My area of interest is early 20th-century art, so I was excited to research a dress in the MTS Study Collection that resonates with me as an example of Primitivism. Primitivism is defined as the fascination of cultures identified as “uncivilized” and free from modern greed, and the struggles of power and egoism. Primitivism can sometimes be found alongside Orientalism, which is a fascination with cultures east of Europe and America (such as Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East). These movements have in common the idea of the “noble savage,” a term that existed in Ancient Greece but was later popularized by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his writing, Rousseau describes the noble savage as an “uncivilized man who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization” (www.britannica.com/art/noble-savage).
Primitivism found its way into the art and fashion of the late-19th and 20th centuries through painters like Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and Henri Matisse. Artists traveled to such places as Tahiti and Hawaii to study the cultures, painting their people and environments to bring back to the Western world. These paintings can be identified by their use of bright and colorful backgrounds with exotic and exposed women, creating an illusion that these cultures were mysterious and sexy. The fashion industry embraced Primitivism even before Egyptomania struck the West following the rediscovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Popular fashion designers that took inspiration from these cultures include Mariano Fortuny and Paul Poiret. Their work became popular because it made women feel fashionable, worldly, and colorful. Inside the dresses, the wearer was relatively unencumbered and could imagine a simpler time before industrialization and urbanization.
The MTS Study Collection dress can be dated to the 1920’s due to many context clues. The curved C-shape neckline, the low waistline, the sash, the intricate beadwork, and the high hemline were departures from the Edwardian period. However, what leads me to believe that this dress is inspired by Primitivism is the use of color, beadwork, and iconography. Though the origins of the dress are unknown (such as where it was made and by whom), the dress still tells a story about its wearer. I believe that the triangular beadwork is inspired by indigenous tribal garments from North America. The triangle is a popular shape that is symbolizes family, growth, and enlightenment, and can be found throughout art, including textiles. The dark orange/red shade of the silk fabric and beads represent an important color to many warm-weather cultures, including those depicted by Western primitivist painters. The beaded sash across the low waistline hints at the flapper dresses that followed, but also is an example of the appropriation of indigenous cultural elements that was so popular in the 1920’s, and continues today.
This silk beaded dress is too fragile to display without considerable conservation, but it survives because someone cared about it. It still has the power today to teach us something about the symbolism and style of clothing from a century ago.