Tag Archives: history of clothing

Medieval Power at the Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum has just opened a new exhibition on Medieval Power. It runs until 10 April 2016. As the museum trumpets in its promo, it will be ‘the first museum in the world and the only one in Australia and New Zealand to host this incredible new exhibition curated by the British Museum.’

So – is it incredible? I’m not so sure. The exhibition contains a great many wonderful pieces. Not surprisingly, given how far they have come from one side of the world to the other, most of them are small. That’s not in itself a problem, though it does mean that the exhibits need time – and in my case reading glasses – to absorb their detail properly.

Given the problems of transportation, it was generous of the British Museum to send some fragile items, such as embroidered cloth or leather. There’s a leather shoe dredged from the muddy Thames that looks as if it could have hidden in the back of my wardrobe until recently. The cuts along the toes are so fresh that I’m sure a leather worker could recreate the design without much difficulty.

The caption says it dated from 1400-1500, but was it dated on the basis of style or some sort of chemical analysis? Carbon dating or DNA analysis would have been impossible with all that mud. I wanted to know more about that shoe, but there’s no catalogue to satisfy my curiosity – and what does it have to do with Power, the alleged theme of the exhibition?

In this exhibition, Power covers the authority of the church (papal rings, objects of devotion), the state (numerous seals, the Lewis chess set king) and the military force of the knights behind that (helmets, horse gear). Beyond that, there’s a miscellany of the stuff of ordinary life – knives and spoons, a saltcellar, items of adornment. I fell deeply in love with a small bone pin with the head and horn of a unicorn.

Unicorn pin from Medieval Power exhibition

Unicorn pin from British Museum, Museum no 1932,0307.5

There’s also a rudimentary attempt to illustrate towns and trade, and one of the final cabinets contains a number of seals and other objects associated Jewish or Muslim minorities.

The objects are lovely, intriguing, engaging. Most of the people around me seemed perfectly happy with what was on display, though none of their comments seemed to go much beyond the ‘Wow, isn’t that old!’ school of history. It is the school holidays, after all.

So why did I come away from this exhibition feeling vaguely frustrated, and regretting that I had splashed out on a season ticket?

For a start, there’s no catalogue. I’m not sure who curated this exhibition, but my guess is that most of the decisions about selection were made in London, not Brisbane, especially as the exhibition is going on to other places after this. So why is there no catalogue to cover the entire tour? A search of ‘unicorn pin’ on the British Museum’s Collection online was easy – but I’ve got Buckley’s chance of finding the shoe. Similarly, there’s a nice quiet place within the exhibition where a lot of interesting books are laid out to read – but none of them are available at the bookshop.

According to the British Museum website, this travelling exhibition is called Medieval Europe: AD 400-1500 but somewhere between London and Brisbane, the title changed to Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour. My hunch is that some publicist thought this title would appeal more to the Game of Thrones generation, but it’s a pity, because in the conversion, the chronology – and therefore causation – have been lost. A thousand years of the ebb and flow of European history have been mashed together into a largely undifferentiated ‘Middle Ages’, sometimes within the same display cabinet.

There’s another problem with the theme of Power. It leaves women out of the discussion, even when the objects themselves do not. The King in the Lewis chess set is described in terms of his sword and throne, the symbols of his royal power. But there is no comparable discussion of the Queen who sits beside him, from another walrus ivory chess set.

Chess queen from British Museum

Walrus ivory Queen chess piece, German, 14C-15C British Museum no. 1856,0612.3

In the end, I was glad to have the season ticket because I went back at the end of the week, just to check if my original impressions were unfair. I don’t think they are, although on a second viewing the logic of the themes became a bit clearer. But I’m still disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – the exhibition is definitely worth a visit, maybe more than one, but go on a day that won’t be crowded so that you can take you your time over the smaller exhibits – and reading glasses. And don’t, like me, walk out expecting to pick up that fascinating book on medieval jewelry when you reach the bookshop. It won’t be there.

Update: Here is a very different report on the exhibition, this time from a physicist.

