Have We Lost Our Buttons?

Every house should have its button box. I suspect one time every house did. Spare buttons were very much part of the mending culture, when recycling in the craft of use was not so much a principle of sustainability as a common sense practice. But their omnipresence in past domestic life  is also the reason why they’re a good subject for commodity history. 

In The Button Box the English historian Lynn Knight starts from her family’s button collection, passed down three generations, to tell the story of women in the 20th century. Buttons are peripheral things and yet they often outlast the garments they once adorned. Which means they can function as repositories of history – when given proper attention. Knight writes lively history through humble haberdashery.

Take Knight’s great-aunt Eva’s gauntlets for instance. Starting from the buttons, you can’t but admire the chocolate colour and the buttonholes, gusset and cuffs edged in caramel-coloured leather. In the early 1920s such gauntlets were associated with the well-off sporting woman’s wardrobe, well out of the reach of the working-class likes of Eva. But within a few years they were a popular choice for daywear, in particular when women dressed up to go shopping. Or, with one button reference, Knight enables us to feel the relief that the First World War was finally over and the special delight that consuming held then.

When they’re individually named, you probably pay more attention not to lose your (flapper) buttons.

Through Eva’s one-bar buttoned post-war shoes, we also get to imagine the accompanying stockings that came in vivid colours – with colour becoming the shorthand of modernity. And with the colourful stockings also appeared the garter buttons decorated with the flapper’s stylized faces – an attractive, wide-eyed Betty Boop-like creature.

That these were indeed exciting, modern times, Knight further illustrates with reference to the so-called flapper vote. Following the partial enfranchisement ten years earlier of women aged 30 and over, if they had a household qualification, 1928 saw the extension of the franchise to women aged 21. But Dame Millicent Fawcett, founder member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was not too pleased by the phrase: “Why call them flappers? Why call them girls?” The route to full emancipation of the admired “modern young woman” was still a long way off.

Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so. A jet button prompts thoughts over the elaborate rituals of mourning. A linen button, made to survive the mangle, brings into focus the working-class matrons who once patronized her great grandparents’ haberdashery shop. A Land Army button allows her to mention the Second World War – and so on. In sum, Knight lets buttons and by extension clothes speak as emblems of self-expression, social class and the attempts to escape it. This is fashion approached as a true cultural force and material history in the best of the storytelling tradition.

When do we think of the obvious fact that pearl buttons are made of shells?

The boring black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter don’t do the wealth of stories in this book justice. It would be nice to see a fully illustrated version that shows the original buttons, the corresponding clothes and all the other objects Knight refers to. More information on the then domestic and working conditions of textile workers could inspire reflection on the human cost of fashion now. And what about a list that helps readers to date their own button collection?

My very own button box, with a very young Baudouin (without glasses!), then Duke of Brabant, later fifth King of the Belgians (1951-1993).
I wonder what stories its contents (including my latest acquisitions on the right in the picture) could tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a crafter. I like objects and materials.            I think they can speak to us, as the many recent commodity histories demonstrate. But I also like reflection. So, when humble buttons can exemplify the past, what can our relation with “stuff” more generally        tell us about our lives now?

According to the cultural trend watcher James Wallman, consumerism no longer holds delight. People are actually suffering from stuff in a process that he’s baptized “stuffocation”. His starting observation is that, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by their accumulation. In the terms of this post: we may have lost our buttons – simply by having too many. Stuff clutters up our homes, it causes stress and it’s bad for the planet. Stuffocation then is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

Put in such terms, the solution is simple: reduce your material possessions or at least the value you attach to them. Through true-life stories Wallman presents three radical solutions: minimalism, “the simple life” and “the medium chill”. In a nutshell, minimalists live with as few objects as possible, “simple lifers” take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) as their lifestyle bible, and with the motto “take it easy”, the medium chiller turns away from material success to a slower, gentler and more human way of living.

