Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 14, Winter 2016.

Curated by Thelma K. Thomas, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
February 25- May 22, 2016
Jennifer Miyuki Babcock, Curatorial Postdoctoral Associate

A short-sleeved tunic made of yellowish material is photographed lying flat. Elaborate patterns in a dark color adorn the top and bottom of the garment, while also ringing the sleeves. FIG. 1: Tunic with Dionysian Motifs Tapestry weave of dyed wool, undyed linen, plain (tabby) ground weave of undyed linen L. 269.5 cm; W. 181.5 cm Panopolis (Akhmim), Egypt, early 6th century CE The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1926 (26.9.8) Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity opens a window onto Late Antique (ca. 3rd–7th centuries CE) society as viewed through the thematic motifs and materials of textiles and their role as indicators of social, religious, and cultural identity and beliefs. The Late Antique period experienced major political and religious shifts and upheavals, most famously the establishment and growth of Christianity, the “barbarian” invasions, and the geographic expansion of Arab culture and Islamic monotheism. Yet despite this flux, Late Antique society maintained its traditions, adapting them in ways that reflected religious, political, and cultural changes.

Designing Identity opens with a selection of textiles with Dionysian motifs. The figure of Dionysus appears to have resonated with the philosophical and cultural identity of individuals throughout the era. A highlight of the exhibition will be a rarely displayed, intact tunic that features imagery such as lions chasing prey, viewed at the time as a metaphor for Dionysus’ triumph in India, and warriors engaged in a war dance, intended to evoke satyrs. (FIG. 1) Depictions of the god were frequently associated with dining and drinking, and his triumph in India was performed in pantomime at banquets, perhaps indicating that the tunic belonged to a dining costume. This garment is an example of one of the functions of clothing in Late Antiquity and also how classical iconography persisted and was appropriated by Late Antique culture.

A green hooded tunic with golden edging, two vertical bands in red and gold, red and gold bands circling both sleeves, and patterns in red and gold on the hood is photographed lying flat. FIG. 2: Child’s Tunic with Hood Tapestry weave of dyed wools, plain (tabby) weave ground of dyed wool, fringe of dyed wools along edge of hood and lower edge of tunic L. 101 cm; W. 89 cm Egypt, ca. 5th–7th century CE The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George D. Pratt, 1927 (27.239) Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY The exhibition will also display a series of garments and furnishings that illuminate the ways in which they conveyed gender ideals and cultural values in all types of textiles. The clothing that will be on view includes nearly complete tunics, tailored shirts, children’s clothing, a doll’s costume, and several fragmentary mantles, all serving as typical Late Antique garments used by men, women, and children. Furthermore, wall-hangings and domestic textiles will show how they contributed to the overall aesthetic environment of the home with their motifs, colors, textures, and design, while also speaking to the identity of the household and the specific spaces in which they were located. One wall-hanging, for example, represents a servant pulling aside a curtain as if to open it for an approaching dignitary, and presents an image of a prosperous and elite household.

Another focus of Designing Identity is how textiles carried charms that functioned magically on the body or in the home. These could be auspicious, invoking good fortune through images of abundance, or apotropaic, with motifs that functioned to ward off evil. Many of these textiles include stripes, roundels and ornamented squares, believed to be protective charms, which might have been placed on the perimeter of a garment, at the shoulders, hem, cuffs, and collar—the most vulnerable parts of the body—in order to protect the wearer. A child’s hooded tunic, which will be featured in the exhibition, shows these protective charms intact, allowing the viewer to see where these textile fragments may have originally been placed. (FIG. 2)

With over 50 examples of Late Antique textiles, Designing Identity provides intimate glimpses of lives that ended over a millennium ago. Museum collections of these textiles, which began to flourish in the late nineteenth century in the wake of archaeological explorations in Egypt, still continue to shape scholarship, now aided and challenged by technical analysis, art historical study, and ongoing archaeological discovery around Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.

The American collections that made this exhibition possible include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition will explore how the textiles produced social and cultural meaning, first in Late Antiquity and again in modern times.

Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity opens to the public on Thursday, February 25, 2016 and runs through Sunday, May 22, 2016. The exhibition is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 to 6 pm with a late closure at 8 pm on Fridays. A free guided tour is offered each Friday starting at 6 pm.

Exhibition event programming will run through the exhibition’s duration. Please visit the website for Designing Identity at for updates on when these events will take place.

The catalogue of the show, Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity, will be available for purchase at the ISAW galleries.

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Selz Foundation, the Coby Foundation, Ltd., the Sarofi m Foundation, Agnes Gund, Nellie and Robert Gipson, Frances Marzio, and the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional funding provided by Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and Sameh and Sylvia Iskander.