Balenciaga’s Fabrics

 

Upon a recent viewing of the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition at the V&A, as well as the focus on shapes and forms, I was particularly interested in the mentioning of Balenciaga’s fascination with fabrics. In the exhibition there featured a couple of displays of fabric swatches and samples, including a huge book with fabric samples. One of the textile boards showed a multitude of fabric choices for a single collection — so many colours, patterns, and textures. The board was used as a marker for the models for the order of the show. Rather than representing fashion and dress predominantly through its shape and overall look like we usually do, Balenciaga associated his designs with their fabric, texture and colour. On the board he detailed where the fabric was made and the name of its wearer, providing almost a personality and identity to the fabric itself.

Rather than starting with a design or a sketch, Balenciaga began with the fabric. As he said, “It is the fabric that decides.” His knowledge and interest for different cloths led him to forge very close working relationships with many textile manufacturers worldwide. In order to create the magnificent shapes of his garments, fabric was the most important aspect. Because of this, stiff materials were often needed to hold the shapes of his designs. After his careful selection of fabrics, Balenciaga preferred to start making instead of dwelling on sketches and designs. Instead, a sketch artist would work on the drawings for him, and Balenciaga would attach a fabric sample to the sketch. In the exhibition, a huge book of fabric samples is displayed in a glass case, offering a tactile tease to us viewers — the beautifully coloured fabrics shone in the display light, away from our grasp. In selecting the fabric first, Balenciaga was choosing the viewer and the wearer of the garments, whose skin these designs would be in contact with. The exhibition also had a replica dress of Balenciaga’s that visitors of the exhibition could try on, all in order to recreate the feeling of enveloping oneself in one of his designs.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A until February 18th, don’t miss it!

By Grace Lee

An Attempt to Unravel Agnes Richter’s Jacket

Within The Fashion System Roland Barthes puts forth the notion that meaning from fashion can only be obtained by its relationship to image and text. The illegibility of the garment itself however, does not imply that said garment does not have meaning; only that it is obscured. This notion is interesting to consider in relation to an embroidered straitjacket produced by the psychosis of Agnes Richter within the confines of the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution in 1895. Various words and incoherent sentences are maniacally stitched upon every available space while visible perspiration stains map the contours of the jacket. This sense of corporeality gives a ghostly impression of the artist’s body and hand; a hand that punctured and stitched the very garment that restricted her. For Richter, the needle became the phallus that she, as a woman, was deprived of within the patriarchal structures of the 19th century sanatorium. The needle-qua-phallus operates as an object that gave Richter a mode of expression, whilst the jacket itself — designed to restrict the arms thus inhibiting the ability to sew — can be seen as an object of castration. The puncturing of the jacket thus becomes an act of aggression that enabled Richter to conquer the object of castration while simultaneously embedding herself within it.

Within her book Agnes’ Jacket, Gail A. Hornstein closely analyses the textual content of the straitjacket and ultimately concludes that it remains illegible to the viewer. Written in German in a style called Deutsch Schrift, the jacket’s musings have never been discerned from the erratic stitchings that line the topography of the garment. What can be deduced however, lies within the abstract nature of the piece; such as the unravelling and withering threads that represent the decomposition of the artist’s mind during the jacket’s production. What Hornstein ultimately concludes is that the ghostly corporeality of the garment comes to embody Agnes and allows the viewer to revel in the obscurity of trying to ascertain who she was.

This obscurity and illegibility, in relation to Barthes’ statements on fashion, provides interesting insight into the gendering of language as well as Richter’s rejection of it. Whilst Barthes claims that language is one of the vessels through which fashion can convey meaning, language itself —as explored by Lacan — is a patriarchal structure that signifies a child’s entry into the Symbolic Order. It is therefore no surprise that Richter, alongside many of her contemporary female patients, rejected language and relied upon other means of expression. Charcot’s hysterics, for example, relied upon contortions of the body while Richter utilized the needle and thread as a means of communication. The similarity that lies between the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ is one that becomes divided when considering the gendering of each. The written word was a privilege predominantly gifted to men while women were often delegated to crafts such as embroidery and weaving. In rejecting language Richter makes a return to the feminine art of embroidery that ultimately subverts and obscures meaning. Trying to unravel the threads of Richter’s jacket is a task that no one seems to be equipped for; and it is in this rejection of the symbolic that allows Richter to speak in a voice that no one understands but everyone wants to listen to.

 

Further reading:

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

 Gail A. Hornstein, Agnes’ Jacket

Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self

 

By Niall Billings

Smelling La Serenissima: The Essence of Venice

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“It was a windy night and before my retina registered anything, I was smitten by a feeling of utter happiness: my nostrils were hit by what to me has always been its synonym, the smell of freezing seaweed.” -Watermark, Joseph Brodsky.

 Over the Summer I was fortunate enough to visit Venice with recent History of Dress alumna, Lisa Osborne. The trip involved a plethora of visits to art exhibitions, including the mammoth Biennale. One contemporary art installation that truly struck a chord with me was Andrea Morucchio’s show at Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo, titled ‘The Rape of Venice’. Palazzo Mocenigo is a unique museum within the city that houses antique Venetian textiles and dress. It also tells the story of how a strong and thriving perfume industry was established within the region, recounted through an immersive multi-sensory display, in which visitors are encouraged to smell raw materials, essences, oils, soaps and perfumes. Morucchio’s installation complimented the display of the permanent collection by also incorporating olfaction.

Comprising of four cohesive, immersive and multi-sensory elements, including scent and soundscapes, the installation explored how Venice’s rare cultural heritage and environment is being destroyed as the city’s declining population means that it has transformed from a home for many, into what Morucchio calls: ‘a tourist theme park.’ Inside the one room show monochrome projections replay against the walls. Strong statements in bold typography, reading: ‘Population decline set to turn Venice into Italy’s Disney Land’, and ‘Venice is sinking under a tidalwave of corruption’, are headlines from the international press. Created from fragments of a deconstructed mosaic taken from St Mark’s Basilica, the kaleidoscopic stone floor is intended to emulate a ‘frozen sea’; pertinent as underwater sound recordings of traffic in the Venetian Lagoon and the evocative scent of ‘frozen seaweed’ were pumped through the gallery space.

 Inspired by the fragile lagoon environment, Morucchio collaborated with Venetian perfume company Mavive for months to create this salty unisex scent. Three hundred bottles possessing the limited-edition ‘Essence of Venice’ were produced and sold to visitors. The bold packaging of the small bottle, carrying this one-off scent, mimics the bold typography used for the graphic statements in the installation. Furthermore it also bares similarities to Jenny Holzer’s graphic series of perfume adverts, created in collaboration with Helmut Lang in 2000. Since the perfume could only be obtained from Palazzo Mocenigo, the scent recalls the memory of the installation, thus reminding the wearer of the deeper emotional journey through the city from which the smell was born. This is not the first time that the city sense-scape has inspired artists, for example the scent of London has also been explored by a recent collaboration between The Serpentine Gallery and Comme des Garçons (2014). The London-inspired scent, conceptually described as a mixture of grass, oxygen and a little bit of pollution, can still be purchased today and was produced and marketed to raise funds for the gallery program. This contrasts with Morucchio’s sensory adventure, which focused on the ephemeral nature of scent and the city.

Sources:

http://mocenigo.visitmuve.it/en/mostre-en/mostre-in-corso-en/morucchio-installation-mocenigo-venice/2015/04/8352/the-rape-of-venice-installation/