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Entries in material culture (127)


tarp archaeology

This might be the end of my disquisition on tarps for now.  It stopped raining, got some more pictures, found some more conditions, shall think about them for a bit.  They have so many applications, from storm walls to weed killers.  Most are blue, some are silver and really beautiful.  They are the foreground to many glorious touristy views, the background to the back yard.  They appear where unnecessary, they are slowly buried when forgotten.

With weather comes architectural adaptation.  We have been taught the traditional responses to weather: the tight roofs on the Nova Scotia shore where any roof with an overhang would be ripped off by horizontal Atlantic winds, the deep eaves on the west coast which protect the walls and the foundation from quietly endless vertical rain.  The steep metal roofs of Revelstoke shed great snowfalls into the sideyards; the prairie two-storey frame house, an almost perfect cube, has an extremely low surface to volume ratio, minimising heat loss.  These are the broad strokes, none of which prepared me for the finer grain of tarp culture.   



I'm beginning to think that tarps also indicate ownership, that the pile of leaves on the boulevard covered in a tarp indicates that you have intentions for these leaves, they are yours, they aren't abandoned leaves. 
These pipes in the yacht club parking lot ought to be fine in the rain; no one is worried that water will run in the ends, no, the tarp appears to tidy them up.  The sight of a bright blue tarp is preferable to a pile of pipe lengths.  I find this a bit curious, but clearly I don't quite get the nuances of tarpdom yet. 

I grew up here and can't ever remember tarps everywhere.  Dark mildewed canvas, yes, and tarpaper, lots and lots of tarpaper.  There was a small house on the way to school that was only tarpapered.  It is now stuccoed, but for twenty years the tarpaper did its job.  Now it would be neatly faced with bright blue plastic.  


small things: ice fishing huts

Paul Whelan. Ice Fishing Hut on Lake Simcoe, 2008.

Both Steve Sopinka and Paul Whelan wrote, in different articles, about ice fishing huts in Ontario for On Site 21: weatherThe Globe & Mail had a piece on them last weekend, and Rob Kovitz has released his long in the making book, Ice Fishing in Gimli. a novel.  Kovitz's book is huge, complex and about Gimli, and winter, and Canada, and takes its name from a study Kovitz did about 10 years ago of the ice fishing huts on Lake Winnipeg. 

Beautifully crafted little pieces of architecture housing one or two people who spend long days in them with a fishing line dropped through a hole in the ice, ice fishing huts are on their way to being one of the enduring and iconic images of the Canadian winter. 

Although a highly individual activity, the collective of huts form a community of sorts, with unwritten rules and oral traditions.  They represent a culture that is local, historic, spatially precise, half-sport, half-social with an architecture that has developed from it.  Perhaps one can buy a little garden shed from Rona or Canadian Tire and adapt it to sitting on the ice, but Sopinka's and Whelan's research indicate that this is not really what happens.  These huts are handmade with considerable care and attention. 

Vernacular architecture is a form of building limited by the scope and scale of the individual builder, working with ordinary tools and found materials: things are put together in ways that make professionals both blanch and wonder why their education battered the impulse to make things out of them. 

Ice fishing huts are small, the tradition is long, the lake is huge. 


small things: lipstick

The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, April 1945. The Imperial War Museum, London

Last Remembrance week The Relief of Belsen (2007) was on TVO.  It was both drama and documentary, intercut with Richard Dimbleby's BBC footage taken in 1945.  The ambulance crew which had been sent to the prison, and subsequent Red Cross and military reinforcements were played by actors, no one played the survivors of the camp, they were all shown in the intercut documentary portions.  The ambulance crew did not know it was a concentration camp; the horror of their discovery was manifest and enormous, the task of humanitarian rescue nearly impossible as thousands died even as they were trying to give them proper nourishment, medicine, clothes and bedding.

This is an excerpt from the diary of Lieutenant-Colonel Gonin DSO who, in the film, was shown as the head of the medical team:

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Such a small thing, a lipstick.


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.


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.

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