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Entries in garments (38)


Victoria, Empress

Queen Victoria, 1893

Queen Victoria in 1893.  As she never left Britain, this oriental tent/pavilion was probably in the gardens at Osborne.  She is working on her dispatch boxes. Victoria seems to have been a woman of great passions: she loved her husband to distraction, her groom, her personal muslim servant who taught her Urdu, her Prime Ministers, especially Disraeli and his expansionist policies which led to the second Anglo-Afghan war.  She 'rescued' India from the ruling British East India Company after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, believed in religious freedom for India and other protectorates, saw the empire as civilising and protective.  However, the empire was conducted by governments and ministers who were not always so benign, and the influence of monarchy is constitutionally marginal.

This lovely painting of Victoria at four: a hat in proportions Marc Jacobs has just resurrected.

Stephen Poyntz Denning 1795-1864 Princess Victoria aged four, 1823. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London


making a kilt

I did this once.  It was quite hard.


Nick Cave's Soundsuits

Nick Cave, Soundsuit 1, socks, paint, dryer lint, wood, wool, 2006

Nick Cave, not the singer, but the artist from Missouri who was with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and is now director of the fashion program at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Above, is a Soundsuit.  Soundsuits' references are wide and deep, they are sculptures, costumes, installations.  They are assemblages, they make sounds, they refer historically to various African ceremonial garments.  They appear in performances and in art museums.

I lived in the middle of Kansas for a year, my first teaching gig, and spent a lot of time driving back country roads and finding installations of what was known as folk art then, outsider art now.  What they all had in common is their obsessive convictions and their marginal relationship to orthodox art and architecture – the Watts Towers in Los Angeles were not unlike Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in their mad-builder concentration.  

More recently, Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg project in Detroit has rejuvenated a despairing neighbourhood by saying, your house is yours, make it into something that is you.  And because this is an economically challenged place, such transformations inevitably are done with discarded and then re-found materials: the essence of folk art: all invention, no money.

What is interesting about this and where it comes back to Nick Cave and Soundsuits is that these projects cannot be included under the patronising rubric of outsider art: Nick Cave is firmly in the centre of American art production, and Heidelberg is a well-documented demonstration project of urban renewal that does not involve mass destruction.

Last week Gloria Steinem in an interview on Q  said it takes about a hundred years for a social change to really become an embedded part of the social fabric. Second wave feminism is about 40 years old and so, no, we are not in a post-feminist era, we still have 60 years of feminist struggle ahead.  The civil rights movement in the USA happened in the 1960s, just 50 years ago.  We are only now starting to find work that is  embedded in the orthodoxy of contemporary art discourse: it is not post-racial, for it is so very African American, an identity that is critical to the work.  But it is allowed to take its place within the discourse, and that is new.


Ingrid Mida: construction 

Ingrid Mida. What Lies Beneath, 2010. Mosquito mesh and ribbon on mannequin. copyright Ingrid Mida

Thinking last week about how buildings in construction are always so exciting, all floor plates and breezeways, came across Ingrid Mida who, among other things mostly to do with fashion, has an interest in substructure.  Here, a chemise, corset and pannier worn under an 18th century gown, not literally of course, this is art, but somehow the transparency, the bones and webbing that make a form is always very interesting.

This is what the flat plate shapes drawn out by Diderot for the Encyclopédie lie upon.  Unlike today where the shape of a garment is held in place by the body itself, in 18th century court dress there was an intervening cage that was supported by the body and in turn supported the garment.  It is indeed architectural, this idea that with clothing one makes an inhabitable space and then protects it from the weather, sometimes decoratively, sometimes grimly.



Madeline Vionnet. bias cutting, ca 1930, Paris



Azzedine Alaïa, 2008


Nike of Samothrace

Nike of Samothrace. 288 BC. Louvre, Paris


Venus of the hydrants

Nanaimo, 2011

Never let it be said that city utilities workers don't have a finely honed sense of humour 
Mme Vionnet 
the erotic.


distressed fabric

  Joseph Beuys. Felt Suit, 1970. Felt, 1700 x 600 mm sculpture Tate Collection T07441Shelley Fox and scorching fabric reminded me of Beuys's use of felt: distressed fibres for one reason or another, aesthetic or metaphoric.  The material of construction is changed in some way, not just the form. 

As architects we tend to use material as it comes to us, at most the colour changes.  A long time ago , so I don't even know if it was recorded but the idea was a powerful one and so persists, Wally Mays, a Calgary sculptor, built a wall out of warped 2 x 4 studs.  It curved, it leant, its form was entirely dependent on the natural tendency that thin pieces of wood have to bend.  It was a lovely thing.

