Regional differences, socio-economic and political factors, cultural variations, and climate all had a direct effect on clothing choices for those who lived throughout the expansive Silk Roads areas. Scholars, aristocrats, government officials, craftsmen, and farmers adopted a manner of dress appropriate for their immediate environment in medieval Central Asia. Although sparse, historical information regarding dress in the Eastern Islamic lands was usually provided by writers, geographers, and travelers. Differences in the style, finish, and quantity of materials were apparent in clothing of the rich and poor. During this time, Khurasan was a renowned center for silk, wool, and cotton textiles, while Nishapur was noted for its cotton cloth, scarves, and turbans that were often exported to Iraq and Egypt. In some societies, felt was used to make cloaks, saddlecloths, and rain hats. Moreover, the fur of sables, grey squirrels, ermines, and other animals were essential materials for garments, for the Mongols, the Turks of the steppes, as well as dignitaries in Persia. Similar to present day, Mongols in the 13th century wore a soft material belt wrapped tightly around the waist. This served as an unstiffened corset, helping to maintain posture while horse riding during long journeys.
The oldest piece of silk from this region originated in the Samanid period, and was woven for a ruler in Khurasan. The transnational fluidity of ideas, concepts, and savoir-faire is evident with the presentation of articles from Khurasan to the Harun al-Rashid (786-809) court in Bagdad. These tribute items included silk clothing, white robes, and head coverings, amongst others. Individuals belonging to a higher social class often wore clothing made of silk, wool, and expensive furs, while those of the lower classes would possibly use heavy outer coats made from dog or goatskins, lined with linen or cotton. Mongol women wore long trousers under their sack-like garments, and tall, basket-like hats covered with a piece of cloth. Married women wore a type of kaftan (“nemreg”) that was wide and slit in front down to the ground. During the ninth century, wealthy merchants often wore the “taylasan” (a head-shawl whose end did not fall below the chin). However, the lower classes did not wear this garment. Cooks wore garments resembling boiler suits, traders and artisans wore loose-fitting garments, and farmers wore thick cotton dresses with colorful turbans. “Muhtasibs” (municipal inspectors) monitored the state and cleanliness of dress. Most towns had their textile specialties, such as “mulham”, the half-silk cloth of Merv. Bukhara, with its famed weaving factories, produced various kinds of silk cloth, known as “Bukhari”. This fabric was heavy, strong, and often bought in large quantities by international communities.
Cloth-making required specific skills, such as the ability to process the hides, manufacture thread, and a knowledge of stitching techniques. Products obtained from livestock remained the primary raw material of the craft industries. Sheep’s wool was used to manufacture felt, while belts, harnesses, headgear, clothing, and footwear were made from the skins of domesticated livestock. In nomadic societies, herders generally only made items that met immediate requirements related to climate, lifestyle, and transience, such as “bogtogs”, or headdresses. Although successors of Genghis Khan wore gold-woven robes, sometimes embellished with precious jewels, pearls, and gold, previous dress had consisted mainly of animal skins. Sack-like garments that were loose on the left side, and tied at the shoulder on the right side, were common. The “deli”, a robe with seamless shoulders, is an example. Although the concept remains the same, “delis”, as well as many other garments from the Silk Roads that date from the 10th to 13th centuries, have continued to evolve and gain complexity, while maintaining their unique characteristics.
Although intercultural exchanges involving tea developed between European ports, such as those in Portugal, and the Far East from 16th century onwards, tea-drinking is believed to have it origins rooted in southern Asia, dating to the Han period. It was first used as a medicinal elixir concocted from untreated green leaves. However, by the T’ang period, tea was enjoyed as a refreshing beverage, prepared from leaves that had been moistened and formed into a dense mold. Anecdotes dating to the 8th century reveal how the city of Chang-an had a flourishing number of tea shops, and many touted the health benefits of tea rather than wine.
