MOLAS: textile design & political identity

MOLAS: textile design & political identity

“Clothes aren’t going to change the world. The women who wear them are.”

– Anne Klein

Clothing is often used to define the wearer’s social class, their politics and indeed, their very view of the world. Traditional dress helps form a nation’s identity as well as furthers its heritage.

In this instance, we explore how two indigenous cultures adapted (or didn’t) to Western influences, political change and the environment.

The Mola or Molas is a hand-made textile that forms part of the traditional women’s clothing of the indigenous Guna people from Panamá. Their clothing includes a patterned wrapped skirt (saburet), a red and yellow headscarf (musue), arm and leg beads (wini), a gold nose ring (olasu) and earrings in addition to the mola blouse (dulemor).[1] Two groups, Choco and Cuna lived side by side without intermarriage and without adopting a similar culture.[2] In Dulegaya, the Guna’s native language, “mola” means “shirt” or “clothing”. The mola originated with the tradition of Guna women painting their bodies with geometric designs, using available natural colors; at a certain point, after the arrival of the Spanish, these same designs were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth “acquired by trade from the ships that came to barter for coconuts during the 19th century”.[3][4]


A Guna woman displays a selection of molas for sale at her home in the San Blas Islands.

Molas may have their origin in body painting. In 1514, Pasqual de Andagoya, arrived in Darian and wrote.. the women are very well dressed, in embroidered cotton mantles which extend down so as to cover their feet, but the arms and bosom are uncovered.”[5] They did not wear blouses even in 1688 until they had been introduced by the missionaries.

Only after colonization by the Spanish and contact with missionaries did the Guna start to transfer their traditional geometric designs on fabric, first by painting directly on the fabric and later by using the technique of reverse appliqué. It is not agreed when this technique was first used. It seems to have been popular in the second half of the nineteenth century.[6] In 1924, Lady Brown refers to the dress of the medicine man/ Kantules as “dressed up the knees in long covered with cabalistic characters…all worked into, or let into, the cloth in a form of patchwork.”[7]

As an inspiration for their designs, the Guna first used the geometrical patterns which have been used for body painting before. In the past, they have also depicted realistic and abstract designs of flowers, sea animals and birds, and popular culture.

Depending on the tradition of each island, Guna women or men who identify as women begin the crafting of molas either after they reach puberty, or at a much younger age. Women who prefer to dress in western style are in the minority as well as in the communities in Panama City.


Molas are hand-made using a reverse appliqué technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-colored cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer. The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. This is achieved by using a thread the same color as the layer being sewn, sewing blind stitches, and sewing tiny stitches. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.

This closeup of a mola by Venancio Restrepo shows the layering of the different colors of cloth, and the fine stitching involved.

The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colors beneath in successive layers. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, hence varying the sequence of colours; some molas also incorporate patches of contrasting colours, included in the design at certain points to introduce additional variations of color.[8]

Molas vary greatly in quality, and the pricing to buyers varies accordingly. A greater number of layers is generally a sign of higher quality; two-layer molas are common, but examples with four or more layers will demand a better price. The quality of stitching is also a factor, with the stitching on the best molas being close to invisible. Although some molas rely on embroidery to enhance the design, a good looking mola is always constructed using the reverse-appliqué method as the leading technique.[1] A mola can take from two weeks to six months to make, depending on the complexity

cultural, social and political influences

In 1919, the panamanian government began a policy of forced assimilation banning mola’s dress and nose piercing in women. The government introduced these laws to Westernize Guna society and assert control.[13]

There was a strong link between traditional dress and Guna culture and identity. Molas have such an importance for the Guna people and their traditional identity that they can be considered responsible for the independent status of the Comarca Kuna Yala.[14]

After the attempt of the Panamanian government to “westernize” the Guna, the Guna greatly objected to the control on their cultural dress, and ethnic identity, and showed great strength in their reaction to the bans implemented by the government, leading to the Guna Revolution.[13]

In 1925 for three years following the revolution, women were required to once again adopt traditional dress as a form of rebellion against the government. Women on Nargana and other more progressive islands were forced to wear mola, even if they had never worn this traditional dress, and their noses had to be pierced by force.[13]

The Grammar of Ornament

The Grammar of Ornament

From the universal testimony of travelers it would appear, that there is scarcely a people, in however early stage of civilisation, with whom the desire to ornament is not a strong instinct. Man’s earliest ambition is to create . . . to stamp on this earth the impress of an individual mind.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament

While we may often note that current society is changing at a breakneck speed, we do have to take note that this has happened before. Arguably, the 19th Century beats us at our own game on the fundamental-change level.

