Rare Books


Celebrating an aspect of material culture for which Asian societies have long been renowned: cloth and the articles made from it.

'Seersuckers, baftas, hummums, cossaes, four-thread weaves, common bazeens, gazas, Permacody cottons, Yanaon guineas, conjoos...'

(Part of a French memorandum on textiles available from India in the middle of the eighteenth century.)

From China, too, fabrics ranging from workaday nankeens to embroidered silks were at that time being eagerly sought for the European market. Not only the fabrics but the fashions of Asia also eventually made their mark in Europe: shawls, pyjamas, the turn of a hat brim here, the cut of a sleeve there, variously showed Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese influence.

By the late twentieth century such influences had almost ceased to be exotic. If jeans and T-shirts had become standard wear in the great cities of Asia, items of clothing such batik shirts and sarongs, Japanese high fashion and Chinese cheungsams had become familiar in the West.

Printed commentaries on cloth and clothing have flourished alongside the manufacture of an international trade in the items themselves. The books in this exhibition show some of the ways in which clothing and textile cultures have been - and continue to be - documented.

The increasing sophistication of mass printing technology in recent decades has meant that books about textiles and clothing have become ever more elaborate, sometimes rivalling in beauty the products they record.

This exhibition includes a few splendid examples of such pictorial works: photographs of traditional Indonesian textiles, Japanese woodblock prints and portraits of Chinese emperors all serve in their different ways to illustrate the textile arts and technology of different societies of Asia. Works of much earlier date are also on display, ranging from a 1738 English translation of Louis le Comte's Nouveaux mémoires sur l'état présent de la Chine, first published in 1696, to an 1815 French translation of William Alexander's The Costume of China, first published in 1799.

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