Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews, Study days  |  September 8, 2017

In Praise and Restitution of Perished Clothing

Gabriella Daris

Ever wondered what happens to apparel that, due to its severely damaged condition, remains hidden and locked away in the dark of museum stores, archives, or collectors’ cabinets, left deteriorating even further over time? This unfathomed matter is what inspired curator Amy de la Haye and exhibition maker Jeffrey Horsley, the creators of - what they refer to as an “essay exhibition” – ‘Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured’ at the Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion. For such apparels are here praised for their weariness and placed under the spotlight, center-stage, acting as “autonomous partial objects” and storytellers.

During the making of this exhibition, what Horsley enjoyed the most was, “taking one garment and finding how much depth you can get into […] like a forensic investigation.” De la Haye remarked that, “In every instance, we talked and talked and talked and angst it,” explaining how they shifted, “from making an exhibition about garments that are damaged in some way, to an exhibition about making fashion exhibitions and they became the case study.” Horsley then added: “You can do fashion exhibitions in lots of different ways, it doesn’t have to be epic […] it can be small, it can be very loose, it can be associative.”

The purpose of the University of the Arts’ Centre for Fashion Curation is to find innovative strategies of exhibition making by exploring experimental ways of narrating and deciphering material cultures. To this end, the way the four interwoven themes in the ‘Present Imperfect’ exhibition are treated, manage to redefine fashion curation by engaging the viewer deeper and in more complex ways than those we are accustomed to:

1. Object: the exhibited objects have been chosen especially for their damaged condition, fragility, transience and aura, and are appreciated due to their imperfect beauty through the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics known as ‘wabi-sabi’.

2. Body: the exhibited articles of clothing are no longer “organs without body”.(1) Despite the absence of the wearer, the body is here re-imagined, alluding to the human form through the utilization of different techniques.

3. Text: by reassessing the notion of exhibition interpretation and subverting the conventions of labels, the selection of texts sourced from across disciplines and attributed to each exhibited item, gives them a voice that ventriloquizes their alternative stories.

4. Installation: the installation combines elements of a gallery space and the space where research is undertaken by the creators of the exhibition; this hybrid space aims at sharing the working processes, including the ideas explored, chosen and rejected, and the resources, drawn from various disciplines that may be both inspiring and educative.

Gabriella Daris: The objects in the exhibition were chosen especially due to their lack of preservation and severely damaged condition, which highlights the rich history they embody. To what extent does the status or better to say, value, of these damaged apparels change once they are seen in an exhibition context, and consequently, develop our understanding of cultural history?

Amy de la Haye: If you see something in a retail context or an auction, you are concerned with the price and in a gallery context it’s primarily about interpretation. The meaning is of the individual, and that’s the whole thing with collecting as well; it’s the eyes of the collector that make it valuable or the eyes of the curator or exhibition maker that make it invaluable actually. They may not have a financial value but historically and exhibition-wise…

Gabriella Daris: … they contribute to education?

Amy de la Haye: Right. […] We found garments that have often been dismissed as unexhibitable, which are more inspiring than in their perfect version, for the purposes of this project.

Jeffrey Horsley: They obviously have an extra layer of narrative because of the disintegration. Our gaze was almost entirely fixed on that. We were amplifying their value.

Amy de la Haye: All our curatorial exhibition-making strategies were targeted upon that and then how can we explore that. We are testing conventions.

Gabriella Daris: I find echoes of Hussein Chalayan’s buried, oxidized silk dresses from his, ‘The Tangent Flows’ (1993) graduate collection…

Amy de la Haye: Yes, but that’s a different story… well, it’s about fashion incorporating the aesthetic of decay, which fashion designers have done.

Upon arrival, and even before entering the gallery space, seen through the window, on the ground floor, was an installation comprising of a jacket (Stone Island, A/W 2007 collection), a photograph of the same jacket and a text description of this jacket. I couldn’t help but recall the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth who, in 1965, placed a chair, a photograph of the chair and a reproduction of a dictionary definition of the word “chair” (‘One and Three Chairs’). Horsley explained that his intention was to play with layers of vision, and he pointed out that the photograph is of the outside of the jacket, whereas the mannequin in-situ wears the jacket inside out. A photograph of a detail from a Redfern dress, made 100 years earlier, was placed onto the transparent case where the jacket was displayed: “they delaminated and shattered in the same way,” Horsley explained.

