Inherent in fashion is the notion of becoming: Our sartorial choices can tell a story of who we are or who we want to be. In many ways, stepping into an outfit can be one of the most powerful acts of self-expression, and it’s a tool people around the world have been using for millennia.
“Today, we often dismiss fashion as frivolous,” lead curator Lauren Ristvet said in a statement. “But our appearances are important. The way we dress communicates who we are and what we do.”
Here are five other historical garments that demonstrate the power of fashion as a tool for self-realization.
A Buddhist priest’s headdress from 16th-century Nepal
The crown of a Buddhist priest from 16th-century Nepal is 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 sort of thing that you would want to wear for every ritual you perform,” Ristvet said in a phone interview.
Those who put on the Mukuta were becoming the most important figure within their religious tradition.
A Coclé chief’s ancient burial regalia from what is now Panama
A Coclé chief’s burial regalia (circa 750-1000 AD) shines in the exhibit’s “Dressing to Rule” area. Credit: Eric Sucar/University of Pennsylvania
Engraved in each plaque is a human-like figure with sharp teeth, and legs that morph into alligators or crocodiles. Crocodiles have often been associated with rulership and power, Ristvet said. “The man morphing into the crocodile has also been understood in terms of this esoteric or shamanic powers that a ruler might have.” And jaguars — encasing the emerald in the pendant — have been a symbol of power across Mesoamerica.
A 1930s velvet gown worn by Marian Anderson
The velvet merlot gown that belonged to contralto Marian Anderson stars in the exhibit’s “Dressing to Perform” section. Credit: Eric Sucar/University of Pennsylvania
This velvet merlot gown was likely designed by Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, one of the first Black fashion designers who opened a boutique on Broadway in 1948, according to Ristvet. Valdes dressed contralto Marian Anderson — the first Black woman to perform with the Metropolitan Opera — during much of her career, Ristvet said.
An audience robe worn by an official during China’s Qing Dynasty
An audience robe worn during China’s Qing Dynasty (19th century) is 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 civil official of the second rank, according to the museum. The silk and brocade robe, adorned with embroidered dragons, waves and clouds, was only worn during some of the most important occasions in officials’ lives, Ristvet said.
“In China, every aspect of official dress is basically tightly controlled, and there’s a lot of symbolism that goes into all of these outcomes. … The blue-black color of this robe is something that’s only worn by basically court officials,” Ristvet said.
The blue was one of the main colors on the Qing Dynasty flag. “Of course, dragon is a symbol of the emperor of rulership in China. And the number of claws on the dragon actually corresponds to the rank of an official.”
A Scythian warrior’s floral gold crown
A Scythian warrior’s crown is displayed in “The Stories We Wear” exhibit at Penn Museum. Credit: Eric Sucar/University of Pennsylvania
The rosettes on this gold diadem were made of gold foil and wire, and likely decorated a headdress or garment of an elite Scythian woman.
“This idea of military prowess, we tend to really think of that as being masculine across the centuries,” Ristvet said. “Interestingly, almost all the (Scythian) material we have in our museum seems to be coming from graves of women, which is cool and unusual, because a lot of the high-status material from this time is coming from male graves.”