The Art of Dress and Ambience

When the arts are enumerated the art of dress is too often forgotten though it none the less has an importance as great, or almost as great, as architecture. Doubtless no civilization has ever produced summits in every field. Thus the Arab genius, made up of virility and resignation, has produced a masculine dress of unsurpassed nobility and sobriety, whereas it has neglected feminine dress, which is destined in Islam, not to express the “eternal feminine” as does Hindu dress, but to hide woman’s seductive charms. The Hindu genius, which in a certain sense divinizes the “wife-mother,” has on the other hand created a feminine dress unsurpassable in its beauty, its dignity, and its femininity. One of the most expressive and one of the least-known forms of dress is that of the Red Indians, with its rippling fringes and its ornaments of a wholly primordial symbolism; here man appears in all the solar glory of the hero, and woman in the proud modesty of her impersonal function.
      The art of dress of every civilization, and even of every people, embraces many varying forms in time and space, but the spirit always remains the same, though it does not always reach the same heights of direct expression and immediate intelligibility.
A building, whether it be a temple, a palace, or a house, represents the universe—or a given world or microcosm—seen in conformity with a particular traditional perspective. Thus it also represents the “mystical body,” the caste, or the family, according to the particular case.
      Dress exteriorizes either the spiritual or social function, or the soul: and these two aspects may be combined. Clothing is opposed to nakedness as the soul is opposed to the body, or as the spiritual function—the priestly function for example—is opposed to animal nature. When clothing is combined with nakedness—as in the case of the Hindus, for example,—then the latter appears in its qualitative and sacred aspect.
      The existence of princely and sacerdotal attire proves that garments confer to man a personality; that they express or manifest a function which transcends or ennobles the individual. By manifesting a function, dress represents thereby the virtues corresponding to it.
      What is admirable in the Orthodox Church is that all its forms, from the iconostases to the vestments of the priests, immediately suggest the ambience of Christ and the Apostles, whereas in what might be called the post-Gothic Catholic Church too many forms are expressions of ambiguous civilizationism or bear its imprint, that is, the imprint of this sort of parallel pseudo-religion which is “Civilization” with a capital C: the presence of Christ then becomes largely abstract. The argument that “only the spirit matters” is hypocrisy, for it is not by chance that a Christian priest wears neither the toga of a Siamese bonze nor the loin-cloth of a Hindu ascetic. No doubt the “cloak does not make the monk”; but it is also said “Kleider machen Leute” (“clothes make the man”); the costume does not change the man ex opere operato, certainly, but it actualizes in a normally predisposed man—thus one who is sensitive to duties and virtues—a given awareness of the norm and a given conformity to the archetype. And it goes without saying that a man can only don a vestment to which he is entitled in one degree or another; the usurpation is as debasing as vanity; and “noblesse oblige.”
Outward forms are criteria. It is either false or insufficient to allege that Saint Louis wore the costume of his period and that, mutatis mutandis,Louis XIV did the same; the truth is that Saint Louis wore the dress of a Western Christian king, whereas Louis XIV wore that of a monarch who was already more “civilized” than Christian, the first epithet referring, needless to say, to “civilizationism” and not to civilization in the general sense of the word. The appearance of Saint Louis is that of an idea which has reached the fullness of its ripening; it marks, not a phase, but a thing accomplished, a thing which is entirely what it ought to be. The appearance of a king of the Renaissance or of the age immediately following is the appearance, not of a thing, but of a phase—nor yet even a phase, but an extravagant episode.1 Whereas we have no difficulty in taking seriously the appearance not only of a Saint Louis, but also of a Pharaoh, an Emperor of China, or for that matter, a Red Indian chief, it is impossible to escape an impression of ridiculousness when confronted by the famous portraits of certain kings [see ills. 243, 244, and 245]. These portraits, or rather these poses and these accoutrements, which the portraits so humourlessly and pitilessly fix, are supposed to combine all imaginable sublimities, some of which cannot in fact be fitted together into a single formula, for it is impossible to have everything at one and the same time; the hieratic and as it were incorporeal splendor of a Christian emperor cannot be piled up on top of the paradisal naked splendor of an ancient hero.
