To get to the top, you have to wear the right clothes
Yinka Shonibare, Magic Ladders
Post-colonial hijinks from Yinka Shonibare in Magic Ladders, his show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The ladder is made of books written or read by the collection’s founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, whose then-unorthodox approaches to African art and African American education helped inspire this discovery-themed artwork.
The fabric of course is Shonibare’s signature riff on the colorful Dutch wax textiles, produced in Europe, that have become closely associated with Africa.
Carla Fernández, Eagle Warrior Suits
Mexican artist and fashion designer Carla Fernández is the focus of the first fashion exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, opening April 17. “The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community” shows how Fernández channels the traditions, techniques, and talents of Mexico’s indigenous artisans into clothing produced using a sustainable business model. Designs from Chiapas, Yucatán, Campeche, the State of Mexico and Mexico City will be featured, color-coded according to geographical area. (Also look for Fernández in the big rebozo show coming to London’s Fashion and Textile Museum this June.)
Jae Jarrell, Urban Wall Suit
“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” at the Brooklyn Museum, features this fabulous outfit by Jae Jarrell, a fashion designer who cofounded COBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). The activist group (which morphed into AFRICOBRA, or African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) was dedicated to making art that was profound, positive, and proud.
The Urban Wall Suit was a continuation of the urban canvas, as Jarrell saw it. She created the illusion of a brick wall using appliquéd velvet mortar lines, adding layers of graffiti, posters, notices, and tagging (painted in acrylic).
“When I wore it on a visit to the Gilchrist department store in Boston, where I had worked from 1957 to 1959, Miss Mackey, my former supervisor, and Ev’, her secretary, were thrilled with my revolutionary Silk Wall of graffitied messages from the ‘hood, and deemed it ‘Really Powerful,'” the artist recounted last year.
Plains Indians, Man’s Coat
Two thousand years of creation are being showcased in a groundbreaking exhibition devoted to the cultural achievements of the Plains Indians, which opens this week at the Quai Branly in Paris before travelling to Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This beaded wool coat, created in association with a late-19th-century religious movement known as Faw Faw, mingles European styles with Indian symbolism to create a style that comes off as distinctly native.
Ainu people, Woman’s Robe
An exquisite woman’s ceremonial robe in “Points of Departure: Treasures of Japan from the Brooklyn Museum,” at the Japan Society in New York, is one of 20 works representing the northern Ainu people, who have occupied the island of Hokkaido for some 20,000 years.
Most Ainu clothing was woven from elm or linden fibers (which women chewed to soften for sewing, later adding appliqué and embroidery to the finished garment). Patterns in the robes identified the village, family, status, and sex of the wearer.
This robe, made at the turn of the 20th century, was designed to be used in the iyomante ceremony, in which bears or seals were killed and their spirits released to the world of gods. The patterns and patchwork, and the opening on the robe, are believed to have magic powers that stop evil from entering the wearer’s body.
Nick Cave, Soundsuit
You can dance if you want to in the the blinged-out Soundsuits of Nick Cave, the ebullient sculptures that are at once costume, armor, and camouflage. This recent version, made of mixed media including a crochet blanket and sequins, is in his current show at Boston’s ICA.
Joseon Dynasty, Military Costume
The minimalist garment, worn as part of a military uniform, is in “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Narrow sleeves and openings at the front, sides, and back are made with horse-riding and arrow-shooting in mind.
Yemen, Girl’s Dress
Yemenite children’s clothing often was adorned with jewelry, coins, cowries, and other objects thought to protect the wearer from evil thoughts or events. This garment, in “Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe” at the Israel Museum, was made in the 1930s for a child who had recovered from smallpox. The shells, red stitching, and asymmetry were all strategies to keep her safe in the future.
Qing Dynasty, Dragon Robe
A shimmering dragon robe, probably custom-made for the Empress Dowager Cixi, is the centerpiece of “Qing Chic: Chinese Textiles from the 19th to Early 20th Century,” at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. The garment, woven through with emblems and visual puns, is designed like a landscape: diagonal lines at the hem depict the cosmic sea; stylized forms in the center and side seams stand for mountains. These denote the world ruled by the emperor, represented by flying dragons. Bats are symbols of good fortune.
Japan, Samurai Armor
A complete set of armor in “Samurai: Beyond the Sword,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, was made by 18th-century craftsmen using iron, silk, lacquer, gold, boar fur and bristle. The impressive and somewhat impractical helmet was designed for high-ranking samurai to wear not on the battlefield but in official ceremonies. On top is a vajra, a Buddhist ritual object.
James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death
No one wore a gold suit like James Lee Byars, whose ghost has been materializing at a steady pace lately–in Venice, in Mexico City, and in Detroit, where the legendary Zen-influenced trickster performance artist lived until he was 26. “I Cancel All My Works at Death,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, is a show about Byars, but it isn’t a show of works by Byars—everything here has been re-created by Triple Candie, the mischievous curatorial team whose approach to open content has been way ahead of the curve.
Italian Armor for British Knight
The lovers and fighters of Europe’s court life, mostly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, are featured in “Knights!,” at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. This three-quarter field armor suit was made in Northern Italy, possibly Milan, around 1560-1570. It may have been created for Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke.