A Stitch in Time

The old adage that ‘clothes make the man’ also rings true for entire societies. And, as Jo Caruana discovers, a new exhibition of 20th-century paintings by Edward Caruana Dingli is shedding wonderful light onto what garments can tell us about our history.

Clothes really do chart our history in a way that little else can. From the mini-skirted 1960s to the bustles and tussles of the Victorian era, the way things were worn can offer incredible insight into the thinking and ideologies of the day.

And now, thanks to an exhibition of portraits and folkloristic scenes by Edward Caruana Dingli, organised by the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti (Maltese Heritage Foundation – a non-profit making organisation with the aim of spreading awareness of the island’s heritage through museums, exhibitions and publications) we can take a glimpse at what people wore from paintings dating to the early 20th century.

“A study of clothing really can reveal so much about a society in a particular era,” explains the Founda-tion’s chief executive officer, Michael Lowell. “It can shed light onto the general climate of a country, the influences that moulded it, a society’s wealth and its social classes. It allows us to see what daily life was like for different people, in different classes and different areas.

“In changing incandescently, fashion differentiates one time from another and one social stratum from another. For the upper classes of society, fashion is a symbol of their power and status. It is moulded by their taste, within the constraints of the trend of their time and differing foreign influences. Among the popular classes however, it is dictated by their lifestyle and what they could afford.”

As Mr Lowell explains, Edward Caruana Dingli’s paintings serve as historical documents of the fashion of the well-to-do, as well as the popular classes of early 20th-century Malta.

“His love for beautiful things and his impeccable eye for detail were vital for the depiction of every polished button, honorary medal, delicate feather and transparent shawl. His highly refined technique made his representations of damask, silk brocade, transparent linen and the shimmer of rich ladies’ jewellery seem almost effortless.

“These paintings capture a little bit of all that he saw around him during his life in the early 20th century. They can therefore be used to make an analysis of Maltese society at the time. One can notice a stark difference between the upper classes and the country folk. It seems as though there was no in-between, no middle class.”

His paintings are known to have cost some 21 pounds, at the time equivalent to an average person’s wage for two months. The people who could afford to commission such works, therefore, could also afford to own the most fashionable attire and adorn themselves with stunning jewellery.

“Women’s dresses were very much in tune with the fashion followed in Britain, France and Italy at the time. Malta was then a British colony and thus these influences infiltrated easily. Women in the upper classes of society were eager to shed their traditional dress in exchange for the new foreign trends being brought to the island. The elite, who frequented British social circles, soon began to discard their traditional headgear, the ghonnella (a form of hooded cloak), for fashionable English hats and bonnets, adapted to the new hairstyles, and also followed British fashion in dress. English dresses were in fact, quickly and ably copied by Maltese dressmakers.

“The situation among the popular classes was entirely different though. Clothing was simply a matter of need, practicality and comfort. Village people are depicted wearing pretty much the same thing. Men wore baggy trousers and flannel shirts, as well as waistcoats. Additionally, a colourful terha was wrapped around the waist as a belt, but also held small objects. The horga, carried over the shoulder, was often made from striped woven cotton and folded into a pouch at each end. Meanwhile, women donned long skirts, aprons, scarves and very often, the traditional ghonnella.”

While fashion among the upper classes, particularly in Valletta, was continually changing to meet the new styles and tastes being followed on mainland Europe, costume in the little country villages remained practically unchanged for many decades.

“It is interesting to note that the different classes are never seen interacting in Caruana Dingli’s paintings,” continues Mr Lowell. “One exception, however, is a painting called ‘At the Village Pump’, where villagers are depicted gathered around the communal water pump, chatting away and dressed in their modest daily costume, often not even wearing shoes.

In the foreground, stands a woman dressed in fine clothing and jewellery, and covered with the traditional ghonnella. She looks out at the viewer, and doesn’t form part of the action taking place in the background. The painting offers interesting insight.”

Mr Lowell is, himself, particularly interested in the way that Caruana Dingli chose to glamourise his sitters. “He accentuated the beauty of the most attractive and beautified the less handsome sitters,” he explains. “He took special liberties with his female portraits, making his sitters look younger, as well as more voluptuous in some cases.

“This romantic notion is also seen in his folkloristic scenes painted, at times, to promote the Maltese Islands. Everything is made to look ideal. Although it is known that poverty was rampant in early 20th-century Malta, his folk paintings generally show happy smiling faces, of cheerful peasants playing games in the street or caught having a chat with their friends. Little tell-tale signs in his paintings do hint at poverty and hardship though, like the lack of hygiene practiced at the fish market or the fact that most of his characters are not wearing shoes. One must therefore bear this in mind when reading Caruana Dingli’s works, as they are a somewhat idealised version of the truth.”

Additionally, the artist often used models to create his folkloristic themes. He was drawn to aspects of folkloristic Malta, however he took the liberty of constructing some of his pictures himself. He dressed up women from his circle of friends; middle class women acting as chicken hawkers and orange sellers. He sought to create charming, idealistic scenes that celebrated life. One often finds well-groomed women posing as country folk, wearing their ghonnella, lipstick and blushed faces. His mistress, Olga Galea Naudi, was his favourite model and appears in a number of these folkloristic works.

For the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, an exhibition on Caruana Dingli has long been in the pipeline

“Considering this artist’s ability, his voluminous output and his influence on Maltese 20th-century art, this exhibition promises to be a great contribution to the Maltese cultural scene,” continues Mr Lowell. “He had what it takes to make him one of the finest artists Malta has ever produced. His love for all that was beautiful, an impeccable eye for detail and his unfalter-ing technique produced the most appealing and charming of paintings of the 20th century.”