The common characteristic of these alternatives is that they react to the dominant value system and measure achievement differently. Yet Wallman doesn’t think any of them will replace materialism. Few people know for instance that after only two years, Thoreau gave up voluntary simplicity and returned to the modern world, arguing that he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. The point is not only that simple living is not very stimulating, it’s also all but simple to live without modern conveniences. The medium chill, according to the trend watcher, doesn’t feel aspirational enough and it does not provide people to indicate their status: that’s why it won’t appeal to most people. And the same goes for minimalism.

How do minimalists celebrate National Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9)?

I’m intrigued by these stories, especially the minimalist obsession with numbers, as in: “I possess only 33 items”. I can’t get my head around this. When I look around me, just in the small space where I’m writing this, – no, I’m not even going to begin counting. Curiously, minimalists are very competitive: who can do with the least items? Part of the discussion then becomes what categories to use: are socks for instance to be counted separately, in pairs or as one single genre?

Wallman admits to 39 pairs of socks himself. More importantly, he addresses the issues material culture has come to define for most of us, such as identity, status and meaning. Returning for a moment to the clothes Lynn Knight describes through their buttons, the strength of her account is precisely that it identifies very clearly the relation between even humble objects and life-defining issues. Wallman also doesn’t condemn the relation: it’s simply what we’ve become accustomed to. His point is on the contrary that the issues are real: they’re deeply human needs and any alternative value system will need to satisfy them.

The trend watcher names experience as the next answer to our needs for identity and status. As the appeal of more stuff wanes, people are turning to experiences, like running a marathon, having a barbecue in the park or simply spending time with loved ones. This is not something you can have and hold: the 21th-century quest for the good life connects identity, meaning, status and happiness with something rather intangible that you do. And Wallman sees “experiental society” in practice today: experientalists take more holidays, go to increasingly popular festivals, spend more time (and money) on extravagant outdoor activities.

A great deal of the book is spent explaining how this urge for experience is compatible with the current economic system. Obviously not all businesses will survive. But as we’ve already seen the shift from goods to services, the system will now increasingly provide experiences. And to Wallman this is undeniably a good thing: the planet will suffer less, we will suffer less – and the human needs of identity and meaning will still be met. Everybody happy.

There’re a few shortcuts though. What the author describes very clearly is that the definition of the good life changes over time, relating to circumstances of scarcity or indeed abundance, to reflections about the state of our planet and so on. I take this to understand that there’s a lot of room to exercize our critical judgement – and act upon it. TINA-thoughts are not appropriate, this is a case for agency. But Wallman stays very much within the current frame.

Experience may indeed be the next big thing. But it’s not accidental that Wallman’s examples are almost exclusively outdoors – things to do rather than to be, with obvious consequences for consumerism, in terms of both materials and services to be provided to the experientalists. This then is still very much the framework of economic growth, or just another phase in the capitalist system.

Wallman claims some improvements, such as the fact that experiences are much more difficult to compare than, say, cars. That may be so but what if there is little or no intrinsic motivation to explore the Cambodian island of Koh Rong for instance, but only the desire to show off on social media? What if this is just a shift, away from the object but with the same aim: to distract us from important life issues?

It’s of course true that material accumulation for the sake of it offers very few people stable answers to their deeply felt needs. As mentioned earlier, the very feeling of being cheated out of satisfaction is indeed the driving force of the current economic and cultural system. And increasing numbers of people look for more meaningful lives. But does that mean we have to abandon the objects altogether – and turn uncritically to another promise of salvation and bliss? What if we haven’t lost our buttons at all, but simply paid them not enough attention?

In yet another Button Box the reader is encouraged to remember important people in her life, treasure her memories and in particular, tell stories. Debut author Janet Sever Hull has understood an important lesson: many people may need objects to connect with their inner needs and indeed, with other people. She invites the reader “to think of at least three things right off the top of your head which hold special memories for you and your family”. It may be the dinner table, or the family cookie jar, or indeed the button box, passed on from one generation to the next.