These intercultural exchanges were the direct result of the expansive network of maritime and land routes that explorers, missionaries, physicians actively travelled across. By embarking on such journeys, they were also able to transmit elements of Western culture to the Far East, which were later transformed and reconceptualized by those regions, according to their specific aesthetic preferences. As a result of this transnational fluidity between diverse regions and populations along the Silk Roads, significant sociocultural imprints and innovative developments related to tea consumption eventually appeared in the West. Such activity permitted the free flow of ideas, goods, and concepts – the effects of which are still experienced internationally throughout contemporary society.
Dynamic exchanges and sociocultural developments concerning tea were often closely associated with everyday life, daily rituals, spirituality, and community. In some cases, consuming tea was even associated with the Taoist notions involving extraordinary psychic-spiritual and physical effects. Therefore, tea soon made an entrance into creative spheres, including poetry and literature. As a result, its popularity quickly rose throughout the Far East, with poets and artists writing about the pleasures of tea, tea customs, and traditions.
Thus, an aesthetic culture developed around tea-drinking, and achieved a considerable amount of notoriety, especially in medieval Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Artists such as Murata Shuko, Takeno Joo, and Sen Rikyu developed a particular approach that was characterized by the term “wabi”, or frugality. The art of the “wabi” tea ceremony, or “chado” (“the way of tea”), was borne out of a synthesis of various Japanese aesthetic and religious traditions. Over time, it continued to exert its influence on intercultural dialogue and exchanges. The art of tea was not only passed down through generations, but it was diffused to the West and across various continents. The powerful sociocultural elements embedded in tea were due to its ability to develop and solidify community bonds.
Tea was first exported from Macau through Malacca. It then passed from Manila to the Indian sub-continent before reaching the West. Cultures and regions around the world have continued to adapt the ubiquitous product according to their own societal norms. Similar to that of the Chinese culture, tea is often associated with pre-engagement rituals between a future bride and groom. The British and Dutch also incorporated the beverage into their lifestyles, where it developed connotations linked to hospitality, mutual understanding, local tradition, and community. Bento de Gois, Italian missionary, Sabatino de Ursis, and Italian cartographer, Matteo Ricci are examples of individuals during the 16th and 17th centuries who actively explored unknown regions in the Far East in order to gather knowledge, understanding, and appreciation. Their experiences abroad were later transmitted and incorporated into elements of western society and traditions.
Moreover, in the Portuguese language, “cha” is derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the word, while “tha” and “tea” are derivatives of the Fukinese dialect. The transcendent power of tea as a beverage and renowned universal concept, is visibly translated in old teas salons on Rua Nova de El-Rei (also known as Avenida do Cinco de Outubro), as well as houses typical to Macau. These tea salons referenced Mediterranean urban structures, built around squares and cobblestoned streets, and were reminiscent of European cities. Thus, the transmission of tea to other regions of the world was possible due to the cultural significance it carried, both as a product and a concept. Positive connotations associated with tea and its benefits still exist in contemporary society, due to the active exchange of ideas, concepts, and goods along the Silk Roads, and beyond.
The active exchange of goods, ideas, and expertise has played a significant role in the evolution of sericulture, or silk production, along the Silk Roads. This is reflected in distinctive artistic styles and craftsmanship that has continued to spread throughout various regions. The textile was so valued, it is said that by the 4th century BC, Greeks and Romans began referring to parts of the Far East as the land of “Seres”, or silk. Moreover, sericulture techniques were heavily guarded and controlled by authorities. Silk was considered a precious textile that was reserved for the aristocracy, and its use was emblematic of authority and power. The textile was preferred by royal families, and its weavers enjoyed an elevated social status comparable to that of painters or sculptors. During the Han and Tang dynasties, the absolute value of silk increased, as well as its production. Due to its versatility and popularity, silk gradually became identified with general use. Clothing made of silk is characteristically lightweight and ethereal, providing warmth in cool temperatures, and relief in hotter temperatures. Not only was it used for clothing production and decoration in the Far East, but it also assumed cultural significance in the economy as a highly sought, valuable commodity.