The 19th century was an era of rapidly accelerating scientific discovery and invention, with significant developments in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, electricity, and metallurgy that laid the groundwork for the technological advances of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and spread to continental Europe, North America, and Japan. The Victorian era was notorious for the employment of young children in factories and mines, as well as strict social norms regarding modesty and gender roles.

The 19th century was characterized by vast social upheaval. Slavery was abolished in much of Europe and the Americas. The First Industrial Revolution, though it began in the late 18th century, expanding beyond its British homeland for the first time during this century, particularly remaking the economies and societies of the Low Countries, the RhinelandNorthern Italy, and the Northeastern United States. A few decades later, the Second Industrial Revolution led to ever more massive urbanization and much higher levels of productivity, profit, and prosperity, a pattern that continued into the 20th century.

The first electronics appeared in the 19th century, with the introduction of the electric relay in 1835, the telegraph and its Morse code protocol in 1837, the first telephone call in 1876,[2] and the first functional light bulb in 1878.[3] Society rapidly urbanized, bringing populations increasingly together into smaller spaces. The first notes of globalization brought influences from around the world to the same table, with varying results. From a Western perspective, the new cultures were ripe to be harvested. The Eastern-perspective, it presented new threats and cultural influence without precedent. The world, in fact, was becoming smaller.

The increasingly urbanization of Europe and the United States brought about new challenges to traditional aesthetics and behaviors. How does one distinguish oneself from a sea of common faces? What importance does a dwelling have and how does it become a home? An ever-evolving social hierarchy demanded that new styles, techniques and designs be invented — and quickly.

the Emergence of Decorative Arts

Definitions from Oxford Languages · Learn more

dec·o·ra·tive arts

/ˌdek(ə)rədiv ˈärts,ˌdekəˌrādiv ˈärts/


plural noun: decorative arts; noun: decorative art

  1. the arts concerned with the production of high-quality objects that are both useful and beautiful.

Ceramics, glassware, basketry, jewelry, metalware, furniture, textiles, clothing, and other such goods are the objects most commonly associated with the decorative arts. Many decorative arts, such as basketry or pottery, are also commonly considered to be craft, but the definitions of both terms are arbitrary.

The term “decorative arts” is not meant to be derogative. It was popular in the 70s to dismiss this as a “lesser” art and thankfully, we’ve decided collectively to rather group all functional art under the term “design.” The artists we discuss in our Fine Arts Collection are very much masters of fine art as well as exquisite craftspeople. I argue that decorative arts are actually more democratic and open to including fine art in our everyday life.

And then there’s “retro.” We constantly revisit previous eras to gain inspiration for our own, modern times. Likewise, The Victorian era is known for its interpretation and eclectic revival of historic styles mixed with the introduction of Asian and Middle Eastern influences in furniture, fittings, and interior decoration. The Arts and Crafts movement, the aesthetic movementAnglo-Japanese style, and Art Nouveau style have their beginnings in the late Victorian era and gothic period.

I’m specifically interested in a handful of artists who made a thoughtful, meaningful jump to bring arts to bear weight on everyday existence. We’ve talked about Racinet. And Morris. There are several dozen others including, Tiffany, Lalique, Tamara de Lempicka, Erté (a great article re: “the top 10” is here, click on it!) are among the most notable.

Owen Jones

(adapted from: Cracking the Universal Code of Beauty: Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament by Femke Speelberg, Curator of Historic Ornament, Design, and Architecture Department of Drawings and Prints; and Robyn Fleming, Museum Librarian, Interlibrary Services and Digital Initiatives, Thomas J. Watson Library, The Met.)

In the opening chapter to his seminal work The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones stresses the fact that one of the universal qualities among humankind is the desire to make beautiful things. To illustrate this point, he uses the somewhat macabre example of a severed preserved head of a Maori warrior (mokomokai), then thought to be a woman, which was covered in an elegant pattern of facial tattoos. He admired it particularly for the harmonious way in which the responsible artist had married the tattooed lines with the natural shapes of the human face. Rather than concluding that ornament belongs purely to the primitive, as others would argue later, Jones realized through his confrontation with this ethnological specimen that the Maori possessed an innate understanding of beauty that was alien to modern Western society.