Obviously, it’s not necessarily the material value that makes an object special to us. As these button books show, it’s the stories they inspire that offer identity and meaning. The question then may become whether we allow objects to speak? Or are we too busy living our busy lives, suffering indeed from stuffocation, with no time to clear up, let alone tell or listen to the stories? Perhaps we should understand memories as some kind of experience too. But the stories evoked here require no conspicuous consumption. And the outdoors doesn’t feature either.

More generally, if we’re really looking to meet deeply human needs, I would claim it important to look indoors as well. To creative experiences, in crafts for instance. To the values of craftsmanship, such as attention, respect and patience. The intrinsic motivation to create. The inherently human desire to make – and to do it well. The effort to exercize our critical judgement and act upon it. The connection between head and hands. The kairos experience. And the value of stillness, the time creativity asks to be recognized and felt – or to let it bubble up from        our deeply buried selves.

The Button Art Museum clearly hasn’t lost its buttons: its boards on Pinterest provide ample inspiration. The experience of beauty creates space to be. And I believe that above all the ability for stillness is required in order to define better our quest for the good life.

This simple button inspiration can be.
But it can also be the stuff of fairytales.
Feel free to daydream,
When you experience simply being, your buttons will remain with you.

The Battle of the Colours

Funny how even a shop called ‘Blue Earth’ turns all red.
Moodboard Fall 2017

This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.

According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.

This booklet offers a good summary of all Pastoureau’s ‘colour books’.

Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.

Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red. 

Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds. 

Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.

The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder.  The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter? 

Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler GreenfieldIn the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver. 

The New World cochineal lives on cacti, only the female yields the dye (1777).

It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.

Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality. 

For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.

Dyeing was a labour-intensive, intricate activity (Barthélemy l’Anglais & Jean Corbechon, Le Livre des propriétés des choses, 1482). On the right both bride and groom wear red: their festive attire accentuates the significance of the sacrament of matrimony (detail Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c.1470).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.

Both at his marriage and when he was 63 and in full royal gear, Louis XIV sired red-heeled shoes (Antoine Dieu, Marriage of Louis of France and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoye, 1678; above right detail after Hyancinthe Rigaud).

In comparison, the Louboutin red seems conservative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.

These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.

With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.

Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.

Both the so-called mystic press on the left and the Lamb of God above illustrate the growing symbolism attached to the blood of Christ (French miniature, 14th-15th century; detail Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1427-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.

It’s no coincidence that the guilds’ coats of arms were predominantly red (Ghent, 1524). The power of heraldic red continues to play even now, with 75% of the current UN members having red in their flag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.

The two dimensions of fire in Christian symbolism: on the left the fiery tongues bringing regeneration on Pentecost (Hunterian Psalter, c.1165-70), above eternal damnation for heretics (Chronicle From the Creation of the World until 1384).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.

A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.

Note the same bright blue for the Virgin’s coat and the sky. Interestingly, the angels are both blue (on the earth) and red (circling God in heaven) (Nativity, in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1415).

This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue. 

Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.

The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.

I found one example with both red and blue devils. It’s probably not surprising that this Last Judgement (c.1500) adorns St Mary’s, Fairford. Being one of the so-called wool churches, it’s a testament to the wealth of the wool trade in the Cotswolds region. The stunning windows are 
the only surviving set of medieval stained glass in England. I think the blue devil above rather cute but that must be my wicked modern mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.

The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.

Being banned from Paradise was not a pleasant experience (Ulm Münster, 1461).

And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.

Compare these two Holy Families: on the left the Protestant Rembrandt
uses a very muted palette (1634), the Counter Reformation diplomat Rubens (above) paints his colours as bright as can be and even includes a frivolous parrot (c.1614).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere. 

This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.