Jeffrey Horsley: As an exhibition maker, you accumulate reference points. There are some things that you create yourself and there are some things that are influenced. I’m quite happy for people to draw any connections.

Amy de la Haye: And people come with their own biographical references and they will see different things.

Jeffrey Horsley: I can look at the exhibition and see Christian Boltanski or even, sometimes, Sylvie Fleury’s work, a lot of artists who use clothing as a part of their raw materials. I must say that this is possible, in this case, because we have taken the garments out of a dress historian’s perspective […] because they are not being exhibited within the canon of dress history.

Having seen the exhibition in its entirety, I recalled Mary Kelley’s installation ‘Interim’ (1984-9), and specifically Part I: ‘Corpus’ (1984-5), which juxtaposes photographs depicting articles of convulsive clothing with text - in this case, the text constructs fantasies of ageing through a discourse that lies across medicine, fiction and fashion. Amelia Jones interpreted this series as, “a stand-in for the body itself in order to explore the effects of subjectivity as well as the social processes that inform it.”(2) Like in Kelley’s art installation, the exhibition strategies applied in ‘Present Imperfect’ interweave distorted articles of clothing with texts. In both cases, the notion of the absence of the body acts as the starting point for associative narratives that oscillate between the factual and the fictional, the historical and the imaginary.

Take for instance the pair of Victorian, kid leather gloves from circa 1830s, with the flexion of body language written all over them, as these were burned and paralyzed in a certain gesture, with the burn, “impart[ing] a physiognomy to them.”(3) To me, they seem more sculptural than just a pair of gloves, and as fetishized and enigmatic as the gloves that André Breton obsesses over in his semi-autobiographical novel, ‘Nadja’ (1928): “I don’t know what there can have been, at that moment, so terribly, so marvelously decisive for me in the thought of that glove leaving that hand forever.”(4)

We don’t know what happened to the gloves and when they are dated from, but de la Haye searched and found a pair of similar gloves from the 1830s. Horsley, then, researched the average height of women aged 23-49 years in urban England between 1830-5, and based on his finds, he marked the top and bottom of the imaginary female figure onto the black MDF base, inside of a horizontal display structure and positioned the gloves exactly at the point where her hands would be. In placement of her corpus, milled into ZFMDF, is a selection of In Memoriam inscriptions, found in Victorian tombstones, of girls who were burned. Whenever Horsley got to see the gloves, he recalled numerous films that feature women being burned - the absence of the body here creates space for associative thoughts, ranging from problematic figures of women burning in fiction through to crime history. The selection of texts that accompany this exhibit includes a brief history of the glove trade and glove design over the centuries; images of window displays of gloves; the meaning of the idiom “burn your fingers” i.e., to suffer a loss; a historical text describing women burned alive for either witchcraft, high treason (coining) or petty treason (murder); excerpts from Charlotte Brontë’s novel, ‘Jane Eyre’ (1847); and an email written by Alasdair Peebles, the owner of the gloves, which reads:

I was enchanted by the extreme delicacy and elegance of these gloves […] I have always felt drawn to the ‘distressed’ and the patina of age and wear. The fact that these gloves had been partially burnt reminded me in some way of rather ‘novelistic’ stories of disaster (perhaps from the pages of Jane Eyre), for me they had acquired an added layer of romance and fantasy, tinged with feelings of sadness and fragility. Of course the banal truth is that ‘damaged’ clothes have generally very little value […] I have always treasured these little gloves […] they have no resale value to entice me to part with them!

Another exhibit is a perished, Redfern afternoon gown from circa 1907, placed horizontally inside a case - identical to the rest in the exhibition - and with an extract from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets: Burnt Norton’ (1936) milled on its transparent top. Over time, the metal that was added to the silk cut through the filaments - a phenomenon called ‘inherent vice’. This item is accompanied by a lexicon of terminology of fashion at the time, an essay by a Redfern expert, and the email correspondence between the curator and the owner of the dress, amongst other research material.

