Saturday, May 20, 2017

This red clay village in Iran is an anthropological museum

According the Iranian media reports, this is a village of living traditions, architectural styles (all in red clay), and probably the most interesting example of human adaptation to nature, wherein one can transcend the boundaries of time and space and experience the ancient civilization and culture of Iran.

The village is compact, with narrow and sloped lanes, and houses located on the slope as if placed on a stairway. Here, the roofs of some houses are used to serve as the courtyard for other houses higher up on the slope. The language spoken by the literate people of Abyaneh is Parthian Pahlavi. They are deeply committed to honoring their traditions.

No matter how well educated a person from Abyaneh might be, he or she puts on the traditional Abyaneh costume on coming back to the village from anywhere in Iran.

The women's traditional costume, consisting of a scarf with floral motifs and pleated pants, is particularly attractive.

Even today their costume, way of life and ancient dialect are still practically unchanged and for many anthropologists a reason to travel to Iran.

The architectural facet in this village along with the rituals and apparel of its inhabitants is a sight to witness.

The grand mosque of the village with its historical wooden altar dates to 1355 CE, and its wooden pulpit dating to 1045 CE. And an inscription in the 'Kofi' script is greatly valued both as a historical and religious monument.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

'Barbarian' Dress Codes From Rome To 'Game Of Thrones'

What can we tell about a country, culture, religion or fictional world from the dress codes that they impose? In the fictional world of Westeros, in ancient Rome and even today, clothing was tied to stereotypes.

As any fashion designer will tell you, a lot of unspoken words are whispered to an audience regarding a character's identity just from the clothing they wear on screen. For its first five seasons, Michele Clapton was lead costume designer for Game of Thrones. Last year, she told The Telegraph that during each of these seasons, Daenerys Targaryen has always worn a hidden pair of pants and boots underneath her dress. As Clapton notes, "There's always a fear in her that she will have to leave so it gives her the freedom to always escape and run. If she had silly shoes on she'd lose all her strength."

Quite right. Clapton's functional fashion choice is certainly a step up from Bryce Dallas Howard's insistence on running in high heels to escape dinosaurs in Jurassic World. Her layering of a dress over pants also represents the two worlds that Daenerys has straddled in the series: the world of a noble in a refined court and that of the invading general leading her troops.

In Rome of the late fourth century CE, pants were similarly controversial indicators of the blurring lines between civil society and warfare. This was due in large part to the fact that pants (called in Latin 'bracae') were seen as identifying items of clothing for groups perceived as "barbaric" or non-Roman. A number of these men had come to make up a significant portion of the Roman army by this date. Many Germanic groups, Goths and Huns were often characterized by historians of the time as wearing pants and boots. A law from 397 and then another in 399 CE strictly regulated the wearing of pants and boots in the city:

In addition to voicing a displeasure for certain items of clothing that appear to be coming into vogue, this law may have been signaling that the city of Rome was still seen as a safe haven from combat and thus off limits to martial attire. As I have written about before, the city of Rome was intended as a zone protected from weapons by a sacred boundary line called the pomerium. Even into the early Christian period, the city was cast as ideally off limits to most soldiers.

The laws of the late fourth century didn't seem to stop the barbarian fashion craze. In 416, another law was passed stipulating that those who wore skins and had long hair were similarly banned from coming within the walls of the city. This likely meant that within the confines of the Aurelian Walls, individuals were expected to adopt a traditional Roman urban dress (e.g., the toga worn by elite men) rather than attire associated with the "other." We can perhaps read fear into the dress code law of 416 in particular; it came just 6 years after the sack of the city of Rome by Alaric and his Goths.

It seems that Games of Thrones has also picked up on the imagined dichotomy between Rome and the "barbarian" seen within these dress codes. The presentation of the Wildlings in particular certainly appears to draw heavily from a description in Ammianus Marcellinus of the Huns' use of field mice as pelts for their clothing:

One way that the costume designers on the show denote that the Wildlings that lived beyond the wall are uncivilized people who are characteristically different from those living south of the wall is by similarly draping the Wildlings in skins and animal pelts. Notably, this is also just functional fashion. Animal skins are a lot warmer than silk or linen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Chinese Valentine's Day traditionally falls on February, but few know it

A couple dressed in traditional red costumes sit quietly in the middle of a stage for their Ming-style wedding ceremony. Behind them stand two girls, carefully cutting off small tufts of the bride's and groom's hair. The girls then place the locks together into a small embroidered bag. To celebrate Lantern Festival this year, a traditional Chinese wedding performance was held at Shanghai Mass Art Center (SMAC). Hundreds of visitors watched the wedding, which incorporated customs and traditions popular among the Han people during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

A Ming-style wedding ceremony is held in Shanghai Mass Art Center on Lantern Festival, which is regarded as Chinese Valentine's Day.

Lantern Festival is also known as Chinese Valentine's Day. In ancient China, people liked to carry colorful self-made lanterns and visit local temples, enjoying various kinds of lanterns together with families and friends.

"Even unmarried young women, who usually stayed at home, were allowed to go out on that special day," said the wedding performance organizer Wu Juanya.

Because of the inclusion of single young females during Lantern Festival, it inadvertently became an opportunity to meet and date people of the opposite sex. Over time, girls started "dolling up" in beautiful dresses and jewelry to attract suitors.

Nonetheless, today most people think of Qixi Festival (July 7 according to the lunar calendar) rather than Lantern Festival as Chinese Valentine's Day.

"Actually, Qixi was a day for females to pray to the gods for intelligence and better needlework skills," Wu explained, "not meet men."

In order to make this year's Lantern Festival feel more romantic, Wu together with SMAC decided to host an ancient-style wedding performance.

