In Praise and Restitution of Perished Clothing

Ambassador Gabriella Daris reflects on the exhibition ‘Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured’.

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; i

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