By Sebastian Smee
January 2, 2009
PROVIDENCE - White, because it signifies modesty, humility, and piety, is what Muslim pilgrims wear to Mecca. White has nothing to hide. "The best of your clothes are white," said the Prophet Mohammed.
But if this suggests to you that a show about clothing traditions across the Islamic world might be a sterile and colorless affair, think again. For over the centuries, Muslims have also embraced a counter-tradition that accommodates various amounts of pomp and ostentation. "When God bestows benefaction upon one of his servants," says the best-known expression of this tradition, "He wishes the physical sign of that benefaction to be visible on him."
In a small but eloquent display at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, "Sartorial Sanctuary: Clothing and Tradition in the Eastern Islamic World" examines both the restraint and the sumptuousness of customary Islamic dress.
The exhibition, organized by assistant curator of textiles and costumes Kate Irvin, begins and ends with two stereotypical items of clothing. The first, which kicks off the half of the exhibition devoted to men's clothing, is a red-and-white checked headcloth, of the kind lately associated with the slur "towelhead."
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