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Immaterial: Linen

Suit up as we undress the complex legacy of linen.

Aug 3, 2022

A sheet of tan linen cloth with the text

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Linen often evokes an image of luxury. From the tombs of Egyptian rulers to the palaces of India, from the bedrooms of French chateaus to boardrooms of Wall Street, the opulence of linen communicates wealth.

The episode begins with a 3,500-year-old piece of linen found in the tomb of a woman named Hatnefer—mother to the architect for King Hatshepsut. Curator Emerita Catharine Roehrig describes it as “a delicate little cloud,” made from one of the most expensive types of linen. Weighing almost nothing, this magical cloth was placed in Hatnefer’s tomb for her use in the afterlife.

But as much as linen is recognized for its elegance, it is also marked by its capacity to oppress. In the nineteenth century, textile companies located in states like New York and Massachusetts—Brooks Brothers among them—manufactured linen and wool uniforms for enslaved and formerly enslaved people who served in roles like butlers, drivers, and doormen. Dr. Jonathan Square, a professor and research fellow in The Met’s Costume Institute, connects the many facets of linen—the coarse and durable, with the fine and affluent. In a runaway slave ad that details an extensive list of clothing that the freedom seeker took with him, including a red linen jacket and linen shirt and trousers, Square remarks that such garments would, like magic, transform the enslaved man into a free man both in fact and in the eyes of the people who saw him.

Tracing the path of linen in garments from ancient Egypt to the present day, we also meet fashion historian Rachel Tashjian, who explains the impact of linen in Giorgio Armani’s designs on popular culture. And finally, Cora Harrington, “The Lingerie Addict,” blends her study of history, sociology, culture, and economics to reflect on the unseen importance of linen undergarments. Necessary for hygiene—as it separated the body from layers of costly clothing they wore each day—corsets, drawers, and more made linen an essential item in the day-to-day lives of nineteenth-century women.

Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at the art mentioned in the episode and some highlights made from linen in The Met collection.

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