A limited heating budget and erratic work schedule means that I’ve been spending spare hours in museums this January. Providing warmth and novelty mostly for free, London’s museums are perfect hibernating grounds.
Resolving to seek my glitter fix (and dose of heating) somewhere other than the downtrodden sales rails on the high street, I headed to the British Museum’s Adornment and Identity exhibition, which features jewellery and costume from the Sultanate of Oman. Examples of personal adornment from 1950 onwards are accompanied by text and photographs of the costumes in use. Showing costumes and accessories that were bright and striking, the exhibition challenged the common Western preconception that Islamic dress is dour and concealing.
In fact, as the exhibition demonstrates from the outset, there is no such thing as a universal Islamic dress, and even in Oman itself, each region has a unique dress-code determined by its individual crafts traditions and ceremonies. Overall, Omani costume is more symbolic than Western costume; level and type of adornment varies according to age and social status. The comparatively light, brightly coloured caps worn by young children are replaced by ornate silver headdresses with earring hooks for teenage girls and khanjars, silver, curved daggers for older boys. Being grand and weighty, these coming-of-age accessories enable wearers to command attention, whilst simultaneously evoking the responsibilities of adulthood.
For women, ceremonial jewellery does not end with the headdress: hollow silver bangles worn at the elbow, anklets filled with bells and large rings of all shapes complete the outfit. When I tried on a silver D-shaped bracelet with bells inside, it stood against my wrist like armour. I can imagine that the sound of the bells announcing the wearer’s arrival and departure would make her feel conspicuous. Perhaps like Gustave Flaubert’s nineteenth-century heroine Emma Bovary whose presence is signalled through a ‘rustle of silk on the (stone) flags’, the bracelet-wearer’s femininity is conveyed aurally.
Interestingly, the difference between a wealthy woman and her poorer counterpart often lies in the details of her jewellery. The price of silverware and jewellery is largely determined by the level of embellishment rather than by the presence of stones. The exhibition does a good job of explaining the tradition of silverware in different regions of Oman and even showcases the simple tools used.
The burqa, the face-covering so villainized by the British press, also makes an appearance as an example of Bedouin ceremonial wear. Examining the object live and in a photograph, I can honestly say that with its bright colours and sequinned trim it resembled a Venetian mask rather than the prohibitive face veils that bedeck The Daily Mail. In the photograph, the eyes behind the burqa are lined with kohl, so that they stand out and the overall effect is showy, seductive even.
Adornment is not limited to women - Omani men also line their eyes with kohl and wear jewellery for protection and status. The conservative Western binary of a modest, plain sex and an ornamental one, it seems, does not exist. Evil-eye motifs, which protect the wearer from another’s envy, abound in jewellery for both sexes. Despite being ornate, Omani costume can also be practical. Even lavishly embroidered robes feature pockets, the most ingenious, being the elongated, pentagon-shaped panel found in Baluchi dress, that doubles as a pocket.
Following British Museum Director Neil McGregor’s celebration of non-Western history and tradition, Adornment and Identity successfully presents a facet of Islamic culture unknown to audiences who may receive their information from sensational headlines or Orientalist Delacroix paintings. The one criticism I would make of the exhibition, is that despite the many photographs it felt rather impersonal. Firsthand accounts of self-adornment, would have truly established the ‘identity’ aspect, and narrowed the distance between the British Museum in London and Oman.
21 January – 11 September 2011