Without the truck you might miss the muted red in the roof windows of the Cathedral,
the Beguinage church tower is already somewhat more obvious,
in the Counter Reformation charity building there is no more holding back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright red gate of the medieval belfry reminds us of the value of the city’s freedom.
 The so-called Dulle Griet (1431) was moved to Ghent to fight the Spanish. The impressive canon, stretching over 5 m and weighing more than 12 ton, now stars mostly and predictably in selfies. 
The fire reference in the streets is benign: in case of emergency the water supply will be easily found.

 

The least you can say is that the much-discussed circulation plan, recently introduced to give pedestrians and cyclists more space, brightens up the city centre.

The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.

A postbox in front of my favourite building in Ghent: the Castle of the Counts.

There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).

Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.

Where once was the entrance to the red light district, the Ghent artist Jan Van Imschoot painted several scenes of the local history (2000).
Detail of the wall painting: seductive red stockings.

So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.

And on a wall very close to where I live, what should always be the final word.

The Craft of Use

We’re not materialistic enough. Now here’s a challenging thesis. And it’s convincingly argued by Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the University of the Arts in London. Bear with me, an incident in a different branch of the arts introduces the theme beautifully.

A strange debate recently in Belgium centred around the question whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of art – and on what grounds that can be judged.

Tuymans, The Swamp. Photo Karel Hemerijckx.

The internationally renowned artist Luc Tuymans made the floor painting The Swamp for a cultural happening at the end of which the painting would be burned. With the explicit approval of the artist, of course. But the manager of a poverty organisation objected because the painting had an esteemed market value of half to one million euros. After lots of to-and-fro-ing, the painting was not burnt but hacked into pieces. The full destruction will eventually take place out of public sight.

The point seems to be that we cannot deal with transience: intentionally planning that things change, or indeed disappear, meets resistance. But what’s demonstrated most is how we, collectively, are completely stuck in a consumption society – and we no longer understand its implications. The manager interprets art purely in monetary terms. Tuymans himself manages the market very skillfully by creating scarcity of his work. In other words, all parties in the debate are strongly embedded in the consumption ideology of our times. Yet it can be safely assumed that the manager cherishes other values. And the artist claims a kind of sanctuary, a space where different values reign.

This space is where Kate Fletcher situates her work on the Craft of Use. In fact she’s far more ambitious than Tuymans: the point is not so much to create a sanctuary and in the rest of the space continue to go along with the dominant values, but rather to explore already existing practices and ideas and see how far they will get us in the definition and realization of a radically different system.

Fletcher’s focus is on fashion. And what is so wonderful about her project is that it not only aims to reshape the way we think about fashion but also firmly places it in a much broader discussion on sustainability and the good life. I said it was ambitious.

Fashion is the poster-industry of consumer materialism, frivolous and superficial, hence rather easy to dismiss. Yet Fletcher insists on fashion as a true cultural force, in the sense both that it’s the carrier of the dominant values of our society and that it has the potential to act as a vehicle for true, deep change. Fashion fuses fundamental human needs, the provision of livelihoods, creative expression, social processes, the material dimensions of well-being and pleasure. On the downside, it fully illustrates the dominance of market thinking and the inability of efficiency improvements to outrun the negative effects of economic growth on labour conditions and climate change.

At the heart of The Craft of Use lies a very simple idea of change: pay heed to the tending and wearing of clothes, favour their use as much as their creation. And in so doing adopt a more ecological idea of fashion that recognizes what happens outside the market as rich, powerful and valuable. The subtitle makes it plain: this is the search for “post-growth fashion”. There we have it: the point is to change the entire system.

We’re all “locked-in” into dominant ways of thinking about fashion, about economics and society.  We find it normal to engage with fashion by exchanging money for product. We chase the thrill of a new purchase, only to feel deflated at home where the satisfaction rate rarely holds out. We also expect the clothes to look dated or even fall apart in six months. We don’t hesitate about discarding rather than adapting or repairing – and so we consume again. And the ever growing volumes at an ever increasing pace neutralize the ecological efforts of the fashion industry.

And how do we feel when discarded clothes become art? Monika Droste, Transfixed Clothes (1981), Collection of the Wallonie-Brussels Federation.