      Saint Louis, or any other Christian prince of his time, could figure amongst the kings and queens—in the form of columns—of the cathedral of Chartres; the later kings—those more marked by an invading worldliness—would be unthinkable as sacred statues.
      The column statues of Chartres have, like an iconostasis, the value of a criterion of formal orthodoxy: no exhibition of individualism or of profanity could find a place amongst them.         
      What we say of clothes holds good equally for interior fittings, especially furniture. It is hardly credible that the same men that made the marvels of sober majesty that are Gothic and Nordic furniture, could have created and tolerated the lacquered and gilded horrors of the courtly and bourgeois furniture of the eighteenth century; that the noble and robust gravity of the works of the Middle Ages could have given way to the miserable affectation of later works; in short, that utility and dignity should have been replaced by a hollow, trivial, and flaunting luxuriousness.
The Maghribi garb—like other non-worldly Muslim garbs—suggests resignation to the Will of God, and more profoundly the mystery of Peace, dar as-Salam. And this calls for another comment: if it is true that Maghribi garb, or any other analogous Muslim garb, manifests de facto a religious perspective, exclusivist by definition, along with the specific barakah it contains, it is no less true—and necessarily so—that this garb manifests at the same time attitudes and mysteries appertaining to esoterism, and that in this sense it suggests no confessional limitation. Each civilization produces, by heavenly inspiration, several paragon phenomena; the representative dress of Islam is an example of this, as are the arabesques, the mihrab, and the call to prayer.
      The association of ideas between the turban and Islam is far from fortuitous: “The turban,” said the Prophet, “is a frontier between faith and unbelief,” and he also said: “My community shall not decline so long as they wear the turban.” The following ahadith2 are also quoted in this context: “At the Day of Judgment a man shall receive a light for each turn of turban round his head”; “Wear turbans, for thus you will gain in generosity.” The point we wish to make is that the turban is deemed to give the believer a sort of gravity, consecration, and majestic humility;3 it sets him apart from chaotic and dissipated creatures, fixing him on a divine axis and thus destines him for contemplation; in brief, the turban is like a celestial counterpoise to all that is profane and empty. Since it is the head, the brain, which is for us the plane of our choice between true and false, durable and ephemeral, real and illusory, serious and futile, it is the head which should also bear the mark of this choice; the material symbol is deemed to reinforce the spiritual consciousness, and this is moreover true of every religious headdress and even of every liturgical vestment or merely traditional dress. The turban so to speak envelops man’s thinking, always so prone to dissipation, forgetfulness, and infidelity; it recalls the sacred imprisoning of his passional nature prone to flee from God.4 It is the function of the Koranic Law to re-establish a primordial equili­brium that was lost; hence the hadith: “Wear turbans and thus distinguish yourselves from the peoples (lacking in equilibrium) who came before you.”
      Hatred of the turban, like hatred of the romantic or the picturesque or what belongs to folklore, is explained by the fact that the romantic worlds are precisely those in which God is still plausible. When people want to abolish Heaven, it is logical to start by creating an atmosphere which makes spiritual things appear out of place; in order to be able to declare successfully that God is unreal they have to construct around man a false reality, one that is inevitably inhuman because only the inhuman can exclude God. What is involved is a falsifica­tion of the imagination and so its destruction; modern mentality implies the most prodigious lack of imagination possible.

