Spiked and Plated: The Trendy Material Culture of the Lobi

 

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The African Lobi Pot Collection at Restoration Hardware

 

It’s not unusual for designers to borrow from non-Western cultures for a seasonal trend. Past design fads have ranged from Malian bogolan (mud cloth) to mandalas, a Hindu and Buddhist spiritual symbol. A burgeoning trend on the market are replicas of Lobi pottery, specifically altar vessels covered with three-dimensional spikes. Another aspect of Lobi decorative culture, lip plates, have also gone mainstream. These forms of body modification are worn on the upper, lower, or both lips.

Although these two items are different in aesthetic and use, they both provide examples of how the West can reshape the purpose and significance of distinctly West African objects without proper acknowledgement. By doing so, the origin of the decorative item’s is lost and replaced with Western capitalist ideals.

Pottery

 

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Altar Vessel (20th Century) via The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Lobi are a cultural group that lives in Burkina Faso and parts of Ivory Coast. They are traditionally associated with rural life and live in an informal clan system. During French colonization in Burkina Faso (1896-1960), the Lobi were able to maintain their independence longer than nearby groups, which was due to their open resistance against foreign influence.

The inspiration behind a Lobi pottery piece can range from regular life events to the spiritual. Spirituality is particularly shown with spiked altar vessels, which is a style that is present in pottery across Western Africa.

Appearing like a browned jackfruit, Lobi altar vessels can be spiked all over with a ladle and a carved lid. The spikes represent a variety of hopes in life, including protection from witchcraft and misfortune. The Art Institute of Chicago notes in a description of an early to mid 20th-century vessel that the lid, “protects the contents from natural and supernatural contamination.” This suggests that the item was meant for pouring and only used for special events. With such cultural significance, it’s odd that replicas are being sold as living room décor.

Clothing

This concept of protection is also present in the traditional body adornment of the Lobi. Christopher D. Roy states in the Burkina Faso chapter of the text, “Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion that the group wore leather and brass arm and neck coverings to protect themselves from spirits in the wild. Aside from arm and neckwear, Roy notes that men wore thin cords around the waist, and at times, front coverings. Men also wore their hair in long, face-framing clay locks. Women looked similar but wore coverings around the front and back of their lower body. Today, Lobi dress has now changed and ranges from Western-inspired outfits or wraps that are commonly seen in Western Africa.

Although not exclusive to the culture, the Lobi wears coin-sized lip plates. This form of decorative body modification can represent wealth or social importance. Since the late 20th-century, lip plates have become popular in ‘alternative cultures in the West. Despite this surge, there’s barely any acknowledgment of where and who originated this ‘trend.’

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Lobi Woman, Burkina Faso via Dietmar Temps (Flickr)

 

As Lobi altar vessels become an accent in homes and mouth plates fill lips, an appreciation and acknowledgment of where these items originate are necessary. For more on the material culture of this group, check out the Art Institute of Chicago’s Lobi collection.

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The Fashionable Side of Guam

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Chamorro Performers| Image via Marilyn Sourgoseoriginally posted to Flickr as IMG_7883

Within the United States, Guam is often known as a strategic U.S. naval base. However, the 30-mile island is much more. It is home to a historical and growing fashion culture that incorporates traditional costume with a modern shopping market.

Guam is currently an American island territory, but it has a history as both an indigenous and colonized country. Among its citizens, the Chamorros call Guam home. These people’s ancestors date early in Guam’s history and provide a strong example of how the influence of colonization affects the dress of a culture.

Early Dress
Documentation of early Chamorro dress in Guam often comes from personal accounts of foreign explorers. This can illustrate the actual traditions of a people, but can also provide a personal and cultural bias of the descriptor.

The early Chamorros utilized their natural surroundings to fashion coverage for their bodies. According to Judith S. Flores in “Dress of the Chamorro” (2010), women wore leaf and bark around the waist and, at times, used turtle shells styled into an apron-like clothing piece. Women would also wear a tifi as a top and men were bare-chested, but both genders used floral and coconut scents on their bodies. In numerous European accounts of early Chamorros, men and women were documented as having long hair. In some reports, men tied their hair into buns, while others stated that men shaved their head with the exception of one lock.

This form of dress is still remembered today with the works of Guam residents Joe and Ray Viloria. Together they create clothing and accessories that are inspired by the island’s early indigenous population. Through this effort, the designers can teach audiences and acknowledge social taboos, like showing excessive skin, through their clothing.

Dress Under the Spanish Empire
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This mode of clothing changed once the Spanish Empire colonized the island in the mid-1600s. The Spaniards were a Catholic-based nation who embraced ideas of dress that hid the human body, especially the female form. According to Flores (2010), this resulted in a rise of the mestiza (mestisa) costume, which originally developed in the Philippines. Men wore an outfit of a loose button-down and bleached cotton (manta) trousers that ranged in length depending on the formality of the situation. Women covered their bodies with a slip that had a round neckline and bell-shaped sleeves and an ankle-length skirt. The style evolved during the Victorian era from what Flores calls  “the starched ‘butterfly’ look.” During formal occasions, women covered their heads in white handkerchiefs or shawls.

