traditional costume and identity

Head Adornment

One of the aspects of personal appearance that always stands out is what we wear on our head. Headdresses have a practical as well as a communicative and spiritual side. They protect our hair and face from the elements, but also serve to elongate our person, impress onlookers and communicate status. They are agents of transformation, and they are important all over the globe. The National Museum in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, devoted an exhibition to headdresses, curated by Irene Steiner, who also put together the accompanying catalogue Head adornment, traditional costume, and identity.

The focus of this volume is on headdress from Europe: over three quarters of the 200-page publication explores a variety of regional European head adornment. Two chapters (9 and 13), form the main matter of the book. Chapter 9 presents brief explorations highlighting the many angles of costume and dress study. From lived experiences to repurposing and revaluating traditional dress, gravestones as historic source and traditional dress on Halloween, this chapter is a collection of thoughts and observations that may further the study of dress. Chapter 13 presents a selection of regional headdress variations, each with a brief description. Surrounding these main chapters are short essays on particular headdresses like the stunning Radhaube and Reginahaube, hats, bonnets, head scarves and much more. The photographs of these headdresses worn are just stunning, as they are combined with the dress they would go with: an absolutely splendid and colourful view!

An interesting intermezzo is the photographic essay by Frank Rossbach. Here, headdress elements are worn and styled without regard for their historical ‘correctness’, and more as fashion statement. The accompanying text raises important topics like exotification and romanticizing traditional dress, along with problematic issues such as nationalization and commodification of dress and adornment. These topics are not explored, only mentioned, but their inclusion in a publication about traditional dress hopefully raises awareness that dress study is about so much more than just fabric and models.

The final two chapters provide a reflection on headdress from non-Western countries. Hair adornment from four continents is presented, followed by a selection of head ornaments (worn often over, on or in the headdress proper) from Africa and Asia. Where the previous chapters are accompanied by in-depth texts, these two chapters are for the most part visual and have an introductory paragraph that can only remain general in nature due to space constraints. The importance of hair jewellery for example, associated with the cultural significance of hair and hair styles, is not touched upon – but as the author wrote in the introduction, there is no single book that can encompass any and all head and hair jewellery.

Given the often personal and/or religious importance of head ornaments, there are a few instances in the book where I did wonder whether depicting them worn out of context is the best approach. Of course, the aim of the book is to educate and honour the cultures these head adornments come from. But in the case of for example the Oromo headdress (p. 172), the ornament carries a much a deeper significance. It is considered to be a living object, a sacral emblem. [1] In a case like this, however illustrative wearing it may be, presenting it as stand-alone object might be the more sensitive choice.

This publication offers a huge number of images, making it a valuable visual reference. The texts with each chapter vary in length and depth of discussion, but raise important points in the study of dress and adornment. Notably the need for research in private collections is addressed time and again throughout the book, a need I can only confirm from my own work with private collections. Each and every chapter in this book could easily be the central topic of book on its own, given time and resources, and I sincerely hope the opportunity to create them will arise in the near future. In the meantime, I’m sure you will enjoy this visual reference feast!

Head adornment, Traditional Costume and Identity. Europe, Asia, Africa, by Irene Steiner, 2022

201 pages, full-colour, bilingual German/English. Available with the author.

The book was gifted by the author.

[1] Megerssa, G. & A. Kassam 2019. Sacred Knowledge Traditions of the Oromo of the Horn of Africa, Fifth World Publications, Durham/Finfinnee, p. 243-244