Joseph Beuys told the story often of his winter rescue in the Crimea during WWII by nomadic Tatars who covered him in fat and wrapped him in felt: felt was protection, life-giving, dense and felted with meaning. 
Shelley Fox found the qualities of fabric burned in machinery, something that could normally cause the operator his job, gratuitously more interesting than perfect production.  Somehow the materials are given a history of making, a history of use, a social and cultural history that, if one wanted to deconstruct them, simply add more layers of meaning to the form such fabrics make.

There appears to be an interest in both abraded material and form – Oikos  and Jellyfish, the theatres made of scraps and pallettes as examples.  I wonder if this is a harbinger of an architecture interested in material processes and a collaborative understanding of materials which might lead to a different understanding of a building's deep context.


Nicole Dextras 2

Nicole Dextras. Nylon-arm-dress-light, 2010

Some new work from Nicole Dextras.  On her website she talks about this winter ephemera series, garments frozen in ice, as an investigation into 'nature’s capacity for stability and its capacity for flux: ice is imbued with this sense of duality, the work questions whether such pairings ultimately exist in symbiosis or in contradiction'.

All garments exist in both symbiosis and contradiction with the body, climate, weather, time.  Symbiosis in that we support garments, we are their armature.  Contradiction in that garments have all the immanence that has long preoccupied Peter Eisenman.  That immanence is autonomous, auto-directed. 

Nicole Dextras's deconstructed pieces of clothing never lose their identity, no matter how dispersed they become.  Caught in ice, they appear fugitive, but they really aren't.  They are surprisingly vivid, even durable.  


Barbara Johnson

Barbara Johnson. Album of Styles. V&A Museum.

Barbara Johnson lived between 1738 and 1825 and kept a record of everything she had ever worn with drawings, swatches of fabric and notes.  This is the span from Handel's Serce to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, i.e. in that vague past that we never seem to synchronise.  

If you go year by year on Wikipedia for Canada, in 1738 it didn't exist, but smallpox had reached the prairies, and La Vérendrye was still working his way downstream from what would be Winnipeg.  Primitive, very distant.  By 1835, Canada still didn't exist, but the Irish poor had started to arrive.  By 1830, a flu epidemic hit many of the first nations in BC: the Fraser Canyon people disappeared completely. 

Meanwhile, Barbara Johnson, a member of a genteel class in a well-developed country was recording the nuances of seams and structure, textiles and line, and writing her own biography in dress.  As I write about Barbara Johnson, I also wonder whether we mark our lives against a greater history, or if our own identities are really charted against the sweaters we have loved.  Mine, and I still have it, a dark camel ribbed poor-boy like Françoise Hardy's – if you think this is an obscure reference, it actually encapsulates a very rich little era of no historical account at all. The history is that Pearson went to the States and called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.  Both were equally identity-forming, one is known by everyone, the other history is mine alone.  Perhaps the purpose of work is not to speak, to demonstrate, to lecture, but is to sychronise such disparate histories.  


Nicole Dextras's frozen ephermera

Nicole Dextras. Iceworks.An appropriate image for today.  The other side of ice and snow, here, in Nicole Dextras's work, garments frozen in ice and photographed.  They acquire both an extreme romanticism – the sense of abandoned movement in the garments themselves, and also a kind of forensic tragedy. 


Bill Burns

Bill Burns. Safety Gear for Small Animals. Respirator, 10 x 11 x 6 cm, 1994/1999Bill Burns is originally from Saskatchewan, studied at Goldsmiths, now lives in Toronto, has work in major collections here and abroad.  He is best known for his series Safety Gear for Small Animals, 1996-2000, a collection of tiny helmets, gas masks, life jackets, hazmat suits and goggles for rats and gophers and other tiny neighbours.
Curiously the effect does not anthropomorphise the animals, the little life jackets simply remind us that we don't look after animals at all.  If not actively trying to exterminate them, we ignore them, so busy are we looking after ourselves as we elbow our way into the lifeboat, first leaving everyone else to go down with the ship. 

Safety Gear for Small Animals led to the more recent project, Boiler Suits for Primates, 2006 which is a suitcase of miniature versions of all the things given to people incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay: orange jumpsuits, rubber thongs, towels, a bucket, toothpaste.  These are considered the bleak essentials of life it seems, and by putting them into the context of Safety Gear for Small Animals, the parallel to zoos is undeniable.  Detainees are stripped of their humanity, but still given toothpaste.

