The Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas has an annual series that showcases a specific theme. A moving exhibition called The Joy Losee Collection: Art and Dress Along the Silk Road tries to bridge the beauty of women's ornamental garments to the cultural fears and prejudices associated with the perception of oppression in countries along the famous "Silk Road," including Afghanistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
Losee is a passionate traveler and former Pan American Airlines flight attendant who spent years collecting head-to-toe, traditional outfits from the countries she visited. Part of her personal collection, including what is now exhibited in the UNT Art Gallery, has been donated to the Texas Fashion Collection, with more to come.
This small, pleasing exhibition finds the required balance between fancy fashion and subtle discomfort. The social implications of place are not shoved down one's throat in the UNT Art Gallery, but those implications are in the room if you choose to see them (or you may go quietly about your way beholding the pretty garments). The costumes range only from mid- to late 20th century, so while most of them are traditional, none of them are historical, though they do sweep you back to an earlier era. I kept reminding myself that women in many of these countries wear jeans and tee shirts, but that would not be interesting to a collector or to an art gallery.
Some costumes are gentle and dreamy, like festival attire from the Banjara Tribe of India, but some interlock risk and desire, like the belly dancing costume from Egypt. I got pissed off just looking at the belly dancing costume; I was thinking about CBS News correspondent Lara Logan getting brutally attacked in Egypt a few years ago, where sexual violence against women is commonplace. That costume is lovely (if melodramatic) when viewed solely as an object, but it raises a question of purpose. Is it a meditation on tradition? On dance as art form? Or is it about titillation and stimulation under the male gaze? Can I view the costume without being distracted by all that is fucked up about that region? I couldn't, but other people in the gallery were, with visible enjoyment.
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In theory, Americans are supposed to be cool with letting everybody be who they are, even when culturally different, and that is so much easier said than done. I can't divorce a burka from a muzzle, no matter how silken and beautiful it may be, or how convincing its argument of "protection" for the women who wear it. I will make an effort to be more open-minded when I stop hearing nightmarish reports of brutality against women along the Silk Road.
Kudos to UNT for a thought-provoking show that defies the frivolity of fashion.
The Joy Losee Collection: Art and Dress Along the Silk Road runs through February 9th at the UNT Art Gallery in Denton.
Photos by Michael Clements, courtesy of the UNT Art Galleries.