The Department of Textiles has been very busy since 2004. They have acquired over 550 pieces as purchases and gifts since that year, and their new exhibition puts an intriguing selection on display. Divided between Western and non-Western pieces, the galleries include a surprising amount of glitz (with glass beads or gold and metal thread from 16th-century China to 1920s France), to caricature (a hilarious Saul Steinberg cartoon of horses screen-printed onto cotton), propaganda (various copper-plate engravings of 18th-and 19th-century current events in Britain on handkerchiefs and other fabric), to the ostentatiously simple (a luminous, though artificially dilapidated Mizugoromo robe made of hemp and worn by 18th-century Japanese Noh actors portraying the destitute, old women or ghosts), or simply sculptural (Reiko Sudo’s Origami Pleat is a multi-folded confection which becomes impressively three dimensional).
Visitors can learn much about the fabrication and function of these pieces, even across cultures, where dowries consistently included fine linens. The first room, which emphasizes the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and higher-couture side of fabric production, includes a number of these versatile geometric and floral panels. An Alphonse Mucha designed panel c. 1898, Woman with a Daisy (top image), was intriguingly described as being meant to cover a screen when printed on cotton fabric (as in the Art Institute example), while it would cover a pillow instead when printed on more luxurious velveteen. The colors are already rich enough to make up for the difference in materials. This flexibility of printed designs on fabric is also seen in the 1925 Begonia print (image immediately above) by the couturier Paul Poiret, which was block printed on cloth (here it is on linen, but it has also appeared on paper and other materials) for use either as wall paper or wearable or upholstery fabric. He had been inspired by a recent visit to the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, setting up his own fabric workshop in Paris, and happily outfitted one of his barge showrooms in 1925 on the Seine in this material. Fabrics’ functions are hardly limited, even though modern ideas may suggest certain fabrics are more appropriate for certain uses. In one extreme example, the Canadian comedian Don Cherry has a penchant for suits made out of drapes fabric. He would have been right at home in Poiret’s amazing Begonia.