Political Underpinnings: Considering Zoe Buckman’s Every Curve in the age of #MeToo

I first learned of contemporary artist Zoe Buckman’s work two years ago when I read about her solo exhibition, Every Curve, at Papillon Gallery in Los Angeles. I was fascinated by her project, which incorporates hand-embroidered text onto women’s vintage lingerie. The words Buckman included are lyrics from hip hop songs that make reference to women, often with sexist overtones. She has explained that she grew up in East London listening to rappers like Biggie and Tupac, and that their lyrics had an impact on her consciousness. Her body of work reconciles her love of hip hop with her feminist beliefs.

Buckman selected garments from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s, which demonstrate changing ideals of the female body over the course of the 20th century. There is a sort of nostalgic pleasure in looking at the delicacy and feminine beauty of vintage lingerie. Juxtaposed with the toughness and machismo of hip hop, I saw Buckman’s work as an act of rebellion. I also appreciated the nod to the historically feminine craft of embroidery used to express song lyrics with masculinist, womanizing content. Generally, I found this project playful and lighthearted, a fun contrast between two disparate things I enjoyed personally.

Since 2016, there has been a rather alarming turn of events in the arena of American media. We have seen the election of a President who boasts of grabbing women ‘by the p****’, the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge accused of multiple sexual assaults, and the outpouring of women who have exposed prominent Hollywood figures of sexual misconduct igniting the #MeToo movement. All of this is rather appalling, but not new. This is the pattern of history, where dominance and privilege are rewarded with more power.

Over the past months, I have found myself often thinking about Buckman’s work. In the age of #MeToo, it has become painfully clear that women’s bodies remain a battleground, a site on which to reinforce patriarchal power through sexual violence. Reconsidering Every Curve again today, there is something eerie and disturbing about such intimate garments exposed in such a way. They recall a time when women had less choice, less freedom, and less of a voice. Strung from the ceiling together in a room, they take on a spectral quality, and among them we can hear the echoes of women struggling to be heard. These garments are intrinsically tied to female sexuality and femininity, and, when superimposed with the often domineering words of male musicians, become a symbol of the exercise of patriarchal power over the female body.

Previously, I appreciated the contextualizing of a male-dominant hip hop culture in terms of women’s dress, but now I understand them with a different kind of imperative, one that makes reference to violence and silenced narratives. Buckman’s work exposes the intimacies and intricacies of gendered power dynamics through dress, revealing and engaging with the nettles of difficult histories. Addressing violence currently and historically is an endeavor as difficult as it is necessary, and Buckman’s work makes legible a feminist struggle for liberation through the visual vocabulary of that which is most intimate and essential.

Fashion and Feminism: The Brand of the Suffragette

With the centenary of the Representation of the People Act being celebrated this year, images of the Suffragettes have been very much in the public consciousness. The banners, colour palette and clothing in these images are so recognisable to the modern eye that it can be easy to forget how consciously and painstakingly this identity was created; so much so, some historians have argued, that it amounts to a kind of early publicity campaign centred on the ‘brand’ of the Suffragette. The WSPU utilised colour, merchandise and clothing to publicise the ‘Votes for Women’ cause, counter-balance negative publicity and fit their cause into the rhetoric of the age.

The tricolour of the WSPU featured across all aspects of campaigning and became a powerful visual signifier of the suffrage movement, bringing cohesion to the campaign. White, green and purple – representing Purity, Hope and Dignity – highlighted the values of the Suffragette woman but also resonated with the wider social rhetoric of femininity as pure and virtuous. The extensive dissemination of merchandise was particularly innovative, creating a recognisable ‘brand’ and spreading understanding of the suffrage cause. Ties, badges, banners, sashes and waistbands were all available in the Suffragette colours, allowing members to take their political cause with them into their everyday lives, showing their solidarity and raising awareness.

Clothing was also central to the image of the women’s suffrage movement, and was employed by the WSPU to construct an image of the Suffragette which would encourage women to join the cause.  Edwardian cultural norms dictated that women should exist largely in the private sphere, as the ‘Angel in the House’.  Women who entered into the public sphere of political campaigning were widely ridiculed, with derogatory cartoons – depicting such women as masculine, ugly and unfit mothers – springing up across the media. In order to counteract this, the WSPU actively encouraged its members to follow the latest fashions. This allowed the WSPU to construct its own image in the public consciousness, an image which was, in the words of Shelia Stowell, ‘at once both feminine and militant’.

As the government continued to ignore the issue of women’s suffrage, and militant tactics became more widespread, maintaining this feminine image became even more essential. The press released images of Suffragette run-ins with the police, and the police took a number of under-cover surveillance photos of activists. These images directly opposed the gender stereotypes of the age, showing such women as bold, loud and even dangerous. In response the WSPU organised mass demonstrations, and clothing played a key role.  A ‘uniform’ of white dresses combined with WSPU sashes created an almost military presence to catch the government’s attention, while flowers, bright colours and fashionable hats reinforced the idea that a woman could be both pro-suffrage and feminine.

The WSPU realised that clothing and accessories could be utilised to support their political campaign, creating a powerful and easily recognisable ‘brand’ around the ‘Votes for Women’ movement that still resonates with us today.

References

Blackman, C., ‘How Suffragettes used fashion to further their cause’. The Guardian [online], 8 Oct 2015. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/oct/08/suffragette-style-movement-embraced-fashion-branding [Accessed 18 September 2018].

Boase, T., 2017. Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change. London: Aurum Press.

Kaplan, J. and Stowell, S., 1994. Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Exhibition: ‘Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote’, Killerton House, Devon

Exhibition: ‘Votes for Women?’, Killerton House, Devon