The dress of the Muslims indicates a khalwah,5 an “interiorization” made of holy poverty and divine Peace. It should be noted in this context that the partial nudity combined with a profusion of precious stones, found among the ancient maharajas, is not gaudy luxury, it is a quasi-celestial splendor befitting their status as demigods. Altogether different is the sumptuousness, part-bigot, part-worldly, of many a Turkish sultan, which can hardly be admired, except for the ceremonial robes when taken on their own, the inspiration for which is fundamentally Mongol.

A fascinating combination of combative and stoical heroism with a priestly bearing conferred on the Indian of the Plains and Forests a sort of majesty at once aquiline and solar; hence the powerfully original and irreplaceable beauty that is asso­ciated with the red man and contributes to his prestige as a warrior and as a martyr. Like the Japanese of the time of the Samurai, the Red Indian was in the deepest sense an artist in the outward manifestation of his personality: apart from the fact that his life was a ceaseless sporting with suffer­ing and death, hence also a kind of chivalrous karma yoga,the Indian knew how to impart to this spiritual style an aesthetic adornment unsurpassable in its expressiveness.
      The simplicity of his ancestral style of life created the ambience that allowed his genius to affirm itself; what we wish to say is that the object of this genius, as is the case moreover for most nomads or semi-nomads and certainly for warrior hunters, is far less the outward artistic creation than the soul itself, the whole man, which is the plastic matter of the “primordial artist.” In a civilization based on Nature and Man in their primeval functions, art is made for man and not man for art, and indeed Indian art is foremost a “frame” for this divine, central, and free creation that the human being represents. This is what accounts for the high quality attained by the art of apparel: majestic headdresses—especially the great eagle-feathered headdress—garments streaming with fringes and embroidered with solar symbols, shimmering moccasins that seem to release the feet from all weight, feminine robes of exquisite simplicity. This art, in its concise as well as its richest expression is perhaps not one of the subtlest, but assuredly one of the most brilliantly inspired there is.
      The attire of the Plains Indians “humanizes” virgin nature, it transmits something of the immensity of the prairies, the depth of the forest, the violence of the wind, and other affinities of the kind. Embroidered with archaic symbols and ornamented with fringes, it expresses at once victory and serenity: victory over the soul’s weaknesses—the inward “holy war”—and sacerdotal dignity, which is serene and generous; the first element is represented by the embroiderings, which “proclaim” heroism or the sacred, and the second by the fringes, which “bless” the earth.
      The fringes first of all recall rain, which is an important image since rain is a message from heaven to earth. But the fringes also symbolize the spiritual fluid of the human person—his orenda, as the Iroquois would say, or his barakah, as would say the Arabs. This observation is all the more plausible when one thinks that instead of the fringes shirts are often decorated with horsehair or with scalps;6 now hair, as is well known, is the vehicle of a magical power, an orenda precisely. We could also say that the fringes are derived from the feathers of a bird, of the eagle above all: arms adorned with fringes are “magically” and spiritually equivalent to the wings of an eagle. Sometimes ermine skins are added to the fringes, thus conferring upon them a quasi-royal symbolism, the ermine being everywhere considered as a sign of majesty.
      The most diverse objects may be adorned with embroideries and fringes; one of the most important is the bag containing the Calumet and the ritual tobacco, the function of the latter being to sacrifice itself by burning and to rise towards the Great Spirit.
      The garb of the chief or the hero suggests the eagle soaring towards the sun: the nature of the eagle is to fly upwards, hence also to see things from afar, from “above” precisely: the eagle soars and then circles in a luminous solitude.7
      One of the most powerful symbols of the sun is the majestic headdress made of eagle feathers; he who wears it is identified with the solar orb, and it is easy to understand that not everyone is qualified to wear it; its splendor—unique of its kind among all traditional headdresses in the world—suggests both royal and priestly dignity, thus the radiance of the hero and the sage.8 According to an almost universal tradition, the eagle itself symbolizes the sun, which precisely is expressed by the eagle-feather bonnet. Formerly, each feather had to be earned: the identification of man with the solar orb demands a heroic drama. This is demonstrated by the Sun Dance which implies a multiple victory over the inferior Maya, that of the world and that of the ego, spiritually speaking.
      Doubtless, our Indians have no sacred art properly so called apart from that ritual object of primary importance which is the Calumet;9 nonetheless, they possess to the highest degree the sense of the sacred, and they replace the element “sacred art” with what we could call a “liturgy” of virgin nature.10
To return to the question of Indian dress: it is too often supposed that the decorative style of the Indians consists in no more than a series of geometric designs of one kind or another, but this is not at all the case for, on the contrary, this style is very rigorous and original, whatever may be the techniques by which it is manifested, and aside from the variety of its modes. It is in fact an essentially feminine art, as far as the artists are concerned; the art of the men is above all figurative—except for the feathered sun—and is used to decorate the teepees and the blankets, and sometimes the shields and the garments. I shall add that there are two poles in all traditional art: the symbolic content due to the immanent intellect, and the stylization due to the racial soul.
What we said about the Plains Indian’s vestimentary art applies in substance to all traditional garb possessing, either directly or indirectly, a sacerdotal character although the spiritual points of emphasis can be different; this is obvious, and has already been alluded to.      
The forms manifesting an ethnic genius, hence those that are more or less “revealed,” are always greater than the median level of those who express it. When we speak of the spiritual meanings of specific elements in traditional art—for example the “heroic” and the “sacerdotal” elements or the “active” and “passive” perfections—what we have in mind is the archetypical language of things and not their immediate or outward motivation, assuming that such a motivation exists; for the symbolism expressed by an ethnic genius is de facto mostly unconscious, although it can be reflected in traits of character.
One has to keep clearly in mind the following: the marvels of the basilicas and the cathedrals, of the iconostases and the altar pieces, as well as the splendors of the Tibeto-Mongol and Japanese art or, prior to it, those of Hindu art, not forgetting the summits of the corresponding literatures—all this did not exist in the primitive epochs of these various traditions, epochs which were precisely the “golden ages” of these spiritual universes. Thus it appears that the marvels of traditional culture are like the swan songs of the celestial messages; in other words, to the extent that the message runs the risk of being lost, or is effectively lost, a need is felt—and Heaven itself feels this need—to exteriorize gloriously all that men are no longer capable of perceiving within themselves. Thenceforth it is outward things that have to remind men where their center lies; it is true that this is in principle the role of virgin nature, but in fact its language is only grasped where it assumes traditionally the function of a sanctuary. Moreover, the two perspectives—sacred art and virgin nature—are not mutually exclusive, as is shown notably by Zen Buddhism; this proves that neither can altogether replace the other.