During silk production, silk threads are woven into textile cloth or used for embroidery work. Literary sources such as The Book of History and The Book of Rites detail aspects of sericulture. Reeling silk and spinning were household duties attributed to women, while weaving and embroidery were often conducted in workshops. In silk-producing provinces, the intergenerational aspect was apparent. Women devoted a large portion of the year to care of the silkworms, as well as to the unraveling, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and embroidery of the silk. Initially, production of both silk twine and silk cloth could be attributed solely to those in the Far East.
However, around 300 CE, the production of silk twine appeared in regions as far west as the Roman province of Syria, created during the Roman Empire (27 BC – 393 CE). It was here that the Sasanian, Shapur II (310-379 CE), established the most influential silk-weaving industry. From 224-651 CE, the Sasanians exerted significant influence in the world, and their expansion caused considerable conflict in Rome. The Sasanian region was an expansive area, recognized for its expert weavers, especially in cities such as Susa, which is located in modern Iran. Sasanian silks were then exported to both the East and West, by way of maritime and terrestrial routes. Those textiles originating in the Far East and Indian sub-continent, where silk-producing centers also appeared, inspired their designs. These designs were then incorporated into local textile patterns according to aesthetic preferences. Conversely, weavers originating from the Far East borrowed Sasanian motifs, thus transforming and recontextualizing the designs into their own culture.
Weavers from Byzantium, who considered themselves inheritors of the ancient Roman Empire, exhibited a similar trend. These Byzantine weavers generally hailed from cities such as Constantinople and Antioch. Two main types of silk weaving patterns were produced. The first was based on hunting or battle scenes, while the latter was comprised of a series of circles enveloping birds and other small animals. A Byzantine silk fragment from the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (742-814), incorporates both of these graphic designs. The burgeoning Byzantine textile industry subsequently led to the spread of silk weaving even further west. Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154) introduced silk weavers from Constantinople to Palermo in the 12th century.
As a result of this act, the Italian silk industry was borne, and still exists. Moreover, during Pax Mongolia, silk textiles emanating from the Far East were ubiquitous throughout the region now known as Italy. This was apparent with the juxtaposition and visible translation of Italian designs with Far Eastern influences onto luxurious textiles. The resultant patterns encapsulated a greater degree of fluidity and boldness. In addition, the appearance of heraldic animals typical of the Sasanian style decreased, while flourishing arabesque ornamentation and scrawling vegetation were adapted from Far Eastern designs.
Moreover, the UNESCO World Heritage site, La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) in Valencia, Spain, built from 1482-1522, assumed a pronounced role in the evolution of sericulture. Emblematic of the power and wealth associated with the Mediterranean mercantile city in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was originally used for trading in silk, and renowned as a center of commerce. In contemporary society, the production of silk worldwide has steadily increased, especially in the Far East, despite the manufacture of synthetic textiles that are able to substitute its use. Regional variations of silk weaving exist, but the transmission of savoir-faire, knowledge, and expertise from one generation to the next allow these techniques to be disseminated throughout local and international communities along the Silk Roads, even today.
I met Russian artist Oleg Sheludyakov (b. 1971) while we were both living in Berlin, Germany several years ago. His gentle, unassuming nature complemented the intensity of his gaze, revealing a highly intuitive, introspective individual whose visual language matches his intellectualism. As a friend and avid supporter, I have followed his artistic journey and continue to remain inspired by his ability to evolve. The artist currently resides in Marseille, France. His work was recently part of the Yellow Butterfly Effect exhibition in his Siberian hometown of Novosibirsk, Russia.
I asked Sheludyakov to describe when he decided to embark on this particular journey, and it would seem that he was always destined to become a professional painter. In 1977 his parents enrolled him in Kaleidoscope Fine Art School for children. He recounted with nostalgia being completely enchanted by the ambiance of the atelier with its fresh smell of paint, life-like plaster models, magical paint brushes, colorful palettes, and a profusion of art history books – a veritable Paradise on Earth. It was during these formative years that Sheludyakov decided to embark on a non-traditional professional path.