The ambiguity between mankind and animalkind is the subject of Burns' work.  It is a similar project to that of Yann Martel who uses animals as eloquent voices of the blindly fumbling human condition.  George Orwell was another.  Somehow when the rather selfish ambitions of human beings are made to come out clear and pure from the mouths of animals who, if we think about them at all, we consider innocents, we are shocked.


camo gear

Balenciaga, Spring 2004Balenciaga's cargo pants came out the year after the Iraq invasion when the western world finally realised it was on a war footing.  There is some debate about army uniforms becoming civilian fashion items: 'Did you earn it, or did you buy it?'  'Camouflage – if you haven't served, you don't deserve it'.  Camouflage gear is ubiquitous amongst hunters, which is another form of asymmetrical war.  This time the targets don't have weapons. 

If high fashion is an art form, and art reflects society, then the proliferation of cargo pants in Army drab as couture sinks to the level of the mall indicates that being at war has become naturalised in our society.  During the Vietnam war, in the 1960s and early 70s, people wore a lot of army surplus – WWII and Korean war usually, very inexpensive, quite smelly, but at least it was real, and generally worn in the spirit of protest against war.  It wasn't manufactured in China and bought at the Bay. 

The commodification of the uniform could be related to the distinct lack of interest that western countries appear to show in the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is no longer shocking to be at war because, among other things, the violence of war has become denatured not just by the censoring of images, but also by the everyday proliferation of the uniforms associated with that violence.  War camouflaged as streetwear.

I must say, having searched high and low for evidence of cargo pants from Joe to Holts, the best on offer are from Abercrombie & Fitch: $90 on their website.  That's the price of participation in geopolitical disaster these days.


Gehry's skins

Statue of Liberty under construction. | Linda Smeins. Experience Music Project, Seattle, 2002.

Açalya Klyak wrote in On Site 9: surface about the similarities between the construction of the Statue of Liberty and Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project [Rock and Liberty].  Both use sheet material to cover curved volumes: in Bartholdy's statue, copper was hammered into shape (repoussé), and in Gehry's project, sheet material is cut into shapes small enough that they can smooth over a curve, rather like fish scales. 

Klyak notices the historic relationship between drapery and wealth – there is an extravagance to drapery not found in other kinds of clothing.  Drapery, compared to tailoring, cannot be standardised, or even repeated.  It is fluid and slippery and depends on the structure beneath; it is not structure itself as is the tailored hunting jacket.  In her article Klyak felt Gehry's draped surface was entirely appropriate to the expense of the project, even calling it 'Versace for buildings'. 

It is interesting that after the publication of Diderot's Encyclopédie which revealed to all hithertofore arcane and guarded methods of manufacture, and after the revolution, which the Encyclopédie had philosophically anticipated, complicated garments fell completely out of fashion, in favour of drapery.  It is the way of fashion, once anyone can have it, it is no longer very interesting.  It has taken twenty-five years for the odd angles and diverted planes of Gehry's early work to become de rigeur for almost all new not-very-expensive commerical buildings: the meaning and reference for shifting off axis, for bending skin away from structure has long been lost and we are faced with style. And thoroughy tiresome has it become. 

Anyway, back to the Encyclopédie and the French revolution, the Statue of Liberty as a gift from liberated France to liberated America, the liberation of skin from structure – Eiffel engineered the iron framework of the Statue of Liberty, le Corbusier's second point in Vers une architecture – the free façade.  There's a thread here. 


Diderot 2: cutting your coat to fit the cloth


Diderot. Tailleur. Encyclopédie, or Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72). right: Blue camblet riding jacket, Britain, 1730-50. Victoria and Albert Museum T.12-1957

Above is the layout of pattern pieces for the material and lining for a mid 18th century jacket.  The skirt is very full, for both fashion and riding.  The scale bar at the bottom marks off une aune, which is a pre-1799 (when France introduced the metre) measurement unit used for cloth and is roughly a yard.  The two different widths of material shown in the plate indicate two different looms: 18th century silk brocade generally came from narrow looms producing a 19" width.  Wool was wider.  The most well known example of width determined by the loom is that of Harris Tweed, produced in 28" widths on the Hattersly shuttle loom.  This narrow width determined how the ubiquitous Harris Tweed jacket was cut and styled. 

Generally, and unless it is very rare and hand-loomed, wool fabric comes 60"/155cm wide today.  Even this width puts limits on how it can be cut to make a coat.  However, what is interesting about the above layouts is the complexity of the coat – 16 pieces, and every piece curved.  This would have been a very shapely jacket, something like the riding jacket in the Victoria and Albert Museum, above right. 

