Textile Quality: A Revival in Fashion

On the occasion of the preparations for the exhibition Antinopolis: Life and Fashion, the curatorial teams of the Lyon Textile Museum conducted a survey of considerable magnitude. Their research cast light on numerous technical and stylistic elements related to the trends and manufacturing methods of textiles and clothing in the fourth and fifth centuries in the Coptic community.
The exhibition catalog brings together a wide selection of clothing and accessories from the archaeological excavations directed by Albert Gayet between 1895 and 1911 at the historic site of Antinopolis, in Egypt. The discovery of some 2000 tombs in this ancient Roman city built on the banks of the Nile unearthed numerous historical objects, clothes and textiles which at the time were principally destined towards enriching the Parisian collections at the Louvre and Guimet Museums, as well as those at the Lyon Textile Museum.
Thanks to an intelligent dialogue established between historical relics and contemporary photographs by Cédric Rouillat showing costume reconstructions created in the workshops of the Lyon National Opera, the exhibition at the Lyon Textile Museum and the accompanying catalog brought together pieces in a way that breathed life into the sensibility and taste of the Coptic people of the period.
Beyond mere style, this research reveals a long-buried secret. The artfulness and subtlety of these clothes appears to emphasize a finesse and precision in weaving, threading and tapestry that produced motifs adorning large textiles and trimmings. This exceptional mastery of textile is in total contrast with clothing construction, which was often rudimentary in its panel construction and decoration.
Size and length adjustments, made to more precisely adapt different clothes to the morphologies of their wearers, were always practiced with utmost respect for the textiles themselves. The object of the artisans of the period seemed to be to never makes cuts in the fabric. The pleats are sewn, visible at the center of clothes in order to preserve the original borders of weavings, before being embellished with fringe or braids in contrasting colors.
Certain pieces, such as leggings, are directly woven into shape, as if to never waste material by cutting. This construction logic is completely opposite to that which emerged in the Occident in the Middle Ages whereby fabric was cut into forms and then assembled with care in order to create volumes.
With the advent of industrialization, the proximity between the upstream sector (textile production) and the downstream (garment production) was lost and value shifted towards the finished product. The influence of outsourcing has led to the fading of textile culture, which has given way to a culture of brands and designers, putting the foremost emphasis on the creation of volumes rather than primary materials.
However, after nearly a century focused exclusively on globalization and the standardization of techniques, fashion — always seeking differentiation — has taken up a renewed interest in the diversity and richness of textile manufacture. The Coptic textile culture, brought to light through the work of the teams at the Lyon Textile Museum, reminds us of how attention to the quality of textiles can enrich fashion.