To return to the challenging thesis at the beginning of this post: much in the same vein that the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma argues for the knowledge about the origin of raw materials, Fletcher claims we’re not materialistic enough because we don’t really care about the materials or indeed the garments. If we had respect and appreciation for the intrinsic material qualities of things, we would treat them differently – with attention and care. But consumer society suggests that it can fulfill our needs, for symbolic value for instance or social meaning. Hence the continuous replacement purchases. In that dynamic the clothes’ materiality, their intrinsic qualities aren’t relevant. To the industry the post-purchase lives of garments are equally irrelevant: the sooner it can seduce us to consume again, the better. 

This to Fletcher is the crux of the system: if the focus continues to lie with the product, we’re reduced to being – and remaining passive consumers. We hardly exercise our judgement. It’s hard for instance to get any information about the conditions in which the garments are manufactured. We let ourselves be distracted so that we also don’t evaluate our own needs and how they relate to consumption. We don’t actively engage with things. We don’t exercise our awareness. And thus neglect the development of our sensitivity to ethical responsibility.

When in other words consumption is such a powerful force, and it generates passivity in fashion activities, it also spreads that attitude to other domains. And we no longer see what its effects are: we’re discouraged to exercise our judgement in other areas of life too, we fail to identify our real needs, we feel powerless to act in the world. We’ve interiorized the idea that the market defines value – there is no alternative. Which also means that ideas or practices that cannot be marketed, have no value – remember the Tuymans debate.

Fletcher argues that we must resist this dominant ideology. We cannot accept that our lives are assessed by the market alone. Our aspirations and the simple (and not so simple) things that enrich our lives, the engagement with others for instance, do not connect with the economic logic of continuous growth. We thus urgently need an alternative discourse, both to solve the problems of sustainability and to realize a qualitative interpretation of human well-being.

If this sounds like a major task, Fletcher doesn’t deny it is. But she offers us the concept of use as a simple way in. For keeping garments in active use can involve something as simple as approaching a piece with attention and imagination. It’s inconspicuous consumption. It’s appreciating resources in greater detail, stretching them qualitatively and quantitatively, approaching them creatively, folding them into others’ lives, infusing them with human warmth, memory and storytelling. 

Research has revealed that the post-purchase life of a garment is the biggest source of both individual satisfaction and environmental impact. This is why use must be at the centre of post-growth fashion. 

Craft of use refers to a set of practical skills, knowledge and ideas associated with using clothes. They’re little noticed and within the current fashion system little prized. What Fletcher and her team do in the book, is bring together stories and portrait photography that illustrate and value the practice of use. And the main point is that there are already many “alternative dress codes” out there: people buy secondhand, they share use or transfer clothes between generations, they mend their garments, “open and adjust” them, cherish the patina of use, etc.

This is what satisfaction with use looks like.

Let me share my two favourites from the book. One person suggests that with a new dress you should also be able to buy an extra piece of fabric, so you could adjust the garment to your own wishes. Showing her own favourite eveningdress, the woman in the photograph on the right tells the inspiring story of a woman in her eighties who at some point had decided not to buy any more clothes. She’s worn out the rest of her wardrobe and now only wears eveningwear.

What the book illustrates above all, is that many people already have, in their own ‘ordinary’ way, broken through the dominant economic system. They listen to their own needs and preferences, they use their awareness and judgement and bring them into the world. They’ve thus become agents in their own interpretation and practice of fashion.

Fletcher insists that the designing process itself must include users’ wisdom and produce more flexible products. Interestingly, at the end of World War II, the Make Do & Mend movement already inspired material resourcefulness with army blankets. Half a century later the A-Poc project presented the fascinatingly flexible design of Issey Miyake (1998). 

This is disruptive stuff. Once beyond-the-market activity is included to stretch the definition of fashion, the power balance shifts. Production becomes only one part of the system, existing market priorities lose their dominance in favour of alternative networks that favour non-utilitarian, non-economic values.

