Material World at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Recently I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Petra Slinkard, Textile & Fashion Arts Curatorial Associate from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, about their current exhibition Material World.  This show was organized by Niloo Paydar, curator of Textile & Fashion Arts, with the assistance of Petra.  The show will remain on view through February 6th, 2012.  For those who will not make it to the Indianapolis area, be sure to check out the link at the bottom of this post to see the newly launched exhibition video.

M: What was the initial inspiration for the Material World show?

Petra: The textiles in Material World were chosen for their opulent surface ornamentation, assembled to illustrate the relationship between materialism and wealth. Divided into sections, the exhibition highlights elaborately decorated furnishings and garments adorned with metallic threads, beads, shells, pearls, rhinestones, feathers and other exotic objects. The exhibition set out to explore how embellished textiles, clothing and accessories indicate the prestige, luxury, beauty and power of individuals within very different cultures; conveying complex concepts of diversity, abundance, and status. Representing cultures from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas and the South Pacific, Material World features more than 50 works from the IMA’s textile and fashion arts collection.

M: Could you speak a little about the history and scope of the costume and textile collection at the Indianapolis Museum of Art?

Petra: The Indianapolis Museum of Art is celebrating its 128th year as one of the largest and most comprehensive encyclopedic museums in the United States.  One of the first items to be purchased for the collection was in fact a textile, in 1888 with major collecting in this area beginning with a large purchase of 100 Chinese textiles and costumes in 1906. These strategic acquisitions exemplify the IMA’s early commitment to collecting textiles and clothing. Today, the textile and fashion arts collection comprises approximately 7,000 items and represents virtually all of the world’s traditions in fabric.

(For more information on the collection, please visit here)

M: Garments and textiles from geographically disparate cultures are paired side by side throughout the exhibition.  Was materiality the sole underlying principle used to determine the grouping of these items, or were some pieces arranged according to other less formal properties?

Petra: The materials used to embellish individual objects and the significance of each was the primary reason for groupings. However, the exhibition begins with an introduction to the types of materials presented, and transitions into a space dedicated to the juxtaposition of royal and religious garments and furnishings. For instance, in the center platform of the second gallery, a Chinese Imperial robe, from the late 1700s, early 1800s; a Yoruba King’s ceremonial robe dating to the early to mid 1900s and a court gown owned by Princess Maria Maximilianova Romanovska designed by Charles Fredrick Worth, from about 1888 are placed together.  Although created for the nobility of very different cultures, the garments produced were all worn to communicate status, power and beauty, illustrating the common importance of materiality within each culture.

M: In western culture, the sartorial manifestation of wealth and status is linked with the ideas of fashion, luxury, and very often, couture.  What has the reaction from exhibition viewers been like when they see some of the lavish global garments and textiles on display next to couture items, in a way that might challenge the hegemony of western fashion?

Petra: The reaction of exhibition viewers has been wonderful. Many people are delighted and surprised to learn how many commonalities exist between varying cultures and our own. While the execution and display of luxurious garments may differ, the allure of owning and wearing sumptuous clothing and furnishings is universal. I think the exhibition design aids in enlightening museum goers to our similarities instead of focusing on our differences.

M: Are there any materials in the show that stand out for either their universal value among different cultures, or perhaps their surprising worth in terms of the way that we are used to evaluating them today?

Petra: For me, the universal appeal of mirrors and metallic threads stand out.  Regardless of culture or time period, people seem to be consistently fascinated with shiny objects.  Inherently rich in symbolism, mirrors have traditionally been thought to evoke magical powers and provide protection. But how the concept of psychological protection coupled with aesthetic appeal is reappropriated into contemporary designs, are for me, very interesting. A mirrored dress designed by Halston from 1981 and a three piece, pant suit from about 1964 made of spectacular fabric of dyed metallic threads by Chanel, are exhibited among pieces from Indonesian, Moroccan and Pakistani cultures, exemplifying this collective allure.

M: Some of the clothing is displayed on full mannequins, while other pieces lay flat or have invisible mounts.  How did the exhibition team decide how they wanted objects to be presented?

Petra: When designing any exhibition, our first concern is always the safety of the objects. This show in particular, posed a few challenges due to the range, in addition to the tactile nature of the objects.  Each had to be displayed in a way that allows the viewer to see materials up close while discouraging them from touching. Once secure mounting was determined, aesthetics were addressed. We strove to display objects in the most visually appealing manner, while arranging each in a way to promote the thesis of the exhibition.

M: What is the date range for objects in the exhibition, and did you find that time had a strong influence on the social value of some of the materials utilized to create objects in the show?

Petra: The earliest piece in the exhibition is a feathered Peruvian tunic from the 15th century and the most recent, a feathered skirt by Miuccia Prada for Prada from the Spring 2005 collection and pair of shoes adorned with feathers from 2007.  Sumptuously embellished clothing has been worn for centuries and continues to be worn today. The intrinsic need to adorn one’s self is everlasting. In fact, the recent trend for feather hair extensions comes to mind. In my opinion, the technology used and the availability of materials are the two main factors affecting the choices people make in how they adorn themselves today. The social value placed on materials is simply a component of a particular zeitgeist.

Click here to view the exhibition video.


There is an upcoming lecture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Thursday December 8th, 2011:

Lecture: The History of Beads

7:00 pm, IMA, Tobias Theater: FREE for FAS Members

Join author and curator, Lois Sherr Dubin for a talk in the Toby Theater on the history of beads. Dubin will investigate how beads have been used throughout history and around the world as talismans, status symbols, religious article and a medium of barter.



1.) Exhibition view, Material World, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

2.) Pierre Balmain (designer), French (1914-1982), Ballgown, fall/winter 1953-1954, silk embroidered with metallic threads, pearls, sequins (Lesage embroidery); length: 59 inches. Mr. and Mrs. William B. Ansted Jr. Art Fund. 2004.50

3.) Skirt for young woman, Iraqw people, 1940-1980, leather, glass and brass beads, metal bells. 35 x 67 1/2 in. Textile Arts Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Anonymous Art Fund and Gift of Mrs. Berniece Fee Mozingo, Helen W. Russell, Mrs. Louis Burckhardt, Mrs. Sylvia Orell in Memory of Colonel and Mrs. F.J. Keelty and Ruth Grummon. 1998.77

All images are courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Fine Art.


Special thanks to Petra Slinkard, Candace Gwaltney, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art!

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.