- Arctic Clothing
Arctic Clothing is a collection of papers that were first presented at the 'Arctic Clothing of North America – Alaska, Canada, Greenland' conference at the British Museum in 2001. An eclectic compilation of approaches and viewpoints, it nonetheless provides insight into the technical, spiritual, semiotic, and aesthetic functions of clothing across Arctic North America and Greenland. In addition to a preface and introduction by Jonathan King and keynote address by Veronica Dewar, it contains twenty-five papers by native and non-native anthropologists, historians, curators, artists, and seamstresses.
Divided into five parts – 'Personal Narratives,' 'Materials,' 'Styles and Techniques,' 'Change and Responses to Outside Influences,' and 'Clothing and Art' – the book can be read randomly (each individual essay stands alone), by section, or cover to cover. The papers (perhaps as a result of their origin as conference presentations) are concise and pack much information into agreeably legible texts. Whether the result of the conference or of the skilful handling of the editors, the movement from personal accounts, to academic research, and technical papers is thought provoking, and the multitude of voices is well balanced.
One of the strengths of the book is in the number of papers by Aboriginal authors, confirming that there is no substitute for understanding achieved through personal experience. That women passed on their knowledge of clothing from generation to generation is well known, but through Jana Harcharek's eloquent account we receive both an idea of how this tradition worked in practice and the degree to which this knowledge was received as a profound gift. At the same time, the value of anthropological and historical approaches is made evident in papers such as Ann Fienup-Riordan's discussion of Yu'pik grass clothing, a detailed and original study that also illustrates the benefit of close collaboration between anthropologists and community elders.
Chronologically, the book considers a range from the traditional to contemporary aspects of clothing production. Karen Pedersen and Leah Aksaajuq Otak provide comprehensive, first-hand descriptions of traditional skin preparation and sewing for seal and caribou (respectively), while Glenna C. Kiana Maulding shows her flare for invigorating designs with flamboyant, unconventional materials such as velvet, gold rickrack, and rare Black wolf fur. The section 'Change and Responses to Outside Influences' is among the most pertinent because the papers, although focusing largely on Greenland, make the larger point that while clothing traditions and styles are susceptible to outside influence, this adds to rather than denies their cultural significance. [End Page 208]
As is the case with most conference proceedings, omissions inevitably occur. Relative to the other sections, that dealing with clothing and art seems to lack diversity and depth. Given the large number of Canadian, Alaskan, and Greenlandic artists, the absence of commentary by a contemporary visual artist appears odd, particularly when one also considers the majority of women artists for whom clothing is a focus. Music, dance, theatre, and video are other areas where exploration would reveal a wealth of insight into the relationship between artistic expression and clothing.
Publications of conference papers are most often dry volumes of specific interest to the participants and those engrossed in the topic. In Arctic Clothing, however, the British Museum has produced a richly illustrated and informative book, making valuable research and knowledge accessible to a broader audience. This is a book that answers many questions.