Picture a beaded corset. In San Francisco, that might mean a piece of racy evening wear fit for a nightclub. In Europe, it could be part of an extravagant gown fit for a princess. Either one would give different clues about its wearer.
A beaded corset from the Dinka tribe of the Sudan has yet a different meaning. It’s a full upper-body accessory, something of an elaborate necklace with many strings of tiny glass beads and perhaps some delicate seashells. It communicates the wearer’s level of wealth and social status.
The Dinkan corset is among thousands of traditional garments, ritual objects and artworks featured in the San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show. The show is one of the largest gatherings in the world for aficionados of art and textiles from Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, oceanic islands and Asia.
Although the show deals exclusively with pieces from pre-World War II, the range of wares changes annually due to market trends and availability.
“The Bay Area has strong interest in ethnic textile traditions from Indonesia and Central Asia to Africa,” says Jill D’Alessandro, associate curator of textiles at the de Young Museum.
“While most material at the fair has come from old collections,” she says, “in the recent years we have seen quite an influx of material from the Chinese minority tribes.”
The recent opening of China to Westerners and the resulting increase in travel will mean, for show attendees, a likely glimpse at intricately brocaded women’s costumes from the Li people of China. Look for tiny designs that resemble humans and animals, woven into clothing or embroidered onto baby carriers.
This year’s show also includes an exhibit by Modesto photographer Mike Glad, highlighting the traditional dress, architecture and customs people still use in Yemen today.
Whether it’s a photo of a Yemeni goat herder, a ceremonial Chilkat blanket from Alaska or a wooden Congolese mask, the show’s artifacts are part of a treasure trove of clues about how people throughout history have communicated their identities, spiritual beliefs and other information about their cultures.
Just as a beaded corset can mean many things to many people, each culture uses its garments and objects as part of its own cultural vocabulary. How do we keep track of what means what? Fortunately, more than 150 passionate dealers from down the street and around the world are helping to preserve and pass on the traditions.
IF YOU GO
Where: Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (310) 455-2886,