Adornment: What Self-Decoration Tells About Who We Are, by Stephen Davies(Bloomsbury), £21.59/$26.95
Stephen Davies’ new book builds on his earlier book Artful Species, which considers the evolution of human art making and the development of the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. Adornment analyses a range of practices in which the body is altered for the sake of beautification, including body painting, scarification, tattoos, piercings, jewelry, make-up, and clothing.
More specifically, an early chapter sets out to analytically define decoration as “making special by aesthetic enhancement” (which entails a clear aesthetic intention on the part of the adorner) and then fleshes out the definition by considering the relationship between beauty and different forms of functionality. Davies’ ensuing discussions of adornment practices are full of anthropological and cross-cultural details that foster deep appreciation of how they reflect cultural beliefs and values and, more generally, how fundamentally human it is to adorn oneself. For example, he considers the Paleolithic origins of tattooing, then facial tattooing practices used in Melanesia, Africa, and the early Americas for purposes of cultural identity.
He also mentions the negative attitudes that the Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and Confucian traditions had towards tattooing and more contemporary views which see it as a form of beautification. This encourages the reader to think about how the significance of their own adornment practices extends beyond the personal realm. Someone with a tattoo, for example, may find themselves thinking about the original reasons they had for getting it, additional personal or social functions it has come to perform, and how those factors pertain to the beliefs and values that inform ancient Egyptian, Māori, or Samoan tattooing practices. Further, because the book considers several kinds of adornment, the reader may also find themselves evaluating how their tattoo more generally factors into their approach to beautifying their lives.
Because the book is couched in anthropology, its orientation is towards the pre-modern past. To stay with the example of tattooing, Davies briefly mentions that tattoos were traditionally affiliated with criminality and gangs in ancient China but does not discuss how those attitudes have begun to change as growing numbers of Chinese citizens who are extremely passionate about professional basketball regularly see (and want to emulate) players who have adorned themselves with tattoos.
Another contemporary trend worth considering is how scarring and gauging – stretching a body piercing – have been appropriated by western counter-culture movements from indigenous cultures, and another is how modernism and postmodernism have significantly affected the development of dress in western countries. How does globalisation factor into perceptions of tattooing? How do more traditional uses of scarring, piercing, and gauging pertain to the political aesthetics of early punk? And how do Coco Chanel’s early fashion designs or today’s mass-produced clothing styles relate to forms of dress used in ancient cultures? Davies does note consistent themes (such as the use of adornment to delineate gender). However, given modernism, postmodernism, and globalisation, it is likely the case that the reader will be able to relate to some degree to the pre-modern practices Davies discusses but will also feel quite distant from them.
It is the distance that Adornment could more fully address — for example, by engaging work in contemporary fashion theory, costume studies, or scholarship that focuses on postmodern creative self-fashioning — or, looking ahead, perhaps that is where Davies will be taking his readers next.