Although woven as flat rectangles, lamba or woven textiles, are anything but stiff fabric or static form. The lamba was and remains a communicator of identity, conveying Malagasy notions of social rank, wealth, age, region and ethnicity. The "vocabulary" of a cloth is read in its design, size, color, decoration, fiber, and the way it is arranged on the body. Pulled over the head, it protects against cold weather or hides timidity; wrapped tightly around the body, it shows action and determination. Draped over the shoulder, it conveys messages to an admirer or illustrates a flair for fashion. Given its performative potential, cloth in Madagascar is not just worn--it is displayed.
For Madagascar's Merina women born before 1945, a white shoulder wrap has been an indispensable part of formal dress and feminine attire. In the 1960s, most young urban women refused to take up the shoulder wrap, seeing it as old-fashioned and contrary to an active, career-oriented lifestyle. In the mid-1990s, many of these same women--now journalists, politicians and professors--began adopting the shoulder wrap for the first time. They now consider that wearing the lamba allows them to celebrate and assert their Malagasy identity. Most wear it only on formal occasions or for international events, but others have made it part of their daily dress. Nearly all prefer brightly colored shoulder wraps of more contemporary design. The most popular style in recent years has been the MariMar, a light, loose weave named for the heroine of a Mexican soap opera who captivated television audiences throughout Madagascar in 1999 with her rags-to-riches story.
Shoulder wraps are woven of silk, cotton, synthetic, and a combination of these fibers. They may be undyed or brightly colored, depending on the style and current fashion.
This particular shoulder wrap was woven from silk in a tight, fine weave. The floating, white, diamond designs on the white background give this piece a lustrous appearance. The floating diamond or "crown" design is an old one that is very popular again today.
Single panel white silk shoulder wrap, with a tight weave. Lustrous white weft float diamond designs "dot" the cloth at irregular intervals. Running lengthwise along one edge of the cloth is a slightly raised white woven strip with white weft float designs that resemble, to some degree, a hat or crown, with a central peak, outward curving flanges, and vertical and horizontal lines. There is knotted loose fringe at the borders.
Purchased from Emelie Rakondramanana, Madagascar, 2000
Gifts and Blessings: The Textile Arts of Madagascar Malagasy, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, April 14-September 2, 2002
Fee, Sarah. 2002. "Cloth in Motion: Madagascar's Textiles Through History." Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery, and Diplomacy in Madagascar, edited by Christine Mullen Kreamer and Sarah Fee. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 83, no. 46.