An anniversary exhibition at the Morris-Jumel Mansion illuminates colonialism’s effect on fashion

Colonial Arrangements_Planets in my Head, ArtsIt’s a well-worn irony in fashion history circles that Dutch wax-resist textiles, securely identified with West African fashion, were originally neither African nor Dutch. The fabrics, with their vivid colors and distinctive cracked patterns, are in fact based on Indonesian batik prints. In the 19th century, Dutch and British colonial powers mass-produced knockoffs to sell to Indonesia, and when the Indonesians saw through the inferior product, the European manufacturers fobbed them off on their African colonies. Today, Yinka Shonibare, a London-based artist who lived in Nigeria from the ages of 3 to 17, clothes his headless, racially ambiguous mannequin sculptures in these fabrics to comment on the complex and counter-intuitive underpinnings of national and cultural identity.
Colonial Arrangements_Ghost of Eliza Jumel
Curators at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a 250-year-old estate in New York’s Washington Heights that once served as George Washington’s military headquarters, collaborated with Shonibare to create a site-specific installation, Yinka Shonibare MBE: Colonial Arrangements. All summer long, his sculptures frolicked about the venerable rooms, as if restoring forgotten threads to a predominantly white European history. The curators also commissioned The Ghost of Eliza Jumel, a similarly clothed sculpture based on the self-made businesswoman who lived in the mansion and supposedly haunts it to this day.
“These colorful fabrics with such a weighty history made a dynamic contrast within these high-style American period rooms in the mansion,” says Jasmine Helm, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice ’14, who co-curated the exhibition with executive director Carol Ward.


Colonial Arrangements_Boy Doing Headstand

Jasmine Helm invited J. Leia Lima Baum, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice ’15, to the Morris-Jumel Mansion to give a lecture, The Quixotic and the Exotic: Cultural Hybridity in Textile Design in the 18th Century, discussing the multicultural origins of classic Western dress. Here she reprises some of her points.
The genealogy of any clothing borrows from lots of different cultures and people before us. In terms of silhouette, in the 18th century, the French terms for different dresses were literally “the French dress,” “the English dress,” “the Polish dress,” and “the Turkish dress”—they were dressing themselves in the style of these countries, or what they imagined the style of these countries would be.
A major turning point in fashion came right before the French Revolution with the introduction of the Creole dress, or the chemise dress, which was an entirely new way of dressing. For at least 200 years before that, women put on dresses that fastened, but this new dress was put on over the head and hung from the shoulders. The history of this dress is so convoluted, it doesn’t come from any one place, but one possible point of inspiration was the traditional dress that was worn by Caribbean women when French colonists came to the West Indies.
Baum is a cataloger in the Ralph Lauren Inspiration Library, a 20th-century fashion collection used as reference by the company’s designers.