While Jones’s ideas slowly took root in art education over the following decades, which in turn influenced the development of new artistic movements such as Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau, The Grammar of Ornament did not bring about a direct change in artistic practice. In fact, as Jones himself anticipated, we often find patterns and motifs from the book copied and applied to objects and interiors dating from the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

The Grammar was celebrated first and foremost for its outstanding folio-sized color lithographs, which represented the latest and most sophisticated innovations in the field of printmaking. Color lithography had been in use for several decades, but because each color was printed from a separate lithographic stone, most commercial publications were printed in a limited palette of three or four colors. Since color played a crucial role in Jones’s work, he took charge of the production himself and employed assistants to work out the patterns on lithographic stones, with certain plates requiring as many as twenty distinct stones. The high quality of Jones’s color plates quickly turned the luxurious first edition of the book into a collector’s item. Their appeal greatly outlasted Jones’s intellectual arguments, which were omitted altogether in the various posthumous editions, and facsimile reproductions published in the later nineteenth and twentieth century.

As a writer, I have to include at least one reference to literature when discussing art, fine or otherwise.

While he is now seen as the epitome of wit and sophistication, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and was killed under the same Victorian culture that produced the mentioned artwork.

It is important to note that his trial (3 April 1895) indeed changed the very vocabulary he wrote in: English. Before his trial, there were homosexual acts, however one could not be homosexual. It was not a noun. It was unthinkable to call someone a “homosexual.” Certainly a “sodomite” but that’s a different word altogether. Your identity was not in question, your acts were. That changed from an adjective to a noun due to his trial.

In 2017, Wilde was among an estimated 50,000 men who were pardoned for homosexual acts that were no longer considered offences under the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967). The 2017 Act implements what is known informally as the Alan Turing law.[237]

Oscar Wilde’s Particular Aesthetic

Chief among the literary practitioners of decorative aestheticism was Oscar Wilde, who advocated Victorian decorative individualism in speech, fiction, and essay-form.[2] Wilde’s notion of cultural enlightenment through visual cues echoes that of Alexander von Humboldt[3] who maintained that imagination was not the Romantic figment of scarcity and mystery but rather something anyone could begin to develop with other methods, including organic elements in pteridomania.[4]

By changing one’s immediate dwelling quarters, one changed one’s mind as well;[5] Wilde believed that the way forward in cosmopolitanism began with as a means eclipse the societally mundane, and that such guidance would be found not in books or classrooms, but through a lived Platonic epistemology.[6] An aesthetic shift in the home’s Victorian decorative arts reached its highest outcome in the literal transformation of the individual into cosmopolitan, as Wilde was regarded and noted among others in his tour of America.[7]

For Wilde, however, the inner meaning of Victorian decorative arts is fourfold: one must first reconstruct one’s inside so as to grasp what is outside in terms of both living quarters and mind, whilst hearkening back to von Humboldt on the way to Plato so as to be immersed in contemporaneous cosmopolitanism, thereby in the ideal state becoming oneself admirably aesthetical.

the ART of INDIA

the ART of INDIA

an overview of the ART of INDIA >

Indian art consists of a variety of art forms, including paintingsculpturepottery, and textile arts such as woven silk. Geographically, it spans the entire Indian subcontinent, including what is now IndiaPakistanBangladeshSri LankaNepal, and at times eastern Afghanistan. A strong sense of design is characteristic of Indian art and can be observed in its modern and traditional forms.

The origin of Indian art can be traced to prehistoric settlements in the 3rd millennium BCE. On its way to modern times, Indian art has had cultural influences, as well as religious influences such as HinduismBuddhismJainismSikhism and Islam. In spite of this complex mixture of religious traditions, generally, the prevailing artistic style at any time and place has been shared by the major religious groups.

In historic art, sculpture in stone and metal, mainly religious, has survived the Indian climate better than other media and provides most of the best remains. Many of the most important ancient finds that are not in carved stone come from the surrounding, drier regions rather than India itself. Indian funeral and philosophic traditions exclude grave goods, which is the main source of ancient art in other cultures.

