Last week, we randomly stumbled on this photo in the deep bowels of the web. Having no caption or accompanying details, we didn’t know what we were looking at; we just knew this “Armor Dress” was insanely awesome and would make anyone wearing it look like a total badass.
We came to learn – thanks Google! – that the dress was connected to a historic armory in Graz, Austria. So we sent an email to the museum’s director in the hopes of understanding what one would do in such a frock. While we anxiously awaited her response, we posted the picture to our Facebook page as a fun “Midday Medieval Moment,” and that’s when a totally unexpected frenzy of curiosity ensued.
There is no armor for women – and yet any type of clothing shields us from the outside world.
Like a social wildfire, the image-based post quickly reached close to 400,000 people (and counting), after being shared nearly 3,000 times, and being “liked” by just as many.
The comments thread also blew up, and instantly evolved into one of the most interesting and entertaining social conversations to spring up over a single image on our page, to date. The best part… it was all positive, productive, and engaging dialogue, which is a rarity in social media these days.
Stunning. Breathtaking. Gorgeous. Astounding. Kick-ass. These were just a few of the one-word reactions commenters offered about the mysterious “Armor Dress.” Then came the guesses about what it’s made of, its weight and use. “Ceremonial.” “For battles.” “Intricate plate armor.” “A hoax.” History buffs weighed in. Costume designers threw in their two cents. Cosplay enthusiasts reveled. Admirers lusted. Brides-to-be said, “Yes, to the dress.”
This one crowd pleasing image even sparked a fascinating side conversation about the armor available/not available to females in video games. It also became a travel guide for those near and far, “Seriously, how come I live in Vienna and never heard of this?”
Of all the comments the “Armor Dress” elicited, these are some of the best:
“Iron maiden, literally.”
“Design by a worried father.”
“My boobs hurt just looking at that.”
“‘If the boys can wear armor, I can too,’ said one kick-ass Lady.”
“Would be very handy in a zombie apocalypse in my opinion…”
to which someone else hilariously replied, “How would you run away? You’d have to act like a Turtle and pull yourself in!”
While all this was going on, we received a response email from Dr. Bettina Habsburg-Lothringen, Head of Department Cultural History, at the Joanneum Universal Museum in Graz, Austria. The Styrian Armoury (German: Landeszeughaus), which is the only detail we had about the “Armor Dress,” is the Museum’s most-visited institution, attracting around 55,000 visitors from all over the world annually. It’s also the world’s largest historic armory (they house over 30,000 items).
Here’s what she wrote:
“The dress is not part of our collection, but was part of a project in 2003, when Graz was the Cultural Capital City of Europa and the two designers Esther Geremus and Birgit Hutter brought the women’s history and their dress codes during the last centuries into the presentation of our armoury. The dress is not an original object from the Renaissance, made of metal … it is made of plastic and represents the style of that time…”
We weren’t sure what to be more excited about: that the head of the world’s largest historic armory is a woman, that the two designers behind our new favorite dress are women, that the dress was part of an important women’s history exhibit, or, in a Nancy Drew moment, that The mystery of the “Armor Dress” was finally solved!
Dr. Habsburg-Lothringen was kind enough to send us additional details on Esther and Birgit’s exhibit, but the only synopsis she had was in German. So Claudia Schwabe, an Assistant Professor of German at Utah State University, came to our rescue to do a quick translation for us. Thank you Claudia!
Here’s what we now know:
The “Armor Dress” was one of many dresses showcased in the Styrian Armory during a special exhibit called “Rock und Rüstung” (translated: “Skirt and Armor”).
The women behind the entire exhibit, Esther Geremus and Birgit Hutter, presented their magnificent dresses across all four floors of the armory. They were designed to represent four periods of history (Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, present day) and the four possible phases of a woman’s life: girlhood, marriage, pregnancy and old age.
Made of delicate, colorful fabrics, the dresses were meant to offer a sensual counter-story to the stories of death emanating from the armor and weapons in the armory. But the overarching point Esther and Birgit were trying to make was that whether we present ourselves as hard as metal or as soft as silk on the outside, we are all still “thin-skinned” people who will always be vulnerable – clothed or unclothed.
Renaissance fashion was characterized by cone-shaped dresses that forced the body into geometric forms. The corset confines the upper body like a piece of armor. Dresses are stiff and have a strict geometric shape, their surface resembling the metal of armor. This is where our “Armor Dress” fit in to the exhibit.
By contrast, in the Baroque period there were multi-layer petticoats, cleavage increased, and more and more skin was shown, while the signature feature of Rococo fashion was the hoop skirt – an architectural rack for clothes. Esther and Birgit brilliantly showcased these details in their designs.
To tackle present day couture, they covered the entire floor with skirts and dresses from different cultures. Be it baby clothes, an evening gown, or apron dress of an old woman – be it an Austrian dirndl, an Indian sari, or a Japanese kimono, whether made of linen, wool, velvet, or damask: the female clothing culture formed a large carpet and its pattern resulted from the diversity of origins, materials, and cuts. What all the clothes had in common was their red color. Instead of walking through the pools of blood from wounded knights, armory visitors walked over a carpet of dresses that pulsed in the color of blood.
So there you have it… the now infamous “Armor Dress” that whipped our Facebook page into a frenzy of curiosity turned out to be nothing more than a whimsical costume made of plastic. But how exciting it is to know that the stunning PVC-ish design was part of an exhibit that made an important statement about women, and, thanks to our Facebook friends, has gone on to inspire countless people for so many different reasons.