Tag Archives: 20 000 Years of Fashion

Undressing Saint Patrick

17 Mar
Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick wearing the robes of a Catholic cleric, complete with mitre – a headdress that wasn’t invented until almost 200 years after his death.

Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain in 387 and died on March 17, 461 in County Down, Ireland. He is the man who brought Christianity to Ireland and drove out the “snakes” (likely pagan Druids). March 17 is St. Patrick’s day, celebrated world-wide by Irish and non-Irish alike. (Find more about St. Patrick here.)

We recognize St. Patrick as man with a white beard in clerical robes and a mitre, carrying a crook, sometimes with a shamrock in his other hand. What’s interesting about this common image is that no one really knows what he looked like – there are no visual records of St. Patrick before the 13th century – 800 years after he died.

“The manner in which he has come to be depicted represents the culmination of over a thousand years of art, influenced by various texts and evolving belief systems, both localized and international,” says the Irish Royal Academy. In other words, his image has been appropriated by artists who depicted the saint in familiar and contemporary terms that people could relate to.

Until the 19th century, few Irish could read, unless they were monks and clergy, so people were educated through image and symbolism through the church. People of St. Patrick’s time would have understood the Catholic symbolism associated with St. Patrick’s garb, which was rife with allegory.

Clerical costume of the fifth century

Maewyn Succat – Saint Patrick’s real name, wears liturgical garb that has long, traditional associations with the Catholic Church. 20,000 Years of Fashion by Francois Boucher, says that clothing during the early Christian era was simple, and clothing was not gender-specific. “Originally the only difference between the elements of religious costume and those of lay clothing was the use of more sumptuous materials for the former.”

Clerics adopted fine linens and silks for their liturgical costume, and there was “an ever-increasing fondness for rich-coloured materials, especially among the Angles and Saxons,” according to A History of Costume, “and beautiful trimmings, gay braid, and fringes came into fashion”.

Catholic clerical wear has not evolved much since the early Christian era, so mostly, St. Patrick’s image is correct to period, but there are inauthentic – i.e. appropriated – features in our common understanding of what St. Patrick looks like. Let’s start at the top.

mitre

An Annunciation scene worked on a mitre from about 1400; pearls and silver-gilt motifs on silk.

Mitre

The first and most obvious appropriation of St. Patrick is his headdress. The mitre, the pointed hat split in half that bishops and popes wear, is what we have come to associate with the saint, but mitres didn’t appear until the seventh century (St. Patrick died in the mid-fifth century).

In fact, Boucher says that bishops first wore a gold circlet lined with a crown, and in the 12th century, “the crown split into two lobes, one on either side… by the end of the 12th century, the points had moved around 90 degrees and were now back to front.” It hasn’t changed much since that time, though mitre heights have varied.

Were St. Patrick true to his period of the fifth century, he may have worn a hood or a soft skull cap instead of the mitre, but that St. Patrick is bestowed with this head piece that symbolized power in the church, indicates that the saint was highly regarded.

Pall (or Pallium)

The Y-shaped band of wool worn over the chasuble (below) is the pall, drenched in allegory that features six embroidered crosses to symbolize the nails used in Christ’s crucifixion.

Chasuble

The chasuble is a circular garment with an opening for the head, and adopted by the clergy in the fifth century.  The saint’s chasuble is green, as expected (more on this later), and lined with golden fabric – a visual indication of St. Patrick’s position in the Catholic church.

According to Costume in England by F.W. Fairholt, “The chasuble signifies the robe of Christ, which is the Church. It is ample and closed on all sides, to show forth the unity and fullness of the true faith. The fore-part represents the state of the Church before the Passion of Christ; the back, the Church under the Gospel.”

At the same time, Fairholt suggests that the chasuble is symbolic of the purple garment that was put on Jesus Christ before he was crucified. Either way, the chasuble was heavy with meaning to Catholics of the early Christian era.

Dalmatic (or Dalmatica if you’re Roman)

Under the saint’s chasuble is his gold embroidered dalmatic. According to Fairholt, the dalmatic was associated with an immaculate life, or “of bountifulness towards the poor, because of its large and broad sleeves.” St. Patrick’s dalmatic is blue, the colour of the sky, which, to people of fifth century Britain, indicated divine contemplation.

Stolestole

According to 20.000 Years of Fashion, the pall began life as a large, draped Roman cape and narrowed over time to become the stole. Members of the Catholic clergy still wear long, embroidered stoles, draped around the neck.