The artist’s trajectory has been susceptible to frequent oscillations and shifts in forward momentum. However, it has never diverged far from its intended course. At the age of 17, he began his studies in architecture at the Novosibirsk Engineering Institute and later graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Humanities from Novosibirsk State University in 1995. He then studied monumental painting at Novosibirsk Fine Arts and Architectural Academy and drawing at the Fine Arts Academy in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Sheludyakov’s paintings clearly reflect his Russian sensibilities lightly dusted with French influences – a charming combination which reinforces the enigmatic nature of his work and clearly distinguishes him from other contemporary artists. Over the years, the prolific painter has capitalized on a vast artistic repertoire and solid work ethic. His work is deeply personal, reflecting profound intellectual and artistic growth.
The artist’s signature work reflects a very specific iconography and complex visual lexicon, with extensive references to his native Russia. He has masterfully implemented particular subjects, images, and applied techniques which faithfully appear as leitmotif. The nu féminin (female nudes), seaside and urban landscapes, nautical themes, music, animals and a profusion of cobalt blue throughout are primary examples.
With half of his international clientele preferring the nu féminin, Sheludyakov’s work is constantly evolving and reflects a deep appreciation of the female form. This fact intrigued me, and I was interested in the specific demographics of those who purchase his nu féminin. External variables such as age, nationality, and profession vary widely – from students to investment bankers. Sensitive to feminine beauty, Russians tend to be the most frequent buyers, followed by Germans, French, and Americans, who often purchase his most expensive works.
Subject, style, color palette, and technique afford a clear, visible translation of human emotion and themes. The vast spectrum may range from pure, gentle and harmonious to somber, expressive, and frenetic. With a large percentage of his work explicitly devoted to the creation of the nu féminin, I was curious as to origins of this admiration. His response was both philosophical and poetic. The artist believes very few things rival the ethereal beauty of this particular genre. He is careful to define beauty within the realm of abstract or conceptual theories. By respecting the boundaries between intangibility and physicality during the creative process, Sheludyakov is able to explore the origins of beauty, grace, femininity, elegance, harmony, and sensuality without restraint. The question remains as to how Sheludyakov chooses his models. Selection of nude models is surprisingly uncomplicated — acquaintances, friends, or family members, for example. It is simply a matter of identifying specific traits unique to each individual, and then accurately translating those traits into a cohesive image.
Sheludyakov only has one exception: professional models. Through experience, their body has become a logical, physical tool which remains distinctly detached from their authentic self. This ultimately limits emotional emancipation and decreases the possibility of unveiling the true, feminine essence. Although this degree of professionalism is highly admirable, the artist prefers the innocence of amateur models. Sheludyakov is known to be a prolific painter, so I asked about the duration of the entire process. He stated that creative processes vary from beginning to end. For example, the technical aspects of creating a nu féminin are somewhat similar to that of painting landscapes or producing images from the imagination.
However, the existential journey inherent to the production of a nu féminin is unrivalled due to lasting emotional bonds between subject and painter; painter and canvas. Commissioning live models facilitates the creative process by guiding line, form, and volume. It is important to remain vigilant so as to avoid producing flat, naturalistic work. Thus, understanding the difference between the physicality of form and a more profound, metaphysical side is essential.
The same holds true for landscapes. The immediate perception of colors, interpretation, and subsequent translation of experiences is more powerful during the plein-air painting process. Sheludyakov attempts to expedite the entire process in order to retain a certain freshness and spontaneity. For acrylic works, three to four days is sufficient. However, oil paintings require more finesse, averaging approximately ten days.
Once the paintings are finished, Sheludyakov lovingly releases them to the public with an open heart. When asked to define an exceptional painting, in general, the artist confidently stated that a true chef-d’oeuvre is the antithesis of indifference because it evokes admiration and encourages reflection. This type of work reaches deep emotional depths of the spectator and ultimately has the power to inspire others.
I recently obtained my third Master of Arts degree in Global Communications from the American University of Paris, and I have conducted extensive doctoral research about the effects of globalization on the Opéra national de Paris, so I was curious as to how the current international climate has personally affected Sheludyakov. It is evident that the globalized economy has transformed the art market, artists, and artistic production.
