Collecting Indigenous Mesoamerican Dress

So this is winter in Southern California.  Do I still get to use seasonal hibernation as my excuse for a lengthy writing hiatus?

The truth is, as the first Anawalt Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for the Study of Regional Dress, I’ve been deep in the archives and object collections at UCLA’s Fowler Museum preparing for two projects.  The first is a course I’ll be teaching this spring in UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures Department, “Collecting Indigenous Mesoamerican Dress.”  The second related project is an exhibition addressing the same theme set to open at the Fowler in 2017. 

Both the class and the exhibition consider the artistry of 20th century Mesoamerican dress objects.  Yet the way I frame the pieces departs from the more usual art curator’s perspective, which emphasizes date, culture, maker, technique, and region.  These important aspects are included in my considerations yet I emphasize the profound impact the collector has on how we understand the artist, the culture, and the context for the object’s creation.  What a collector chooses to collect—and even what a collector chooses not to collect—powerfully shapes not only what is available for study and exhibition but also what is considered important and culturally valuable. 

The class takes students on a journey of investigation.  We look at objects in the Fowler’s collections and triangulate that data with close readings of collector’s field notes and publications.  Additionally, we consider ongoing debates within the fields of dress and museum studies, which ask, how much context is too much?  Can we ever just appreciate an object on its own terms with no contextualizing information?

Otomí quechquemitl
Otomí quechquemitl (1920s-1960s).  X84.248.  Fowler Museum at UCLA.  Gift of Dorothy M. Cordry in memory of Donald B. Cordry.


Jaina style rattle
Jaina style rattle (600-900 CE).  X76.756.  Fowler Museum at UCLA.  Anonymous gift.


The exhibition features Nahua, Totonac, and Otomí dress objects as a means for illustrating the stories that two sets of Anglo-American collectors chose to tell about the pieces they collected between the 1930s and the 1990s.  Additionally, ancient Maya figurines featuring prominently defined attire are exhibited to demonstrate connections collectors make between the past and the present.  Seeing a 600-900 C.E. figurine alongside a 20th century garment allows museumgoers to decide for themselves how much a contemporary garment bears a connection to ancient styles of dress.  One colleague recently told me she didn’t see any resemblance at all between a Jaina Island figurine's attire and a 20th century Otomí quechquemitl, both pictured above.

Perhaps most interesting of all, the exhibition includes “fakes” to show the ways collectors can sometimes turn a blind eye to seeing anything but the stories they choose to tell.  Authenticity is another contentious issue in the areas of dress and museum studies.  What counts as “real”?  What makes one object more "authentic" than another?

My primary objective for both the class and the exhibition is to demonstrate that an object’s meaning and cultural value is derived from the stories we tell about it.  Moreover, the story changes as the object moves from one context to another—from being hand woven and worn on a person’s body as a signifier of gender and ethnicity, to being collected for its aesthetic and imagined cultural value, to being exhibited in a museum as an example of the ways a collector can create new meanings. 

Please check back for future updates on the exhibition’s progress interspersed with exhibition reviews, pop culture observations, and other ruminations on dress-related matters.


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