In the 1970s, Afghani clothing was one of the styles favored by the hippie community. The colorful, embroidered dresses and accompanying large jewelry were in high demand. In this gaudy, glittering array it is sometimes difficult to tell where jewelry ends and costume begins. The same principles of value, status and amuletic properties are applied to both. And now, both jewelry and clothing are flooding European markets again, but for different reasons.
The Kuchi, Pashtun and Baluchi nomads of Afghanistan decorate their clothing with a dazzling variety of motifs and materials, especially the bodice of womens’ dresses. These dresses, with their colorful embroidery and abundnace of coins, beads, tassels and mirrors, were the inspiration for many hippie dress designs. For those who can ‘read’ a garment, these dresses tell a tale of the hopes, fears and values of the culture that created it. These messages are also worked into jewelry where the elements of personal adornment enhance each other.
The dress’ bodices consists of heavy embroidery. Colors and patterns go back to ancient traditions and ward off evil through the powerful symbol of horns and triangles. Over this embroidery, the garment is covered in other materials. Ordinary buttons are stitched on with red wool, sometimes faded by age. The buttons, originally of mother-of-pearl, later plastic ones, signify the life-giving strength of the sun while the contrasting red wool is used as an element against malignant forces. Red, the color of blood and fire, is in many cultures the color of choice for apotropaic decorations. It is seen equally often in jewelry: red materials such as carnelian or coral are widely used on silver pieces. Together with blue, red is the dominant color in the region when it comes to jewelry and costume.
Blue is seen in the many small beads that often decorate borders and edges on the bodice, as well as around the buttons and as a part of the very distinct decoration, the gul-i-peron or dressflower.1 These felt and beaded objects have a very long history and are used throughout Central Asia on clothing and horse-gear. Another aspect that immediately catches the eye is the use of coins. These are sewn on in neat rows that jingle softly when walking: both a testimony to the wealth of the wearer and a sound that chases away any demons that might be lurking nearby. Coins are also used in jewelry for the same reasons: they are used in rings and bracelets, and are sewn unto broad textile collars that have been stitched intricately with silver thread. The division between jewelry and costume is becoming blurred in these garments.
New recognition or the end of tradition?
Recently, more and more items from Central Asia are appearing in the international market. Women in Afghanistan use their traditional embroidery skills in order to make a living in their war-torn country. With many men dead or missing, the responsibility for large families weighs heavily on the shoulders of the women. Traditional handcrafted items are offered as souvenirs to foreign troops, and in this respect it is the female art of costuming and needlework that is the economic motor on a micro-scale. Next to these modern examples of resilience, antique costuming and jewelry items readily find their way to Western markets. Jewelry with cut gemstones, especially pendants, rings and bracelets, are overflowing ethnic jewelry stores, and modern forgeries are traveling along with them. Upon close examination, many of the stones are not cut gemstones but pressed artificial materials.
The heavily decorated bodies of Pashtun, Kuchi and Baluchi dresses have found a new, quite remarkable destination: these are sold as costuming items for a new, western-style form of bellydancing, the so-called tribal belly dance. Gul-i-perons, the felt adornment of Central Asia are re-used on belly dance skirts and headpieces, both old and new jewelry pieces sold as Kuchi are in high demand, jewelry items that once graced the cap of a child in protection are now stitched randomly on belly dance belts. The bodice of a dress that has been meticulously embroidered in the highlands of Afghanistan is torn apart and reused with little or no knowledge of the beliefs and values of the original owner, expressed by the small beads, coins and tassels.
On the other hand, one could argue that this use of traditional dress does not signify the end of a tradition. Could it not merely be an adaptation to changing circumstances? It might be rather the beginning of a new, global culture that is not so much related to a fixed place, but connects its members through the art of belly dancing. The definition of culture itself is shifting in this timeframe of mass communication, travel and, sadly, warfare. Be that as it may, though, now that Afghan costume and jewelry has become a global heritage it is up to us to decide how we should treasure it.
1. See for more information on the gul-i-peron www.wearableheritage.com.