Use is resourceful and satisfying. It infuses the system of fashion with different goals such as self-reliance, diversity and quality. To use is to act, to forge a more engaged future of our own choosing and in so doing provide us with an opportunity to develop the capacity and skills to navigate our own route not just through our fashion choices, but also through life: we become the makers of alternative routes. Consumers become citizens who bring to the fore different interpretations of identity, agency and the good life.

What I find most fascinating is that this is about ‘ordinary’ people. It’s not grand theory: it’s practical wisdom gleaned from individual, subjective lives. Its practitioners may not even be aware of it but they fulfill a pioneering role – which can inspire us, precisely because it’s so much in reach of us all. What’s more, this “clothing competence” can equally spread out and support growth in our character for instance and in our choices as citizen. Stories of “material resourcefulness” thus become tiny lessons of change – in the various domains of life.

Fletcher makes the association with craftivism which is an explicitly political approach. Obviously, there’s also a strong reference to the ideas, practices and values of craftsmanship such as I have been presenting in this blog. Or to summarize the whole argument really simply: after a garment is sold, the user is in charge. Fletcher calls all of us to use that power. The idea and practice of use is a path to approach not only fashion but life itself differently.

Let me conclude with two practices of my own. Fletcher insists that she “present[s] the practices of garment use not as a neatly packaged ‘how to’ list for using things well and with satisfaction, but as rich ground, as compost, in which ideas and practices of use can be cultivated.” With her, “I leave it up to you to care for what grows here, to train it in different directions, to enjoy its blossom, to cross-pollinate its flowers with new ideas, to eat its fruit, share it with others and replant its seed in new and different ground.”

My sister knitted one jumper in her life. And when it was finished, she didn’t like it – and gave it to me. Years later moths liked it very much.
What I could save, got recycled into a festive attire for a new member in my sister’s happy bear collection.

 

 

Note the buttons above left, the zip on the right and the fringes in the foreground, each belonging to a different secondhand skirt. 
I very much hope I can wear this new trinity in my eighties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.

This Is (Not) A Fairy Tale

We all grow up with fairy tales. It is in the nature of things that our young selves do not notice all that they entail. So it’s fun to return to them in later years – and discover the many layers they contain. 

Secrets d’Étoffes (Fabrics’ Secrets) is a delightful book dedicated to spread the word that fabrics are everywhere, thus also in the stories we hear in our earliest years. And ‘we’ can be taken quite literally: storyteller Anne Lascoux and textile specialist Claude Fauque collected 24 fairy tales from around the world that have at their centre fabrics in all their variety. Interestingly it’s not just raw materials, specific fabrics or clothing, it’s also the skills involved and the quality of craftsmanship that are crucial to the plot of these stories. It seems a pity that the origin of the tales – Europe, Rwanda, Brazil, China, … – is only mentioned in the table of content. But undoubtedly the authors want to emphasize the universality of the ‘secret’ of omnipresent and powerful fabrics. 

Charlotte Gastaut’s illustrations add to the book’s delight.

 

In the collection’s version of Little Red Riding Hood it isn’t so much the hood that takes centre stage, but the girl’s knowledge that it’s washing day. In her escape from the wolf she hurls herself into the sheets of the laundry women – and is saved by floating away on the river. The wolf attempts to do the same but the women pull the sheet from beneath him and he drowns.

 

When the new bride of Bluebeard finds her unfortunate predecessors, she immediately notices that they wear extremely sumptuous dresses. When Bluebeard plans to kill again, she manages to delay his action by appealing to his vanity. She claims she needs more time to complete her attire to perfection. And so he grants her three more hours for stitching. Finally it’s her father who manages to kill first.

