In this week's blog, Costume Society Ambassador Holly Siddle reviews the exhibition The Fabric of Democracy: Propaganda Textiles from the French Revolution to Brexit, currently on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London.
Having opened on the 27th September, The Fabric of Democracy: Propaganda Textiles from the French Revolution to Brexit explores a multitude of dress and textiles which interlink with politics in many different unique ways. This exhibition is in the main exhibition space of the Fashion and Textile Museum in London.
The exhibition houses an expansive collection of around 150 pieces from all over the world, from military uniforms to printed fabrics and scarves and Toiles De Jouy. There is a piece and period here for everyone; spanning an incredible 950+ years, The Fabric Of Democracy showcases examples of political textiles from the Bayeux Tapestry and the French Revolution to the Korean War. Guest curator and fashion historian Amber Butchart sourced items for the exhibition from across the globe and is continuing to study and research this area through her PhD at the University of Essex.
“[The exhibition] was really sparked by a trip to China that I did in 2018 where I came across the [Chinese] quilt sheets, some of which we have on display in the exhibition,” says Butchart. “I wanted to explore how printed cloth has been used as a medium to convey ideologies, highlighting that textiles can be powerful communicators and that domestic settings can be just as political as public spaces.”
When we think of propaganda, our minds are mostly drawn to its classical forms - flyers, posters, artwork. This new exhibition opens up this topic by exploring textile responses to political upheaval, and the potential that textiles has as a political medium. Delving deeply into the subject, the exhibition showcases the use of textiles in a multitude of forms; as a literal canvas for political message, as material evidence of events, and as a form of political expression on the body.
The first corridors of the exhibition introduce us to the process of making political textiles, with items such as a wooden printing roller and silk maps repurposed into clothing. Traditional print propaganda examples follow this with illustrations, posters, and postcards on display. Next, in the main room, cylindrical displays showcase fabrics from times of war and conflict. From toiles printed with narratives of European Colonial supremacy to detailed Belgian lace pieces created to raise money for food in the Great War, the largest room in the exhibition details the scope of political textiles and how essential of a part it is to integrating politics into the domestic sphere.
“Historically, in the Western world, textiles have been dismissed,” says Amber Butchart. “Fashion gets dismissed as superficial, (...) and not seen as important as fine art, sculpture and things like that. I wanted to challenge that view and say ‘Look, textiles can be and have been political objects as well, created to shape the public sphere or shape public debates’”.
With a vast and varied collection of items on display throughout the exhibition, it is easy to visualise in just how many ways textiles and fashion can offer themselves to political message, as well as their importance in the domestic spheres. There is an excellent section on women’s dress in World War Two, with British Pathé videos showing real ways that women would ‘make do and mend’ all manner of items in their closets. From easy to use rubber ‘booties’ for air-raid shelters, to making two hats out of one, the inclusion of contemporary moving image acts as a form of connection with the people who created these textiles and the political upheaval that they had to go through.
There is plenty in this exhibition for dressmakers to delight in. Along the first corridor of the exhibition you can find clothing dating from the mid 1940’s, made of surplus silk RAF escape maps. Further on in the exhibition, a beautiful glass case displays multicoloured examples of feed sacks printed with different patterns, also known as ‘chicken-linen’. These textiles were used by women to make clothes during the Great Depression and the Second World War, when supplies were limited or inaccessible. Opposite, commemorative Coronation dresses from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth boast parade-print fabrics and patriotic floral emblems.
“There were some things that I absolutely knew [I wanted], I was desperate to get some of the Toile De Jouy pieces. And I had visited the [Toile De Jouy] museum and I was super keen to get them on board, and luckily we did, they were really really helpful, they were amazing. [...] Other things totally I came across - I did a research trip to see some collections in Vienna last summer, Lara the curator there [Art and Design Museum Vienna] said “we’ve got this incredible collection of Vivat bands, we’ll show you when you get here.” And I had never heard of these before, I had no idea that they existed or what they were, and we now have them on display in the First World War section of the exhibition.”
The exhibition closes with a final room filled with modern political textiles: a ‘Got Brexit Done’ tea-towel, a Donald Trump Kippah, a vibrant pink Pussyhat. This room is so critical for understanding the exhibition and it’s significance; these are all textiles that we have seen in the past 10 years being used for political causes, and are now on display alongside so many other political textiles from the past 900 years, all of which were important and relevant to their time too.
“I think in many ways the themes of the exhibition are more relevant now than they were in 2018 when I started putting them together. Since the exhibition opened, vicious, horrendous war and sieges have been happening in the Middle East. I think it is incredibly relevant, in quite an upsetting way, really. I wish it had less contemporary relevance, but I think it has more than it did when we began the process.”
The Fabric of Democracy is showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum from 27 September 2023 - 3 March 2024. Tickets can be purchased here.
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