Indian artist styles historically followed Indian religions out of the subcontinent, having an especially large influence in TibetSouth East Asia and China. Indian art has itself received influences at times, especially from Central Asia and Iran, and Europe.


Artist & Author: Paul Klee

Artist & Author: Paul Klee

Paul Klee (German: [paʊ̯l ˈkleː]; 18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a Swiss-born German artist. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionismcubism, and surrealism. Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci‘s A Treatise on Painting was for the Renaissance.[1][2][3] He and his colleague, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture in Germany. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality.

Klee was at the peak of his creative output. His Ad Parnassum (1932) is considered his masterpiece and the best example of his pointillist style; it is also one of his largest, most finely worked paintings.[53][54] He produced nearly 500 works in 1933 during his last year in Germany.[55] However, in 1933, Klee began experiencing the symptoms of what was diagnosed as scleroderma after his death. The progression of his fatal disease, which made swallowing very difficult, can be followed through the art he created in his last years. His output in 1936 was only 25 pictures. In the later 1930s, his health recovered somewhat and he was encouraged by a visit from Kandinsky and Picasso.[56] Klee’s simpler and larger designs enabled him to keep up his output in his final years, and in 1939 he created over 1,200 works, a career high for one year.[57] He used heavier lines and mainly geometric forms with fewer but larger blocks of color. His varied color palettes, some with bright colors and others somber, perhaps reflected his alternating moods of optimism and pessimism.[58] Back in Germany in 1937, seventeen of Klee’s pictures were included in an exhibition of “Degenerate art” and 102 of his works in public collections were seized by the Nazis.[59]

Klee has been variously associated with ExpressionismCubismFuturismSurrealism, and Abstraction, but his pictures are difficult to classify. He generally worked in isolation from his peers, and interpreted new art trends in his own way. He was inventive in his methods and technique. Klee worked in many different media—oil paintwatercolorinkpasteletching, and others. He often combined them into one work. He used canvas, burlap, muslin, linen, gauze, cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint.[65] Klee employed spray paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto, and mixed media such as oil with watercolor, watercolor with pen and India ink, and oil with tempera.[66]

Source: Wikipedia

Artist: Eugène Séguy & the pochoir method

Artist: Eugène Séguy & the pochoir method

Emile-Allain Séguy, professionally known as E.A. Séguy, was a French designer during the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements of the 1920s. He primarily created patterns and textiles inspired by the natural world. Because of his particular fascination with insects, he has been confused with Eugene Séguy, a French entomologist active during the same time period. However, it is Emile-Allain who created the popular Papillons and Insectes books, filled with illustrations of vividly colored butterflies and insects made using the pochoir—French for “stencil”—technique.

Simply stated, pochoir is the French word for stencil.  In the 1920’s and 30’s Art Deco era, the color  application process of the stencil was rejuvenated by the French, bringing color illustration processes for books and prints to new glorious heights.  This interest in exploring the stencil process came in reaction to the proliferation of machine printing and the poor quality of color reproductions in publishing.  With pochoir printing, the hand application of layers of pigment created dazzling effects that the camera or printing press could never replicate.  Earlier stencil works, typically used for decorative surface ornament were quite primitive, with applied color areas outlined by the supporting cutout framework.  New experimental techniques in pochoir refined the process using multiple layers of color applications for a single print.   Pochoir printing was also easily combined with images made by lithography, woodcut, wood engraving, line drawings, or etchings, thus turning a decorative technique into fine art.  Jean Saudé was one of the foremost artists to explore and promote pochoir techniques and his treatise, Traité d’Enluminure d’Art au Pochoir, published in 1925 did much to further this art form.

POCHOIR: technique

pochoir costume designs by Sonia Delaunay

With pochoir, a hand painted fashion plate, decorative or interior design, or illustration to be duplicated was carefully analyzed to determine each color layer.  Often, but not always, an outline of the image was printed as a black and white lithograph and served as a base layer, especially in the design and fashion portfolios.  In many interior illustrations, a line drawing or even a half-tone photograph was lithographed as the base layer.  Each succeeding layer of color was then printed over the black and white litho layer.  Depending on how intense the lithograph layer was, it would either be incorporated fully in the final image or be invisible and serve only as a guide to the image layout.  