My favourite of the collection is the fairy tale which tells the story of How Man Learnt to Spin and Weave. In this Brazilian tale humans have no idea what to do with the raw cotton they collect from the fields. It’s the spider which has the craftsmanship to make it into thread – and generously invites to do it for them. She also introduces them to a great many tools such as needles and bobbins to enable the transfer of her skills. This is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned work of Louise Bourgeois who insisted on the spider as symbol of learning. The tale goes on to bring onto the scene a hurried woman (even in the time that the animals spoke!) who returns early, sees her basket empty and the spider chewing her cotton. Soon the rumour spreads: the spider is a thief! Hurt to the core by the injust accusation the spider decides to leave the country for good. But on her way she stops the first woman she meets and teaches her the craft of spinning and weaving. Again as with Bourgeois, the spider repairs by letting go!

I happily leave the further exploration of these gems to you but the message of Fauque and Lascoux is clear: fabrics are omnipresent in fairy tales in the same way that they are in real life. And they are powerful. In case you’re not convinced yet, what is the tale of The New Clothes of the Emperor (which isn’t actually included in this volume) other than an attempt to escape textile power?

Who certainly makes no attempt to escape textile power, is Colleen Hill who curated a delightful exhibition on Fairy Tale Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York and wrote the accompanying book. In view of her expertise, it’s not surprising that Hill starts off with the question of why fairy tales are so important to high fashion. Yet she ends up exploring the relationship the other way round: why are fabrics so important to fairy tales?

The starting point here is not so much, as with Fauque and Lascoux, that many fairy tales include fabrics, but that their relationship has largely been ignored by fashion historians and theorists, folkorists and fairy tale scholars alike. Hill’s book thus fills a gap that has long been filled in the case of film, fine art and design. Besides a comprehensive introduction to the topic, the book offers a series of essays on thirteen fairy tales. After a short summary of the plot, Hill draws out the sartorial references in different versions of the tales and shows their interpretations, both by mostly late 19th, early 20th-century illustrators and by her own selection of existing garments.

In fact, the question of why fairy tales are important to high fashion, is easily answered. In our highly technological, globalized times, according to Hill, they evoke the magical, the utopian. Tales offer an escape from lives that are fraught with anxiety and stress. And fashion designers exploit the accompanying alienation by telling stories that draw on a language we all know. That is, visually at least.

In Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale the prince is surprised that Sleeping Beauty wears old-fashioned clothes, “like his grandmother”. This makes sense when you remember that she has slept for a hundred years before he kisses her awake but no one, hearing or reading the tale, notices. We are all enchanted by the story and by her royal attire. 

The references to Little Red Riding Hood seem the most straightforward. And the most often used, whether in (high) fashion, advertisements or magazine editorials. They’re easily understood, even when there’s no more hood or when the colour is distinctly different. 

The reference is exaggerated in this design by Comme des Garçons (2015)
Here the emphasis is on the dress, the hood has become a mere accessory. Dolce & Gabbana (2014)
Even in yellow, we understand. By Kirsty Mitchell
Here you wànt to attract the wolves! Max Factor advertisement for ‘Riding Hood Red’ lipstick (1954)

 

Cinderella is the tale that most centers on sartorial display, at least in Charles Perrault’s version of it. Whereas fairy tales usually offer little information beyond what’s needed for the plot or for the character’s portrayal as good or bad, Cinderella contains numerous descriptions of dress that are notably detailed. Perrault’s knowledge of the court of Versailles (he lived from 1628 to 1703) and his own fabric sensibility account for this. It would be interesting to discover to which extent this detail is also present in earlier versions of the tale, the earliest extant version being transcribed in China in the 9th century!

Yet taking into account Perrault’s short, poetic moral at the end of Cinderella (as at the end of all his tales), there is a strong suggestion that we have firmly incorporated the visual language of the fairy tales – but have lost sight of its moral pendant which is related to the second question Hill attempts to address.

