September 2021
Not a Dress
︎︎︎Published in Viscose Journal

This “dress” is not a dress

Crew-neck t-shirts, long sleeve dresses, cotton and linen; I have been thinking about clothes that are non-descript yet omnipresent. The stuff that is rarely “reviewed.” 

I thought about “one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display in the world.” It sits at the top of a tall wooden cabinet at the end of a poorly lit aisle of the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London. Its caption – white 15-point text printed on red – reads:

The Tarkhan dress


This dress is now one of the most famous objects in the Petrie Museum but it did not always look like this. It was excavated at Tarkhan, one of the most important cemeteries from the time Egypt was unified around 3000 BC.

Petrie’s teams excavated a pile of linen from a Dynasty 1 (c. 2800 BC) tomb in 1913. It was only in 1977, when this linen pile was cleaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Conservation Workshop, that the dress was discovered. It was then carefully stitched into Crepeline (a fine silk material used in textile conversation) and mounted. It is one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display in the world.

Early Dynastic Period, Dynasty 1, 2800 BC

This “dress” is not a dress – its hem is lost, so it’s impossible to know a precise length. I remember Episode 3 of BBC’s The Look documentary circa 1992, in which British Vogue’s former editor Liz Tilberis  tells a story about sitting next to the Managing Director of Barneys at Calvin Klein’s Spring 1992 show. He complained that it had taken his customers some years to get used to having short skirts foisted onto them in the late 1980s, and now Calvin had gone long again: “he thought it was terrible, the longer skirt, and I said ‘you can’t fight it, you’re gonna have to go with it’… I mean, it has to happen, things should change.” You can always rely on the fluctuation of hemlines to give us something to think about.

The Tarkhan Dress is neither masculine or feminine by today’s standards. It looks like a V-neck shirt and is frayed and small. It can be dressed up or down. Worn with jeans or tailored pants, day or night. It could be from The Row or Saint Laurent, Uniqlo or Mango. It is perfectly unexceptional if we ignore its age.

A myriad of pale browns in colour, its sleeves are knife-pleated and very narrow. The elbows have no fabric left at them and the bodice is full of gaps. A thick roll of fabric stitched to form a seam down the forearm looks like the scars of cosmetic surgery – like Elizabeth Taylor’s puffy post-facelift visage in Larry Peerce’s Ash Wednesday (1973), they are plump and tender. They have a surgical precision that gives the Tarkhan Dress a strange, embodied postscript.

The places that wear down and out of our clothes have never changed – the elbows, the cuffs, the hem. I think about the weight of the coat on my shoulders, the frayed sleeve of my coveralls, and the metal button at the cuff that sometimes knocks my ankle bone. I notice the ball of my foot pressed hard to the floor and the bones in my body pushing against the corners of my clothes.

A sheet of linen flax [or a shredded piece of material in a plastic/acetate envelope]

I have been thinking about the question posed by the Moravian-born American polymath Bernard Rudofsky in 1944: Are Clothes Modern? His exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art exposed what MoMA’s then Director of Exhibitions saw as the problems of apparel: “the present overburdened by the past, a needless waste of materials, and a superfluity and obsolescence of detail.” The same questions persist today but seem buried within a pageantry of protest and puffery.

The present-day style of fashion criticism looks at clothes within contexts that it duly ignores. It is either a fiesta of knee-jerk reactions to images (less the fashion in them) or worse, copy slathered in ersatz academies that uses the latest corporate collaboration to fast-track the reader to turgid sociological discourse. Hundreds of skirts, dresses, trousers, jackets, shirts, belts and shoes are felled for meaning in an attempt to assert some ‘relevance’ to what otherwise might just be okay clothes. We ask that a double-breasted asymmetric lapel jacket offers up some answer to the world’s ills, we ask a tailored chiffon suit to reset gender norms, we see the lengthening of a silhouette as an affront or a reaction to body and beauty diversity. As Rudofsky wrote in the essay accompanying his show: “Reducing clothing to its simplest static terms, it is a body covering, carried and upheld by the human figure.” In a byzantine world of competing and compelling icons, we have lost the ability to see garments for what they are.