A more contemporary exhibit is the prototype of an Alexander McQueen leather jacket from his S/S 2005 collection. The jacket features hand-colored, photocopied pattern motifs, cut-out of paper and taped onto the article, as well as marks made with a red, felt-tip pen indicating amendment. “That’s a draft of something that then went into production,” Horsley explains. The jacket lies horizontally onto the base inside of a case, with the body articulated graphically with the use of black and white draping tape. This is mapped out in a way that replicates a fashion drawing template found online, suggestive of the representation of a pattern-maker’s measurements. This item is accompanied by a selection of fashion reviews, and a number of scholarly essays that look at the mythology of McQueen’s working processes; on a fully annotated page, there is a bibliographical reference to Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art after the Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). There is no explanation regarding its rather obvious (well, it is to me), association with the actual object that is on display. “The whole point is to make you go off and make more research. You might just become obsessed with one tiny bit and this takes you off to a journey, which you have not anticipated,” de la Haye explains. After all, isn’t that one of the main purposes and effects of any kind of exhibition?

Another contemporary item in the exhibition is a ballet singlet designed by Suzanne Gallo and worn by dancer Paul Old during the performances of ‘Touchbase’ - choreographed by Merce Cunningham for the Rambert Company in 1992. The dance costume looks different on the photographs to how it appears in real life. Imprinted are traces left from when it was animated by the dancer: stains of sweat and cosmetics, and a hole below the label onto which a stitched piece of cotton bears the dancer’s name in blue ink, and another label with the item’s archive number. What differentiates this from the rest of the exhibited apparels, Horsley explains, is that, “the disintegration or deterioration is caused through physical activity.” Dance reviews, dance scores, and a number of articles that look on the history of stain removal hang on the wall, along with the program of the dance performance, which includes this highlighted sentence: “[Cunnigham] knows exactly how to use a ‘structural device’ to give a piece a distinctive character, and how to fashion ‘sculpted shape’, or the action meticulously observed in ‘rhythm’ and dynamics.” (My emphasis) This, perhaps, inspired some elements of the installation: the dancer’s absent body is here reimagined by the impression of another male dancer’s figure, milled from a 3D body-scan (created by the Digital Anthropology Lab at LCF), onto the MDF black base inside of the horizontal case. The costume seems to be hovering and dancing to the rhythm of the sound recording of Merce counting to the beat that is played on a loop from a speaker right above it.

In his discussion of Michael Powell’s ‘The Red Shoes’ - where the shoes keep on dancing despite the death of the ballerina who wore them - Slavoj Žižek describes that, “the autonomous partial objects […] are, the dimension of the undead, living dead, something which remains alive even after it is dead, and it’s, in a way, immortal in its deadness itself, it goes on, insists, you cannot destroy it…”(5) Similarly, the creators of the exhibition ‘Present Imperfect’ managed to animate these otherwise perished articles of clothing, as well as bestowing them with not just one but multiple voices. The texts attributed to each exhibit suggest fragments as a means of totality and permanence. The absence of the wearer can still find a lexicon due to the memorialized loss that is incorporated within the garments. These seem at once familiar and unfamiliar, evoking a sense of fragility and concreteness, reminiscent of Breton’s weightless glove and one cast in bronze. The allusion is one that points to the metaphysical presence and materiality of objects; both maintained and protected due to their very displacement, their reconfiguration, from abandoned and repressed, to displayed for public scrutiny as artifacts. Now castrated, these ‘autonomous partial objects’ find a new dwelling in the framing of the ‘essay exhibition’ context that acts not as a coffin, but as a stage for them to perform the stories they embody.