The notion of evolution is a salient topic which artists cannot ignore. Remaining in an isolated sphere is no longer a viable option or lucrative alternative. Sheludyakov is clearly aware of this paradigm shift in contemporary society and adopts a philosophical approach. Since creativity does not exist in a vacuum, artistic evolution is directly linked to inevitable transformation, active exploration, and ultimate change defined within the context of relevant sociocultural parameters – even if this approach may sometimes lead to an impasse.
Unfortunately, the sale of Sheludyakov paintings has suffered due to globalization and the inevitable democratization of the art market. Throughout the 1990’s until the early 2000’s, there was a strong appreciation for Russian contemporary artists. Since then, interest in Russian art has decreased significantly. In addition, the internet is saturated with artists of every genre, rendering it difficult to clearly differentiate one’s brand. Fortunately, Sheludyakov has maintained a close circle of faithful collectors and gallerists over the years. This is partially due to a resistance to short-term trends, increased online visibility that has been carefully nurtured, and complete confidence in the creative process.
Less is More: The Evolution of my Aesthetic Preferences
Universally accepted socio-cultural codes are inherently cross-generational. They have always existed, whether firmly stated, gently whispered, or clearly implied. Interest in the complex interrelationship between fashion, art, and society began very early and continue to evolve. Although I am from southern California, I have spent a significant amount of time living abroad learning how to adapt – and not assimilate – my own preferences to those of the culture that embraces me.
I am always eager to find a way to merge my interests into a cohesive, external shell that most accurately reflects my authentic self. The iconic Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn have always provided inspiration for me with their natural grace and understated elegance. I tend to agree with the renowned architect, Mies van der Rohe: “Less is More”.
Over the years, I have become more flexible and tastes have been gently transformed without sacrificing my fundamental values. Having lived in a multitude of international cities including Paris, Florence, Berlin, Toronto, and London, I have been fully immersed in other societies, appreciating the subtle nuances of cultural norms, linguistic codes, and acceptable attire while still protecting my core sensibilities. Therefore, I am always eager to find a way to merge those interests into a cohesive, external shell that most accurately reflects my authentic self.
When I am at home in southern California, I am encapsulated in a sunny world of cool, ocean breezes and beautiful, sandy beaches. Therefore, I tend to adopt a minimalistic approach. It is only appropriate that I slip into an airy sundress and sandals. However, working at the Opéra national de Paris – Palais Garnier, and now at Rémy Cointreau on Haussmann Boulevard in Paris, requires a more conservative approach with elements of controlled creativity.
Although I was raised in a family with strong ties to the Armed Forces, I ultimately attended a Quaker boarding school. The complex interrelationship between the individual, socially acceptable dress codes, and attitude were rather dramatic, to say the very least. At home, we fervently adhered to the old adage, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” in all aspects of life. There was no higher compliment than to be referred to as someone who was “neat and tidy”. Even now, I feel most comfortable in clothes that are easy to wear with simple, clean lines and monochromatic colors.
My adopted Quaker environment was diametrically opposed to strict military standards, both in lifestyle and ideology. Fashion was relatively non-existent, but individual expression, creativity, and curiosity were highly laudable traits. At first, I was uncertain about the unabashed enthusiasm that erupted over the mixing of fabrics, textures, colors, and proportions. I found myself questioning the taste and sanity of classmates and professors who seemed to have reached a soothing state of nirvana in their wrinkled trousers, colorful scarves, and comfortable Birkenstocks.
Karl Lagerfeld’s Haute Couture Spring Collection held at the Grand Palais Paris is January 2017 is an accurate reflection of my aesthetic preferences with the feminine silhouettes and cinched-in waists. The luxurious fabrics and embellishments elevate the ensembles. Yet, there is something quite conservative and inherently minimalistic about the heritage collection.
