Dress and Personal Narrative
James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Clothes are an excellent medium to tell human stories and engage with museum visitors. They can reveal a multitude of information about personal attitudes, feelings and emotions, aperson’s identity, customs, beliefs, social standards and ethical values of the day. Due to this personal element inherent in the clothes, museum visitors frequently relate more instinctively to dress than to other types of objects.
In order to communicate this close, intimate relationship effectively, if possible, it is worth presenting the exhibition text using the original words of the owners of the dress, witnesses of the events on which the garments were worn, or social commentators. This approach can be successfully used in the presentation of contemporary as well as historical clothes, but it is applicable only in those cases where the personal, verbatim statements are available.
- Contemporary dress – the Hmong: refugees from Laos
- Personal narrative and historical collections
- How to document personal history of dress
- Further sources
Contemporary dress – the Hmong: refugees from Laos
In cases where a curator has access to personal statements accompanying a collection of garments, it is possible to present the exhibition text at two levels: the first one represents the direct, personal narrative of the owner, while the second one is the interpretive, explanatory voice of the curator. The examples presented below are from the exhibition ‘From Laos to Australia’ which showcased the dress of the Hmong people: refugees from Laos, who in the 1980s - 1990s settled in Australia. The exhibition was organised in 2006 by the School of Anthropology at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and the interviews with the Hmong community members were conducted on that occasion.
Personal narratives accompanying the dress gave visitors a direct insight into the challenges faced by a community of refugees settled in a foreign country and helped them to understand the importance of dress as a carrier of personal memories.
On interviewing the owners of a dress, see the section How to document personal history of dress
Dress as a war document
The torn end of the sash tells a poignant story of escape from home and war sufferings. If not accompanied by the personal statement, the sash might have been considered to be an incomplete, damaged object and as such, rejected by the museum.
When we escaped from Laos to Thailand in November 1975, my mother carried this sash with her. She made it when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In the refugee camp in Thailand it was very hard to find medicines or shamans to do rituals if you were sick. Four of my sisters died there, so my mother was very frightened. She tore one side of this sash to make red bands which she tied around the wrists to protect us from evil spirits.
The cotton sash is an important part of a dress, worn by Hmong women tied around the waist. The motifs were executed in a very fine reverse appliqué technique and embroidery. The sash is usually made by the owner of the dress and gives testimony to a woman’s skills and diligence. Laos, 1950s.
Clothes as a gift: building social relationship
Being light and portable, clothes and garment accessories are often traded or exchanged, at times over long distances. Quite frequently they function as a gift, helping to strengthen or establish relationships between various groups of people.
The blue embroidered panels of this dress were made by my husband’s cousin who lives in Thailand. It was a New Year present she sent me in 2003. I have never met her, but we exchange letters and gifts and this way stay in touch.
The dress was made by the owner in Australia, in 2004. The black, synthetic fabric was purchased locally while the panels, received as a gift, were embroidered in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand. The dress, featuring loose pants, represents a festive garment of the White Hmong women.
Dress as an expression of a group identity
Dress as a whole, or its details, frequently functions as an expression of a group identity. It can be an ethnic or a national group, age group or a professional one. At times, however, a conscious attempt could be taken to create a new identity by wearing particular type of a dress.
I am a White Hmong, but apart from having a White Hmong costume, I also have a Blue Hmong costume and a Chinese Hmong costume. In Australia, I can wear whatever I want.
During the recent decades, Yunnan Province of China became the major centre specializing in the production of commercial folk costumes destined for the overseas Hmong community. The ‘shocking pink’ colour and gaiety of the design make it a popular contemporary Hmong dress, especially with teenage girls. Thousands of such costumes are made each year to dress the Hmong diaspora in various parts of the world. Apart from the resist-dyed skirt and cross-stitched embroidery, the rest of the costume has been machine-made.
Children’s garments are under-represented in museums’ collections and displays. And yet, the young generation has their own story to tell, sometimes quite different from their parents.
I don’t like the Hmong clothes my mother makes for me to wear on New Year. I like the Australian clothes. I like my Spiderman t-shirt best.
Tim, age 11
The dark dress was sewn in Cairns by the boy’s mother, from fabrics purchased in local shops. The red sash, decorated with cross-stitched embroidery, was brought from Laos.
It is worth documenting personal statements also in the case of dress accessories. Jewellery items may have particularly interesting stories to tell, even if they were not made of precious stones or metals.
When getting married, every Hmong girl receives a gift of a large silver necklace. In refugee camps in Thailand we were very poor, we had no silver. So when I was getting married, my family melted all aluminium saucepans they had for cooking our food, and a Hmong man who was a silversmith made this necklace for me.
This necklace, although made of aluminium, closely imitates the same type of jewellery usually made of silver. It is worn by men and women on festive occasions. Traditionally, silver necklaces were used as wealth accumulation and exchanged as gifts. Made in 1977 at Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand.
Personal narrative and historical collections
At times, historical garments in museum collections are accompanied by personal statements of their owners or witnesses of the events at which they were worn. Such statements and opinions can usually be extracted from personal letters, diaries, reports, published memoirs and newspaper articles.
An interesting example of such an approach was used in the ‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition at Kensington Palace in London. Excerpts from the Queen’s journal and letters accompany the collection of her dresses, providing a personal insight into the extraordinary life of this woman.
For examples, see:
How to document personal history of dress
When obtaining a dress from a wearer or his/her direct descendants, we are faced with a unique opportunity to document the dress in an extensive way, by obtaining personal information that usually doesn’t accompany garments purchased at an auction or received from unknown donors. In such a situation, it is important to document as thoroughly as possible the details of its manufacture or purchase, the history of its use, as well as personal values and opinions. The information might be obtained in the course of an informal conversation, structured interview or by completing a questionnaire.
For information on how to conduct an effective interview, it is worth consulting oral history handbooks or learning some of the techniques used by cultural anthropologists to gather information (see Further sources).
To see examples of questions you may wish to ask when interviewing a person about a particular type of dress, see Costume: interviewing the owner.
In addition to obtaining information through an interview, when a dress enters a museum’s collection it is important to obtain related materials like photographs, various ephemera, packaging etc. For further information on this topic see Clothing and collecting policies.
ICOM Costume Committee Guidelines for working with Costume
ICOM Code of Ethics
‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition at Kensington Palace, London
P. Atkinson at al., Handbook of Ethnography (London: SAGE Publications, 2007)
B. W. Sommer, M.K. Quinlan, The Oral History Manual (2 ed.), (AltaMira Press, 2009)
J.P. Spradley, The Ethnographic Interview (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979)
M. Wronska-Friend, ‘Globalised Threads. Costumes of the Hmong Community in North Queensland’, in The Hmong of Australia: Culture and Diaspora, ed. by N. Tapp and G. Lee, (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2004), pp.97-122