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Entries in garments (38)

Tuesday
Jun202017

sniper camo

Turkish sniper captured during the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI

Lightweight BDU Ghillie Suit $ 269.99 at Ghillie Suit DepotAnd on it goes. 

I sense a fashion moment coming on.

Monday
Jun192017

camouflage for mummers

Nigel Goldsmith, photography www.nigelgoldsmith.co.uk. The history of the Marshfield Mummers goes back more than two hundred years. The Mummers themselves are played by men local to the area, their identity is concealed by a costume made from torn strips of newspaper and cloth.

This is a case of ‘looks like, but is not like’.  The morphology of camouflage, at root about invisibility or confusing identity, shoots off in many directions sometimes to arrive at the same solution.  The centuries-old  English tradition of mummering is a Christmas event where men don costumes to mask their identity and perform plays or dances for food and drink.  It is not unlike Hallowe’en trick or treating – the extraction of goodies from people who normally wouldn’t give you the time of day – in England it was about class: villagers targetting the big house, for whom most of them worked but about which they were unable to express any feelings.  In disguise one can say and do anything: the true subversive purpose of carnival.

In England mummering appears to be safely encapsulated in the world of folk tradition, re-enactments of old, defunct practices.  In Newfoundland, it never went away. With various degrees of lewdness, men dress up as women with pillow cases on their heads to disguise their identity and travel about in gangs extracting food and drink from householders.  

The Marshfield Mummers, in the Cotswalds, make their costumes out of newspaper and have a parade and a performance on Boxing Day.  Originally a play was performed throughout the twelve days of Christmas, but this practice died out in the 1880s.  It was resurrected in 1930, just before the last of the aged mummers took their knowledge of the play with them.  In this particular village the play was revived and disguise used newspapers; the mummers were known as The Old Time Paperboys.  Mummering pre-dates newspaper; at the beginning of the Depression in the 1930s newspaper might have been the most accessible material to make a costume out of; soon newspapers will be a rare and eccentric fabric for costume-making.

 

North Waltham Mummers, Hampshire, c. 1949 (Photographer: Douglas Dickins)There are several layers here: the original nineteenth-century practice, the revival practice from the 1930s, and how it has evolved, or not, to today.  When does something become folkloric, rather than folk?  This question arises with any folk revival. It was asked in the 1960s when folk songs swept through universities of middle-class soon-to-be professionals.  Bob Dylan moved on, Woody Guthrie didn’t. The rise of the kind of recent populism we are seeing is based on iconic folk traditions: the coal miner, the family farm, the factory worker as un-evolved specimens of a better time.  In the 1960s folk music looked to the Depression, to depressed Appalachia, to earlier struggles, so hopeless that all one could do is to sing to lighten a heavy load.  None of these iconic moments appear to be prosperous: that doesn’t make folk memory, rather it is hardship that is valourised in the revivals.

Mummering was performed by men with almost no means using high holidays such as Christmas to get a bit extra.  That it was entertaining at the same time was a kind of insurance that relations between those who have and those without will not tip over into revolution.  Folk songs were full of coded messages under the cover of entertainment. If the messages weren’t for you (underground railway instructions for example) you didn’t see them.  There is subversion, always, in folk practice, something that folk revivals cannot capture.

Sunday
Jun182017

the ghili suit of the Iranian Army

Camouflaged Iranian Army soldiers march during a parade in Tehran. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

This remarkable image from the Army Day Parade in Teheran on April 18th, and many more like it spread around the web, shows a particular kind of Iranian Army camouflage called a ghili suit.  It appears to come in a range of colours, from white to charcoal, and clearly acts much like the dazzle camouflage on WWI ships where the shape of the body (of the ship, or the soldier) is rendered diffuse, directionless, completely indistinct. This seems quite different from the flat camouflage patterns of western armies which rely on colour and a general blurriness within the clear outline of the body.  

