Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 2021
BuYun Chen Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. 272 pp.; 96 color ills.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780295745305)
Mariachiara Gasparini Transcending Patterns: Silk Road Cultural and Artistic Interactions through Central Asian Textile Images Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019. 278 pp.; 20 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $74.00 (9780824877989)
Eiren L. Shea Mongol Court Dress, Identity Formation, and Global Exchange Routledge Research in Art History. New York: Routledge, 2020. 206 pp.; 30 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $124.00 (9780367356187)

The three books reviewed here represent recent monographs on dress and textiles and their movements along the Silk Roads in the medieval and early modern periods. The study of dress and textiles has often been marginalized in art history, and the materials dismissed as minor or decorative arts—a marginality that is compounded by the limited survival of textiles and garments from earlier historical periods, which sometimes remain only as reused scraps. Textiles have been recognized as evidence for the exchange of ideas and technologies across Eurasia, as markers of trade, cultural contact, and interaction, but far less frequently as visual-culture and art forms conveying meaning in their own right, even though the routes that crossed the continent are identified in terms of the textiles that moved along them. As a result, much textile history of Eurasia has been written in narrowly technical terms, focusing on weave structures, fiber content, and loom technologies, in an effort to untangle questions about the development of particular kinds of fabrics and how they moved across the continent. Dress history has also suffered neglect, both because the study of fashion is prone to be dismissed as trivial and because it is sometimes assumed that premodern dress was a simple function of social and economic class, rather than a field of representation in its own right—an assumption that these books work to counter. The three works, each in its own way, attempt to move the study of textiles and dress beyond narrowly technical concerns and to consider it in broadly semiotic terms.

BuYun Chen’s Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China is an effort to consider textiles and dress of the Tang dynasty (618–907) as a fashion system in the sense first framed by Roland Barthes (1967; in The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howell, University of California Press, 1990). He described fashion as a semiotic system in which consumers choose their dress as an expression of taste and identity, while clothing makers constantly redefine the terms of that expression to create an ongoing market for their wares. As a sociologist, not a historian, Barthes rooted his study in his own times, and in his account, the fashion system is inseparable from modern industrial capitalism. As a result, it has not always been seen as relevant to the study of premodern dress.

As Chen notes, it has sometimes been assumed that the existence of sumptuary regimes (for example) precludes the existence of a fashion system, since if there were laws about dressing according to one’s class, there was not room for taste to operate. This is a discourse of fashion as individual, modern, and capitalist, but it also includes assumptions about people of the past as somehow passive and obedient to the rules and institutions of their times. Yet Chen points out that the existence of sumptuary laws indicates certain associations between dress and status that were routinely manipulated by those who aspired to higher status than the law assigned them. Sumptuary regulations were as often honored in the breach as in the observance, and that breach was commonly blamed on women, who had less incentive to observe those regulations since their status was a function of their husbands’ or fathers’ positions and not of their own actions. Chen shows that dress in the Tang, especially women’s dress, was driven by a tension between sumptuary regimes proceeding from a political discourse that associated unruly excess with moral decline and bad rulership, and a fashion system fed by the development and import of ornamented silks as part of a culture of sensory pleasure and aesthetic enjoyment.

This study demonstrates that the changes in women’s fashion through the Tang dynasty were culturally significant and, further, that they can be studied through representations in painting and tomb figurines, even though few Tang dynasty garments actually survive. As Chen shows, if our concern is with the semiotic value of particular forms of dress, then representations by definition function just as well as actual garments to explain this. She demonstrates that by the middle Tang at least, writers and artists alike showed an awareness of the difference between contemporary and historical dress, and explicitly framed women’s dress as a measure of society and the times. This laid the groundwork for the rhetorical uses to which women’s dress and fashion would eventually be put by ninth-century poets such as Bai Juyi. Writing in the aftermath of the upheavals of the eighth century, Bai and his contemporaries used women’s fashion as a metaphor for a new world in which intellectuals like them were judged in terms of innovation rather than skill. His images of fashion and adornment marked the changing (and to him, decline) of the times. Bai lamented a world in which poets, weavers, and fashionable women alike had to chase the current moment. Yet as Chen points out, Bai maintained that a revitalized literature was the key to reforming society—which led him to propose innovations in poetic style that are not entirely different from innovations in fashion.

