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Vice Versa Exhibition Tour: Part 1

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We may be closed, but that won’t stop our Curator of Fashion and Textiles, Charlotte McReynolds from hosting her monthly #FashionFriday tour of our Vice Versa exhibition - online! Last month, Charlotte gave a ‘behind the scenes’ Twitter Tour of her highlights from the exhibition and insights into the collection. In case you missed it, give it a read below.

Friday 10 April

Hi everyone and thank you for joining me on this tour of our fabulous fashion gallery! The museum is closed right now, but even though I can’t show you around the gallery itself, I can still give you a little bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Vice Versa fashion exhibition here on Twitter.

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My phone is jam packed with snapshots I took of outfits that made it into the exhibition prior its opening which I’m happy to share with you all. A disclaimer, however: please, don’t mistake my amateur phone photos for National Museum NI’s idea of good photography! They are simply a reflection of what caught my eye as a curator.

Object 1: The golden gauntlets

I was so excited when I first saw these wrapped in tissue in our stores. They are pretty spectacular, and they help get across one of the key themes of the Vice Versa fashion exhibition – that for centuries men’s fashion aspired to be every little bit as gorgeous as womenswear, even down to accessories.

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These gauntlets date from the late 17th century, making them some of the oldest objects in the fashion collection, and despite their large size, they have nothing to do with keeping your hands warm or protecting your skin. These gauntlets are made of the softest doeskin and are lined with delicate yellow silk. You’ll notice the braided metallic fringing around the cuffs and the sequin decoration on the tops of the gloves is tarnished and dark. That’s because both are made of genuine gold and silver, and any attempts to polish it to its original glittering glory would seriously risk damaging the surrounding fabric.

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To get a better sense of how such gauntlets would have been worn, and the type of person who would have worn them, have a good look at this portrait from our collection by John Michael Wright of Robert King, the 2nd Baron Kingston, painted around 1676. He is wearing one gauntlet very similar to our doeskin pair, and is holding, rather than wearing, the other one, displaying it prominently for the viewer. Clearly, the gauntlets were made to be shown off.

Image: Robert King, 2nd Baron Kingston 1657-93 (c.1676) John Michael Wright the Elder 1617-1694. BELUM.U216
Robert King, 2nd Baron Kingston 1657-93 (c.1676) John Michael Wright the Elder 1617-1694. BELUM.U216

Object 2: The Banyan

The banyan, also called an ‘at-home robe’, is one of the very earliest pieces in the fashion collection. This damask silk men’s dressing gown dates from between 1690 to the 1720s. Despite its age, the silk is in near perfect condition. The fabric would have travelled across the world from China, via India, before being constructed by a tailor in Europe into a sort of ‘T’ shape, inspired by traditional Eastern garments.

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Something that I adored about this garment the first time I unpacked it was the lively, curling foliage woven into the fabric. Europeans called these exotic patterned fabrics ‘bizarre’ silks. If you think this fabric resembles something you’d see on a sofa – you’d be right! In the 18th century, wealthy Europeans were so taken with Chinese ‘bizarre’ silk imports that it became as fashionable to upholster your house with as it was to wear it.

I have a photo here of the backside of the banyan – you can see how deeply pleated the fold down the centre back is. It would have been a lovely, loose and comfortable thing to wear around the home, and it was particularly favoured by gentlemen who fancied themselves very learned or literary.

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There was a popular idea in the late 17th and early 18th centuries loose clothing, in contrast to the stuffy outfits worn outdoors, encouraged the free flow of thoughts and ideas! For this reason, many elite gentlemen chose to have their portraits painted wearing the banyan – as in this portrait by Johan van Haensbergen from our collection.

Image: Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1690) Johan van Haensbergen 1642-1705. BELUM.U53
Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1690) Johan van Haensbergen 1642-1705. BELUM.U53

Object 3: The Longpao

Where to start with this magnificent robe. There is so much about it that is unique and fascinating. I’ll start with why it was chosen for the exhibition.

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This is a Long Pao robe and it dates from late 19th century Chinese Qing dynasty. It was displayed alongside the European banyan, to show both how Western fashions have been influenced by the East, and that European fashion’s ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ garments aren’t universal.

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This longpao was made for a woman, but her male counterpart would have worn an almost identical robe. The only difference would have been that the male version would have had a slit towards the bottom at the centre front and back, which you can see this robe does not have. This was so that he could horse ride wearing the robe.

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The robe just by itself has so much to tell us as an object, and so much to admire as a thing of beauty. It is of soft brown silk satin, indicating it would have been worn in spring or summer. Laid flat on a table you can get a sense of the incredible hand stitched embroidery that decorates both the front and back. Not only is the embroidery on this robe exquisite, it is rich with symbolism. The embroidery near the bottom of the robe depicts mountains of sea, clouds and waves. Seen here are also lotus flowers, symbolising purity, and several little pink bats, representing happiness. The robe also features nine swirling five-clawed dragons, including a secret ‘hidden dragon’ concealed beneath the front fold. This indicates that the robe belonged to a high-ranking member of the imperial court. The dragons symbolise transformation and adaptability.

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It’s believed that this magnificent robe was gifted by the last Dowager Empress of China, Empress Cixi, to a Dr Andrew Irwin at the end of the 19th century as a thank you for his medical services. Dr Irwin was born in Co. Galway, and gained an impressive reputation at the in Tientsin as an excellent physician, becoming personal doctor to the famed diplomat Li Hongzhang and his wife. In 1976 it was generously donated to the Ulster Museum by a friend of one of Dr Iwin’s descendents.

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That’s all from me for this #FashionFriday tour. Thank you for joining me for a closer look at my highlights from our Vice Versa exhibition. I hope you enjoyed learning more about the collection and I look forward to taking you on another Twitter Tour on 8 May at 2pm. Until then, stay safe and well.