Bead net dress [or the dress ‘may have been worn for dancing in’]

The cones of the breasts are comical in their normalness—after all, nipples look the same after thousands and thousands of years. The beading is in a fish-net crisscross pattern and suspended from a high waistband of flat dark brown tubes in all shades of green. Excavated by Guy Brunton at Qau in 1923-24, this little beaded shift “may have been worn for dancing in Dynasty 5 (c. 2400 BC)” according to its wall mounted caption.

It is stood on a box plinth tightly covered in grey-green fabric and shrouded by a Perspex case that is exactly my height. I pretend to try the dress on, adjusting my arms and hands, taking off my coat to get a sense of its shape. I push my chin up to the top of the mannequin’s neck. The caption suggests that “each of the 127 shells around the fringe are plugged with a small stone so that it would have emitted a rattling sound when the wearer moved.” I think about how much I want to hear the dress move – about how important it is for clothes to be seen in motion (either on or off the screen).

It has been exactly 18 months since I last attended a runway show, which has led me to reconsider how we report on seasonal collections. So much of what we see online is refracted and its context scrambled. Excitement for a new vogue is short-lived. Genuine innovation is passed over too quickly in a swipe and click to the next. Seeing real clothes in real life helps us understand material and matter, ambition and scale. It also helps to see new season clothes against the schmatte worn by us in the audience.

Now that fashion is mediated via digital visual communication, the task of reviewing clothes feels burdensome. Disposable, annoying and fleeting. Looking at this dress is thinking about materials, construction and shells but it leads to sex, gender, performance (dance). It is thinking about history and humanity. The clothes made today will each come with a hi-resolution archive of clues, there will be no room to misunderstand or muse about what they once were.

When Ancient Egyptian clothing consultant Janet Johnstone made a replica of this dress, she found that it was too heavy to be worn when placed directly on the naked body. Offering instruction on how to recreate our own, she warns: “Remember not to sit down when you wear the bead net dress or the beads will break.”

A mode of dinner dress

Fashion is reactionary and repetitive. The world keeps changing but clothes don’t. Two long, narrow linen dresses from about 2400 BC are squeezed into a wooden cabinet at the museum: both seem to reflect contemporary body shapes and proportions in the sense that they look like the high-summer frocks that the sustainable American label Reformation might make for short vacations in Portugal. On the street, I saw groups of geriatric millennials wearing long linen dresses in the same biscuity colour with tan Birkenstock sandals and heavy tote bags.

The caption calls these dresses “figure-hugging” and it makes me wince. It feels too modern an observation, as if a judgement is being passed on the wearer’s hips. The shoulders are wide and rounded. Their textile looks like hessian and reminds me of the “digital tears” in the early video works of Nick Knight. Stills from his project Sleep (2001) – the first ever global, live-streamed fashion shoot for which nine models were styled, made-up and put to bed at The Metropolitan Hotel – are so pixelated that they seem to be sprinkled with flecks of gold. I go home and stroke the crumbling paper spines of some 1970s French Vogues –  tactile omens of fashion in flux. The beatific cover girls now sallow and crease.

The few garments on display at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology share this pixelated quality – they have been pieced back together, fragments of material applied onto a fine gauze to try and make sense of what it once was. They make me think about the materiality of digital images, the images of fashion being created today and the relationship between what we consider a low quality image and a historical textile: “I’ve always loved lo-fi because you see mistakes. They get lost the more technically advanced things become,” Nick once said to me. Even NFT digital couture will one day seem old.

The 3/4 length sleeves of these lo-resolution dresses have creases as if an arm is still bent within them. Creases that were once caked with mud. The side of one dress is torn and looks like it has been eaten away. The dresses have an empire line and seem loosely stitched together – there is a dramatic deep V-neck at the front (which I have been misreading as the back). There is a beautiful neat and tight bridal stitch at the cuff of the sleeve on one of them. The fabric seems to loop between a thick thread. A hair hygrometer reads 45-. I hit my head on the glass as I bend down to read it.

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© Dal Chodha 2023