Chen’s book is a rich and important rethinking of the relevance of dress and fashion to the social and intellectual environments of the Tang dynasty, a period of great interest in Chinese history for its flourishing cosmopolitanism. She argues explicitly against both the marginality of fashion as a subject and the marginality of women, to whom it is thought to belong. At the same time, women and their experiences are not as central to Chen’s narrative as one might hope from an argument that is primarily about women’s dress and fashion. Doubtless this is partly a product of the available sources, which, like the majority of Chinese historical texts, tend to treat women as irrelevant to the main narrative. But given that the argument in favor of a Tang fashion system pivots in large part on choices made by women, it would have been useful to investigate some of those choices, to the extent possible.

Eiren L. Shea’s Mongol Court Dress, Identity Formation, and Global Exchange also invokes the concept of the fashion system, though this idea is less central to her argument. Her main claim is that the courts of the Mongol khanates of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries deliberately developed systems of courtly dress and ritual as part of their empire building and rule over vastly disparate parts of Eurasia. She argues that the visual culture that grew out of these systems influenced textile design and the significance of luxury fabrics, not only in the area under Mongol rule but also in parts of Europe that had active trade links with Asia. Shea points out that the development of specifically Mongol standards of dress under the Yuan made it possible for people there to choose their form of dress to express allegiance with one or another of the status groups defined by the Yuan government (Mongol, Song, etc.). The situation somewhat resembles a fashion system, in that it is a visual-culture system in which clothing and textiles are chosen by their wearers as signs of identity. However, Shea’s argument is much more strongly centered on the development of the standards of sartorial representation that would be enshrined in sumptuary regulations than it is on the subversion of those standards that may be characteristic of a premodern fashion system.

Shea observes that much scholarship on the Mongols and their empire treats them as the passive recipients of influence from the sedentary cultures they conquered, particularly from China. By contrast, her study aims to show that the Mongol courts actively adapted standards of dress from their own and related traditions into a visual culture of the court that met the demands of ruling a great territory, and that ultimately influenced the visual cultures of southern Europe in the transition from the medieval to the early modern period. She describes a process by which the Mongols adapted elements of Tangut, Jurchen, and Khitan elite dress, with particular attention to the sumptuary standards of the Liao (Khitan) court, which they evidently took as a particularly useful model for non-Chinese governance of China. The result was particular attention to forms of men’s dress used in ritual contexts, both dress for ceremonial hunts by the ruler and his court and robes used in a system of investiture and royal gift giving. By contrast, women’s court dress seems to have been more explicitly a matter of rank and less an outgrowth of ceremony, even given the relative equality of men and women in the Mongol tradition.

Because Shea’s study covers a later period than Chen’s, she has some actual garments to study as well as textile fragments and painted representations, but she also relies strongly on painted representations and the descriptions of contemporary observers in investigating the specific details of garments and textiles. Since, like Chen, she is concerned with the semiotic value of dress and textiles, this makes sense and in any event remains necessary despite the greater survival of actual examples. That said, her argument requires her to triangulate among the accounts of Chinese, Persian, Arabic, and European observers, each of which have their own observational biases and concerns, and it is occasionally (and possibly inevitably) difficult to bridge the gaps between them. She concludes with an account of the impact of the importation of panni Tartarici (Tartar cloths) to Venice and other Italian city-states, and the representation of Mongol elites found in thirteenth-century Italian images. Far from seeing these as a kind of European proto-colonial discovery of the Asian other, Shea frames these images as evidence for Mongol influence on the cultures of the Mediterranean world, an important account that is often absent from the art history of the period.