Allegorically, the stole symbolizes the cords with which Christ was bound upon his crucifixion.

Alb

Saint Patrick’s base layer looks much like the dalmatic, but the alb is a long robe that reaches the feet. According to Costume in England, the alb was “not invariably made of linen cloth…[and] not necessarily white. It was originally intended to indicate the white garment which Pilate placed upon the Saviour after he had despised and mocked him.”

The alb symbolized purity and innocence. St. Patrick’s alb in the illustration appears to be white linen, but looking closer, it appears to have golden threads woven into the fabric. To Christians of St. Patrick’s era, gold signified purity, dignity, wisdom, and glory.

Buskins

Our saint is probably wearing buskins, soft embroidered leather slippers of the fifth century.

Crook

The bishop’s crook is another ”recent” addition. Bishops carried the crook, a decorated shepherd’s hook, alluding to Christ the shepherd, in the 12th century.

Colour

St. Patrick

St. Patrick in crimson and a short mitre with lappets  – the white flaps on the head piece – worn during the 12th century) from a stained glass window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

We expect St. Patrick to wear green because he is the patron saint of Ireland and green is synonymous with Ireland. In the top illustration, St. Patrick’s chasuble is green, the colour that symbolized cheerfulness and the goodness of God and of the Resurrection at the time he lived. But this, like the mitre, is something that has more of a modern association.

When clerics decided to dress in fine fabrics, they also dyed their clothing in colours symbolic to the early Christian faith. After an image search for St. Patrick, he can be seen dressed in green, also in blue, crimson, white, and yellow.

The Smithsonian magazine features what they believe to be the earliest depiction of St. Patrick from the thirteenth century: a man who wears not a mitre and cleric’s robes, but a simple, hooded, blue monk’s robe.

According to the Irish Journal, “Ireland’s history with the colour blue is largely related to its colonial history, but there are older associations too – Flaitheas Éireann, the embodiment of Irish sovereignty in mythological times (a sort of Irish answer to Uncle Sam), wore blue.”

When Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he gave Ireland its own coat of arms:  a golden harp on a blue background, and in 1783, “George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, its official color was a sky blue, known as St. Patrick’s Blue,” according to the Smithsonian. (Read more about the blue\green of Ireland.)

The colour green seems to be a differentiating colour linked to more recent Irish politics and independence, which eventually became associated with the Catholic population of southern Ireland. Green appears to be linked to Irish nationalism of the nineteenth century, “when the colour was adopted as a more striking way of separating Ireland from the various reds or blues that were now associated with England, Scotland and Wales,” the Irish Journal says.

So the St. Patrick that we imagine is actually a mixed collection of liturgical garments from different periods, and not based in the reality of his life. However, St. Patrick’s day is about celebration, and the splendor of his green robes, his flowing beard, the tall, fancy hat, and the golden crook gives us a more appealing image to raise our glasses to, rather than toasting a barefoot, blue-robed, tonsured monk with a chin beard.

Happy St. Patrick’s day!

 

Clothing, costume, identity, and lack thereof

16 Dec

Clothing is a wonderful thing.  Clothing is a wonderful palette with many options to play with like colour, garment cut, and fabric texture. One of my favourite things to do is get dressed and express myself through my clothing. For me, clothing and dressing is a joy.

Clothing is also heavy with significance and symbolism. Sure, we might need clothing to protect us, but as humans, we love to add meaning to things that have no meaning, and so the costume – and the identity wrapped within it, is born.

In The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie states that through time, humans have silently communicated with one another through the language of their garb: “Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting, or at a party, you announce your sex, age, and class to me through what you are wearing [including how you style your hair, decorate your body, and accessorize] – and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires, and current mood.” (AKA the unspoken messages of our visual image.)

If clothing is the thing, costume is the meaning of the thing.

According to Francois Boucher in 20,000 Years of Fashion, “clothing has to do with covering one’s body, and costume with the choice of a particular form of garment for a particular use.” Clothing is more of a survival tactic and relies on textile manufacture and the technology of the time period; it is utilitarian, protective, and worn out of necessity.

Clothing protects us from the elements and from injury, and without it, humanity would not have flourished – nude humans could not survive cold climates we would probably all live close to the equator. Without clothing, playing sports would be suicide sans protective cups and shin guards. There is a good chance that we all may live in grass huts for want of steel-toed boots that protect our construction workers during the building process.