Utilizing delicate wedding costumes and elaborate customs such as jie fa (when the bride and groom cut off a small tuft of their hair to declare everlasting love), the event was quite an unusual sight for younger and urban people in the audience.

In ancient China, people wore masks during Chinese New Year to scare away ghosts and evil spirits, but now people wear them for fun.

Awareness among younger generations

Apart from the wedding, SMAC also hosted a handicrafts fair with dozens of stalls selling homemade incense, ornaments and masks. In front of one mask stall, a little boy excitedly tried on a qilin (a mythical Chinese animal that is much like unicorn) mask with the help of his mother.

The stall's owner, Gu Jun, was selling his self-painted masks for 20 yuan ($2.9) each. "In ancient China, people wore masks on New Year's Eve to scare away ghosts and evil spirits," Gu said, adding that he hopes such types of traditional masks will help introduce Chinese traditional culture and its customs to the younger generations.

A person practices Chinese calligraphy with a writing brush.

Nearby, foreigner Rachel Punter was selecting embroidery handbags and bookmarks as souvenirs and gifts. Punter, who has been in Shanghai for only 18 months, heard about SMAC's event from her Chinese teacher.

"But I've never experienced this before," the chemistry teacher said. "It's a pity that I arrived too late today to see the Chinese wedding performance, but I won't miss other performances."

Cross-talk stage comedies and Kunqu and Yueju operas, along with interactive activities like calligraphy and a tea ceremony, were also being held at the event, with hundreds of visitors, locals and expats alike, taking part.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Chinese villagers honor married women with ancient chicken ceremony

A village in southwest China staged a traditional wedding ritual this week that pits ancient traditions against modern views on animal welfare in a fast changing country.

The ceremony held in the ethnic Kam minority village of Gantuan in Guizhou province is based on a tradition dating back some 500 years that was revived and modified in the 1990s for villagers and tourists.

"I feel a little nervous and a little happy," Shi Litao, a 26-year-old bride wearing heavy layers of makeup and a colorful costume, said before the ceremony on the Chinese New Year.

The event, known locally as "steal the chicken at the drum tower," involves young men competing to be the first to tear apart live birds carried on poles by new brides into the village center.

It is rooted in the past when a bride was expected to marry a cousin, according to village chief Huang Xuexian.

If she wished to marry outside the family, her suitor and cousin would compete to be the first to bite off the head of a tethered chicken or duck and "win" the bride. This ritual was abandoned long ago as attitudes on marriage changed, said Huang.

"It was later that people realized this was not the correct way to marry. Now we have the freedom to marry whom we want," he said.

In the 1990s the village introduced a modified version of the ceremony that still involves young men tearing the live birds from the poles carried by the brides.

Huang defended the ceremony, saying there had been no public opposition to the annual event.

"This is our custom and this has never generated any controversy," he said.

Pet ownership and better education on animal welfare have fueled greater public sympathy for animal rights, activists say, but legal protection proposed in 2009 has not been implemented.

"China does not have a comprehensive law for ensuring the wellbeing of all animals or an anti-cruelty law for protecting animals," said Peter Li, China policy advisor for Humane Society International. He blamed "business interests involved in animal exploitation such as bear farming."

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Intricately Illustrated 19th-Century Study of Global Fashions

In 1876, French scholar and artist Auguste Racinet published Le Costume historique (The Costume History), an illustrated sartorial tour throughout world history. This six-volume work, with 500 detailed color illustrations, spanned millennia, from the ancient Egyptians' plumed headdresses to bedazzled medieval crowns to the felt leggings of 19th-century Russian peasants. To this day, the book remains the most thorough and intricately illustrated study of global fashions ever attempted.

Now, this "Bible of Costume," as French newspaper Le Figaro called it, has been reprinted in its colorful entirety by Taschen. The publishing house had previously printed a compilation of Racinet's plates, but the newest version is arranged according to his original organization by culture and subject, and presents his witty commentary alongside the illustrations. It's an accessible, elaborate visual history of all the weird, uncomfortable clothes people thought looked good, from massive, powdered wigs to feathered war helmets. Contemporary artists, designers, illustrators, and historians will find no shortage of inspiration in its pages.

Thanks to globalization, the hyper-specific traditional clothing styles of individual cultures around the world are now in danger of extinction; they're increasingly being replaced by the mass-manufactured contemporary uniform of T-shirts and jeans. France's styles are no longer as distinct from England's as they were in the 18th century; clothing no longer signifies social status as obviously as it did in ages of bejeweled royalty lording over peasantry. In this context, The Costume History is a documentary treasure trove, compactly preserving outmoded styles all in one place. "For the 21st-century reader, [The Costume History] offers a chance to reconstruct ancient times, an exercise of memory and imagination that has its own charms," writes Francoise Tetart-Vittu in the book's introduction.

That doesn't mean The Costume History is without its problems. "Let there be no mistake, this work dates from the period when the West dreamed of establishing an indefinite reign over the entire world," Tetart-Vittu writes. Racinet's 19th-century colonialist bias comes through in his book's Eurocentrism; for example, he devotes a mere 15 illustrations to the clothing and ornament of the African continent, as opposed to dozens of illustrations and pages of text on the fashions of his native France. "The wide range of authors that Racinet consulted when undertaking his panorama of national and ethnic customs included very disparate sources, such as Latin writers and the narratives of explorers now forgotten. But the sources that he synthesizes with such brio were almost invariably European."

Still, Tetart-Vittu argues that "When we read Racinet attentively, we cannot but perceive his openness of mind. The notion of constituting a sort of general archive of costume, including in a single work all times, places, epochs, forms and tastes — the very idea of demonstrating the eclecticism of the world's cultures — takes its place in a vast project tending to emphasize the extraordinary diversity of humankind."