Checking on the history of the ghili suit, it is well known in hunting circles, originally made of burlap and used by ghillies to catch poachers. British snipers wore them in WWI. The Iranian Army wear their suits with gaiters, as do Highland marching pipe bands, another curious reference to some sort of Edwardian Hibernia.

Further checking reveals a great number of war games sites with instructions on how to make your own ghillie (the northern European term; ghili, the Persian spellilng) suit, such as this one:


From GhillieTreff.de, clearly a ghillie enthusiast whose aim is total invisibilityEasy to mock, as do many of the sites that show the Iranian ghili suits on parade, but it is war, in Iran, not a war game.  This is extreme garb, so environmentally sensitive to shadow and light, shrubs and glare – a sensitivity upon which one’s life depends.  This isn’t a uniform proclaiming identity, rather its absence. 

Monday
Mar212016

Wearing Our Identity; measured in spoons

Widow's amauti. Eastern Arctic, Inuit: Nunatsiarmiut, 1890-1897. Sealskin, seal fur, glass beads, silver?, lead, brass, pewter?, spoons, coins, wool braid, linen? thread. © McCord Museum M5836 This is a widow's amauti. It has a small, flat baby pouch just below the hood in the back, indicating the widow's former role as a child-bearer (from birth until about two years of age, Inuit babies are carried in an amaut under the mother's hood). In the early 1800s, non-Aboriginal explorers, whalers and traders began providing the Inuit with an array of trade goods, including dyed cloth, coins, metal utensils and glass beads.

Robert Everett-Green has reviewed, briefly but succinctly in the Globe & Mail, the current McCord Museum exhibition, Wearing Our Identity curated by Guislaine Lemay.  Nadia Myre, Algonquin artist in residence at the McCord, has chosen pieces from McCord’s collection plus new work by a range of aboriginal artists.  Everett-Green raises the issue of appropriation in such an exhibition, referring to the amauti, above, which has a line of pewter spoons attached to the front and pennies sewn on the back, pointing out that while the term appropriation is applied to Victorian middle-class ladies doing Indian beadwork patterns from The Ladies Home Journal, it does not apply to the widow in Baffin Island sewing spoons on her amauti.  It is a question of power, he posits. 

Victorian middle-class women were denied much participation in an outside life but they were allowed to do crafts – watercolours, needlework, and there were magazines that gave them instructions (impossible as Myre demonstrates).  Although they had more power than any aboriginal woman had, or has in the main even today, the Inuit widow had more freedom to make her own elaborations on her own parka.  

One of the most salient things I learned, long ago during my postcolonial education, was in the reading of Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, the back history of Jane Eyre through the lens of the other: the ones without power, the women, the fragile and the dangerous.  It is Antoinette Crosby’s nurse, Christophine, who says to Mr Rochester, newly arrived to take blind possession of a wife, a plantation and all its inhabitants, you know some things, I know other things – I paraphrase wildly, but the gist is that power doesn’t know everything, it actually doesn’t know anything other than itself; while the putatively powerless know a hell of a lot about the world, their environment, their culture, relationships of power – their survival depends upon this knowledge when brute force isn’t an option.

Yes, whether something is appropriation or adoption is a matter of power: the powerful take, those with a different kind of awareness incorporate the signs and materials at hand, whether they be trade goods or baseball caps: the original meaning of such materials is subverted by a different set of codes, inaccessible to power: it is the development of a decolonising language.

Friday
Mar182016

the Yup'ik Qaspeq

DeeDee Jonrowe at the Huslia checkpoint during the 2015 Iditarod. Photo: Katie Orlinsky

DeeDee Jonroe, above, is wearing a kuspuk, a cotton cover that protects a parka. There was an originary cover made of gut or skin, replaced by cotton when trading posts were established: it is generally acknowledged that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the calico came from flour and sugar sacks, some plain unbleached cotton, later prints – trade goods brought up the Alaska coast by whaling ships.  Like all traditional dress there are many regional variations, but in general they are loose hooded over-dresses that can be worn on their own in the summer.  Some are straight, some have a dropped flounced skirt.

