Repre-sensational Objects

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

Repre-sensational Objects

By Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly February 26, 2015

This essay was adapted from “Reading Textiles: Vernaculars of Kinship in Discourse and Dress,” presented for the Master of Art degree in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts and published in part in the journal Sightlines.


In the photograph below, three Mennonite head coverings lie on an opaque black background. They look like lunar crescents, nest-making material, molted cocoons, or even ghostly clothes. For years, these garments were the mysterious apparitions of my childhood imagination, fantastical objects whose utility could have been limitless. When these garments were used as intended, they became things far less fantastic: head coverings. However, even with the obvious functionality implied by the term head covering, by which I came to know and interpret these pieces of netted tulle, these garments that were a large part of my Mennonite ancestors’ daily lives have simply evaded straightforward meaning. One provisional way of describing my relationship to them might be as material appendages of my heritage that bore no direct relationship to my physical body.

I rarely handled the head coverings that had been worn regularly by women in my family for decades, and I recently asked my aunt to take them out of storage so I could have a look at their unique and curious structures. Standing at her kitchen table, she handed me the head coverings that she and two of her sisters once wore. I became physically aware of them as encrypted materials that are nonetheless fixed and aging forms. Though the coverings felt brittle and skeletal, they were still forgiving to my touch. Lined up side by side, they resembled commas or quotation marks. Though not all Mennonite head coverings are made of netted tulle, this material is above all used for its permeability. Thus the coverings evoke filters, sieves, cheesecloth, mosquito nets, or window screens. As a material through which some substance can escape, the head covering’s textile is emblematic perhaps of what poet Lyn Hejinian describes as “a form that provides an opening.”1

Three Mennonite head coverings, worn in the United States by Mennonite women of Swiss-German descent, ca. 1950. Courtesy of Eileen Bacon. Photo: Vanessa Kauffman.

I am interested in the religious significance that imbues these objects as well as the lived experience of the bodies that wore or still wear them. Mostly, I am stuck in the lyrical proposition that my aunt unintentionally articulated when she explained that her coverings were pressed so flat because she and her sisters stored them in their Bibles when they weren’t wearing them. The mental image is immediately evocative: words, garments, and bodies, pressed together between pages. It represents how a socially or religiously inscribed body can utilize an established syntax—linguistic, visual, or material—to fortify collective identity and social stability. The head coverings, despite being aged by time and sunlight, resonated with associations: molted skins, cocoons, nets. Above all, the head coverings function as a material for collectivity, as it is felt, historicized, and personally remembered; in other words, they form a text.

Resistant to fixed significance, this text/textile is instead beholden to indeterminate meanings that are crafted temporally by the people who wear or wore them.

Indeed, the etymology of text from textus, Latin for “tissue,” seems to have no better illustration than the textile of the Mennonite head covering, which as a material has been read, interpreted, and used toward differing ends based on the needs of the various social bodies to which it has been attached. Resistant to fixed significance, this text/textile is instead beholden to indeterminate meanings that are crafted temporally by the people who wear or wore them. The social uniformity of the trans-corporeal Mennonite body and its eventual undressing make evident the poetic and political initiatives of language being exposed and committed to the material world, as it commonly is in the form of text and in this case as a textile. In turn, examining the poetics of this textile makes apparent how matter, meaning, and time operate together in language to effect perceptual experiences of tangible, visible, and metaphorical modes of discourse.

The head coverings that I am describing belonged to Swiss-German Mennonites living in the Pacific Northwest of North America in the mid-twentieth century, a subculture of a very large population of Mennonites, many of who never adopted the usual “plain dress” or did so differently.2 The Mennonites are a sect of Anabaptist Christianity, a denomination spurred by Menno Simons in the fifteenth century.3 Simons was from the Netherlands, but his new faith attracted many early followers of Swiss, German, and Russian origins. The foundational Mennonite commitment is to Anabaptism, pacifism, and social justice. From their original assembly during the Protestant Reformation to their eventual emigration to North America, the Mennonites were largely diasporic; their pacifism required them to leave places where their faith opposed compulsory military service. In this dispersal, the Mennonites’ shared German language, “the group’s most effective defense mechanism against assimilation into mainstream American culture, was lost.”Concurrently, about three hundred fifty years after the Mennonites’ initial assembly, the codification of dress emerged as what Donald B. Kraybill calls “an ethnic symbol of resistance” and an intimate gesture of identity.5

Mennonite Women’s Attire, 1903. Phoebe Mumaw Kolb Photographs, HM4-162. Box 2, Folder 3. Courtesy of the Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana. 

Without a communal linguistic vocabulary, Mennonite populations wove a distinct identity from the threads of ritual dress. As reparation for a lost spoken tongue, the social tissue of the Mennonite faith was reified in a semiotic constructed of garments. For the Swiss Mennonites, as well as many other Anabaptist sects, the representation of the Mennonite body was rendered by definitive values of simplicity and modesty, with specific care not to don anything that might be related to military emblems; this was especially apparent in men’s facial-hair styles, which inverted the beardless moustache that had been popular with nineteenth-century soldiers.The resultant apparel consisted, for men, of dark slacks and shirts hinged by hook-and-eye closures in place of buttons (which were considered too decorative) and, for women, neutral-color, below-knee-length dresses, and the head coverings.

