An Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Originally published in LA Citybeat September 2006
If you called a Hollywood casting agency and asked for someone to play a senior professor, they might send Dr. Elizabeth Barber: a gray haired woman with bright eyes, quick movements, and a tendency to quote at length from ancient manuscripts. One might imagine her inhabiting dusty libraries and echoing lecture halls, researching and explaining the doings of kings and princes.
Instead, Dr. Barber has devoted her career to the world of more common people, traveling the globe to study textiles and artifacts from the stone age forward. In her book “Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years,” Dr. Barber revealed just how much we can know about clothing and cultures that existed thousands of years go. CityBeat managed to catch her on a day when she wasn’t teaching linguistics at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. and we talked about changes in couture from prehistory to the present day.
Q. In Women’s Work, you mention the world’s first garment, the string skirt. What was it, and how can you know so much about it?
A. We have ‘Venus’ figurines back to the Paleolithic, to 20,000 BC. Most are completely naked, but some of them are wearing this string skirt, like a belt with a long fringe of tassels. It is obviously not useful for either warmth or modesty, so what was it there for? The only conclusion you could come to is that it has to be some social statement. It clearly draws attention to the woman’s genitalia, to the fact that she is a woman.
Homer mentions the skirt in the Iliad, in a scene where Hera seduces Zeus, and when she put on the skirt it meant she was ready to hop into his bed. There are actual examples of this garment from Denmark dating to 1400 BC, always on women of child-bearing age. We know so much about it because it is still in use today – it is worn in Albania, Pakistan, and other areas where folk costumes are in everyday use. The purpose of the string skirt is to indicate that a woman has reached puberty, she has that magic ability to produce another human being.
Q. It’s the uniform of fertility?
A. Yes, and one that has worked for twenty thousand years. Once people started covering their bodies with clothes, it was how you told the difference between a girl and a woman.
Q. Are there items of modern clothing that you see doing the same thing?
A. Look at the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, whose costumes have fringes all around their skirt – it’s the same thing. They shake their hips and those tassels go swish, swish – it draws attention the same way it always has. You see the same thing in the flapper’s outfits, the places they put fringes. It’s clothing that is more sexy than nudity.
Q. So clothing starts as a symbol of fertility, and only later is a symbol of status.
A. The first representation of clothing besides that skirt is the Uruk Vase, about five thousand years old. You see the animals at the bottom, above them the naked farmers in the field, then at the top a procession honoring the harvest goddess Iananna. There is a royal servant, priestess, and a royal person. The servant is dressed in a simple kilt, the priestess in something more elegant, and the royal figure in a garment so elaborate that a servant has to hold the sash. For the first time in history, you see sexual differentiation in clothing, and to wear clothes at all shows that you have status. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, humanity’s oldest literature, when Enkidu comes to the city naked, he puts on clothes for the first time in his life to show that he is civilized.
Q. That’s not fashion by any modern sense of the word…
A. It’s the start, because for the first time clothes were something other than the skin of whatever you killed yesterday, wrapped around you today to keep you warm. It was a statement of who you were and where you fit in.
Q. Then we go for a long time with clothes identifying your culture, but not saying much about your own creativity…
A. When someone is wearing what we now know as traditional folk costumes, we can tell an incredible amount about them – what village they come from, marital status, social status, their profession… There was always some leeway for expression, though. Even if your people always used the same symbols in their embroidery or decoration, they might be used with greater or lesser taste or executed with greater skill. When major elements don’t change for hundreds of years, minor details become major.
Q. When did people started wearing something different just because they liked the novelty?
A. It’s hard to say, but it was within the last millennium. Certainly by the Thirteenth or Fourteenth century it became possible to date a painting within ten years by what fashionable fabrics people are wearing. Even when the cut of the clothes didn’t change, the fabrics and decoration did. Sometimes fashions were an indicator of politics, with those who favored a Spanish alliance wearing clothes with a Spanish cut, and those who preferred the French wearing the Paris styles.
Q. Are you saying that for over nineteen twentieths of human history, there was no fashion, no vanity expressed by clothing, no creativity?
A. Clothing itself is a relatively recent idea, only really widespread during the last four thousand years. Until you get an urban stratification of society, a world of haves and have nots, it really didn’t matter.
Q. You mentioned warmth and modesty as reasons to wear clothes…
A. Warmth is universal, but modesty is culturally determined and has taken some strange forms over the years. In China, if a woman was caught without any clothes on, she was expected to throw something over her feet, rather than her breasts or pubic area. It was considered the greatest shame to have someone see her feet. Other cultures developed other taboos, which we might find just as outlandish.
Q. So these irrational taboos and fetishes are why we cover what we cover, even now?
A. Yes, and we still have symbolism of class and culture in our modern garments. You know why men’s shirts and women’s blouses button from opposite sides? It’s because women were expected to have servants to dress them, and the buttonholes were placed for the convenience of the dressers, not the wearers. Another thing we wear is trousers, which were developed entirely because riding a horse while naked or wearing a robe is too uncomfortable. The horsemen of Central Asia developed pants mainly to prevent chafing.
Q. Has there ever been any culture with much as much freedom from conformity as we have now?
A. Look at old pictures of Apache Indians – they had a great diversity of clothing, wearing traditional garments alongside things they picked up from the Spanish and the whites, and they did it with style. What I really loved was their use of face paint – there were very few rules. A widow might wear a particular pattern of paint to show her status, but an unmarried man who was in love with the widow could show his love by copying her face paint. Their chief Geronimo had a particular pattern of face paint, and once his wife laughed at him because he put it on wrong, with one too many stripes. People were free to wear whatever they wanted, and they showed a lot of creativity.
Q. Beside that culture, any others that are really interesting?
A. This is one of the things I love about Southern California, that you can wear anything anywhere. When people can dress any way they want, you can’t tell very much about their class or wealth, and maybe you can tell a bit about their personal tastes. I have always worn just what I liked, and if it was fashionable, that was a happy accident.