My recent encounter with a woman disguised as a lobster with glittery flippers, brought to mind the psychologist J.C. Flügel’s ideas on protection and clothing. In 1930, he wrote that ‘[t]he desire for protection against human enemies has led to the development of quite a special kind of clothing, known as armour.’ Likewise, the woman wore this costume to protect against the negative experiences of everyday life, such as the emotional upheaval and awkwardness of a first date. Constructed from cardboard, however, her lobster armour was of the flimsy kind. Its material spoke to fashion’s contradictory nature: in lieu of protection the garment left its wearer vulnerable and transparent. Early commentators on fashion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often questioned the functional purpose of dress and, for Flügel especially, the psychological translation of materials, silhouettes and colours. They tended to ask what Joanne Entwistle later termed ‘why questions’ concerning people’s motives for dressing and the changing nature of fashion. Similarly, in her performance “about getting dressed” on 27 March, Rachel Snider began by recalling the reasons she changed her clothing, as a result of stains or for a particular occasion, for instance. From there she recounted personal experiences, such as first dates.
This performance was part of a series of collaborations between Rachel Snider and costume and set designer Petra Storrs entitled “Dressing for Breakfast” in which they explore ways of dressing, tying together childhood memory, comedy and collective history. It was also commissioned for the Relaunch of the Fashion Space Gallery at the London College of Fashion, a series of thirteen live events, ranging from workshops to live fashion presentations, held between 13 and 31 March 2014. Rather than focus on a central subject, each event addressed, according to the website, ‘a pertinent theme present within the field of fashion in its widest sense.’ Director Ligaya Salazar and other organisers intended Relaunch to serve as the gallery’s ‘starting point and blueprint for a new approach and exhibition cycle.’ One unifying aspect was the adaptable modular seating plan designed by The Decorators. Indeed the Relaunch logo was abstracted from this installation, present at every event in some form, cementing the importance of adaptability and rethinking in discussions of fashion in this new space.
To tell her story, Snider deployed oversized paper cut-out costumes with flaps, that looked like giant versions of dress-up dolls’ clothes. Two women, clad in combination underwear pinned the cut-outs – taken from an oversized clothesline – to Snider’s own late nineteenth-century style cotton chemise and drawers. The trio, adorned in the colourful and theatrical paper clothing, resembled marionettes.
Emotion was also treated as a material element to be pinned onto the body, and throughout her narration tears and bodily organs in paper appeared at the appropriate moments to translate anxiety, vulnerability, confidence, and pleasure. Armour for protection was balanced with glittery flippers for decoration. Language consisted of clothing, simple gestures, words and occasional bursts of music. Much like earlier commentaries on fashion, Snider reduced fashion to simple terms.
Yet this very simplicity underlined the complex, tacit associations of the physical and psychological. Snider’s argument that cardboard cut-outs were necessary to weather difficult daily experiences resonated with the entire audience. Flügel also related the physical to people’s psychological and lived experience and likened armour to clothing that protected ‘against the general unfriendliness of the world as a whole; or, expressed more emotionally, a reassurance against the lack of love. If we are in unfriendly surroundings, whether human or natural, we tend, as it were, to button up, to draw our garments closely round us.’ In contrast, reinforced by the lobster disguise, spectators recalled moments when their sartorial efforts failed to protect. Snider laced humour throughout her similarly bleak story further complicating surface materials, just as Flügel theorised that ‘positive and negative elements are so intimately intertwined that it is difficult or impossible to disentangle them.’
Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity, p. 57.
Flügel, J.C. (1950 ) The Psychology of Clothes, London: The Hogarth Press, pp. 69, 71, 74, 77.