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The Art of PPE

Amanda Mikolic, Curatorial Assistant for the Department of Medieval Art
February 26, 2021
Armor for Man and Horse with Völs-Colonna Arms, c. 1575. North Italy, 16th century. 1964.88

Did you buy your face mask from a well-known designer or was it lovingly made by hand by a family member or friend? Does it feature a trendy design inspired by pop culture? Is it a reflection of your personal style and taste? Did you order it online or design it yourself? In the age of COVID, the facemask is the most visible form of PPE, or personal protective equipment. But the art of PPE has a long history. Here we take a look at examples from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

PPE, or personal protective equipment, may be a new buzz-word to many, but it is a concept rooted deep in the past. The basic function of any form of PPE is to protect the wearer from harm. Throughout history, PPE also became a means of expression for both the user and the maker. Items could be ordered or commissioned by specialists or tenderly made by family members and could reflect much about the wearer.

Armor for Man and Horse with Arms, c. 1575. North Italy. Steel. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1964.88. Photo: David Brichford. On view in gallery 210A

Perhaps the most obvious form of PPE is armor. The primary function of suits of armor was to protect the wearer in battle or tournament from serious harm or death. The history of armor is one and the same with the history of fashion, and different styles and trends became popular over time and in different regions. Armor provided a blank canvas for experimentation and creativity, ultimately resulting in masterpieces that elevated this version of PPE to an art form.

Detail of Armor for Man and Horse with Arms. Photo: David Brichford

A family crest is found seven times in prominent locations on this armor for a horse and rider. The etched decoration was fashionable in northern Italy during the late 1500s and consists of ornamental bands of figures, animals, portrait busts, and armor trophies. The owner of the armor likely picked his preferred patterns from a catalogue book.

Field Armor in Maximilian Style, c. 1510–15. Germany, Augsburg(?). Fluted steel with leather straps; overall: 170.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 2012.38. On view in gallery 210A

Distinguished by regularly fluted surfaces that would have been striking in the sunlight, armor in this style was popularized in southern Germany during the early 1500s. The fluting likely imitates the pleating of male garments of the period. The style is known as “Maximilian,” after Emperor Maximilian I (1493–1519), who popularized it; with his endorsement, it became a trend, lasting only about ten years.

Detail of Field Armor in Maximilian Style with helmet likely by Lorenz Helmschmied (German, active 1467–1515). Photo: David Brichford

The helmet of this suit is believed to be the work of the esteemed armorer Lorenz Helmschmied (German, active 1467–1515), who was sought after by courts far from his home in Augsburg for his innovative, artistic designs. He achieved immense popularity for his ability to balance functionality and beauty.

Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casal, The Little Hunt. Photo credit: Marshall Ikonography / Alamy

Tunics were important garments in Egypt. Although their relationship to modern PPE may not be immediately recognizable, they are indeed meant to protect the wearer from myriad threats.

Tunic, 600s–700s. Egypt, Islamic Umayyad period (661–750). Undyed linen, dyed wool; weft-faced plain weave with slit- and dovetailed-tapestry weave, supplementary weft wrapping, embroidery; overall: 205 x 170.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The A. W. Ellenberger Sr., Endowment Fund, 1972.46. On view in gallery 106A.

This unisex tunic is decorated on the front and back with the same geometric and figural motifs, including hunters on horseback on the sleeves, and more significantly, geometric braided knots on the shoulders and the bottom hem which were believed to protect the wearer from harm, including disease, injury, and ultimately death. The Greek word katadeo, means not only “to bind” physically, as with knots, but also through spells. Designs with knots have long been believed to have powerful connotations.

Detail of Tunic (above). Ornament with Symbolic Interlacing Knots, 400s–600s. Egypt, Byzantine period (400s–600s). Undyed linen, dyed wool; tapestry weave with supplementary weft wrapping; overall: 26.1 x 25.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Dudley P. Allen Fund, 1919.21 (below).

The styles and colors of tunics varied as fashion trends ebbed and flowed, allowing wearers to make their own statements about power, wealth, and taste according to the intricacy of the designs and the luxuriousness of the materials. In the Islamic Umayyad period in Egypt, red was a preferred background while earlier a monochromatic palette was favored; however, intention of the interlacing knot remained the same. Knots and interlaces were not confined to tunics, as they also appeared on home furnishings, mosaic floors, and stone reliefs, sometimes reinforced by a protective inscription. Designs such as these were highly prized and often cut out of textiles after they deteriorated to be re-stitched onto newer fabrics.

Boy’s Vest, c. 1880. Plains, Lakota (Sioux). Beadwork; average: 45.7 x 38.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, James Albert and Mary Gardiner Ford Memorial Fund, 1982.62

Many Indigenous Americans also assigned protective qualities to garments. For instance, the Lakota (Sioux) of the Great Plains ceremonially intone, “something sacred wears me” — that is, humans don powerful garments but are worn, animated, and protected by the sacred forces within the materials and imagery. Before Europeans arrived, garments were made from animal skins and decorated with pigment or quillwork. By 1700, European materials such as glass beads became available in the region and Plains artists creatively adopted these new materials into their traditional designs; beads remain a central artistic medium today. Especially important are garments worn by children, and each of the thousands of beads that a woman patiently stitches to a child’s garment is a protective prayer.

Cradle or Carrier, c. 1900. Plains, Lakota (Sioux). Native-tanned hide, cotton cloth, glass beads, metal beads, brass bell, sinew thread, cotton thread; overall: 22.9 x 25.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of David S. McMillan, 1984.1047

Cradles with rigid frames offer protection to babies as they are being transported, whether on their mother’s back or, in the past, by horse. Those without frames, like this one, can be held in the arms and are used on special occasions. Skilled bead workers often make cradles for family members, lovingly encrusting the cradles with beads, which are symbols of status. Although little is known about the meaning of Lakota design elements, they likely were meant to provide spiritual protection and encode wishes for a long, healthy life. Both the designs and the cradles are passed on through generations so their ability to provide protection may continue.

Photo: Amanda Mikolic

Throughout history, PPE has provided a blank canvas for artistic expression. Much like today’s protective masks, no two elements of PPE needed to be the same. Whether commissioned by a popular artisan or lovingly created by a family member, PPE reflects both individual tastes and social trends.