Guam transitioned into American hands after the Spanish-American War in 1848. The island was under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy and held under what Dough Herman at Smithsonian.com calls martial law. In 1941, the island was bombed hours after Pearl Harbor and was held under Japanese rule for three years. This occupation resulted in over 13,000 locals being imprisoned in camps and 1,123 dying under Japanese control.

Fashion Today
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After the war, Guam fell back under American rule and became an island territory. What may be due to the American influence and/or its reputation as a tourist destination, Guam has formed into an economy that provides a variety of shopping opportunities. For the tourist or local looking for the newest designs by international fashion designers, the island offers the Tumon Sands Plaza, which houses Balenciaga, Chloe, and Givenchy.  For more moderately-priced options, there are many malls and outlets within consumers reach.

For those wanting to dress in local wares, events like Guam Fashion Weekend and the Guam Fashion Delegation showcase Guam fashion talent. There is also a scene of local fashion designers who integrate Chamorro culture with Western trends and styles. For example, Tao Pacific Designs creates ready-to-wear clothing in block prints that identify and honor Chamorro culture.

The history and status of fashion in Guam evolves from one influence into another, but there is still a sense of pride and acknowledgment in the island’s Chamorro culture. This is a rare feat for an indigenous group who has experienced a significant amount of colonization that demands change and dismissal of one’s norms. Although Guam is a part of the United States, and may one day be an official state, it is also an island with a rich history that is communicated through its fashion scene.

For more on the island of Guam, visit Guam.gov or the Guam Museum.

The Nhu Look: The Fashions of Madame Nhu

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Although she was born Trần Lệ Xuân, Madame Nhu was a woman known under many names. She was also called “Tiger Lady” and “Dragon Lady,” which the latter was based on a racist Asian character from the U.S. cartoon, “Terry and the Pirates.” These names were due to her blunt personality and cutting remarks, but also her glamorous appearance.

Nhu was the de-facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963, which was the early years of the Vietnam War. She was a feminist who supported women’s rights, but also a fierce Christian who promoted laws that restricted females. She was protective of her people, but then made scathing statements about Vietnamese Buddhist monks who self-immolated in protest.

The Nhu Life

Nhu was born in 1924 to a wealthy, royal Buddhist family in Vietnam. Her life consisted of rare privilege during the 1920s and 1930s, she took French and ballet lessons and was assisted by several servants.

As a teen, she rebelled against her controlling family by refusing an arranged marriage and dropped out of a prestigious school. In 1943, she married politician and archivist Ngô Đình Nhu. In order to marry, the young bride converted to her husband’s Roman Catholicism and changed her name to Madame Nhu, which went against Vietnamese tradition.

Early in the couple’s marriage, Vietnam fell to Communist power. Nhu was captured and held against her will. She faced harsh and restrictive conditions and was allowed one coat to wear. According to Nhu, the coat was “a very fashionable wasp-waisted number from Paris.”

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The Nhu Law

In 1955, Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngô Đình Diệm became the first President of the Republic of Vietnam. Since Diệm was unmarried, Nhu became the de-facto First Lady. In this role, she was not afraid to voice her opinion about her critics or on American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Nhu’s fierce persona often overshadowed the change she initiated in Vietnam. She developed a female militia and proposed the Family Law in 1958. The Law banned polygamy, gave women the right to joint property ownership, and made divorce difficult to attain. Although the latter would be seen against women’s rights in Western eyes, divorce at that time in Vietnam stigmatized women and could ruin their future.

However, Nhu’s Roman Catholic views drove her to promote laws that also shamed women. She attempted to outlaw padded brassieres, abortion, and called the popular dance “The Twist” an unhealthy activity.

The Nhu Look

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Like many public figures, Madame Nhu had a signature uniform. She wore a modified ao dai (Vietnamese national dress) that was fitted at the bodice with boatneck or Mandarin necklines. Like her statements, her clothing was considered controversial because it accentuated the female form.

Nhu complimented her look with other 1950s trends, including a beehive bouffant, winged eyeliner, and feminine accents like a purse in snakeskin, pointed nails, or pearl jewelry. Madame Nhu’s ultra-feminine look only strengthened her fierce persona, which was a rarity for any First Lady during the mid-twentieth century.

Nam Phuong, The Woman Who Wore Silver Trousers To Meet The Pope

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

This post will discuss the life and fashion influence of Nam Phương, the last empress of Vietnam.

From a French Convent to An Empire

Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born in the French colony Cochinchina, which is located in a southern portion of modern-day Vietnam. Lan grew up in a wealthy Roman Catholic family and was educated overseas in France (1). In 1934, she ended her schooling in a French convent to marry Emperor Bảo Đai. According to the 1934 The New York Times article “Will Renounce Faith To Wed An Emperor,” this union required her to renounce her faith for her husband’s Buddhism. This pleased Vietnam’s general public, but was at the dismay of the Vatican.  The marriage also required her to change her name to Nam Phương, which translates to “Direction of South.”

