Keeping you informed about Palestinian cultural heritage research, and our work here at the Archive

Keeping you informed about Palestinian cultural heritage research, and our work here at the Archive

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Practicing costume / textile identification skills

A lot of the work we do here at the Palestine Costume Archive is identifying costumes and textiles. We do this for lots of reasons. We might be asked by a diaspora Palestinian family about garments or cultural material in their family. We might be asked by a museum to confirm details of an item they are hoping to acquire or items on a checklist for a forthcoming exhibition, or an auction house wanting to list an item for auction.  We might be asked to help people organizing Palestinian cultural events like fashion parades.

Whatever the reason we are always happy to help because these days a lot of cultural material that is not Palestinian - especially in countries close to Palestine (one example being Sinai bedouin garments) - is getting labeled Palestinian out in the diaspora. We're always grateful that the people contacting us have taken the time to check.

We've been using social media to help familiarize people - not only Archive friends / staff who need practice with identification tools, but others out there with less knowledge.

A couple of days ago we posted the photo at the top of this post of an item in our collection on Facebook and asked Archive staff and friends to identify it.  We chose this particular one because we wanted something light hearted. We provided a couple of clues:
"it wasn't Palestinian, it was acquired in Damascus and it always creates amusement when we display it."
Twenty of you dropped us a line.  Ten got it right.  We're impressed. Those who didn't - don't worry about getting it wrong. This is all about practicing your skills. And you all came up with excellent suggestions, especially those of you who thought the garment might be a Sinai Desert bedouin headveil. This was a very good guess, because we have several Southern Sinai bedouin headveils with very similar sequined decoration in and on loan to our collection. You can see two of these displayed flat on the wall in the photo below of our traveling exhibition "Secret Splendours: women's costume in the Arab world":

Sinai Desert bedouin costumes on display
in the Archive's traveling exhibition
"Secret Splendours: women's costume in the Arab world"

Several even feature red sequins - here's one in storage, we've just pulled the archival paper back so you can see:

Sinai Desert bedouin headveil
in storage
Palestine Costume Archive collection

So seriously, well done :)

The clue to putting it all together was in our final clue - as one of you wrote "your "always creates amusement when we display it" gives it away lol".  Here's the entire garment:

Black and scarlet sequined Syrian lingerie
Palestine Costume Archive collection

If you are wondering at this point why on earth we are collecting underwear then you are in for a treat - it's Syrian lingerie and that's always over the top and very special :)

Black and scarlet sequined Syrian lingerie - detail
Palestine Costume Archive collection

"Forthright displays of the some world's kinkiest "leisure wear" have long been a feature of Syrian souks - though many tourists don't notice the crotchless knickers and PVC French maid outfits among the more traditional inlaid backgammon sets and textiles. 
"It stems from the Syrian tradition for brides-to-be to be given a trousseau of exotic underwear - sometimes dozens of items - usually by girlfriends, aunties and cousins, to add spice to their wedding nights, honeymoons and beyond..."
The Archive has three sets of late 20th century Syrian lingerie acquired in Suq al Hamidiya, Damascus.  

Pink heart Syrian lingerie
Palestine Costume Archive collection

As Martin Asser points out:
"There's a whole street off the historic Hamadiyeh Souk selling this genre of clothing - all outfits manufactured in Syria, some that Madonna herself might blush to wear, all showing bawdy creativity and a wicked sense of humour"
 Asser notes that according to Rana Salam and Malu Halasa who published "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design" in 2008:
"there are more than 200 little tiny factories that manufacture these fast changing lingerie models, from feathers to ringing mobiles to actual candies “embedded” into the panties. Stuff like this, pretty unique in its genre, at least for Western tastes standards"
'The Secret life of Syrian Lingerie'

Here's an article about the book by Susannah Tarbush:
"When Malu Halasa and Rana Salam visited the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo during a visit a couple of years ago, they were surprised by the apparent contradiction between the unusually audacious and playful lingerie on display there and the relatively conservative society, in which so many women are veiled. Halasa and Salam soon decided to co-author a book, "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design"...

