The Body Adorned: Dressing London at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

By Jennie Gillions | 26 March 2012
A photo of a tribal shirt against a black background
© Photo: Heini Scheneebeli, courtesy Horniman Museum
Exhibition: The Body Adorned: Dressing London; Horniman Museum, London, until January 6 2013

Getting dressed is a complicated business. We dress to make statements about who we are, our interests or where we’re going on a given day.

The Horniman Museum’s new exhibition, The Body Adorned, reminds us, however, that the judgements of strangers can render our careful dressing utterly pointless.

A photo of a white head piece with white and black feathers protruding from the top
A cowrie and ostrich feather headdress from Uganda
© Photo: Heini Scheneebeli, courtesy Horniman Museum
The exhibition starts with historic objects from the Horniman’s vast and respected anthropological collection.

Included are examples of national dress, copies of the Illustrated London News and a reproduction of an 1850s “map” of the British Empire, with Europeans taking centre stage and “exotic” people in caricatured costumes on the periphery.

One of the many lovely things about the Horniman is its eagerness to involve visitors in its own development and learning.

Within this historic section it is made clear that, though 19th century ethnographic museum collections were useful in enhancing Empirical Londoners’ understanding of foreign dress, a lot of the assumptions would now be considered offensively clichéd – even racist.

So, 19th century Londoners made erroneous judgements about strangers. The next section of the exhibition playfully asks how far we’ve come.

Multimedia production company The Light Surgeons have created a fascinating social experiment in the form of video installation; they filmed people on the pavements of Peckham, The City, Chelsea, Brick Lane and Oxford Street, interviewing them about their clothes, before showing the films to strangers who passed comment on the outfits.

A photo of a tribal gown
A plains beaded jacket from North America© Photo: Heini Scheneebeli, courtesy Horniman Museum
The results make for compelling viewing, and it’s virtually impossible not to join in. A Light Surgeons project manager, a fellow reviewer and I spent a happy few minutes voicing our own opinions and assigning personalities to strangers based exclusively on their appearance.

It’s an absorbing display, but if you can tear yourself away an equally interesting final gallery looks at body adornment and “London style”.

The Horniman has worked closely with a group of young Londoners to develop Urban Portraits, a collection of photographs designed to exemplify how Londoners dress.

This exhibition is keen to impress on visitors how London has evolved as a world city, and its clothing seems the ideal way to demonstrate that; immediately it is clear that there is no such thing as “London style”. The clothes, the hair, the jewellery and the tattoos are all influenced by London’s relationships with the rest of the world.

Opposite a cabinet of historic accessories is a collection of traditional Maori tattooing tools (Maori tattooing is one of the most sacred forms of body adornment in the world), and the final case contains outfits chosen by London teenagers.

While the results of a teenage shopping trip might not obviously align with early 20th century Chinese shoes or a necklace from Niger, these items combine to demonstrate how appearance has always been fundamentally tribal, and that most of us continue to dress according to kinship ties of social standing, wealth, faith, ethnicity or common interests.

The young people have made an interesting video and labels explaining their clothing choices – if only we had comparable voices to give context to the historic items.

Despite its relatively small space, this is a substantial, satisfying exhibition. Its intelligence lies in its call for honesty; visitors aren’t explicitly told that appearance can provoke violence, hatred, derision, snobbery and love at first sight, but by facing up to how judgemental we are, we can take away a new appreciation for how problematic, and competitive, appearance can be.

London has clearly evolved into a vibrant and generally accepting place to get dressed in, and one where there are few legal and cultural restrictions on how Londoners choose to present themselves to the world.

For that we should be thankful, despite the woeful misinterpretation we’re vulnerable to every time we leave the house.

  • Open 10.30am-5.30pm. Admission free.

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