Two medieval textile exhibitions open in Washington D.C.

Dumbarton Oaks Museum and the George Washington University Museum, both in Washington D.C., have open new exhibitions that look at fashion, clothing and textiles from the medieval world.

Earlier this week Dumbarton Oaks Museum unveiled Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion, which showcases 60 pieces from the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine textile collection, long familiar to researchers for its quality and rarity but mostly unknown to the larger public. The installation emphasizes the visual splendor of these 4th to 14th century textiles while examining their history as grave goods, modernist art objects, archaeological artifacts, and crucial tools for understanding long-lost lives.


These dress textiles reveal 1,000 years of life across a broad swath of society: from childhood to adulthood, paganism to Christianity to Islam, the everyday to the elite. Glittering examples of Byzantine jewelry intended to accessorize garments are also on exhibit, as well as several complete tunics for adults and a child. The exhibition offers viewers a rare opportunity to see stunning examples of ancient and medieval fashion, since textiles are highly perishable and can be displayed only for limited periods.

“Clothing and jewelry offer an intimate and poignant entry point for considering the lives of late antique and Byzantine Egyptians,” said Dospěl Williams, who co-curated the Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion exhibition. “At the same time, the fragmentary vestiges of their clothes have captured the imagination of artists, designers, dealers, and collectors in our time. We hope that visitors will engage with people across the gulf of many centuries through the relatable medium of dress, feeling inspired by the vibrant colors and imaginative ornamental motifs on the textiles themselves.”

To compliment this exhibition, George Washington University Museum has also opened Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt. The textiles in this exhibition, including wall hangings and curtains, reflect the interior decoration of Egyptian homes, palaces and places of worship, and explore the relationship between furnishing textiles and architectural spaces. They depict architectural structures like columns and archways, likely reflecting the contexts in which they were once installed, though none of the pieces were found in their original sites.

Hanging with depiction of Virgin and Child, Egypt, 6th century, The Cleveland Museum of Art

“Some of these textiles adorned villas and palaces of wealthy citizens. Others are humble, but offer a glimpse into ordinary lives,” senior curator Sumru Belger Krody said. “Like us, people surrounded themselves with material possessions, and textiles took center stage in creating environments that were physically comfortable, beautiful and filled with auspicious symbolism.”

In addition to spectacular wall hangings, the exhibition includes a large carpet fragment from the fourth or fifth century, a necklace with an Aphrodite Anadyomene pendant from the early seventh century and fifth century silver bowls depicting gods, goddesses and aristocratic pastimes such as hunting. Woven Interiors features artworks from The Textile Museum Collection and Dumbarton Oaks, together with loans from other major collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Cleveland Museum of Art; and Art Institute of Chicago.

“The collections of late antique and Byzantine textile at Dumbarton Oaks and at The Textile Museum count among the finest in the world,” added Elizabeth Dospěl Williams said, “Woven Interiors offered our institutions a unique opportunity to combine forces in presenting our most precious and rarest masterpieces to a broad public.”

Child’s tunic from Egypt, 4th–10th c. – photo courtesy Dumbarton Oaks

Both exhibitions will be on display until January 5, 2020. Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion includes a digital catalogue that provides descriptions for the featured objects and approximately 150 other textiles held in the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. Click here to learn more about the exhibition from Dumbarton Oaks. For more details about Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt, please visit the George Washington University Museum website.

Top Image: Detail from a tapestry made in Egypt, 7th–10th c. – Photo courtesy Dumbarton Oaks


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