"The colourful pages of the book are full of photographs of lingerie decorated with everything from birds, butterflies and feathers to fake scorpions, flowers and fur. Sequins, pearls, embroidery and tassels liberally adorn bra and panty sets. Some lingerie sets emit music, others vibrate or incorporate lights. Lingerie may be edible; in other cases it is hidden inside chocolates or eggs. There are crocheted one-piece body suits, and costumes influenced by belly-dancing gear. The lingerie often has a playfulness about it, with comic touches such as fake fur thongs which double as mobile phone holders.
'The Secret life of Syrian Lingerie'
"​​In addition to photographs of the lingerie on display, the book has photographs of lingerie modelled by pale-skinned women, mostly East European. These pictures are from catalogues which are readily available in lingerie outlets, despite the taboo on the showing of explicit images of women in public....
'The Secret life of Syrian Lingerie'
"Lingerie has become an essential part of the wedding trousseau: "If a groom doesn't buy the lingerie for his wife-to-be, the bride herself or her mother does, sometimes collecting up to thirty outfits for her wedding night." The essay is accompanied by Lebanese photographer Reine Mahfouz's photographs of lingerie factories, window displays and shops where veiled women buy lingerie from male assistants.
"Halasa asks Abdulhamid about Syria's reputation within the region for earthiness and raunchiness. He replies: "Syrian society tackles sexuality head-on and looks at it in a very direct manner, which some people might find strange because it is supposedly a conservative society." There is overt discussion of sexuality even in mixed gatherings of men and women. "Sometimes it doesn't matter whether the people are religious or not. Sexual jokes are common currency in Syrian society."
'The Secret life of Syrian Lingerie'

​​"There is a double edge to his comments on the racy type of Syrian lingerie. On the one hand, "you're turning women into sex toys. They're not supposed to be sexually stimulating to other people, but at home, to the husband, they're supposed to provoke his sexuality and dress in the manner that will attract him and do whatever he says." But at the same time, "it gives women a lot of control. Women can use sexuality to manipulate men."  
"An idea stated by some of those quoted in the book is that a woman should entertain her husband at home, including dancing for him. Some claim that the Koran contains such an injunction. Abdulhamid says this is not the case, but that "thousands of prophetic traditions support these ideas about women." Certainly some Syrians consider that if a woman "entertains" her husband, this will keep him away from other women and prostitutes, and will reduce the risk that he will take a second wife...
​​"The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie" may itself attract such criticisms. Interviews with women are interspersed with photographs of lingerie by Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage, but many women turned down the request to be interviewed, or became angry when they saw examples of the lingerie. A woman in her sixties who declined to be interviewed declared: "Damascenes are proud of their city and culture. No one will talk to you." Another said: "Lingerie is such an embarrassing issue for Syrian women to talk about, and that's probably why it's called 'the secret life'."
"One interviewee pointed out that the type of lingerie highlighted in the book is only a small part of Syria's overall lingerie output, and is linked only to a small category of people. "There are subcultures in Syria, and subcultures everywhere else in the world that would be interested in this kind of lingerie, starting from Le Lido or Moulin Rouge." But another interviewee thought the lingerie is "almost done in a naive sweet innocent way. It's not sick or perverted."
'The Secret life of Syrian Lingerie'
"The interviewees often associated the "exotic" lingerie with a certain class or religion. One said: "The underwear makes me laugh so much. It is not sexy at all!" She considers it mirrors "the very old fashioned ideas about sexuality in the less educated classes of Syria." Another said that for Christians, the underwear is "nothing but embarrassing, old-fashioned fun; for Muslims it is something very normal – they not only accept it but also enjoy it. The more religious an area is, the more risqué the underwear becomes. I think that Muslim women have less freedom on the outside so to compensate they have more freedom on the inside." 
"The Secret of Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design" is one of the most unusual, even bizarre, books you are likely to see on the Arab world. It is surely the first book to probe an Arab culture via the medium of its female undergarments, and looks certain to arouse debate and controversy."
If you'd like to learn more or read the book if you can either purchase a copy online or borrow the copy in the Archive's Research Library if you are in Australia.

Thanks so much to everyone who took part in this costume / textile identification skills practice and congrats again to those who got it right. We learned lots and are looking forward to the next one :)

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