 

Yup'ik ice fishing, n.d.

Today, kuspuks have become a garment of Alaskan identity – lots of websites discussing them, selling them – a recovery of peoplehood through clothing.  In this case, in the context of the last couple of weeks of posts here, Métis material culture where often the form is European, but the surface is aboriginal (embroidered, beaded, elaborated), with the kuspuk the form is aboriginal and the surface is European.

This seems fundamentally different to how we understand Métis identity as expressed through its material culture where european forms dominate and surfaces are expressive.  In the kuspuk, surface expression appears merely expeditious, later decorative, but essentially an easily and cheaply produced utility garment.
With the Métis trappers tents, the form was european, the materials were partially introduced – the canvas, partially native – the poles. The Métis tradition that has survived in everyday life today is the toque. Like the kuspuk which I’ve even seen (rarely it has to be said) on the streets in Calgary, these are contemporary garments. However, I don't think Métis when I see a toque.

Kuspuks today.

Thursday
Mar172016

Métis dog coats

Miep von Sydow: IditarodFor some reason I find this picture hysterically funny – the laugh for today – amid all the allegations of abuse to have the dogs tethered and running day after day.  Dogs like to work, to do the things they are bred for.  If you leave them just lying around being ‘natural’ they get grumpy and yappy.  They make their own work projects such as sending off the mailgirl every day.  

Whatever, I came across this picture while looking for this year’s very chic team all wearing hot pink boots as they tore across Alaska:

DeeDee Jonrowe leaves the Huslia checkpoint during the 2015 Iditarod. Jonrowe, a 62-year-old cancer survivor, is a legend of the sport. She has run the Iditarod 35 times, with 16 top-ten finishes. Photo: Katie OrlinskyDogs, dressed for the weather, have a long history.

This was painted by Peter Rindisbacher  in the 1820's in the Red River area. The three dogs pulling the sleigh are covered in small beaded red blankets with yellow accents. They have sets of bells around their necks and additional bells sticking out above their collars in a colourful display. Again, this image is from the brilliant Portage La Loche website. Click on the image to go to the page about Métis dog blankets.These coats are very beautiful:

Dog blanket, Western Subarctic. Aboriginal: Dene, Slavey 1900-1915. Velvet, canvas cloth, cotton bias tape, wool yarn, glass beads, metal beads, sinew, cotton cloth, cotton ribbon, hide, 51 x 55 cm. © McCord Museum ME966X.111.3

The coat for warmth and the flare, tall and tasselled, attached to the neckband of the harness along with bells for visibility perhaps. The pictures give little hint of being caught in a blizzard white-out.  

Wednesday
Mar162016

The Red River Coat

Red River Coat, Markette Inc. 1940-1950, 20th century. Wool. © McCord Museum M2000.49.1Two directions from yesterday’s post about the Red River Coat: one is the embroidered hide coat of elegant ‘european’ (as described by the museums) form, the other is an early to mid-twentieth century garment (above), mostly for children in Ontario and Quebec, called the Red River coat: something like a pea jacket, lined in red and tied with a red sash that could also be used as a muffler – a manufactured version of the 20cm wide, 3m long Métis sash, an all-purpose finger-woven band used to hold blanket capotes closed; wrapped around the middle they strengthened voyageur’s backs; they were wide enough to carry things in, to use as tourniquets, towels and tumplines.  (The links in this post take one to a most diverse collection of webpages, from Leonard Cohen circa 1945 to Paul Kane's painting of John Lefroy in 1845)

below: this is Robert Kennicott in 1862 visiting Portage La Loche. He was an American naturalist, clearly gone native, as they say: his coat is plain wool, the sash is magnificent, his toque striped, his trousers tied and tasselled, his moccassins no doubt beautiful.

Robert Kennicott, visiting card, 1872We have this documentation because Kennicott had himself photographed in his full costume grand nord – he must have been delighted with it. The web page from Portage La Loche that this photograph comes from is dense with interesting research on the Métis sash – beautiful images from paintings to photos.

