The items represent a fascinating tour de force of the art of embroidery in this part of the world, and tell much about the way people, specifically women, went about their daily business, as well as some of the special occasions in their lives.
As curator Rachel Hasson states in the exhibition catalogue, “it is significant that women produced their clothes themselves, for in doing so they also created their own special language which was not always understood by men. Women could decide what statements to make via their dress, thereby defining their identity.”
The works on display all come from a collection put together by Rome-based collector Manuel Kleidman. This is not Kleidman’s first collaboration with the museum, and he confesses to harboring an ulterior motive for his participation.
“Eighteen years ago, Rachel Hasson and I presented an exhibition of Palestinian costumes, with the intention that by revealing the identity of a neighboring people, its myths and customs, peace would come sooner to this region,” says the collector. “With the present exhibition, the Museum for Islamic Art once again offers its visitors hope, a prayer in praise of the human spirit and its creativity.”
There is certainly plenty of the latter on show at the museum. Considering that most of us struggle to get things done despite all the time-saving gadgets and appliances we have today, it’s impressive to see how the average Palestinian woman back then, who was responsible for working in the fields and keeping house, still found the time to conjure up some pretty remarkable items of sartorial elegance.
Take, for example, the delightful beige linen affair that comes from the Palestinian village of Beit Dajan, which was located south of Jaffa and destroyed in the War of Independence. The dress, which dates to around 1930, is a veritable cornucopia of tastefully produced motifs and ornamental details that include amulets, cypress trees, moons, stars and feathers.
“The wide sleeves were probably designed like that to allow some kind of ventilation,” muses Ma’ayan Levy, assistant to museum director Nadim Sheiban.
And if it’s sumptuous color combinations you’re looking for, there is another coat dress, or jillayeh, from Beit Dajan circa 1920-30, with a handwoven indigo linen backdrop, applied silk patches, and cross-stitched embroidery with amulet, cypress tree and star motifs.
Tiraz incorporates clothes made by city-dwellers, villagers and nomadic Beduin women. There are costumes from the Galilee, the Judean Hills – specifically Bethlehem – the region around Hebron, Ramallah, the coastal plain, Jericho and the Negev.
The clothes are almost all completely handmade and represent long-term efforts. In the case of bridal gowns, these were often made by young girls in preparation for their wedding day.
“Sometimes you would have 11-yearold girls who would proudly begin their path to their married life by starting to make a dress, which they might complete only two or three years later, in time for their wedding,” explains Sheiban.
“They would get help from their mother, grandmother and maybe other family members.”
The exhibition is subtitled “Woman/ Memory/Identity,” and all those elements and sentiments come through strongly in the display. Social standing was also clearly an important factor in the design. There are headdresses with so many coins sewn into the fabric that one hopes the young Palestinian women of the day were blessed with strong necks. The decorative cash came from some surprising quarters.
“The wife of the Austrian ambassador was here, and she identified some of the coins as being Austrian,” Sheiban notes.
“There are all sorts of coins here, including Ottoman ones.”
One headdress from Jaffa even has gold coins worked into the design, and evidently came from a family of means.
Regional and meteorological conditions also influenced the quality of the clothes.
“The women in the Galilee had less time to make clothes than the Beduin of the Negev,” says Levy. “Because of the climate in the North, there was harvesting and farming work all year round, while the women of the Negev had less farming work to do, so they could devote more effort to making their costumes.”
Political shifts in the Middle East, it seems, had some bearing on design adjustments as well.
“A lot of the dresses that had an opening up the middle of the front were later sewn closed, because of the problem of the Palestinian women encountering foreigners, primarily the British during the Mandate period,” Sheiban explains.
“Of course, they wore long pants underneath, but they still opted for modesty with Westerners around.”
Despite the distinct regional differences, Sheiban feels there is something universal about the aesthetics. “Look at this one, for example, indicating an appealing beige and red upper body garment. This would not look out of place in, say, eastern Europe.”
Naturally the ornamental accessories and the colors the costume-makers used came from the environs, including Mother Nature.
“There is a lot of red in the costumes.
Maybe from pomegranates,” suggests Levy.
One thing is for certain: The Palestinian women of the time knew their feather stitch from their stem stitch, and painstakingly produced some wonderful creations, time constraints notwithstanding.
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