The Costume Society Reading Group: Drawing and Researching John Ruskin’s Clothing- Review.

By Wendy Fraser

In our latest blog, CS Ambassador Wendy Fraser reviews our recent Costume Society Reading Group event which explored Ingrid Mida and Sarah Casey's article, “Drawing as a Creative Approach to Researching Extant Garments: A Case Study involving John Ruskin's Clothing".

The Costume Society Reading Group meets virtually to discuss articles published in Costume, the society’s journal, with their authors. In April we were honoured to be joined by art and dress historian Dr Ingrid Mida and artist, researcher, and lecturer Dr Sarah Casey to discuss their article Drawing as a Creative Approach to Researching Extant Garments: A Case Study Involving John Ruskin’s Clothing which was published in Costume 2020, Vol 54, No 2. Mida is co-author of The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion which advocates for a slow and methodical investigation of garments. Casey’s artistic practice ‘reflects a fascination with the unseen, untouchable and unspoken’ and she has collaborated with conservators, archaeologists, and medical practitioners.[1]

Ruskin’s Good Looking!

The article stemmed from Casey’s project for the Brantwood Trust. She was invited to create life-sized drawings of John Ruskin’s clothing to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth. Mida supported her in the examination of the garments at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home and estate on the shores of Coniston Water in the Lake District. The artworks were displayed alongside his extant clothing in the exhibition Ruskin’s Good Looking! between February and April 2019. John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote poetry, produced drawings and watercolours, and published widely on subjects including economics and politics although he is most well-known as a craft theorist and reformist in his writings on art and architecture most notably for his three-volume architectural study, The Stones of Venice, published in 1851.

Drawing as a Creative Approach

Mida explained that the imaginative project married together the close looking skills of Mida as a dress historian ‘unlocking subtle clues that may reveal stories embedded in the garment itself’[1] and the attentiveness that Casey employs in her art practice. Mida endorses slow and precise drawing of artworks as a methodological tool to enable a deeper understanding of the object, a practice which she began as an art student. As she explains in her writing ‘there is a marked difference between looking and seeing, since one can look but not really see. For me, drawing facilitates seeing and a deeper level of engagement with that thing.’[2] This approach is born from Ruskin’s teachings as Mida describes; ‘Ruskin encouraged his students to draw, not to make a beautiful rendering, but rather so that they might better see and understand what they were looking at. Crucially, for Ruskin, drawing was an instrument for gaining knowledge rather than an end in itself.’[3]

The Clothes

When Ruskin died in 1900 the contents of Brantwood were sold at auction. The house opened to the public in 1936. Around the same time, some of his clothing was bought back from dealers and stored in drawers in his former bedroom. Ruskin’s clothes remain stored folded up at Brantwood and none have been mounted. Mida and Casey described the contents of these drawers;

One drawer houses a lacy infant dress and cap, and the other drawer contains a gentleman's formal evening tailcoat, a pair of trousers, waistcoat, white cotton shirt, collars and blue stocks displayed together as an ensemble. As garments that may have once touched Ruskin's body, they are among the most intimate of his possessions that have survived.[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Casey examined the delicate garments onsite, she drew the pieces while they lay flat. She explained that mounting and photographing them would involve too much handling, offering insight into the approach she took.  She measured them and drew with a mechanical pencil. making life-size drawings on graph paper for scale, mapping out the clothes as though she was a cartographer. This was a technique she developed with Mida at Ryerson University. She recorded the stains and marks on the garments on the drawings as a visual version of the checklist for observation in the appendix of The Dress Detective.

Mida and Casey described the details and condition of the small collection of clothing; the cotton lawn and lace christening gown (figure 3) was found to be very finely made with floral whitework embroidery, details not visible to visitors; the white shirt was long enough to fall to mid-thigh on the 6-foot-tall Ruskin and is embroidered with the laundry mark ‘JR 12 95’ (signifying 1895); the shirt has yellow stains on the front and back, possibly washed-out blood; the black wool trousers have a reinforced crotch and a striped silk waistband and the waistcoat is embroidered with a pattern of flowers. The wool coat is not of the same fabric as the trousers, not lined and the tails have been chopped off. Through close examination and drawing, Casey noticed that the tails had been cut irregularly and there was asymmetrical padding in the back of the coat intended to disguise Ruskin’s stoop.

Exhibition artworks

Casey described her process for the exhibition artworks. She used handmade Japanese paper she soaked in melted wax to give a surface effect like translucent skin. In the Q&A Casey described how she used a hot air gun to melt the wax onto the paper and appreciates how the wax leaves blooms on the surface which she likened to clouds or the fogginess of a sepia photograph. Using the appropriate tool of a dressmaker’s pin, she carefully traced the lines of her drawings of the garments so that they emerged onto the waxed paper. Casey explained that the drawings and the wax were linked as both are tools of preservation and emphasised the ephemeral nature and fragility of the finished pieces; too much heat could melt the wax, the surface can be affected by the salts and oils on the artist’s hands - the drawings are transient, as susceptible to disintegration as the clothing. The final works were unframed so that visitors could appreciate the skin-like quality of the paper.

Figure 5: Etched waxed paper artwork of Ruskin’s waistcoat by Sarah Casey. Image courtesy of  Sarah Casey.

Figure 5: Etched waxed paper artwork of Ruskin’s waistcoat by Sarah Casey. Image courtesy of Sarah Casey.

 

 Drawing clothing is not a new practice as highlighted by Mida and Casey who noted Janet Arnold’s highly detailed drawings of historical costumes in the Patterns of Fashion series and the pre-photography practice of museum curators who sketched their new acquisitions. However, their project and article are an astute reminder in our time-pressed world of how much can be discovered through slow observation. Mida and Casey’s skills have perfectly aligned allowing the details of Ruskin’s clothes to be documented in an innovative way and for the viewer to appreciate the objects without the barrier of glass in these beautiful and ghostly drawings. Ruskin would surely have approved!

 

References

[1] “Info,” Sarah Casey website {n.d].

[2] Ingrid Mida 12 Apr 2021

[3] Ingrid E. Mida, Reading Fashion in Art (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020) 42.

[4] Ingrid Mida and Sarah Casey, “Drawing as a Creative Approach to Researching Extant Garments: A Case Study Involving John Ruskin’s Clothing,” Costume 54.2 (2020): 205.

[5] Mida and Casey, “Drawing as a Creative Approach to Researching Extant Garments,” 204.

 

Costume Society Members can read Costume online via the Members' website. 

For details see our Membership page https://costumesociety.org.uk/join

 

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