Costume, on the other hand, “reflects social factors such as religious beliefs, magic, aesthetics, personal status, the wish to be distinguished from or to emulate one’s fellows,” Boucher says, adding that “costume helps inspire fear or impose authority” – think warrior’s face paint and horned helmets to scare the opposing side in battle.

“In later times,” he continues, “professional or administrative costume has been devised to distinguish the wearer and to express personal or delegated authority” – think lawyer’s robes, a police uniform, a  business suit, or a surgeon’s scrubs.

We rely on visual cues to tell us who (we think) people are and illustrate who we are as individuals, but if those cues are taken away, what are we left with?

Uniforms: the removal of individuality

People looking uniform in their uniforms may be pleasing to the eye, but Lurie says that no matter what sort of uniform is worn, “military, civil or religious; the outfit of a general, a postman, a nun, a butler, a football player or a waitress – to put on such livery is to give up one’s right to act as an individual.”

Let’s take the military as our example. The military strips people of their identity by removing the visual cues that make them up, shaving their heads, and dressing them in identical costumes, to turn them into unquestioning, order-following soldiers. In the military, there are no individuals, only teams of soldiers in crew cuts.

The first thing to go when one enters the military is the hair. Hair, Sampson’s strength and our crowning glory, has a lot of ego and identity wrapped up into it, and it is the first sacrifice of obedience and submission to the armed forces. We are very attached to our hair, and I expect that having one’s head shaved must reduce the sense of self to some degree, though a soldier must feel solace being in the company of others who look just like he does.

Have a look at Elvis Presley preparing for the army – he seems to take it in stride, but then again, no one can deny his identity – he’s Elvis.

Next, your clothing is taken away and replaced with a uniform, identical to the rest in your company. No more cues as to who you are or what you stand for as an individual – you are now in a system that wants you to focus your whole being on your job. Military people do everything together, they live together, eat together, and train together. It seems that the military turns individuals into multi-person machines set on particular orders. Indeed, Lurie writes that the “uniform acts as a sign that we need not and should not treat someone as a human being, and that they need not and should not treat us as one.”

Ooh! I don’t like that much. I know that wearing a uniform is right for some people, but that doesn’t mean that I understand it. I’m very supportive of exploring one’s own identity and individuality – we are all different from each other and anyone who has or will be, so I’m not sure what drives people to sign away their individuality and look like everyone else.

Strip search

Our clothing gives us a sense of modest security and shields our vulnerability; there is confidence in clothing. But what happens when our clothing is forcibly removed? CBC’s The Current reported about strip searches this week, stating the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2001 decision prohibiting strip searches as a routine police practise, and allowing these searches only out of clear necessity or in emergency situations, with the permission of a supervisor, and performed by same-sex officers.

David Tanovich, the lawyer representing Ian Golden, a black man who was striped searched in a downtown Toronto restaurant in 2001, states that strip search practises by Toronto police are a “highly intrusive method of police intimidation.” The African-Canadian legal clinic got involved in the case, identifying Golden’s treatment as a “public lynching”.

Earlier that year, 69 year old Rosie Schwartz attended a peaceful protest in Toronto and was arrested and strip searched by Toronto police after she was told she was trespassing. She describes the strip search experience as a traumatic and demeaning assault, and says “I felt like nothing.” She sued the police in small claims court for unlawful arrest and illegal search and won.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, strip searches are still performed and have come into the spotlight again with the recent trial of the 2008 strip search of Stacy Bonds by Ottawa police. Ms Bonds, arrested without reason, was not only roughed up by four Ottawa police, but her shirt and bra were cut off with scissors by the officers. Bonds described her treatment by police as “verbal and mental rape”. The Ottawa Citizen reports that the case against Bonds was halted by the judge who found the Ottawa police’s arrest of Bonds unlawful and called her subsequent treatment in the cells and the strip search a “travesty” and an “indignity.”

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What we wear protects us, keeps our modesty in check, enhances or diminishes body features, operates as our billboard, and is a part of who we are. When it is removed and replaced with a uniform, we become a different person, and when it is removed by force, it can be horribly traumatic and humiliating.

Without clothing, we are physically and emotionally unprotected. Without the identity cues of costume, we have little opportunity to visually express ourselves and show who we are. Without clothing and the meanings we associate with clothing, who would you be?