How the blanketty Red River coat became a navy wool coat for wealthy little Montreal children in the 1940s might indicate something of the transformation of complex cultural and environmental garments into something cute, something that children are allowed to wear because they are small and defenceless: they can undermine the power and cultural meanings of, for example, the peoples represented by Louis Riel, still a divisive political figure in Canada, 130 years after his death. 


Tuesday
Mar152016

Métis garments

Colette Balcaen and Pascal Jaouen. Farandole: Perspectives on Western Canadian Métis Culture. The Textile Museum, Toronto, 2013.


What looks like a rather beautiful exhibition a couple of years ago at the Textile Museum in Toronto, Farandole: Perspectives on Western Canadian Metis Culture, Sept 18-Nov 17, 2013: a collaboration between a Métis artist, Colette Balcaen, and a French fashion designer from Normandy, Pascal Jaouen.  What interests me, in the midst of the ghostly nature of the human form embroidered on scrim, is this one particular suit. Métissé is a French toile that combines linen and cotton. The Métis sash appears ghostly, thin, a scrim of a belt.

It is also interesting how the cut of the coat, the trousers, faintly fin de siècle, resonates with the more traditional image of Métis historic garments, below, specifically this beautifully cut, European-styled coat, made in fine hide and embroidered in the woodland way.  Again, like yesterday’s post of the Valentino-Belcourt collaboration, there is form and there is surface.  It appears, so far in my very casual research here, that European form prevails and is made beautiful by indigenous surface.  Both are local by circumstance, both have deep and different histories.

Red River coat, made of animal hide, adopted from a Cree design. The coats had a European cut, beadwork, floral designs, quillwork, and embroidery. n.d.

Monday
Mar142016

Métis couture: Belcourt and Valentino

Valentino Resort 2016

Christi Belcourt, Water Song, 2011. acrylic on canvas The difference between this and D2’s appropriation of aboriginal garments, is that Valentino asked; it was a collaboration between Belcourt, her painting Water Song, and Valentino fabric designer Francesco Bova.
It is both Métis and métissage, this collaboration of painting and fabric printing, Métis culture and Italian couture.  The garments are Valentino; the surfaces are Belcourt. 

Friday
Feb262016

rubber boots

Canadian rubber boots

Canadian rubber boots, not at all fashionable, red-soled, fat legs, lined with cotton knit, been around forever.  Worn with grey socks with a white top and a red line.  And GWGs (founded 1911 in Edmonton, closed in 2004 assailed by the fashion jean market).

GWG button, ca 1930
So much is about war: rubber boots in the trenches, GWG supplying 25,000 pieces of clothing per week to the Commonwealth forces of WWII.  Fashion aside, having to supply millions of garments for the two world wars must have ramped up production unbelievably quickly.  GWG replaced men with women, doubled its work force and built a second factory. After the war GWG went back to workwear – coveralls, jeans, jackets – but also gradually tilting into the fashion market: my first pair of jeans were GWG because it was all we could get, but even then they were not as desirable as Levi’s or Lee jeans bought across the border.  The Guess Who wore GWGs, which sort of summed it up.

Rubber boots with red soles are still staples in fishing and logging,  The rest of us, if you want boots that do not weigh a ton, are now sold Hunter boots, the British wellingtons, originally green rubbers taller than our boots, with buckles at the side, now more often found in pvc fashion colour knock-offs, hot pink, plaid and such, but with the important white and red rectangular label glued to the front top.  By such nuances are ye known.  

Am I working up to some sort of thought on nativism and the new vernacular?  There are stores that cater to originals in a cult of the unfashionable but authenticKent of Inglewood is a local example: axes, straight razors and Geo F Trumper shaving soap in wooden bowls: ‘the brush, the razor, the axe’ is their tag line.  The axe.  Not sure I get it but it is all about being manly I think. 

