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Art History Lesson

and what we wear


by Joyce Johnson


I wanted that arty hooded, coat on the rack, before I even tried it on! It had a sketch of winter woods printed on soft, blanket material that you can...toss in the washing machine! Yes! Never before have I received so many approval comments from people, even strangers, about a piece of clothing worn around town. I always reply, “Thank you, I love it too. I got it at an estate sale of someone I admired.” I confess too, that I like secondhand clothes that are roomy and loose—and proudly brag to visitors and each other that Montana is not fashion enslaved. At all.


We are not our clothes; we just wear costume; clothes go way beyond practical use and are statements of how powerful we want you to think we are, or promote what we are selling, or oppose. An outer design of our inner moods, or selves. Add hats and hair design, and the unsurpassable Crown. There’s also protection costumes, armor, regalia and very creative disguises. Art in other words. Human costuming is a big deal really. I guess its because we are so bare? Blank canvases sorta.


Naked Apes! - In 1967, Desmond Morrison, English Zoologist, after studying humans in big cities, called us the Naked Ape, and wrote 2 well-known books about it. I don’t think he meant clothes fashions though, but to an artist, how we cover and decorate ourselves, is so interesting over the ages. My mom was in a drawing class that studied historic costume design in college. The student’s drawings used fashion trends of different eras, recreated new in watercolor. She designed clothes for me and my sisters’ paper dolls later.

History of Art from the start – Cave art is at least 45,500 years old. That’s enough to express “old” huh? I thought of tattoos being originally of the New Zealand Maoris, but then I read that mummies had them. Tattoo comes from the Samoan word tatau. The oldest evidence of tattoos are on mummies dated around 55,000 years ago. Tattoos have decorated our bodies on all continents and cultures. Uses were for scaring the enemy in battle, religious symbols, tribal lineage and standing, and beauty. In more modern times, tattoos were put on the chest of European women to decorate the bosom in the mid 1700s for low cut dresses; also used as permanent face decor as “makeup.” Maoris no longer needed tattoos in combo with the sensational Haka dance and scary-faces and war chants, to scare the enemy. Haka dance and chant is “a celebration of life” they now say, and can be seen performed at football games to intimidate the other team, but also to honor heroes or beloved friends and kin who have died. To me, it is the passion and power of male energy which is no small thing. Tattoos, chant, ritual dance and fascinating, magnificent regalia is universal. Beautiful really. Even though I am classic type. Simple, comfy lines. I would change the fashion back to Roman Togas if I had my way.…

I saw a little tattooed butterfly on a woman’s ankle which I thought was sweet. Last summer in the dressing room at Chico a lovely young woman had all-over beautiful body tattoos, not very dark, blending harmoniously with her light skin—very feminine, obviously designed with care by an artist. I practice giving praise where praise is due, so I said they were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I found myself in acceptance rather than silent criticism; it’s the idea of the pain in tattoo application sometimes makes people flinch. But we smiled at each other, elder-to-youth, woman to woman validation—a heart (& art) connection with a stranger for a moment. Young generations often react creatively if rebelliously to the adult world they are born into—it’s ageless. The slam dunk present example is the trend of absurdly holey jeans; a strong statement of our kids defiance, but of what? And what does cold bare knees mean? Who started a fashion that mocked beauty and why? Other than bell bottom pants, which were elegant when I was 14, I am no follower. Here’s my “wrap”: Our outer expresses what is within. Life is Art, and you are unique Artists. All of you. Choose beautiful. And defend it.

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