Fashion Is a Verb: Experiencing Creativity and Design at PEM

Peabody Essex Museum

 Fashion provokes, inspires, and innovates. It projects the individual and speaks to communities. Fashion works. It shapes the maker and the wearer. Spanning continents and centuries, the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection embodies the complexity and humanity underpinning fashion.

\pərˈfôrm\ (v.) - to do something requiring training or skill; to act according to a prescribed ritual; to present oneself theatrically.

These shoes complicate notions of performance and power. In 12 Shoes for 12 Lovers, Sebastian Errazuriz reduces his real or imagined former girlfriends to 3-D printed high heels with stereotypical titles like “The Golddigger.”

The luxurious black lacquer platforms of these nineteenth-century Japanese courtesan clogs (Nimaiba geta) recall the sheen of “The Boss,” but the similarities end with aesthetics. Only elite geishas wore such footwear, which embodied their cultural and social status. The woman who wore these shoes owned the identity she performed. Errazuriz’s girlfriends, on the other hand, had no say in their representation.

An American bride wore the wedding gown on the left in 1879. Made of luxurious silk fabric, it has a long train inspired by European courtly fashions. An eighteenth-century Korean bride wore the red silk robe embroidered with symbolic motifs. The peony on the back expresses the wish for prosperity. Both garments reinforce the ritual roles of the brides—intricate performances of class, social and religious norms, and family expectations.

Paris designer Jenny created this Art Deco dress with a low neckline, short skirt, and attention-grabbing beading and embroidery in the 1920s. Its wearer was publicly identifying herself as a “flapper,” a woman energized by her new freedoms and opportunities. She was someone who liked to dance and socialize and wasn’t afraid of being in the limelight.

The Kabuki actor who donned this robe, with its bold turtle and crane designs, was also the center of attention. The stylized performances of the Kabuki theater blended dance, music, and mime, and were noted for elaborate stage sets, costumes, and the distinctive makeup of the all-male performers.

\tran(t)sˈfôrm\ (v.) - to change into something new; to hybridize mediums and forms; to alter the thoughts, opinions, or viewpoints of others.

Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree) combines couture traditions with the ingenuity of her Native community. Her custom-made Wile Wile Wile dress unites familiar materials in Canada's Yukon Territory—carp skin, animal fur, and feathers—with a European silhouette. The hybrid garment exudes an originality all its own.

Sea mammal intestine and esophagus lend this nineteenth-century European-style overcoat its iridescent sheen and unexpected transparency. Unangan women made the coat from organic materials readily available on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.

"I’m very visual. ... I always find a fabric or fur or snakeskin or salmon skin and then I visualize from there what I want to make instead of sketching it first and then seeking the material."
—Sho Sho Esquiro

After it was made, this coat traveled to the Pacific, where King Kamehameha of Hawai’i gave it to Thomas Meek, a Massachusetts resident who did extensive business in the Hawaiian Islands.

On April 22, 1775, Elizabeth Gerry and Burrill Devereux of Marblehead, Massachusetts, dressed for their wedding, just three days after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It was the start of the American Revolution, but the young couple continued with their wedding plans. The design of their attire reinforced their union.

Woven floral patterns embellish Elizabeth’s watered silk gown and complement those on Burrill’s waistcoat, the only part of his outfit that has survived.

Nineteenth-century Tlingit artists wove fine basketry to make functional objects, adapting some, such as this hat, into imaginative pieces for non-Native consumers. The hat’s shape recalls a seaman’s cap.

Paul E. LaPier’s (Tlingit and Haida) cap reflects the shapes of contemporary streetwear but is made from red cedar bark. LaPier got his start making nets for his fishing community. When he began weaving, he retained his eye for the relationship between medium and form.

The painted lines on top of this cap swell and taper into defined shapes called formlines, which were developed by indigenous communities of the Northwest Coast of North America.

This beaded cap and feather-mosaic fan are cross-cultural art forms made by indigenous artists incorporating new influences. Contact between Haudenosaunee artists and European settlers influenced the decoration of the cap. The Native artists adapted their surface ornamentation and beadwork to the floral motifs of the new settlers.

Indigenous artists in Mexico created the brilliant, iridescent colors and design motifs on this seventeenth-century fan by repurposing pre-Columbian Mesoamerican feather art for the Spanish market.

\rəˈvēl\ (v.) - to make something known; to expose the hidden; to open up.

Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 line paid tribute to his family heritage. McQueen had recently discovered that Elizabeth Howe, one of the women hanged during the Salem witch trials, was his ancestor. The splash of silvery beadwork adorning this midnight-blue evening gown is like a starburst illuminating the night sky, or a personal revelation enlightening a dark chapter in family history.

Designer Bethany Yellowtail (Apsáalooke and Northern Cheyenne) is not afraid to show some skin. Elk teeth represent wealth and importance in Apsáalooke communities, and here Yellowtail has turned them into the ultimate high-fashion statement. Where McQueen reveals personal history, she asserts a cultural knowledge that dates back generations and persists in spite of continued colonization.

