Highlighting traditions in ceremonial dress

September 2018

This past summer, the Edward W. Root Sculpture Court in the Museum of Art at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute became a showcase for ceremonial clothing from around the world thanks to the efforts of SUNY Poly’s own Professor of Anthropology, Dr. Kathryn Stam.

Dr. Stam was guest curator for the exhibition “Global Splendor: Traditions in Ceremonial Dress,” where she brought together an assortment of garments that represent important cultural traditions, rituals, or ceremonies from collections in the greater Utica community.

As part of the exhibition, Dr. Stam, along with Midtown Utica Community Center Executive Director Chris Sunderlin led a discussion June 13 to discuss the traditional attire from countries represented in Utica’s culturally diverse population.

Global Splendor highlighted traditional and ceremonial dress from some of the many cultures present in Utica. Historically, the city attracted immigrants from Ireland, Wales, Lebanon, Italy, Poland, and, more recently, from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries. Refugees fleeing war-torn countries began resettling here in 1978 and their numbers now exceed 16,000 with the most recent arrivals from Sudan, Burma, Nepal, and Somalia.

Ceremonial dress places people in space, time, social status, and context. Anthropologists rely on a culture’s textiles, jewelry, and other evidence of bodily adornment because they tell us stories about the group’s tools, availability of materials, skill, and contact with others. A desire to affiliate with or reject other groups is also evident in seemingly simple decisions about dress and the patterns, colors, and motifs lovingly created within them. Clothing reveals cultural norms related to gender, marital status, and how much of our bodies may be shown in public, as well as how clothing can make public spaces feel more private, for example with the use of head scarves. Temporal considerations such as the change of seasons, life cycles, and even the time of day are signified in dress as well, responding to cultural concepts of appropriate roles and public behavior.