In closing, I would like to reassess the strategies, methods and methodologies used here, and to draw further points of interest to my readers. The texts and images that are taped onto the walls opposite each exhibited item, acting as labels, are juxtaposed for the certain similarities that they bear, with their setting creating new meaning and narrative. Their collation is in some way reminiscent of the pioneering working method of Aby Warburg, as illustrated in his ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’ (1927-9): a mosaic of facsimiles, that is both pedagogic and theatrical. Apparently, they reflect how every researcher’s wall, or even desktop, looks, and this includes artists, not just scholars. These are sourced from online databases and across disciplines such as fiction, cultural history, journalism, and dictionaries, to state but a few. This demonstrates that research conducted today may be multi-disciplinary and is only a Google’s click away: with the use of a keyword, doors to worlds previously unknown open broadly, as if by magic.

The act of pulling threads, as it were, from different viewpoints, in order to decipher the mystery behind these articles of clothing, constructs a polyphony that is analogous to the debate on Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Old Shoes with Laces’ (1886), which caused a kind of turbulence in the art historical canon. Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological description on the ‘Old Shoes’, in his 1935 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”, is remarkable; despite his lack of information about this worn-out pair of shoes and holding the belief that “they speak”, their “thingness” stimulated his poetic imagination: he reimagined the wearer and illustrated their “disclosure truth” in his attempt to provide a cultural analysis using this particular pair of shoes as a case study. In response to Heidegger’s views, Meyer Shapiro wrote an art historical essay in 1968, where he points out not only that Heidegger dismissed that the shoes belonged to the artist himself, and not to a woman peasant as he suggested, but also that, “he has retained […] a moving set of associations […] which are not sustained by the picture itself but are grounded rather in his social outlook.”(6) Evidently, Shapiro did not understand Heidegger’s philosophical implications and went on to compare van Gogh’s shoes with the shoes discussed by Knut Hamsun’s narrator in his novel, ‘Hunger’ (1890), demonstrative of yet another possible association. Following this, Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the two aforementioned essays, in a text(7) of many voices that he wrote in 1978, discusses the limits of interpretation by individuals and the paradoxes found in the art historical reading, and proposes “deconstruction” as the only way towards the true understanding of things.

In conclusion, seeking to reach a point beyond the limits of interpretation, the ‘essay exhibition’, ‘Present Imperfect’, is neither an art installation nor an historical exhibition as such (although it incorporates elements of each), but something in-between, or else, “an exhibition about making fashion exhibitions,” as de la Haye remarked. Perhaps, a “Research Methods module essay-turned-exhibition” would be a more apt definition. Whatever it is, this framework implies that ‘Present Imperfect’ is an exhibition that offers visitors an insight into de la Haye’s and Horsley’s personal interpretations and points of reference. And, I too, have given some of mine, to add to the polylogue and in order to expand the exhibition’s suggestive deconstructionist “methodologies” and “strategies”.

‘Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured’ was showing at the Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, from 12 May – 4 August 2017.

 

References:

(1) Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, (Routledge, 2003).

(2) Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis, 1998), pp. 28-9.

(3) Knut Hamsun, Hunger (New York, 1941), p. 27.

(4) André Breton, Nadja (London, 1999), p. 56.

(5) Slavoj Žižek in Sophie Fiennes (dir.) The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, (UK, 2006), part 1.

(6) Meyer Shapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object—A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh” in The Reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein (New York, 1968), p. 138.

(7) Jacques Derrida, “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [Pointure]” in The Truth in Painting (Chicago, 1978), pp. 293-329.

  • 1. Present Imperfect exhibition view at Fashion Space Gallery. Installation of glass cases. Photo by Photo by Jeffrey Horsley
  • 2. Gloves c. 1830s. Lent by Alasdair Peebles. Photo by Katy Davies
  • 3. Research material (or “Labels”) attributed to the exhibit of the gloves. Photo by Katy Davies
  • 4. Redfern afternoon gown, c.1907. Courtesy of Mrs Celia Moreton-Prichard. Photo by Katy Davies
  • 5. Dance costume by Suzanne Gallo for the performance of Touchbase, worn by Paul Old. Courtesy of the Rambert Archive. Photo by Katy Davies
  • 6. Present Imperfect exhibition view at Fashion Space Gallery. Installation of glass cases. Photo by Jeffrey Horsley.

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