The Body Adorned: Dressing London

Are the curiosities of dress of various native peoples really so different from those of today’s London ‘tribes’, asks Matt Lodder

March 22, 2012

Status symbols from left to right: leather riding boots, early 20th century; Ugandan cowrie and ostrich feather headdress; Dakota (Sioux) plains shirt, North America, late 19th century.

The Body Adorned: Dressing London

Horniman Museum, London

24 March-6 January 2013

Founded in the chauvinistic and imperialistic intellectual traditions of the 19th century, anthropology has for much of its history struggled to cope with questions that require introspection, self-awareness and self-criticism. Anthropologists, particularly when their work has been presented through the institutional lens of museological and curator-ial practice, have often been much more comfortable addressing, inspecting and highlighting otherness, strangeness and difference than they have been investigating universality, similarity and commonality between their own cultural backgrounds and those that form the object of their study. Much of the appeal of museums in general, and anthropological collections in particular, is their status as spaces that can collate and present unfamiliar things in didactic ways, but when complex questions of human culture are distilled into the display of objects, either by instinct or pragmatic necessity the themes presented to and taken away by visitors are often dominated by the bizarre, the grotesque, the prurient or the preternatural.

The Body Adorned: Dressing London at the Horniman Museum works against these disciplinary and institutional instincts. The exhibition interweaves photographs, clothing and film from contemporary London produced and purchased by the museum’s Youth Panel with items from the Horniman’s vast collection of anthropological objects collected from around the world. In the process, it manages to interrogate its audience’s sense of their own bodily adornment and dress habits as well as the museum’s history of presenting and reinforcing anthropological discourses of otherness.

An exhibition subtitled Dressing London might in the hands of another curator or with another collection have become demonstrative of narrow themes of British fashion or clothing design. Why, then, does a show that purports to be about body adornment in London give pride of place to a late-19th-century Alaskan Inuit seal-gut parka, Japanese kimono, Sioux jacket or primitive Tunisian tattooing tools? The answer is because these items have been in London, and on display in this museum, for a century or more. The Horniman’s collection of objects has been signifying and manifesting cultural distance to the inhabitants of this city since the museum opened in 1901, and much of this show interrogates its role in forming, solidifying and reflecting social attitudes to race and difference.

The inclusion of items from the far corners of the globe is something that therefore might best be described as meta-curation - making visible the complicity of museums and institutional collections in the construction of social discourse. Moreover, older pictures from the Horniman collection, such as Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Joseph Brant (1786) or John Verelst’s engravings of Native American “kings” (1710), which feature non-Western men adopting British habits of dress for political or diplomatic purposes, establish a long history of the rhetorical force of images of dress in negotiating identity, race and power. This is a self-reflective exhibition that is aware of and aims to expose its own discipline’s and even its own institution’s historical shortcomings in examining anthropological and ethnographic issues.

As you enter the exhibition space, this methodological self-awareness is immediately obvious: display cases holding late-19th-century statuettes from China, northern Nigeria, New Zealand Maori and the Native American Haida, all collected at the height of Victorian anthropological acquisition and representative here of objects brought to London to satisfy a curious public, flank a large, constantly changing projection of photographs from the capital today. The ornate figures manifest various bodily practices of the cultures that produced them - scarification on the body of the maternal figure of the Nigerian statuette, for example, or iconic facial tattooing on the Maori - and might ordinarily serve simply to illustrate strange, foreign, primitive bodily practices and the habits of distant lands and dead cultures. Instead, here they simultaneously lend their strangeness to the photographs projected alongside them, encouraging in the visiting public a critical distance even from the familiar scenes of haircuts and business suits flashing across the wall, and absorb some of the quotidian normality visible in the images of multicultural, multi-faceted, heterogeneous London.

The statuettes are thus presented to be considered in the same way as the photographs and the other objects that comprise the exhibition - representations of particular but not peculiar attitudes to beauty, status, power, refinement, taste, class, culture, belonging, and the infinite scope of other categories human beings present in their clothing, body modifications, hairstyles and deportments across time, geography and social strata. By extension, this effacing of the distance between objects in museum display cases and bodies in the real world also encourages critical appraisal of bodily adornment beyond the museum walls. This deft curatorial move establishes that all adornment and dress habits - be they distant or immediate - can be considered within the same critical framework. By bridging the gap between these representations of historic, non-Western dress and adornment practices and the habits of everyday Londoners, it becomes possible to consider the body and its adornments in objective terms, even if those adornments are familiar and comfortable. If statuettes of Maori warriors can be indicative - through representations of dress - of class, patriarchy, power and tribal allegiance, then so can (so must) bodily adornment practices in everyday life.

Premises are established throughout the exhibition using familiar tropes of anthropological display, only to be countermanded with powerful, conflicting objects and images as well as other, subtler curatorial strategies. Most vividly illustrative of this are a series of pull-outs from the Illustrated London News showing the Great Exhibition of 1851. The first is framed by a frieze in which lines of stereotyped, down-at-heel members of the industrious but subjugated nations of the Empire tread upwards to the feet of Britannia. The various peoples, identifiable through their accentuated styles of unfamiliar dress, march around the border of an image of well-heeled, top-hatted Londoners attending Crystal Palace. The engraving distils the fundamental attitudes of Empire and anthropology in the mid-19th century, with the normality, civility and power of London contrasted with the strangeness of the peoples of Empire. And yet beside this image of powerful, centralised normality and heterogeneity hangs a pull-out showing the same exhibition as attended on one-shilling days, filled with Londoners who were poorer and less stylishly turned out - an image for the readers of the same tabloid of another mode of London normality.

These two images of everyday London in the 1850s are on their own perhaps unremarkable, but setting them alongside one another such that the differences between their subjects are made starkly visible undermines the assumptions of uncritical recognition through which they were intended to function, and illustrates that the central frames, both presenting recognisable and day-to-day London of the period, actually present representations as stereotypical and as demonstrative of attitudes to class, race and power, as those of the foreign caricatures with which they were intended to contrast.

The exhibition is anchored around an immersive projection space put together by the Youth Panel that draws together these threads of bodies as objects, of anthropological self-awareness, and of London’s particular place as a mosaic of cultures and styles. Several video projections overlaid with subtitles and amplified with audio show the adornment habits of 21st-century Londoners and their reflections on their own choices of clothing, hair and other items of adornment, from the unremarkable to the outlandish. In the background, the comments of others recorded surreptitiously talking about the individuals featured in the videos fade in and out. Some are complimentary, some scathing indeed, yet they reassert that gazing upon the clothing, style, dress and adornment of others, and thinking about our own, should make anthropologists of us all.

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