Contemporary Reliquaries and Utopian Fashions

Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Held just before London Fashion Week in February, the International Fashion Showcase (IFS) is a series of installations organised by the British Council and British Fashion Council that feature the work of emerging designers from different nations. This year’s setting was Somerset House, where each country’s exhibit responded to one theme, Fashion Utopias, in the context of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility at Somerset House Trust, the Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College. Through thematic exhibitions and connections to cultural institutions, the IFS showed how fashion could signify more than Fashion Week runway shows or commercial practices. It illuminated makers creative processes, broadened to connect to various interpretations of ‘utopia.’ This unexpected merger of commerce and curation worked to heighten viewers’ questioning the definition, and artistic and cultural significance of dress. Further, through the participation of Courtauld Dress History research students in a study day, the IFS sought to explore the historical and theoretic resonance of contemporary design.

Traces of history were what drew me to Isabel Helf’s wooden bag display (from her collection “Portable Compulsion”) in the Austria installation, as I walked through the exhibition before my talk at the study day. The bags recall medieval reliquaries, in that they house precious hidden contents and are precious containers themselves. Like the many reliquaries that were imitative of architectural spaces, such as a 13th-century reliquary shrine of St. Martial, the bags were conceived to relate to architectural space and furniture. Some affix neatly onto tabletops or, through their 90-degree-angle bases, rest atop flat, stepped surfaces. Helf designed these coordinated interactions to function in the cramped spaces of contemporary city life. In contrast to narrow spaces, I found that through their very miniaturization, they communicate the possibility of human potential. Likewise, Cynthia Hahn has noted that portable reliquaries promise to, in the words of Susan Stewart, “open […] to reveal a secret life […] a set of actions and hence a narrativity […] outside the given field of perception.” As I experienced at the IFS, the bags too elevate wearers beyond the mundanity of daily life through an intimate handling process.

Once opened, the possibility of narrative or creation is offered through the bags’ contents, built-in writing implements and other everyday objects, which are designed to fit perfectly in removable slots, all made from the same wood. Helf worked with a carpenter to learn the traditional joinery techniques such as dovetail and finger joints that hold the bags together. She explained to me that when two things fit together, whether in terms of the bags’ placement against architecture or their own construction, individuals experience satisfaction. For Helf, this feeling also results from the bags’ ability to “order” belongings in small spaces. Echoing the ideas of Frank Davis, they could be seen to work as sartorial solutions that counter the confusion and ambivalence of modernity. Thus, while harking back to distant moments, they reveal contemporary problems and offer a psychological and spatial utopia in their miniaturization and capacity for precision, multifunction and order.

Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

(Above) Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

fig 4

Isabel Helf, Bags from "Portable Compulsion" collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

(All above) Isabel Helf, Bags from “Portable Compulsion” collection, Austria Installation, International Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, February 2016.

Sources:

Davis, F. (1992) Fashion, Culture, and Identity, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago.

Hahn, C. (2012) Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University.

Stewart, S. (1984) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University.