Kraybill’s historical chronology of the Mennonite head covering tracks its changing meaning as a symbol. He writes that between 1865 and 1910, during which vast populations of Mennonites were emigrating to North America, the veil’s significance stabilized, “frozen as a bona fide religious symbol,” until 1950, when mainstream social and political upheaval—including new insights afforded by women’s studies—upended the traditional appearance of Mennonites and especially Mennonite women. Kraybill goes on to point out the “disintegrating legitimacy” of the garments as religiously significant, at this time.7 What his chronology reveals is that head coverings are expressive of the bodies that wore them, bodies that—as any living organisms must—evolve through time.

As a sign activated within the tissue of intimate, energetic, and socially built networks—what we could broadly call languages—the Mennonite head covering exemplifies Lisa Robertson’s theory of vernacular as language that produces a “condition for emergence” based on “a gestured co-improvisation in deeply ingrained reference to the shared fact of embodiment.”8 For Mennonites whose use of the garments was like a centrifugal force, moving them away from mainstream society, subjectivity could be gained through a particular adornment of the body that not only worked as a visual cue but also encouraged an intimate form of self-knowledge through the proximity of skin and cloth—and the ties between cloth and scripture. In Robertson’s definition of vernacular, the through-lines between textile, text, and textus as various forms of social tissue are blatant. A vernacular emerges naturally, born through the physical acts of speaking, listening, and reading that compose a subject’s ongoing, embodied negotiation of signs. Within a religious dress code, the body becomes a slate on which the social is written, encouraging a sense of self that is literally by the book, in which one’s body is held in a kind of suspension. The Mennonite codification of clothing, at times, has exemplified symbolic representation at its most precise—where one image or object is seamlessly synchronized with the ideology of the collective—while at other times, the same codification has borne deep gender disparities and fraught social capacities.

For many, these garments are ghosts, items that bear such complicated ideologies and histories...that perhaps they are better left in boxes or shelved in attics.

For many, these garments are ghosts, items that bear such complicated ideologies and histories as reminders of silence or submission that perhaps they are better left in boxes or shelved in attics. And yet, these garments are not merely symbolic; they are physical things with their own materiality and economy, each of which brings significance and tension to the weave of their interpretation. Rituals of social and religious bodies have commonly had a proclivity toward objects that can tangibly mark the movements of the ethereal via a cohesive bodily adornment and visual aesthetic. As Susan Stewart writes, “The aesthetic, as a dimension of the semiotic, celebrates the transformation of the material by the abstract.”9 Objects are seldom used in rituals for the utility of their material constitution. Instead, the object’s materiality is imbued with abstract meaning and signification particular to the ritual act. Stewart explains, “It is not through any intrinsic quality of the sign but rather through the interpretive acts of members of a sign community that a sign comes to have meaning. Hence the transmutability of all signs, their capacity to serve as signified or signifier, is an abstract and interpretive universe constructed by means of concrete social practices.”10 The Mennonite head coverings, porous and skin-like, do not have an explicit utility beyond their figurative signification, but they have been used ritualistically to encourage a sensation of what Stewart calls “uniform membership” in the social utopia of language.11 Stewart’s use of uniform could not be more appropriate, highlighting how these garments embody two common definitions of the word, as describing a similitude in visual and material appearance and as a garment with a particular social significance.

Goshen College Commencement chorus, n.d. Goshen College Informational Services/Audiovisual Materials Photographs, 1958–74. V-4-11. Courtesy of the Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

As with any hermeneutic specimen, the exegesis of the head coverings will forever be temporally inflected and evolving; words change rapidly and become archaic or obsolete but are hardly ever buried entirely, especially after they’ve been recorded. As a symbol, the garment relies on a fixed identification that is historically sustained, but, as a figural sign that is reimagined and differentiated through time, the garment has an indeterminacy that is settled by wearing it within a community’s semiotics. If these garments had been vital symbols that voiced identity and unity (rather than instrumentality), then their removal would be indicative of entire Mennonite populations renouncing faith. When a textile is considered as a linguistic form, its ephemeral quality, existing as something that is routinely put on and taken off the body, suggests that language is something that we put on, that we climb into, and that we present physically based on societal or spiritual needs. Textiles represent language as an object but only insofar as that object successfully transpires as such through inflection and embodiment. To remove the head covering while still claiming Mennonite faith is to visually recognize the changing world and a subculture’s place within it, just as changing one’s vocabulary is not to renounce faith in language but rather to acknowledge the delusion of having control of it.

