Our Silhouettes and Our Shadows

I walk over Waterloo Bridge most days, and most days I am carrying a heavy bag full of the things I need for my day: books, planner, laptop, wallet, bottle of water, etc.

One time while walking I caught sight of my shadow. It was a softened-outline and vague: I was swaddled in a long winter coat that ties with a belt at the waist (and reveals the waist that signs ‘this is a woman’s silhouette’ rather than ‘this is a murky walking blob’). My body’s shadow was tilted. I had curved my back to the left side in order to rebalance myself with the weight of the bag I carried on my right shoulder. The weight of the bag pulled this shoulder downward and it’s bulge protruded out of the side of my body… a massive lump… a drooping rotund side stomach… my mutation of human form from what I had adorned and weighed down my body with.

I’m thinking about how lifestyle, environment, need alters the silhouette.

My bag (it’s weight, size, the way I was carrying it) and coat (it’s length, thickness, style, the way I chose to wear it) altered the form and movements of my body, my posture, my walk, my silhouette.

I chose this bag for it’s functionality and autonomy. The same dark hues as my clothes, it looks like it could be a part of my coat like a bulging pocket, or a growth my coated body has produced for survival (carrying the things I need to navigate my way through that day). The bag is made of a light canvas material, so that it has little of its own weight, instead it is more the contents of the bag that make up its weight and bulky form.

In 1994, Kosuke Tsmura launched Final Home with a transparent nylon coat that consisted of 40 pockets to be filled with what one needs to survive. This version of a survivalist way of thinking about dress, and how the filled pockets of the coat could simultaneously function as a form of insulation for the wearer reflects Tsumara’s concern with what a designer can do for people in desperate situations. Each individual wearer of this coat has their own idiosyncratic silhouette and form due to their needs, for depending on what they fill the coat with and in which pockets a different outline of the body would be created.

In 1997 Rei Kawakubo created a collection for Comme des Garçons called ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’, which is more often referred to as the ‘lumps and bumps’ collection. The collection used padding to alter the silhouette of the models bodies. Stuffed protuberances seemed like swellings of the body that exaggerated the shape of hunched backs, warped monobosoms or sloping shoulders and grew from the models bodies through the clothing design. This is what I was reminded of when I noticed my lumpy shadow on Waterloo Bridge.

MoMA’s current exhibition ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ had a display of bulging mannequins in a row that were either of bulging bodies in which the clothes adhere to such growths (for instance the pleated Modular Dress 2.0 designed by Wei Hung Chen in which the pleats can adjust and loosen alongside the growth of a pregnancy bump, or open completely so that the wearer can breastfeed) or accessories such as bum bags and baby carriers that add the protrusion to the body’s form for purposes of functionality.

The Bernard Rudofsky’s 1944 sculpture series of what a woman’s body would be like if the clothing she wore actually fitted her body was also exhibited in ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’. These comic sculptures (we cannot ignore the flapper figure’s lack of arms and drooping bottom or how the bustle of the Victorian woman reveals the body of a centauress) display the changing silhouette of woman through her dress, and how fashion alters the way one might regard the human body.

Here are some of the visual notes I made while writing this article that were inspired by Rudofsky’s sculptures, the line-up of bulgy bodies at MoMA and my deformed shadow on Waterloo Bridge…

 

 

By Evie Ward

Kara Walker

By Aric Reviere

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, MoMA, 1994.

Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Paper, Overall 13 x 50′ (396.2 x 1524 cm). Gift of the Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josee Kravis. Photo from http://www.moma.org/collection/works/110565?locale=en.

I wanted to begin my series of contributions to this blog with a bit of reflection upon my undergraduate work and a brief exploration of some of the fundamental intellectual questions I hope to pose in the year to come. In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.

Walking into the first temporary exhibition hall at MoMA this past June, I was struck by this Walker work, which the curators installed on a gigantic stretch of wall. To say the work dominated the incredibly spacious gallery would be an understatement, but in typical 21st century fashion, a stream of visitors from all over the world merely glanced at the piece, posed for a snapchat to demonstrate their level of cultured privilege, and ultimately made their way into the adjacent chambers in search of MoMA’s treasure trove of modernist masterpieces. For me, however, the work presented an opportunity to view in person for the first time the palpable power of Walker’s aesthetic. The apparent paradox of a contemporary African American artist creating work almost exclusively in the antiquated Victorian tradition of silhouettes initially drew me to the work of Walker as a young Art History student at Davidson College. As a reductive art form, specifically in the sense of portraying a visual landscape through only the juxtaposition of black against white, the silhouette–at least in my humble opinion–possesses a highly racialized history. In other words, despite how the art form renders a figure as a black object in contrast to a stark white background, that figure almost exclusively in the history of the silhouette is presumed to be white. Further visual cues, such as dress and the physiognomy of a figure, convey the race, gender, and social status of the object of the artist’s gaze. Walker, however, transforms the genre into a visual platform of subversive alternative histories, clearly denoting through the physiognomy and dress (or lack there of) the diametric black versus white paradigm. This work specifically portrays a series of distinct vignettes in a larger collective story, but ultimately the delineation between the white, well dressed bodies of the figures in the far left section contrasts starkly with the rampant nudity and sexuality of the black bodies portrayed throughout the work with often hyper-exaggerated physical features including a gigantic penis and the stereotypical coon based imagery of over large feet.

Ultimately, Walker’s work represents a starting point for many of the issues I explored in my undergraduate thesis, a reaction to Paul Gilroy’s theory of the Black Atlantic. As I look forward to the work I will conduct this year, however, issues of racism, power, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of my academic work because in many ways these have each impacted my life in distinct fashion. Given my immense level of privilege as a white, American male from an upper middle class background, viewing the way the white, European Imperial/Colonial apparatus visually defines blackness in opposition to glorified constructs of purified and superior white identities speaks more profoundly to the perversion and exploitative nature of white patriarchal hegemony than it is representative of true black identities. For me, questions like how does European femininity in the 1920s re-appropriate primitivism and the sexuality of the black body to facilitate its own liberation from Victorian domesticity are central to understanding how European modernism, feminism, etc. emerged. The intersectionality of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and (perhaps most relevant for this course) the history of dress all speak to the way certain power structures legitimize and perpetuate certain identities. That is what fascinates me and Walker’s discursive work subverts such a vehicle of hegemonic identity propagation to truly question how we perceive our world and its history.