Viberg work socks, Viberg, Victoria BC since 1931

Thursday
Feb252016

waterproofs

a riding mac

God people are clever.  Mackintoshes, waterproof raincoats, done originally in 1824 by dissolving rubber in naphtha to liquidise it and putting it between two layers of fabric, done evidently by the Aztecs (not the naphtha, they just used latex).  It’s all very chemical, the processing of rubber so it doesn’t smell, or melt or harden.  When you think that before this one relied on the natural oils in thick wool to repel water, and I suppose leather capes, the mackintosh must have felt featherweight in comparison.  

I had a short cream riding mac once, like the one above with the leg straps and everything, foolishly gave it away and now find they are £420.  I should have cleaned mine with a raw potato and soaked the red ballpoint mark on the sleeve out with milk.

Got a waxed jacket for living in Duncan’s Cove, south of Halifax, where waves bash the rocks and are quite drenching.  Originally it was sails that were waxed, to make them more efficient against wind; fish oils, then linseed oil on lighter canvas reduced the weight of the sails in the overall tonnage of the ship, allowing it to go faster.  We are speaking of the mid-nineteenth century here.  Linseed oil turns yellow: fishermen’s slickers are yellow by tradition, but originally by linseed oil.  In the 1920s cotton started to be impregnated with petroleum-based materials: paraffin mainly, then cupro-ammonia – the solution used to produce Bemberg and cupro rayon.  Not until the 2000s was cupro-ammonia replaced by a hydrocarbon wax, which is what Barbour gives you a little can of when you buy a jacket.  It looks like vaseline and when you use it to touch up the wear where the waxing has worn off gives you a horrible greasy jacket you can’t hang up next to anything else.  The dark olive green of the Barbour comes from the copper in the cupro-ammonia.

It is very warm, this waxed jacket, and has that hunting and fishing look that flags a certain segment of the British class system and its wannabes. But it is very warm and quite useful in a Calgary winter.  I like things that you never have to buy again because they never, ever wear out and have zero relation to the fashion industry.  Well that’s not quite true, they float in and out of desirability.

a Barbour, well worn and resembling something primeval, lichenous, beaten about by life in the elements. Gore-Tex: now that is made of Teflon.

Friday
May302014

Samurai ningyo

Ningyo: samurai tradition has been celebrated on May 5 since 730 AD, originally called Tango-No-Sekku (the first day of the horse). During the Edo period of 1600-1868, the celebrations and displays by the samurai class were elaborate displays of weapons and combat; the first samurai dolls appear at the end of this period, at the beginning of the Meiji era.  The Bata Shoe Museum has a samurai doll, a ningyo much like this one, that dates from 1870.  The samurai as a military class had sidelined the emperor to figurehead status, a situation that lasted 'until 1868 when the Meiji emperor was restored to power'.  It is interesting that Bata's ningyo was created just two years later, valourising the tradition of a class that had just been demoted and its right to carry arms abolished. Originally it was only the samurai class that commissioned ningyo, however, as Japan embarked upon a long modernising process of industrialisation, they came to stand for 'pure' Japanese character and became generalised and idealised.

Samurai protected farmers: the strong protect the weak, and in turn the weak will serve the strong. This theme (according to an essay by Timothy Mertel) appears symbolically as the tiger and bamboo: the tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators, and the bamboo camouflages the tiger's lair.  This is the major tenet of Japanese feudal society.  

Our man, above, has been a fixture of my life forever, can't remember when he wasn't there – it might have been a wedding present for my parents. His sword is in a tiger skin sheath. The armour is, I think, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333): lacquered plates laced with silk and repoussé metal mounts. I'm taking this description from Mertel's piece, so far it all fits.  I've never known anything about this small figure until today.  He is wearing rather lovely cream silk jacquard bloomers.
The Bata Shoe museum describes the shoes thus: 'These samurai shoes are called tsuranuki. They are made of bear fur, which symbolises the intrinsic ferocity, strength and courage of a samurai warrior.'   

