Why do we wear what we wear? Does the way we dress have deeper meaning or is dress superficial? What influences our choice of dress? These are just some of the questions asked by the people behind The Horniman Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘The Body Adorned’.
The exhibition is divided into two sections, with one half looking at clothing from a variety of eras and cultures, and the other focusing on contemporary London and how its inhabitants use dress as a mode of expression.
Curator Wayne Modest, current head of the curatorial department of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum and former head of anthropology at The Horniman, said: “We wanted to look at how we as individuals express ourselves.’’
Pointing to the sequence of films projected onto the back wall, he adds that voice is “a part of how we dress our bodies” and is often changed or adapted to suit the scenario.
In this display, where film reels show figures standing on the streets of London, the cacophony of voices scramble over each other to tell the story of their clothing, and it is only when focusing on one section of the footage that their individual place in the collage can be fully appreciated, suggesting it is a true reflection of the essential flux and buzzing evolution that characterises London life.
Modest is keen to point out that a suit on a mannequin in a corner of the gallery isn’t just a dress suit: ‘’It’s travelled to more business meetings than you can imagine.” This ensemble is juxtaposed with a multi-faith wedding wardrobe and video footage of the wearers themselves.
Similarly, the arresting series of ‘urban portraits’ scattered throughout the gallery space demonstrate the hugely varied styles of dress that characterise London. All are taken by young people from schools and colleges around London – including Goldsmiths College in Lewisham – who Modest describes as the “eyes and ears” of this section of the exhibition.
In the second section of the exhibition, the ‘eyes and ears’ belong to people from a plethora of cultures the world over. Venturing at times towards the surreal, this display includes a late 19th century North American shirt made from buckskin and locks of human hair, appliqued Chinese shoes with an elevated wooden sole and a great deal in between.
Meanwhile the early twentieth century Malian tunic, although less vibrant than items such as the kimono spread-eagled over one section of the exhibit, is perhaps the most intriguing. The numerous leather pouches attached to this hunters’ garment contain quotations from the Koran, whilst the amulets represent the skill and experience of the hunter as well as providing protection for him during the hunt.
“I like things”, says Modest, finally. “Objects are never just objects. After a while they start to control us. You’ve got to look at things from a different angle”.
The exhibition is one of a series of four ‘Stories of the World: London’ exhibitions exploring different aspects of life in this World City. These form part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme, Stories of the World, which presents exciting new exhibitions across the UK created by young people.
The Body Adorned: Dressing London. Until January 6, 2013