One would like for this lower world to be as a living museum in which peoples would display nothing but their beautiful aspects—Bali comes to mind, in passing—but then it would already be the heavenly world. And yet it is a kind of realism as well as nobleness to dwell less on the consideration of accidents than on that of archetypal values; this is certainly not to dream, quite on the contrary.



Islands of bliss and everlasting youth,
Floating like flowers on an endless sea
And never touched by sorrows of this world:
Such happy islands thou wilt never see.

Behold: what thou hast dreamt of may be real,
It is not elswehere, it is what thou art
If thou rememb’rest God; then thou wilt find
The golden island in thy deepest heart.

1 This is explained in part by the unrealistic and clumsy scission between a religious world and a secular world, the latter never having been integrated normally into the religion, whence the Renaissance on the one hand and the Reformation on the other. The specifically worldly character of male dress subsequently becomes even more accentuated and gives rise, throughout history and in the same way as female dress, to an unbalanced lurching between contrary excesses, ending with the sort of barbarous nothingness that prevails in our own age.
2 Ahadith (Arabic, plural of hadith): sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
3 In Islam all the prophets are represented as wearing turbans, sometimes of differing colors according to the symbolism.
4 When Saint Vincent de Paul designed the headdress of the Sisters of Charity, he intended to impose on their gaze a kind of reminiscence of monastic isolation.
5 Khalwah (Arabic): spiritual retreat.
6 As is proven by history, the sense of the sacred does not exclude ferocity, with the Red Indians any less than with the Zenist Samurai or with our very Christian knights of the Middle Ages.
7 In this respect one may recall that the great Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani was traditionally called “the Great Hawk.”
8 According to the French authors Thévenin and Coze it is “the most majestic headdress ever conceived by the human genius” (Moeurs et Histoire des  Peaux-Rouges). Sometimes the feather bonnet is adorned with the horns of the buffalo, which adds to it a pontifical symbol. The feathered spear—the solar ray—prolongs the headdress in a dynamic and combative mode.
9 Neither did Shintoism have a figurative art before the arrival of Buddhism.
10 Highly significant, in its very exaggeration, was the reaction of a Sioux chief— quoted by Charles Eastman in The Indian Today—on being shown a picture gallery. “So this is the white man’s strange wisdom,” he exclaimed. “He cuts down the forests which have stood in pride and grandeur for centuries, he tears up the breast of our mother the earth, and befouls the streams of clear water; without pity he disfigures the paintings and monuments of God and then bedaubs a surface with color and calls it a masterpiece!” In this connection it must be pointed out that the painting of the Red Indians is a writing, or, to be more precise, a pictography.