Ningyo bodies are straw with carved heads and hands covered in a crushed oyster shell paste which is then burnished and painted.  My fellow has the most delicate pale blue gloves embroidered with flowers.  His face is quite fierce, and is a particular samurai of legend, the details of which I cannot find.  

The armour: it is very interesting, and it was the flexibility of the dragon skin ceramic discs that reminded me of samurai armour: metal plates that were laced together so they moved and didn't inhibit action. 

Thursday
May292014

ceramic armour

ceramic plates in a Dragon Skin body armour vest

When we see the bullet proof vests on foreign correspondents, they are basically kevlar with ceramic trauma plate inserts roughly from 5" x 8" and 1/4" thick for concealed vests, to 10" x 12" plates up to 1/2" thick for tactical vests. They work in combination with the aramid fabrics: high ballistic protection from the plates, dispersal of blunt trauma from the fabrics. 

Boron Carbide: B12C3  for those who understand such things is exceptionally hard because the molecules form a network plane.  Not a new technology, it was first synthesised in 1899.  The discs in the Dragon Skin are silicon carbide (SiC) or carborundum, used since 1893 as an abrasive. thank you wikipedia.  Both these materials have a zillion other uses: something about how their molecules arrange themselves in dense interconnected plates makes them exceptionally inert, resistant, hard and defensive.

The small overlapping plates of the Dragon Skin allows more motion and is designed, evidently, to absorb multiple hits, which is a sobering thought.  All of these are meant to protect vital organs, not to render someone entirely bullet proof.  I expect that development in ballistic technology forces the development of anti-ballistic systems.  There is, for example, something called a full metal jacket bullet which is a soft lead core fully jacketed in hard metal which allows higher velocities as the hard jacket slides more easily down the bore.  Do I want to know this?  I suppose so, I thought the movie Full Metal Jacket was actually about some kind of armoured jacket for soldiers.  The point of a full metal jacket bullet is that they can be used indiscriminately against both soft and hard targets. I think I'll leave this topic now.  

There was a scandal in 2007-8 where the US government did not equip its soldiers in Afghanistan with $5000 Dragon Skin armour, choosing cheaper armour from companies with government contracts.  Some things never change.

Wednesday
May282014

uses of kevlar

Tim Smit, Urban Security Suit, 2008

Kevlar clothing: lots of examples in biker jeans which have strategically placed panels on the knee, thighs and back. The jeans however are dreadful: huge and wrinkled.  Well, biker jeans often are. 

And then there is the slash-proof pinstriped banker's suit lined with kevlar.  Truly horrible.  Much more beautiful is this 2008 outfit by Tim Smit in the Netherlands, who does not appear to have a web presence other than many reviews of the Urban Security Suit.  

Neoprene, kevlar panels, mucho style, the hood comes with a gas mask: for being kettled at anti-globalisation protests clearly, special pockets for defensive accessories.  The comments on the gizmodo site were scathing: the kelvar too thin, neoprene too hot, etc etc.  But they cavil: one might as well look beautiful as no armour is without its chinks.

Thursday
Mar202014

The Weather Diaries, 2014

News of this, The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale, by Cooper & Gorfer, came by way of Nicole Dextras, no slouch at weather herself.

The video is a look at a very distant, very connected, place.

The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale by Cooper & Gorfer from Gestalten on Vimeo.

The Weather Diaries, Nordic Fashion Biennale by Cooper & Gorfer from Gestalten on Vimeo.

 

Wednesday
Dec112013

piecework processes

Lorraine Pettway, born 1953. Medallion work-clothes quilt, 1974, denim and cotton/polyester blend, 84 x 68 inches.

This is a quilt made from work clothes.  Rather than linking the image to the original site, it is linked to a larger image where one can see the size of the squares that make up the colour blocks.  Blue chambray work shirts (usually from J C Penney, but Sears did them – each brand slightly different in detail and fabric) faded to this pale sky colour in the sun, leaving darker patches underneath the pockets and at the bottom of the sleeves which were usually rolled up.  They disintegrated across the back and at the elbows.  The pieces in this quilt would have been from shirts patched and mended until they could be mended no more, leaving the tails, the cuffs, collars and pockets.