During the four days of the marriage ceremony, Phương was described by Time Magazine (2) in, “…A great brocaded Annamite gown, she stepped into an automobile and was driven to the Emperor’s Palace, followed by the Imperial princesses and the blue-turbaned wives of the mandarins…On the fourth day a battalion of mandarins led in musicians and the bearers of the royal insignia. The new Queen, her hair elaborately wound about a tiara encrusted with precious stones…”

Leaving the Emperor 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

When looking at her life, it appears Phoung and her husband had a strained marriage. What are typical marital problems may have been complicated with his multiple marriages or his political alliance with the Japanese during World War II. By 1947, the Communist takeover of Vietnam caused Phương to take her children to a family home in France, which was bought by her maternal grandmother. Phương then separated from her husband and continued to live in France until she passed away in 1963 (3).

The Empress Goes to Europe 

Aside from her role as wife to the last Emperor of Vietnam, Nam Phương was a fashion influencer who wore both traditional Vietnamese and Western clothing. During her first trip to Europe in 1939, the Empress’ outfits in Paris were noted by The New York Times in the 1939 article, “By Wireless From Paris.” The article explained how her apparel inspired others by stating, “Already some élégantes are adopting trousers and embroidered tunics for evenings; pagoda silhouettes, revers or sleeve forms are also in evidence.”

In the “Footnotes” section of a July 23, 1939 edition of The New York Times, Phương was noted for breaking tradition of wearing an all-black, conservative gown and veil when meeting Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. She wore a “gold, dragon-embroidered tunic, red scarf and gold hat” with a pair of silver trousers.

Orientalism in Fashion 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

During the time Nam Phương visited Europe, fashion was embracing “exotic” or “orientalist” designs. Orientalism in design and fashion traces to an Eastern idealization created by the West when trade between the two hemispheres introduced silk textiles and new styles of clothing like kimonos and shawls. This interest in Eastern aesthetics was not based in understanding the cultures of Japan, Algeria, or China; rather it was created around a fabrication imagined by the West.

Phương’s style moments noted by The New York Times highlights the public interest towards Orientalism. It also also gives credit to an Asian woman, a demographic who was rarely discussed in fashion publications.

The Life of Nam Phương

 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

Phương was an educated woman who who challenged religious conventions through her dress. Politics aside, Nam Phương was one fascinating, and beautifully dressed, woman.

 

Sources

  1. “Annam Ruler to Wed Commoner 20 March; Daughter of Wealthy Cochin-China Family Will Be Bride of Europeanized Emperor”, The New York Times, 9 March 1934, page 21.
  2. “Wedding and Thanks”, Time, 2 April 1934.
  3. “Nam Phuong, Wife of Ex-Annam Ruler”, The New York Times, 17 September 1963.

Zitkala-sa and the Politics of Native American Dress

 

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Photography by Joseph T. Keiley (1901)

For months now, the protests of the Dakota Pipeline near Cannonball, North Dakota have swept both US and International news. Occurring near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, groups like the Standing Rock Sioux, other American Indian communities, and their allies have faced cold weather and police aggression to protest the incoming Dakota Pipeline.

The Sioux, an umbrella term for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, have a deep history with American oppression and tension. The most recent incident has reminded the US public of past events, like the Wounded Knee Massacre, which resulted in mass killings. It also recalls the colonization of American Indians, which began during the early years of the United States formation. One aspect of this colonization was the way American Indians dressed and adorned themselves.

The Politics of Hair

Before and during the US government’s migration to the West, Native people were encouraged to conform and adopt Western clothing. A popular method for colonization were boarding schools, which sought to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

By targeting Native youth, these schools forced children to speak English, move away from family, and adopt a Western way of life. This included cutting long hair and prohibiting traditional clothing, which are both symbols of Native identity.

These rules were meant to not only change the physical image of the children but also their spirit. They faced physical and mental abuse, alongside shame towards of their cultural heritage. One notable experience is of Zitkala-sa, a Yankton Dakota woman.

As a young girl, Zitkala-sa was sent to the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. “I was a wild little girl of seven. Loosely clad in a slip of brown buckskin, and light-footed with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet,” Zitkala-sa recalled in her book, American Indian Stories. “I was as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride, – my wild freedom and overflowing spirits.” Early in her time at the school, she witnessed forced assimilation and experienced it first hand. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities.”

The Politics of Zitkala-sa

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Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)

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Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)

 

As she grew older, Zitkala-sa became a writer and advocate. She also was photographed on numerous occasions wearing both Dakota and Western clothing. In a series of photographs by American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, Zitkala-sa is documented wearing a Western long-sleeved, puff-shouldered dress with her long hair loose. In another, she is wearing a coat, loose layers, and embroidered accessories. This combination of two different cultures reflected her identity. Zitkala-sa identified as a Yankton woman from Dakota territory, but she was also educated in White social mores through her time at the boarding school

In 1926, Zitkala-sa co-founded the National Council of American Indians, an organization that lobbied for Native American rights. In 2010, 70 plus years after her death, she was named an honoree of Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Project. She is remembered in American history for being, “The first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter or ethnographer.”

For more information on the current situation at Sitting Rock, visit Standingrock.org.