Listen to Bethany Yellowtail explain the significance of elk teeth

Brian White’s Island Bride reveals the longing of parted lovers in a sculpted wedding dress made from seashells. White drew inspiration from sailor’s valentines, shell mosaics created as souvenirs of distant places. But valentines were only one type of art made at sea. A nineteenth-century sailor made these pants using plain sewing skills and common shipboard materials. Native Pacific-region tattooing practices inspired the embroidered scrolls, leaves, and palm-frond motifs, revealing the maritime exchange between disparate cultures.

This chasuble, a garment worn by Catholic priests, was made for a church in northern Spain. It reflects the wealth, power, and international influence of the Roman Catholic Church during the 1600s.

Images symbolizing the universe embellish the back of this Daoist priest’s robe. When a priest wears this cosmic robe, his body becomes a mirror of the universe, allowing him to communicate with the celestial world.

Artists in China created the purple silk with its pattern of “rampant,” or rearing, lions surmounted by a crown. The lions are emblems derived from European heraldry but also suggest “Buddha lions,” symbols of protection more familiar to the Chinese.

A multi-story tower in the center of this robe represents the Palace of Heaven. Design elements on the shoulders signify the sun, the moon, and stars.

In 1859, an American bride wore this delicate wreath of honeysuckle, orange blossoms, and white lilacs fashioned from silk, wax, wire, and cotton. The selection of flowers followed the “language of flowers,” a Victorian convention that assigned sentiments to individual blossoms.

Headdresses were statements of style and status that formed part of Chinese noblewomen’s attire on festive occasions including weddings. Thirty cranes painstakingly made of tiny coral and pearl beads tremble when this headdress is worn. Kingfisher feathers provide the brilliant blue coloring, while orchids and fruits, symbols of virtue and fertility, add to the elaborate display.

\diˈkler\ (v.) - to state forcefully; to advocate for one’s position; to proclaim.

Designer Jamie Okuma (Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock) painstakingly beads Christian Louboutin footwear, remaking it in her own style. The graceful birds and flowers recall her childhood on her grandmother’s land. But these boots also say something important about the present. Using Louboutin’s footwear as her canvas, Okuma declares her primacy in a high fashion world.

This jacket hybridizes a European scout jacket and continues the Plains tradition of painting biographical and historical narratives on buffalo hides. The garment's design features repeated images of the Morning Star, a symbol of new beginnings, and ahingas, messenger birds, that convey personal and cultural significance, even though it was likely made for the tourist market.

"The shoes are my self-portraits. ... If you want to know who I am, you look at my shoes."
—Jamie Okuma

As Nick Cave states, the riotous color and joyfully abundant materials of his soundsuits conceal a charged message. “The first soundsuit happened in 1992. It was in response to the Rodney King incident, which is...connected to the LA riots. The intensity of what I was experiencing was so difficult for me, particularly as a black male, so it made me start looking at ideas of feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. So I started to think of materials in the same sort of way.”

This romantic, nineteenth-century dressing gown is embroidered with multicolored silk flowers. Like the bridal wreath earlier in this exhibition, each blossom on the gown represents a different emotion in the Victorian “language of flowers.” But unlike the wreath or one of Cave’s soundsuits, this dressing gown was worn in private and declared its wearer’s feelings only to her most intimate circle.

Helmets protect wearers from injury and proclaim their identity. General George Washington formed the Washington Life Guards, an elite unit that served as his bodyguards during the American Revolution, in 1776. Captain Michael Titcomb of Massachusetts wore this leather helmet adorned with metal chains and horsehair when he served in the unit from 1777 to 1779.

Richard Glazer-Danay (Kahnawake Mohawk) reimagines honorific war bonnets worn by Plains leaders as a contemporary hard hat. The form pays tribute to the hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers who helped build Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The “bingo” lettering emblazoned on the helmet references the controversial topic of casinos on Native American lands. Bingo War Bonnet responds to the Washington Life Guard helmet with biting questions about history, political power, and what it means to be a colonized people in the land of the free.

/iɡˈzibət/ (v.) - to put on public display; to possess the characteristic features of a specific group; to show outwardly.
Credits: Story

Curated by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director

Claire Blechman, Digital Asset Manager
Paula Bradstreet Richter, Curator for Exhibitions and Research
Karina Corrigan, The H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art
Jeanne Goswami, Interpretation Editor
Karen Kramer, Curator of Native American Art and Culture
Alyssa Langlais, Registrar
Shoshana Resnikoff, Assistant Curator for Exhibitions and Research
Ed Rodley, Associate Director of Integrated Media
Rachel Thompson, Research and Special Projects Associate
Daisy Wang, Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art
Katie White, Assistant Registrar

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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