Like any sort of piecing activity: dry stone walls, broken tile mosaics, quilting, each piece in the pile of material becomes intimately known for its colour, its shape, its peculiarities that allow it to fit into a greater whole.  Each piece is considered, set aside, reconsidered elsewhere, set aside and finally used in precisely the right place. In this process all the pieces become characters in the larger narrative that is the quilt, or the wall, or the floor.

This is also a process whereby the weak, the broken and the otherwise unuseable become strong.  Worn out fabric, easily torn, is stitched through a cotton batt layer to a backing cloth, so that it has no stress on it: strain is taken collectively by the batting, the stitching and the backing.   

What these pieced surfaces look like is an entirely different discussion.  Of course each piece is chosen and placed to make a beautiful surface.  But it is not by design, rather it is by detail at the scale of the fingers and the needle, and this is where the Gee's Bend quilts part company with modern quilting as supported by the contemporary quilting industry of patterns, books, new 'vintage' cottons, fat quarters and all the rest.  

I would say, not being an African-American from Alabama with a history of slavery, poverty and the church, that we could read these surfaces as conversations between each piece of fabric and the woman assembling and stitching the pieces.  And like conversations they are unpredictable, idiosyncratic and emotional.  They switch direction mid-stream, they are sometimes angry. They can sooth and they take a long time.   

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. "Lazy Gal" -- "Bars," ca. 1965, denim and cotton, 80 x 69 inches. All images: Tinwood Media

Tuesday
Dec102013

Gee's Bend quilts

Pearlie Kennedy Pettway, 1920-1982. "Bars" work-clothes quilt, ca. 1950, denim and cotton, 84 x 81 inches.

Gee's Bend, Alabama: a small community in a near-oxbow of the Alabama River, originally the Gee cotton plantation, settled in 1816 with 18 slaves.  This had increased to about 150 when slavery was abolished, and most became sharecroppers still working for the landowner.  Its isolation was grave: a ferry and a single road in, during the Depression it received assistance from the Red Cross and the Resettlement Administration which eventually purchased the plantation, re-renting it to its tenants who in the 1940s were able to purchase their plots.  Because of its historical, cultural and social isolation, it has been much studied as a community: its music, its speech and its quilts.

Much has been made of the quilts.  During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee was formed which sold quilts outside Gee's Bend – difficult as the ferry had been eliminated to make voter registration in nearby Camden hard: by land it was an hour's drive. Ferry service was only restored in 2006.  

The quilts received critical attention almost immediately; they were exhibited, documented, they appeared in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, at the Whitney and the Smithsonian and they've been on US Mail stamps.  It's a big deal.  Despite having done a slew of quilts in my time and collected a number of African American strip quilts from my time in Texas, I only heard about the Gee's Bend quilts on a BBC jazz program  (you can no longer hear it but the playlist is there) about the Jaimeo Brown Trio whose music is based on the Gee's Bend quilters' spirituals that they sing as they quilt.  

When I looked up the quilts, many of which feature on the Smithsonian site, I also found a much-repeated critical stance on Gee's Bend quilts, this one typical: 'There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making, writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts [Houston].'

Once again, we have something with its own history, economics, traditions and modes of production likened to abstract art.  Because it looks like abstract art doesn't mean it is abstract art.  Perhaps to an art historian, this comparison of visual similarities was once the foundation of some sort of taxonomy, but today?  I don't think so.  Wardlaw, above, likens the 'improvisational range of approaches to composition' to the same range of approaches found in abstract painters of the same era: mid- to late-twentieth century.  This doesn't add credibility to the quilts; it does outline the way that art curators seek to legitimise work outside the tradition of western painting.

The quilts need no legitimacy, they are themselves.  For this, the Smithsonian essay is good.  It doesn't bang on about how abstract they are because they have spoken to the quilters themselves, who recall things such as Martin Luther King's visit, adding bits to a quilt that is too small, great-grandmothers sold for a dime (not the quilt, the great-grandmother), picking cotton and okra, and sewing a quilt out of your father's work clothes after he died, to remember him by.  