Suits and Sans Culottes in the long hot summer

Pity us, dear reader. The G20 gathering of world leaders is being held in Brisbane this weekend, so for the last week we’ve been in security lockdown: public transport disrupted, helicopters buzzing overhead, parts of the city barricaded off. It is currently illegal to carry eggs, tomatoes or reptiles in the lockdown area – which is hard luck for the many thousands who live in the inner city, though possibly good luck for reptiles. There has been a sort of bipolar anxiety. On the one hand, everyone has been avoiding the lockdown areas because we’ve been told by Brisbane’s mayor and Queensland’s premier to stay away, but at the same time, the very same mayor and premier are urging us to go into the city to show the rest of the world what a vibrant, lively, multicultural place Brisbane is.

But on top of that, we’re in the middle of a heat wave. Continue reading

Bonnets, burqas and bikinis

During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.

A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.

I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia. Continue reading

Wardrobe Malfunctions

Audrey Tennyson was the wife of Hallam Tennyson, Governor of South Australia and later Governor General of Australia. Her letters to her mother back in England are full of tales of high life in Adelaide and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. The problems of celebrity, it seems, aren’t new. Audrey Tennyson’s clothes were frequently scrutinized in the local press, and in 1902, she complained that her gowns ‘have all been described in the newspapers in every detail, [so] they are useless & I cannot wear them’. [30 September 1902] She was constantly trying to ring the changes:

Ask Mrs Lane how I can do up my purple velvet… She might put in anything that would do for doing up gowns, & also what sleeves are worn for the evening… I want something to eke out my old evening gowns at the endless concerts & plays. The smart morning gowns are chiefly for the Races… [25 January 1900]

She was particularly worried in the months leading up to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall coming out to open Federal Parliament in 1901. (No, not Wills and Kate, but the earlier ones who later became George V and Queen Mary). The situation was complicated by the need for everyone to wear mourning following the death of Queen Victoria.

Tom Roberts, Opening Federal Parliament 1901

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903. Only the carpets and the Cardinal are red, because everyone was in mourning.

Will you tell Mrs Lane I am larger round the hips, I think, & send her new measurements & also the lengths of the skirt at the side seams, as they are always inclined to be short at the sides.  My bust & waist are smaller than they were, but that I don’t mind for I can always take them in & I may get fatter again… [17 February 1901]

Despite her requests, the following year she complained that Mrs Lane had

sent me a grey gown I never ordered & it is so tight round the hips it all gapes at the fastening & can’t be altered, so I have had to send that back… It really is a little trying, is it not? [30 September 1902]

I sympathise! Continue reading

Clothes and the stories they tell

Helen [not her real name] got married during World War II.  There was strict rationing in Australia at the time.  Wedding dresses were exempt, but not other non-essential items such as a trousseau for the honeymoon.  Being a feisty young woman even then (and she is still, in her 80s, a feisty old woman), Helen decided to get what she needed wherever she could.

Pellegrini’s Catholic Depot was the traditional supplier of Catholic religious furnishings in Brisbane.  Helen bought lace altar cloths, and sewed them into the lingerie that was considered suitable for her wartime honeymoon.  Possibly the crosses, chi rhos, and other religious symbols on her knickers and nightdresses added to their sexy allure. Continue reading

Sea Dragons

I’ve only seen one once.  I was staying with friends on Vancouver Island.  They took me to a marina in Victoria, where you buy fish scraps to feed to the seals hanging round the jetties.  Then we saw him, hiding under the boardwalk, darting out to snatch bits of fish and retreating to his shelter.  A sea otter, faster than the seals, but much the same sleek, streamlined body shape, with a thick, glossy fur coat which very nearly led to their extinction.

Sea Otter in Alaskan bay

Sea otter off the Alaskan coast, photo by Jenni Metcalfe

Nobody really knows how many sea otters there originally were, but they stretched from Japan, via the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands across to Alaska, British Columbia and down the Californian coastline.  By 1911, when Japan, Russia, Britain and the United States, signed a treaty giving them protection, there were only about 1000 to 2000 left. Continue reading