We could make this jacket from this plate, starting with the length of the sleeve and the waist dimension, scaling everything up proportionally.  Publishing these plates, and it was M. Garsault who was the editor of the métier of tailoring and garment-making under Diderot's overall editorship, meant that the proprietary knowledge of tailoring and dressmaking was suddenly public property.  Until the Encyclopédie was published, everything was local knowledge without standardisation.  Was this inevitable and rational modernisation represented by the Encyclopédie, the first and devastating shot in the wresting of control of production from personal, individual eccentricity?

The other thing about this pattern is that the cloth and the pattern determine the garment, not the body.  The body is fit into the resulting shell, rather than the shell being built responsively upon an individual body. It is so obvious that this can act as a metaphor for architecture it hardly needs saying, but I'll say it anyway. From the turning of sheet material into curved pieces, little has changed from 18th century tailoring to Gehry's complex software plotting programs that produced Bilbao.  And for the rest of us, it is the 4 x 8 module that determines so much of the spaces we inhabit, not our own dimensions.  




Diderot's Tailleurs

Diderot. Ganterie. Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72).

Thinking on from Nicole Dextras's Weedrobes, the illustrations for Diderot's  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72) come to mind.  This survey of French crafts and trades just before the Revolution, includes such things as how a bodice is made, a riding jacket, gloves, hats – all the patterns laid out flat.  Included are the workrooms for glovemakers, tailors, hatmakers – the spaces of craft and trade: where is the dress cut and stitched?  where does the dressmaker or the tailor sit as they fell a seam?  what is the space like in which the hat is sold? 

In the Encyclopédie they are austere rooms flooded with light from tall many-paned sash windows.  These rooms are never deep and usually have windows on two facing sides.  Because these are crafts and trades, furniture is the work bench, a sturdy work table, open shelves and sometimes a cabinet.  Accompanying the plates illustrating the garment, and the plates showing the spaces, are the plates of tools, the instruments of the craft: a catalogue of needles, of stretchers, of hat presses, of shears.

The sense that an illustration, from illustrare – to light up, can explain a process and the minimal spatiality of that process is something quite valuable.  The end product is no more or less important than the way the buttons are made, or how daylight falls on the work table.  The Encyclopédie is clearly an Englightenment project that does not privilege status, or accumulated meaning, over fact.  Dresses are not about fashion, they are about the people who make the garments.  This is indeed revolutionary, this concentration on process.

It is also interesting, just in terms of women's fashion, that all the panniers, the many-layered gowns, the corsets, the lacing, the ribbons and the embroidery fell out of favour after the revolution, replaced by simple white muslin dresses that hung straight from a high waist.  Domestic interiors, and one can think of the Georgian rooms of the Jane Austen era here, cut the gilded baroque in favour of whitewash and plain, beautiful proportions.

Today, the Couturiere's room below seems quite functional, but it was shocking and indeed revolutionary to have this kind of utility ennobled to the point that it influenced domestic interiors.


Nicole Dextras

Nicole Dextras. Yucca Prom Dress.

Nicole Dextras is a Vancouver artist who works with ephemeral materials: plants, water, ice, names, myths, clothing destined to last and yet never to be worn again.  It is her work, Toronto Island 2007, on the cover of On Site 20: museums and archives.  It shows a delicate organza skirt and a black velvet jacket caught, frozen in the ice, all the immanent life in clothing pinned the way that iridescent beetles are pinned in natural history museum specimen trays. 

Dextras has contributed several articles to On Site, beginning with 'Belonging.  Sous le pont', an extended series of installations under Burrard Bridge that crossed First Nations narratives with blackberry vines, willow branches, Mountain Ash berries woven and tied into fragile, but flexible structures (On Site 18: culture).

On Site 21: weather showed work she'd done in Dawson City in the Yukon, constructing moulds for large free-standing ice letters.  What does one write with 10'-high letters in ice?  Dextras wrote L E G A C Y .  She wrote names: Cléophase, Elphese, Gédéon – noms a coucher dehors.  The past  is the subject, the medium is the weather, the tools are un-constructed materials at hand.

If Dextras' winter material at hand is ice, her summer material is plants. Still ephemeral, still delineating the structures of other, past lives.  I just find this work so beautiful, the antithesis of the world of war On Site has been engaged with now for months and months.  War does grind one down.  Nicole Dextras's work does lift one up. 

Nicole Dextras. Sunday

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