None of this is abstract at all. And nor are the patterns.  They are determined by the size of pieces of fabric to small to use for anything else.  This is an art of poverty, where nothing goes to waste.  Anything less like the economic system that is the art world would be difficult to find.  

In 2007 two quilters filed a suit against dealers who had claimed to own the intellectual property rights to pre-1984 quilts and had used photographs and quotations to promote sales.  The case was dismissed, but it indicates a certain degree of ongoing exploitation of labour, just at a more decorative and sophisticated level. 

Rachey Carey George (born 1908). Work-clothes strips, c. 1938. Denim (wool trousers, mattress ticking, cotton). 82 x 72 inches. The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance.

Friday
Mar162012

the uses of luxury

Cecil Beaton. Vogue models in Charles James gowns in the ornate interior of French & Co, New York, 1948. Conde Nast Archive/Corbis

1948, a pointed demonstration of postwar elegance: Charles James evening gowns in one of the salons of French & Co, New York art dealers.  This tableau is meant to correct any sense that the rough levelling of society during the war was permanent.   It is like any sort of suppression, when the lid is lifted all that had previously been denied explodes in a kind of hyper-reality.  It is not the women who are desirable,  we hardly see their faces, it is the heavy satins and the room itself that are almost erotic in their complex, elegant ripeness.  

2012, Dior couture, photographed in a small grey corner, wrinkled grey flannel on the floor.  No mise-en-scène here, other than a possible insistence on luxury in the 1%  and who might, possibly, wear such dresses. The women are like flowers, their dark heads like stamens, the black eye of the pale poppy.  They are close, they break the frame of the photograph, they are defiant. 

Patrick Demarchelier. Dior Haute Couture, Spring/Summer 2011

Thursday
Mar152012

the scale of a skirt

Cecil Beaton. Mrs Charles James, 716 Madison Avenue, New York, 1955

In this 1948 Cecil Beaton portrait, there is something very interesting in the scale of the voluminous, crumpled curtain next to the extravagant skirt of the Charles James gown.  James' wife, perversely, is made small by her surroundings.  

A similar thing happens in Tim Walker's 2006 photograph of Coco Rocha.  The glove, in all its versimilitude, seems the real scale.

Both photographers used huge rooms – eighteen-foot ceilings, twelve-foot windows, their volume, their inevitable emptiness.  Anything in these rooms, whether little gilt chairs or gilded youth, is made to seem as serious and as ephemeral as a butterfly.

Tim Walker. Coco Rocha and Giant Glove. London, England, 2006

Wednesday
Mar142012

Beaton at war

Cecil Beaton. 'Fashion is indestructible' — Digby Morton suit, in the ruined Middle Temple, 1941. British Vogue.

For Cecil Beaton architecture was an indisputable player in all his photographs, often much more complex than the subject.  It offered a narrative that transports the sitter, or the garments – it is all mise en scène. 

He was an official photographer in the North African campaign in WWII, and did a lot of work showing Britain's wartime manufacturing industries – shipyards, mineworkers, the effects of the Blitz, all a far cry from the fey pre-war portraits of society ladies in extravagantly romantic 18th century rooms where he was never against painting more frippery on the walls if it made the setting even complex, more fantastic.  I suppose the true complexity and brutality of war knocks some of that fantasy out of one.
 
These two iconic images are found in every book on Beaton there is.  It was startling, in 1941, for Vogue readers to be plunged into the shattered environment in which they were living: fashion magazines were and are for escape.  And the 1945 photograph of the Balmain coat and pants could come off the Sartorialist site today – that love of tragic urban street walls, so dark and layered, and the indomitable spirit of the women who can carry their own against them.

Cecil Beaton. Pierre Balmain Chinese Brown Woolen Coat and Trousers. 1945. British Vogue