Appliqué, embroidery, paint, and weaving, 1900-1949, China, 8x8x7”
By Kayla Caldwell, a fourth-year student in Design Studies, studying Textiles and Fashion Design.
Stitch by stitch the details of the ox’s face, its rider, and the colorful creatures and flowers that adorned its head all began to fall into place. The time and care put into this hat is evident not only from its striking complexity but also in its presence: even though it is only a hat this piece seems as if it might animate at any moment. It may be strange to think so much detail would go into an object that would be worn by a small child, who with a proclivity for accidents, would no doubt put this piece of art in danger. In order to protect their child, a parent would spare no expense. In Chinese culture, mainly before the twentieth century, hats were believed to play an important role in protecting children from evil spirits as well as bringing them good fortune.
So while it may seem that this whimsical ox and rider would be better suited in the pages of a mythical saga, its ornamentation is reflective of the gravely important role with which it was entrusted. Whether it be as a racer in the zodiac or a messenger for the Emperor of Heaven, the ox, due to its close relation to cultivation and food production, makes frequent appearances in Chinese mythology. Because of the vastness and versatility of the ox as a symbol within Chinese mythology, it holds both positive and negative connotations, sometimes being associated with death and atonement and in other instances being seen as a protector and bringer of prosperity.
My guess is that the owner of this hat might have been born in the year of the ox and as result the makers of this hat, perhaps the parents, believed that this symbolism would bring their child prosperity. No matter the particular reason for the construction of the hat, it is clear that it held an important meaning to the maker who lovingly handcrafted it as an extension of protection and embrace.
Discover more information about this piece in the SoHE Digital Collection.
Hegel, R. E., & Birrell, A. M. (1996). Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 18, 205. doi:10.2307/495635
This article is one in a yearlong series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launches a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration begins on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.