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93 THE MOLA AS WORN A Visual Assessment T this chapter looks at how the mola appears when it is worn as part of the Kuna woman’s dress ensemble. I carried out a visual analysis based on a close examination of molas in museum collections and in photographs of Kuna women wearing molas over the same time period. The Kuna mola is considered part of a dress ensemble in which the components have evolved over the last one hundred years while still reflecting Kuna aesthetics and fashion trends. Molas from six museums form the reference collection for this research. The establishment of the reference collection is outlined in appendix B. This chapter leads to the second part of this book, which considers the raison d’être for the mola. Why has it persisted as a component of dress, sewn and worn by Kuna women? objective of visual analysis In order to interpret the dress of Kuna women from a cultural perspective, it is important to view the complete dress ensemble as it is worn, so that one can appreciate the detailed arrangement of components as well as how these components relate to the body. My visual analysis relied on the availability of good-quality photographs to compare to Kuna molas in museum collections. Contemporaneous photographs showing the complete dress ensemble of the Kuna women were sourced from scholarly and nonscholarly journals, documentaries, books and museum archives, as well as photographs I took on a trip to Panama in 2010. Photographs of non-Western dress were taken as part of their professional lives by ethnographers, missionaries, colonial employees, and, in later years, documentary filmmakers. While noting that “photographs and film footage seem obvious sources for dress history research,” Taylor expresses concern about manipulated and staged images, which is of relevance when evaluating images of Kuna Indians.1 Photographs taken in the early years of the twentieth century generally appear to be posed and formal in composition, though the dress worn by Kuna Indian women, men, and children is confirmed by the consistency of dress shown in images sourced from different archives and taken by a number of different photographers. The mola blouse is the most recognized component of the Kuna women’s dress. Viewed in a museum archive, on a flat surface, the geometry of the rectilinear construction of the chapter three 94 Introduction Chapter Three blouse contributes to a perception of two-dimensionality, and it is difficult to envisage the garment being worn without consulting photographs, especially the early blouses, which have very small, flat sleeves. Older molas, with flat sleeves or puffed sleeves, can only be viewed in one position. Conversely, mola blouses with large, voluminous sleeves, which became popular from the 1980s on, are more difficult to assess in a museum, since the sleeve fabric must be manipulated into a position to easily understand the way the sleeves fall. Sleeves increased in size again during the 1990s and post-2000, and the fabric became more flowing. It drapes well when worn but is difficult to place into position on a flat surface, especially, for example, to photograph in a museum archive. The exhibition display of molas in museums tends to be on a flat surface, either horizontal in a cabinet or vertical on a wall. Molas displayed on museum mannequins would give a more realistic idea of the blouse as worn. Museum artifact collections and photographic collections, where in existence, are frequently stored in separate locations, requiring considerable research to source the images referred to in this chapter. It is important to establish the body shape of the Kuna Indians , because it is not immediately apparent from photographs. The Kuna Indians are short of stature. Harris, a geneticist who studied the incidence of albinism in the San Blas Kuna, found that the average Kuna woman measured 140.4 centimeters (4 feet 7 inches) and the average Kuna adult man measured 149.9 centimeters (4 feet 11 inches).2 The torsos of Kuna women appear bulky in relation to their height. There is no evidence in the photographs that the shape of Kuna women has changed over time. For example, their shape is most likely unrelated to the impact of Western food on their diet. photogr aphic record reveals mola evolution The earliest photographs found clearly showing Kuna women wearing a dress ensemble are in a scholarly anthropological article from 1911 and show the distinctive arrangement of their dress (see fig. 3.1).3 The first colored photographs...


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