Tijn Olij-Spaan. Two Women with Contrasting Dress, 1967, from the Eighth Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Mennonite World Conference Records, 1925–2003. X-009. Courtesy of the Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

The purpose of the head coverings that my grandmother and great aunts wore to church and for important occasions was never fully explained to me. Looking at photographs, I certainly understood that the head coverings performed the identification with a group, but, based on such images alone, there were few fulfilling explanations for their proliferation and use. The plethora of visual indicators found in family photo albums was simply not helpful for researching, let alone understanding, representational forms (Stewart’s term for images or objects that rely on both abstract and sensory systems of knowledge for their legibility). The singular point of view that is offered in a photograph is frozen, static, and perhaps even unsettling.12 Because the use of head coverings had become so rare in my family, and conversations about them hushed, my interpretation of the coverings was broken down; often told to regard the head coverings as oppressive objects, I was not encouraged to look at or think about them as being anything other than tools of patriarchy.

I did want to touch them—as I had been enigmatically touched by them.

Compared to the lightness of the Mennonite head coverings as material objects, trying to handle their conceptual complexity was a weighty enterprise. The phrase “to handle” describes both an action that conveys authority and determination and one of coping and self-care. Both meanings applied to my hesitation when I held the head coverings. I did not want to assert authority onto these objects or fix them in meaning, but I did want to touch them—as I had been enigmatically touched by them. As any textile conservator will tell you, incessant touch will wear away a garment, but this diminishing always produces new effects and thus meanings in each encounter between person and material. 

Representation is never isolated from context. The head coverings—long put away by some Mennonite women and still routinely worn by others—are constantly negotiated within a changing landscape of signification. As Stewart writes, formal representations are merely descriptions of otherwise imperceptible transmissions of an “economy of significance…shared by social members and which differs cross-culturally and historically.”13 Because the Mennonite head coverings are predicated by abstract ideologies and lack utility outside of their socio-theological context, they are entirely dependent on the ever-evolving economies of significance that Stewart mentions. While the coverings’ history may be particular, their future usages (and analyses of such) are unpredictable; they are materially available for new hands, new interpretations, and new meanings.

Mennonite head covering, worn in the United States by Mennonite women of Swiss-German descent, ca. 1950. Courtesy of Eileen Bacon. Photo: Vanessa Kauffman.

Appendix: a confession about signification

For months, while researching the thesis from which this essay is adapted, I returned to the passage in Stewart’s book, On Longing, on representational forms, and each time, I read the word representational, I misread it as a wonderful portmanteau, represensational.  My impression of the word was incorrect, yet this misreading was significantly more viable for my interpretation, becoming a cornerstone of my argument and a guiding light for my methodology. When read within the swell of meaning Stewart manifests in her writing, the word became what it needed to be for me to understand her theory most fully at that time, and I perceived it as such for many times after.

If the fixity of this kind of repeated misreading sounds at odds with academia’s—and many religions’—emphasis on scriptural fidelity, let me assert the value of misreading as a kind of resistance toward the reliance on a rational and unitary vision of reality. Joan Retallack is, as often, instructive here. For her, ethically responsible processes of reading and writing activate embodied sensations where “the disjunctive syntax, [and] the depunctuated grammar send ripples through any image that might be forming, [to] keep it moving in the mind.”14 It wasn’t until I was flipping through Stewart’s book and scanning the paragraphs for an unrelated passage that I noticed the term representational as printed. Had I not returned to the book, and had I not allowed my eyes to swim in a different pattern while seeking out new information, I may have never caught my original error. And, while I may never have needed to correct myself in order to complete my research on Mennonite head coverings, doing so provided a poignant return to the question of the shifting significance of textual objects as they pass, generously, from reader to reader, who each provide a new place of beginning. These head coverings may be vestigial garments—gauzy, ethereal, mysterious—but they are also still cocoons and nests, continually incubating new ideas and significances.


  1. Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), 41.
  2. The white, net head coverings that beheld my fascination were the standard for many Mennonite women of Swiss-German descent living in the United States, though they differ greatly from the coverings that were worn by those of Russian-Prussian descent, or of those who immigrated directly to Latin American countries.
  3. Donald B. Kraybill defines the key characteristics of Anabaptist reform as such: “The Anabaptists established voluntary churches, free of state control, consisting of members who made voluntary adult decisions to join the body…The young reformers were nicknamed ‘Anabaptists,’ meaning ‘rebaptizers’…Rebaptism was a capital offense in 16th-century Europe because it threatened the longtime marriage of civil and religious authority. Consequently, many Anabaptists were tormented, burned at the stake, or imprisoned because of their ‘heretical’ faith.” Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2010), xiv.
  4. Donald B. Kraybill, “Mennonite Woman’s Veiling: The Rise and Fall of a Sacred Symbol,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 61 (July 1987), 302.
  5. Kraybill, “Mennonite Woman’s Veiling,” 303.
  6. Kraybill, Concise Encyclopedia, 24.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Lisa Robertson, Nilling: Prose (Toronto: Book Thug, 2012), 82–83.
  9. Susan Stewart, “On Description and the Book,” in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University, 1993), 32.
  10. Stewart, 32.
  11. Ibid., 26.
  12. Joan Retallack proposes that the limit of a “picture theory…[is that it] presumes that a meaningful picture is instantly legible because of its this = that correspondence to a fully available, intelligible reality.” Joan Retallack, “:Re:Thinking:Literary:Feminism:” in The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California, 2003), 117.
  13. Stewart, 26.
  14. Retallack, 117.

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