One of the newest acquisitions in the Asian Section is a collection of ethnographic textiles from the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum formerly known as the Commercial Museum. Originally exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the approximately 400 pieces entered the museum and expanded the range of the textile collection to include South China, Indochina, and Vietnam. Some of the cultures represented in the collection include the Miao, Akha, Li, Lahu,Yao, Lolo, Zhuang, and Yi people.
The piece featured above is from the Zhuang people and incorporates rows of triangle-shaped bosses that run down the center and bottom edge of the piece with four clasps just below the neck. The arms are embroidered around the cuff and have inner sleeves that are sewn into the inside of the jacket. Chinese minority textiles have garnered much attention lately with many museums starting to actively collect them in large numbers. The exhibit “Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities” debuted at the University of Hawai’i Art Gallery in 2008 and turned a lot of people onto the diversity of textiles from southern China. The catalog produced for the show is exquisite and a great resource for anyone interested in textiles from Asia. The University also produced a great documentary about how the show was conceived and executed. A similar garment to the Penn Museum piece is featured in a write-up of the show here.
The motifs that adorn these textiles are truly remarkable and fall into the category of reading costumes as “texts” wherein one can recognize the ethnic identity and social status of a person by decoding the meaning of the symbols on their clothing. How these symbols play out against the history of China, wherein certain motifs are co-opted by other groups and used for their own purposes, makes the study of minority textiles all the more interesting and complex.
Penn Museum Object #2003-38-35.
See this and other objects like it in Penn Museum’s Online Collection Database.