Separate stencils were cut, sometimes in thin sheets of copper, zinc, or aluminum, for every color component.  Later stencil materials were made of celluloid or plastic and contemporary stencil materials are made of coated paper or acetate.  Each successive color layer, using watercolor or gouache, was applied to the stencil with a brush called a pompon.  Pigment on the brush could not be thick or runny, as paint could easily slide underneath the stencil and change the shape of the image. Therefore, it was necessary to really blot the pigment on the brush before applying it to the stencil and in the case of watercolor images, this was even more critical. Skilled printers could achieve incredibly subtle details using gradation and stippling, spattering or even simply drawing additional details with a small brush on the final layer.  Sometimes as many as 100 stencils were used to recreate a single image, and the resulting print was surprisingly rich and detailed.  

Entirely non mechanised, pochoir was both an intensive and highly luxurious way of producing images, one which suited perfectly the elegance and extravagance of the Art Nouveau and Deco fashion journals that were the source of its enormous popularity from the early 1900s to the glistening Jazz age. Artist-cum-designers, such as George Barbier and Sonia Delaunay, published their costume and textile designs in rich, luminescent pochoir folios, lending a lavish air of the haute couture to each new illustration, while everyone from bespoke furniture and wallpaper producers to high-end architects produced catalogues of exorbitantly expensive products for their endlessly wealthy clients.

Seguy produced eleven albums of nature themed illustrations and patterns, drawing inspiration from papillons and other insects, flowers, foliage, crystals and animals. Seguy was one of few artists that successfully combined both Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles in his work. His brightly colored geometric patterns were intended to be used as inspiration for such decorative items as textiles and wallpaper.

Dover Publications reproduced Seguy’s albums in a book entitled Seguy’s Decorative Butterflies and Insects in Full Color. The publisher had this to say about Seguy: “His aim was to make available dozens of examples of extremely colorful exotic animals that had been unjustly neglected by occidental decorative artists because of their rarity in life and in illustration. It is interesting to note that Seguy, while confident that butterflies would be readily accepted, made the special plea for the other insects that were constructed like wonderful machines and were thus entitled to the same consideration as an airplane fuselage, an ocean liner or locomotive; nature was a successful industrial designer!”

Seguy’s albums were created using a unique printing process called pochoir, which was popular in France at the turn of the 20th century. Pochoir is a process that utilizes the method of applying pigment to paper through the use of stencils. First, the artist created an image in watercolor or gouache. The design was then analyzed to determine the necessary colors and number of stencils needed. The stencils could be cut from any number of materials, including copper, zinc, oiled cardboard, or celluloid. The paint was applied through the stencils by brushes or pompons. The prints were produced entirely by hand assembly line style, and each one was individually examined and approved upon completion.

While simple in concept, pochoir could become quite complex in practice, with some images requiring the use of 100 or so stencils to produce a single print. The technique was regularly used to produce plates in French fashion journals as well as being used to illustrate industrial design, textile, interiors, and architecture folios.


L’Ornement polychrome & Albert Racinet

L’Ornement polychrome & Albert Racinet

Albert-Charles-Auguste Racinet (1825–1893), himself an accomplished artist, is best known today for publishing two major pictorial works on the history of design — Le costume historique and L’Ornement polychrome — while engraver and artistic director at the Parisian publisher Firmin Didot et Cie. Published in ten instalments between 1869 and 1873, the first iteration of L’Ornement polychrome (Colour ornament) is a visual record in 100 plates of the decorative arts from antiquity to the eighteenth century. The work was such a huge success that in 1885–7 Racinet brought out a second series, this time of 120 plates, and updated to include designs of the nineteenth century as well. The imagery presented in both series is drawn from a wide array of various mediums, including woodwork, metalwork, architecture, textiles, painting, and pottery, and from cultures all over the world.

Although based on past masterpieces of design, the fantastic reproductions in L’Ornement polychrome, carried out by a number of skilled commercial artists of the day, can be considered works of art in their own right. Indeed, for Racinet, the purpose of such a compilation of past design excellence was not only to celebrate the masters of the past but also to inspire an improvement of decorative arts in his own day and age.

The images featured here come from an excellent set of scans by RawPixel from their own 1888 edition of the first series. You can also leaf through the work in book form (again the first series) over at the New York Public Library.

The Public Domain Review