Embroidery Exhibition Unpicks the Ornate Stitch
With Haute Bordure, the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden (NL) celebrates the richness of four centuries of needlework and craft in the Netherlands.
Stockings, bags, nightgowns, baptismal caps, wedding dresses, and royal gowns: embroidery has been used for the decoration of textiles and clothing for centuries. In Haute Bordure – a wordplay on haute couture with ‘bordure’ referring to the Dutch word for embroidery work – curator Eveline Holsappel and junior curator Anne-Marie Segeren aim to show that there is more to embroidery than its decorative value. It is the first major exhibition in a Dutch museum to focus on the specific topic of needlework in fashion. The exhibition interweaves the past and the present, hosting over 150 unique, embroidered garments, shoes, and accessories for men, women, and children. With such a wide variety of objects on display, the exhibition is not only an interesting visit for the needlework enthusiast.
The showcased objects represent over 400 years of needlework in Dutch fashion and costume. The Fries Museum’s own collection of embroidery work and embroidered garments formed the starting point for the exhibition, complemented with historical and contemporary loans from other Dutch museums, institutions, and private collections. The display is characterised by the combination of high fashion, royal gowns, and objects of material culture such as handmade, anonymous garments, textiles, and small accessories. Amongst wonderful examples of traditional regional costume and beautifully conserved dresses from the 19th century, the museum presents garments from couturiers such as Viktor & Rolf, Jan Taminiau and Karim Adduchi, a denim jacket by Gucci worn by the popular Dutch musician Ronnie Flex in 2017, and the richly embellished frocks worn by the former queens of the Netherlands and Her Majesty Queen Máxima. With distinct themes divided into the sections of luxury, technique, identity, white, and fashion, the exhibition sets out the overall narrative of embroidery work and its centuries-long significance in fashion: from a conspicuous product to a means of distinguishing oneself.
Upon entering the exhibition space, one immediately faces the splendour of needlework in the section dedicated to luxury which displays garments from the 17th to the 21st century. Goldwork, pearls and intricate beadwork; embroidered clothing is an excellent way to show off and flaunt your wealth, especially combined with luxury materials. With embroidery generally being considered a female affair, it is interesting to see how the exhibition explores embroidery in male fashion. Not only was a lot of the delicate work in the 17th and 18th century done by male professionals but many of these embroidered pieces, such as the floral decorated silk waistcoats or a full three-piece habit à la francaise (male suit), were worn by men too.
As one would expect in an exhibition on needlework, a dedicated section focuses on embroidery techniques. From simple cross-stitching to intricate Marseilles quilting, this exhibition space addresses the wide variety of materials and stitches in embroidery work. Compared to the other exhibition spaces, the technique displays are more subdued. They centralise a particular stitch or technique each and feature smaller objects such as bags, stockings, and house caps, as well as embroidery equipment, such as scissors, bodkins, measuring tape, and needle cases. Short videos in which professional needleworker Majo van der Woude demonstrates these techniques enrich the object displays while emphasising the time-consuming and labour-intense aspects of embroidering.
The narrative of using embroidery as a means of personalisation and differentiation is present throughout the entire exhibition. It is particularly compelling in the identity section of the exhibition, which explores the personal and social significance of embroidery through the distinct stories of the objects themselves. The floral embroidery on rijglijfjes (corset-resembling bodices) in the traditional costume from Marken, for instance, narrates significant life events, with white stitching for everyday wear, red threads to indicate mourning, and a seven-rose-pattern reserved for the wedding day. Other objects include a customisable Gucci jacket, colourful blouses crafted from flour bags during the Second World War, a noblemen’s uniform jacket from the mid-19th century on which the embroidery represents their Frisian identity, and a sari, passed down to a second-generation Indian immigrant. The particular narratives behind these garments unravel the deeper personal and cultural meaning of embroidery beyond the decorative surface.
A strong feature in this exhibition is the use of large scale panels, positioned next to pieces that present a high definition and zoomed-in shot of the embroidery work. Since getting a close look at the objects is not possible due to the distance of the display, details – such as embroidery – easily get lost. Their visibility is not aided either by the dim-lit atmosphere of the exhibition, which is a customary tool to preserve and protect sensitive textiles, but is inconvenient when trying to view and present the objects in detail. The high-resolution images truly function as magnifying glass: they steer the eyes to the exquisite details of the craftsmanship and show more detail than one would be able to see with bare eyes.
The timing of an exhibition such as Haute Bordure could not be more apt, as the pandemic instigated a surge in crafting and needlework activities alongside costume drama productions such as Netflix’ Bridgerton (2020) have brought renewed attention to embroidery and needlework in general. By merging material culture and high fashion through the narrative of a centuries-old decorative needlework technique, the exhibition highlights the social and cultural significance of embroidery as not only means of adornment but a means of communication, personalisation, and expression of affluence and identity too.
Feeling crafty? The museum has published embroidery instructions based on the exhibited pieces to try out for yourself.
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