Where Chen’s and Shea’s studies are principally focused on the meaning of dress, with textile patterns and innovations seen as an aspect of sartorial culture, Mariachiara Gasparini’s Transcending Patterns: Silk Road Cultural and Artistic Interactions through Central Asian Textile Images foregrounds the textiles themselves. The earliest of these, from the early first millennium CE, survive in fragments and occasional finds preserved by desert climates, while later examples survive in larger pieces and even in complete garments. All three of the books in this review have confronted the difficulties of establishing a history of Eurasian textile production, but Gasparini takes this challenge as her central problem. The key issue is that the constant movement of peoples, textiles, and especially artisans from place to place in Eurasia makes it difficult and often impossible to localize the origins of particular motifs, weave structures, and their associated loom technologies. Because they do not lend themselves to clear historical or developmental narrative, the fragments of Eurasian textiles preserved in museums around the world have tended to be excluded from the narrative of art history. Gasparini’s book is an attempt to reclaim these materials for art history by building a new method for making sense of them, despite what we may not know about them.

Her solution is to propose a model of cultural matrices and interactions, rather than of origins and influences. This model is developed out of a truly astonishing breadth of study of surviving materials and accounts from across Eurasia over a thousand years or more of history. Because Gasparini declines to force the surviving textiles and representations of textiles into a strict typological or developmental framework, she is left to fall back on the evidence itself as an organizing principle for her account. The result is an argument that is true to its innovative method but, perhaps necessarily, a bit difficult to follow. Within each of four roughly chronological chapters, she covers surviving examples, visual representations, and contemporary accounts, and in some cases she also wrestles with existing art historical terminologies (such as zandanījī) that no longer provide a useful explanation for the textiles they were once used to describe. It can be a challenge for the reader to integrate all these accounts, but perhaps not more challenging than organizing them. The book culminates in a discussion of the reception and influence of Eurasian textiles in Western Europe. It is, among other things, a remarkable collection of evidence for the textile cultures of Eurasia, their interactions over time, and their influence on late medieval and early modern Europe. The daring it took to attempt to integrate such a widely dispersed and unruly collection of evidence is to be applauded, and the book will be an important resource for scholars.

These three works mark a new flourishing of the study of textiles and dress within the art history of Eurasia and the Silk Roads. The remarkable trade value of silk over several thousand years of export and import has long been known, and mentions of silk in Classical sources have been seen as early signs of connection and culture contact across the Eurasian continent. Yet the textiles of the early and medieval Silk Roads have often been treated more as evidence for cultural and artistic phenomena than as cultural and artistic phenomena in their own right. More recently, textiles, dress, and personal adornment have begun to be explored in greater depth and to richer effect, as interest in building more complex models of cultural interaction and exchange has grown. (An early example of this is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1997 exhibition When Silk Was Gold and its associated catalog, but a more recent one is the volume The Art and Archaeology of Bodily Adornment, edited by Sheri Lullo and Leslie Wallace; Routledge, 2019.)

What these three books have in common is a refusal to settle for simplistic models of cultural exchange that frame major empires such as China, Persia, and Byzantium as sources of cultural creativity and “influence” that flowed, somehow automatically and passively, to the regions between and around them. Scholarship on Central Asian history over the past few decades has worked to identify a richer and more nuanced account of the interactions between cultures in the region and the creative energy that resulted. In this view, new ideas and art forms are not developed in great cultural centers and then dispersed to outlying regions, but rather blossom as the product of unexpected intersections of art, commerce, religion, and material culture in sometimes surprising places. The authors reviewed here have brought that history to bear on the scattered and sometimes confounding evidence for textile arts and practices of dress and personal adornment along the Silk Roads in different periods. To wrestle with these materials at all takes scholarly daring and adventurous thinking, and they are to be commended for three books that break new grounds and propose new methods that will benefit future scholars for some time to come.

Kate A. Lingley
Department of Art & Art History, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa