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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Compare: How Can Dress Convey Power?

Feathered helmet (mahiole)

Feathered helmet (mahiole)
Artist / Origin: Hawaiian artist, Polynesia
Region: Oceania
Date: Pre-19th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Plant fiber, feather
Medium: Textiles and Fiber Arts
Dimensions: H: 12 ½ in. (32 cm.)
Location: British Museum, London, UK
Credit: © British Museum/Art Resource, NY

Royal Crown (adènlà)

Royal Crown (adènlà)
Artist / Origin: Yoruba artist, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date: 20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Glass beads, fiber, cloth, and thread
Medium: Other
Dimensions: 54 1/2 in x 8 x 8 in (including beaded veil)
Location: Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit: Courtesy of the Newark Museum

How can dress convey power?

Because a costume can imprint its wearer with signs of status, secular authority, and spiritual connectedness, dress often plays a major role in the expression of power. Headdresses, in particular, are part of the ceremonial attire of cultures around the world. Given the importance that so many diverse peoples attribute to the head as the seat of the mind or the soul, the adornment of this body part is especially meaningful. Both the feathered helmet of a Hawaiian chief and the beaded crown of a Yoruba king are worn ceremonially to convey the privileged positions of the leaders who wear them.

Questions to Consider

  • Each of these headdresses is created with distinct materials and specific colors. What symbolic value do these elements carry? Do they carry any additional social, cultural, or political value? Do you think a general population would have understood these meanings?
  • Ceremonial dress is often made to be seen and is certainly made to be used. Imagine that you are among those watching ceremonies in which each of these headdresses is worn. How would the item affect the appearance of the wearer? How might this, in turn, impact your attitude and behavior toward that individual?
  • What are other examples of ceremonial headdresses with which you are familiar? How do these compare to the helmet and crown seen here? How do these compare to less formal headgear such as baseball caps? How might the context in which these items are worn change their significance?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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