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Shades of Elegance – Fashion and Fabrics in Teheran Around 1900 / Museum Rietberg

Shades of Elegance – Fashion and Fabrics in Teheran Around 1900 / Museum Rietberg


Well, this exhibition came about because
we received a gift that was in family ownership since over 100 years
and because of another exhibition about textiles in our museum, they
thought it would be a great idea to donate it to the museum.
We’ve had a look at it and soon realized, that this will be an interesting
topic, because it would be possible to show the exchange between East and West
in the second half of the 19th century, as Europe saw it back then – and that’s because of Emil Alpiger, who
was working for a carpet company back then and collected the items – and how
that was received in Persia, and how Persia responded to this European influence. That’s basically the main point. It’s
also about showing what hybridization means. What we present here is a
kind of style mix, something that’s usually something that art history is not
very popular to look at, because it’s not something that you would normally expect,
but here we have wonderful examples for exactly this exchange between East and West. Yes, Alpiger was an interesting character.
He worked for Ziegler & Company for 20 years, in Persia,
he set up the whole carpet manufactory there, but that’s only his quiet civic
life. Before that he was very adventurous. Ten years of his life – we had to reconstruct this, because we
don’t have all his records – he obviously worked for the Bergamask silk industry,
he also smuggled for them, for example he tried to bring silkworm eggs from Iran to Europe. That was necessary,
because there was a huge epidemic that threatened and destroyed the silk
cultures in Europe. And the only way to solve this problem was to bring silkworm eggs, from Persia
in the beginning, which he did, and then from Japan, because one had
to go more and more to the East since the epidemic spread. And in Japan,
Alpiger even caused the first world trade conflict. Japan had
just opened up itself, there were the first contacts with Europe, and Alpiger probably lost his patience
while negotiating with a Japanese businessman whom he threatened. This
incident led to a trial that the then Consul, the Swiss Consul, led,
and he punished Alpiger. That was considered very important
internationally at that time, because it meant, great, here not only Europeans
are always proved right, but in this case the Japanese, who were usually
seen as the victims or those who one can exploit. This trial put them on the same level and that had a huge
effect on the Swiss in Japan itself but It was also recognized internationally
very benevolently. And Alpiger then did other things, he lived in Paris
for a while, tried to start his own business, which failed, he started
a first family, but shortly after the birth of his first son, his wife and his son died. He then started
a second family und with his second family he emigrated to Persia. The family was in Persia obviously, but also
lived some time here in Zürich and finally moved to Zürich in 1896. Yes, there has even been globalization
before, I think there has been a tendency, even since ancient times, to seek
for worldwide relations. It was simply an exciting time, in the 19th century.
First of all because there was the industrialization in Europe itself,
that means there were problems in the factories, in the production,
there was a rush to money, making money was the big thing, and there was this industrial capitalism, and
there was of course this worldwide politics, let’s think of England or the other
colonial powers, where one tried to bring in goods. Everything got easier, that means distances suddenly became
more conquerable, this can be seen very clearly from Alpiger’s notes,
where he for example was enthusiastic that he could ride on the first trains.
Suddenly he was able to travel all around the world within a few weeks, today
that seems a long time, but back then it wasn’t months anymore, but weeks,
and that of course was the big change. Equally there was this perspective to trade with others, preferably for your own benefit, so everything
that we still weep over today, was there in its early days back then, and when we
compare the today with those days, we realize that it was still in its infancy
and human, compared to what we are seeing in part today. Yes, we have a beautiful example where
you see a man’s tunic that has a cuff, in former times, or in Persia, you had the outer fabrics, and on the inside
was always lined with a border, which was very beautiful and in most cases
in a different pattern. And we have a beautiful example here, where you
can see: there’s the cuff, made of one of the highest quality wool fabric
that were produced in Persia itself, which was already quite old back then,
because they were economizing on resources, and this fabric pattern was then
copied in Manchester probably, as industrially produced printing fabric. And we have here another man’s tunic,
which was produced from exactly this classy, wonderful – in this case surrogate – fabric. And here you see perfectly that there
was a transformation that could be realized industrially, but which then
nevertheless was accepted and used in Persia. This is one of the great
examples, and then there are the Ziegler-carpets, where you can see
that a Persian carpet that has a very complex, very sophisticated pattern was simplified, certain parts were
taken out, cleaned so to say, and in this simplified form it was then
popular in Europe to lay out such carpets in the salon. One might have to say that the Persian
society has a great talent to adopt things very quickly and make
it their own. In this case we interestingly have a letter from
Mrs Alpiger, who in the beginning accompanied her husband, 1874/1875 in
Iran, we assume, there we also find notes from him, where he describes how he had
to rides through the wastelands, with the horse, 8 to 9 hours in the saddle, mostly during the night, because it
wasn’t that hot anymore. 20 years later, she writes – it’s her
last visit to Iran – about how great the journey was, they were traveling
in a hackney cab, there was also already a train leaving from Teheran, there
was telegraphy. So within 20 years a total change has taken place
in Persian society, supported by the Shah himself, of course, but what’s
interesting then is that this change continues, there’s a huge modernization
boost in the 1920s, the 50s and 60s are fantastic, there are things that would be the Dernier Cri in Europe as well, and so this society
transforms itself very fast. So if you are looking for the latest
fashion from Milan, go to a party in Teheran, you will most definitely
find it there. We were working on the exhibition
pretty much exactly a year. I have to add that I know textiles
already, so in this case I didn’t have to start at the very beginning.
But what we naturally tried to find out is how did Alpiger live at all.
On the one hand it wasn’t that hard to find out, because of his
handwritten notes that I have transcribed. It was more difficult to retrace his different stages of life.
It was only by chance that we found out that he once lived in Paris, and my
husband searched for his name in the internet archives of the city of
Paris, and that’s how we figured out that he had survived, that he had
lived in Paris, that he had a wife, a first wife and a son, so with all these steps one thing
lead to another. Another thing was also to call the Swiss civil registry
and ask for related data, and this is really impressive, I have to say,
that was really easy, you just get an excerpt of it, saying that’s the data we have, and that of course has helped us a lot in our research.

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