Clothing

eskimowoman
This is Inuit elder Qappik Attagutsiak in her traditional caribou and sealskin clothes. Location: Arctic Bay, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canadian high Arctic
Photographer: Sue Flood

Like all mammals, humans have fur. Some of us have more, others less. In addition to our fur we have created clothing to help protect us from the environment or to take advantage of it. Clothes have other functions as well. Like plumage it attracts members of the opposite, or the same, gender. It can be used to attract attention or to hide. Or used as an indication of the group we belong to and of status, rank or position in the hierarchy. The name or number on it can identify the person. It can be an indication of affluence. Clothing can also be part of our kit bag of tools, allowing us to do whatever job we undertake better. Importantly, it is a way to express who we are and our creativity.

Clothing is an art form as well as one of the basic inputs. Like the others it is dependent upon the materials that are available, on our ability manipulate them and the skills of the artisan. As the changes in it over time demonstrate, it also depends the environment, the current technology, the tools and available resources. Like all other art forms it is a product of the culture. And within that culture it depends on the imagination and creativity of the artist and, in this case, of the wearer as well. Whenever we see a piece of clothing or an image of it, a number of questions may come to mind such as: who created it, what is it made of, how does it fit into the environment, etc. In addition to covering us up or not and protecting us from the environment, clothing has many other functions:

  • It varies depending on environmental conditions.
  • It helps us stand out in a crowd or to hide.
  • It identifies us as a member of a team or group and as who we are.
  • It is an indication of class, status and rank.
  • It can serve as a tool helping you do your job.
  • It is an art form.

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Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft

yurt
Kyrgyz Yurt, Afghanistan
Photograph by Mattieu Paley, National Geographic
Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young Kyrgyz couple’s yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes.

Think of shelters and clothing as art. Some of them are really fine, museum quality art.

At that level each is a masterpiece of achievement. The artist –whomever he or she was –stepped up and used their creative imagination and fine skills to produce a functional and beautiful structure or fine piece of clothing. They accomplished that in spite of the fact that they were constrained by the technology and tools of the time and the materials and resources that they had at hand. Most of the materials were local, some were traded for. Each piece — each fine work of art — came into being as a result of their skill and their creativity using the materials they had available. Furthermore, each artist had a deep understanding and respect for the materials they used. Let’s look at some examples from that perspective.

Having seen them, ideally what would you like to know about each of them? The answer is simple. It would be the information provided for any piece on display at a museum. That includes: