What: The dress of Queen Tirunesh, Alamayu’s mother
Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL
Overview: Part of a collection of the queen’s clothes, jewellery and other personal possessions. It was kept aside after she died on the march back from Maqdala and given to the museum by the Secretary of State for India.
On one hand, it’s tragic how little we know about Queen Tirunesh, beyond her family line and the fragments of myth. On the other, there are few great figures from history that we can get to know so intimately, if we take the time to look through her possessions. Take this dress.
All the accounts agree she was young when she married Emperor Tewodros, very young indeed, maybe 12. She would have grown into her role from young girl to young woman and you can see her do it in real time through the adjustments and tweaks in her gown as she got bigger and taller. The dress is 49in long, including a whole extra panel extension sewn in at the bottom. I can hardly imagine it fitting an average 12-year-old now, so Tirunesh must have been tiny when she first put it on.
The V&A, which suggests the dress was part of the queen’s dowry, was kind enough to let me have a closer look a few years back when it was in storage. The first thing that stood out were the cuffs, so narrow that no one but a child could have got their hands through the holes.
There are lots of details to admire, particularly the beautiful silk embroidery on the cotton that loops down the torso like a giant neck-lace. (Silk wasn’t produced in Ethiopia so there is a good chance the thread came from an imported piece of cloth that was painstakingly unravelled, according to academic Nicola Stylianou in her paper ‘The Empress’s Old Clothes’.) But it is the overall form that lingers. Even when the dress is laid out on a table, you can get a very real idea of the young woman who wore it and the life that she lived.
It may have been a luxurious garment when she got it. Over the years though, as Tirunesh waited neglected at the top of her mountain fortress, it got more than its fair share of regular use, down to the stains and marks of wear and earth and the ragged hem. Tirunesh was very much an empress who had to walk on the ground.
Accession number 399-1869
More images and detail on the museum’s website – https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O69064/kamis-unknown/
Dress in Detail From Around the World. By Rosemary Crill, Jennifer Wearden and Verity Wilson. V&A, 2002
The Empress’s Old Clothes: Biographies of African Dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By Nicola Stylianou. From the book Dress History : New Directions in Theory and Practice. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, pp. 81-96
Ethiopian Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By Alexandra Jones. African Research & Documentation, no. 135 (2019): 8-24. Read the full text here.
‘Set of Articles of Deceased Queen of Abyssinia’ and related correspondence in British Library collections at IOR R/20/AIA/503.
Silk: Fibre, Fabric and Fashion. Edited by Lesley Ellis Miller and Ana Cabrera Lafuente with Claire Allen-Johnstone, Thames and Hudson Ltd. in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom, 2021, p. 446-447