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Tracing the Threads of Life's Big Moments

April 02, 1998|JULIA SZABO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Some of the world's most beautiful and intriguing clothes are those associated with rituals: births, passages into adolescence, weddings, periods of mourning. When threads are invested with spiritual or mystic symbolism, they are much more than mere garments--they become cultural artifacts, speaking volumes about the lifestyles and personalities of the individuals who wore them.

In recognition of these truths comes an exhibition called "Ritual Dress: Celebrating Life's Traditions," on view through June 21 at the Museums at Stony Brook.

In addition to items from the museums' permanent collections, the exhibition features clothing, artifacts, textiles and photographs borrowed from ethnically diverse families throughout Long Island, as well as home videos and tape-recorded oral histories. From a hand-crocheted baby's blanket to a swath of kente cloth, the textiles and clothes on view reveal much about how Long Islanders have risen to life's big occasions.

Here are christening gowns, both vintage and newish: a contemporary Filipino one made from silk and pineapple fibers (a traditional material in the Philippines), and an ethereal, eyelet-embroidered baptismal gown dating from 1900 to 1920. What hasn't changed is the color appropriate to traditional garments for infants--white is now, has always been and probably will forever be the symbol of innocence and purity.

As the baby grows, color enters the picture--as in the flashy party outfit worn by young Korean children. In Korea, a child's 100th day on Earth is one of the most important moments in life, and it is marked with a quilted jacket of many colors: bright blue, yellow, red, green and pink.

Movement and activity enter the picture too. One of the most touching parts of the exhibition is the section featuring photographs of the family of Port Jefferson, N.Y.'s Anne Kolb. Like her mother before her, Kolb was an eager pupil of ballet who took her dance recitals very seriously. Here is Anne's first recital costume--a rayon fuchsia-and-green-velvet number, handmade by her mother--and its descendant, the pink, blue and yellow satin-tulle-and-sequin confection she sewed for her own daughter's recital many years later. In an audio-cassette recording, Kolb recalls how the process of making recital costumes forged a special bond between her and her mom.

Many occasions for dressing up present themselves as children make their way toward adulthood: first communions; bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs; upanayan (the ritual marking the spiritual rebirth of Indian boys between the ages of 9 and 15); the quincean~era party; sweet 16; the prom; graduation from high school.

In each, dress plays an important role. A mannequin wears the ensemble that young Matthew Wallen of Port Jefferson wore to his 1983 bar mitzvah: a three-piece pinstriped suit by Pierre Cardin along with a white dress shirt, red patterned tie, yarmulke (skullcap) and tallit (prayer shawl). A series of color photographs shows Lynda Ayala, also of Port Jefferson, preparing for her sweet 16 party by stepping with great glee into her first pair of high-heeled shoes.

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Some rituals are less commonly observed than others. Take, for instance, the all-but-antiquated preparation of the bride's trousseau, or the very exclusive ritual of a debutante's presentation to society. The exhibit features two examples of "coming out" fashion: the daringly short (for its time) metallic organza dress with silk-satin rosettes worn by one Virginia Sterry to her 1919 debut at the Plaza Hotel; and the long, sleeveless, white gown worn with elbow-length gloves by Northport, N.Y.-born Merri Ferrell to her 1970 debut. (Ferrell, now curator of carriages at the museums, recalls that turbulent time when young people were questioning and rebelling against everything, including the very notion of "society"--and how some young men attending the debutantes' ball politicized their fashion statements by wearing sneakers with their tuxes.)

The rituals marking marriage and death are, on the other hand, universal. On display are wedding photos (including those of young Teddy Roosevelt), and several fine examples of wedding gowns and elaborate mourning ensembles from the museums' collections. Also included are accessories: circa-1930 ivory satin pumps from the long-closed Fifth Avenue store Best & Co.; Victorian jewelry made of human hair; a necktie cut in half, a symbolically destructive act that is part of the Jewish mourning ritual. At the center of the gallery stands the hand-embroidered chuppah (wedding tent) made by Nancy Freedman of Great Neck, N.Y., for her son's wedding in 1990.

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