Trends have never peaked my curiosity, but the timelessness and enduring traits of an exceptional product never cease to inspire me. It has been a natural progression that has attracted me to internationally renowned French heritage brands which reflect discreet, understated elegance. Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel are clear examples of brands which value quality, excellence, and craftsmanship while providing effortless style.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Portraits of Marie-Antoinette and Courtly Life
Élisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun still remains a relatively unknown female artist belonging to the Age of Enlightenment despite having achieved many notable successes. Born in 1755 during the reign of Louis XV, Vigée le Brun was raised in a family of artists who introduced her to the world of painting and fine art. She is perhaps most renowned for her portraits of Marie-Antoinette. However, she was never fully celebrated in France until the 21st century when the Grand Palais devoted an entire exhibition to the artist and her work.
Vigée Le Brun’s idealized representations of the Queen offer an innocent, serene, and spiritual interpretation of courtly life while highlighting the essence of royalty. Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour (1778) was the artist’s first official portrait which shows the Queen en grand panier. She is dressed in a voluminous, luxurious, white satin gown with exquisite golden tassels and trimming as her gaze is averted to the right. Her intricate lace bodice with princess seams and three-quarter length sleeves is carefully adorned with white, satin bows. This whiteness mirrors the paleness of her translucent, white flesh. A sophisticated feather hat sits atop Marie-Antoinette’s elegant coiffure. The Queen’s stance is both intimidating and gracious as she poses in the corner of a stately room holding one pink rose. Her crown rests inconspicuously upon a purple cushion embroidered with golden fleur-de-lis. It is situated next to a vase of pale pink, purple, and white flowers.
During this time, 18th century women began to opt for the robe chemise in mousseline cotton which did not require an obtrusive panier. These simplified garments were designed from one piece of fabric. They were preferred for their comfort and ease of movement. Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie-Antoinette, La reine vêtue d’une robe chemise, was shown at the 1783 Salon, an exhibition space for the Royal Academy. The Queen appears in a white, cotton “peasant dress” with a transparent, golden sash tied around her waist. Her relaxed curls are topped by a simple, straw-feathered hat with blue satin ribbon. She fixes her soft gaze upon the spectator as she arranges a simple bouquet of flowers in her delicate hands.
Despite its charm, the portrait was deemed inappropriate and offensive by many due to the severe informality of a dress meant to be worn in the privacy of one’s boudoir. It was soon replaced by Marie-Antoinette à la rose, showing the queen in more traditional courtly attire.
In 1785, Vigée Le Brun was commissioned to paint a monumental portrait of the Queen. The portrait was to highlight the maternal characteristics of the Queen by having her appear with her three children. Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants (1787) shows a serene, benevolent Queen comfortably seated in a chair. Her feet rest upon a green cushion embroidered with golden arabesques. These same arabesques are mirrored in the multicolored Persian rug. Marie-Antoinette is clothed in red, stately, full-length gown with plunging décolleté edged in delicate white lace. Atop her simple coiffeur sits a stylish, red hat with white feathers and blue satin ribbon. Her outward gaze is confident, yet tranquil, as she loving embraces a restless baby on her lap, clothed in a white cap and gown with blue sash.
A blond-haired daughter with cherubic features, dressed in a similar velvet red gown with satin bows in blue and gold, lovingly gazes upward as she wraps her arms around her mother’s right arm. The third child is also elegantly clothed in a red velvet pant suit with white lace collar and blue satin sash. This piercing blue is reflected in every figure’s eyes. The child stands proudly next to a royal bassinet heavily draped in a deep, forest-green satin. The ensemble of voluminously-clothed figures is prominently arranged in a pyramidal form. This is in direct contrast to strong vertical lines created by the architectural columns and wooden cabinet situated in the background.
Due to the success of Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour, Vigée Le Brun was invited to paint a series portraits of the Queen. By varying the accessories, clothing, poses, and environment, the artist successfully highlighted certain inimitable characteristics of the Marie-Antoinette’s complex personality. This included her natural grace, elegance, and confidence. Vigée Le Brun’s portraits of the Queen also provided clear, invaluable insight into sociocultural norms which were visibly reflected in the representation of acceptable courtly attire.