“Beautiful ladies, it’s kindness more than dress; That wins a man’s heart with greater success.”  (Charles Perrault)

The question as to why fabrics are so important to fairy tales, Hill answers with reference to the power of transformation: fashion is a marker of identity and a vehicle of self-expression. She concludes that fashion is a powerful agent of metamorphosis: “In real life, as in fairy tales, a change in the way we dress can act as a means to reinvent and reimagine the self. We truly can fashion our happily ever after.”

This is too simple though. I’m the first to concede my love of clothing. More generally, women and perhaps increasingly men understand textile power. And as full-blown postmodernists, who do no longer accept a single identity, we gladly embrace the notion that màny vehicles are necessary 😉

But the fairy tale teachings of modesty, humility and subservience – mostly to (young) women of course, are rarely acknowledged. In the original version, Little Red Riding Hood is punished for her idleness: leasurely wandering through the wood, she gives the wolf all the time he needs to eat her grandmother and set up the scene for the next meal. And she can’t save herself. Bluebeard’s wife puts her life in danger by being curious – and she must submit to the action of the men in the story. Cinderella is kind but that doesn’t alleviate her precarious circumstances, let alone procure a suitable husband: the prince only sees her in magically conjured up, magnificent garments. 

In fact it’s strange that so many little girls want to be a princess: they set themselves up to be restrained, physically as in the sleep of Sleeping Beauty or drawn into social arrangements that are pre-existing and strictly normative. Fairy tales warn against the vices of self-determination, pride in one’s own talents and desire. They often contain boundaries not to be crossed or places where one shouldn’t go. And those are defined by someone else. The desires to be fulfilled are not one’s own. And the ‘happily after’, or the definition of what the good life might be, is not made by the often female protagonists.

We ignore in other words the moral messages of the original fairy tales. Which is not to say that subliminally they don’t communicate anymore. Or that their validity is beyond questioning. And that’s why it’s equally important to visualize the message that this life is not a fairy tale.

I made this box installation at a time of great frustration and anger. I felt restrained in many ways, not heard nor recognised in my expertise or sensibilities. The definition of the good life seemed far from my reach.

The original horse is set in bronze by the Flemish sculptor Rik Poot.
Staircase after a fire by the Flemish photographer Karin Borghouts.
A rusted saw and a part of a sanding machine, rough and abrasive.

The colours are powerful and aggressive. The images are mostly bleak, the animals not friendly.

Yet the installation also contains elements of hope and agency. The crinoline (historically an instrument of restraint) is cushioned by the skin (in Dutch: the skirt) of a red union – symbol of a multilayered identity that awaits (self)exploration. The strip of luxurious red fabric enhances the silk caterpillar which is the creator of fine raw materials that count on an imaginative mind, skills and purposefulness. The bright red tape-measure can now only be used by the seamstress herself. What she measures and with what system or principles of measurement, is her choice. And the coat hanger holds the promise that whatever she may create will act as an agent of metamorphosis. So that life may indeed become good.

 

 

 

The quote may not seem very inviting. But it’s above all an appeal to withstand alluring visual promises that carry a implicit, doubtful message of princess-hood. Being a human being, a woman for that matter, is a moral mission. One which deserves serious consideration and dedication. And a possibility to meet on grounds of equal agency.

Be Your Own Spider

You’ve already noticed that I read ecclectically ;-). How do I choose, you may wonder. Well, sometimes a book is recommended, by a friend, a reviewer I trust, a bookseller. Other times, I simply go into the bookstore and I let myself ‘get caught’ – by a cover for instance. Or by the back cover, a much underrated part of a book! Take this example:

blauw7Years ago I saw this picture in a bookshop in Amsterdam and I was intrigued. I bought the book 😉

In this volume of a series on important late 20th-century artists, Louise Bourgeois, a French-born American (1911-2010), takes centre stage. She is a complex artist. She seems to explore any medium at hand to develop her artistic vision:lb-boek1 the richly illustrated monograph shows sculptures, paintings, prints, installations … and fabric works! The blue figure, which turns out to be called Endless Pursuit (2000), is only one of many examples of the sampling tendency in Bourgeois’ work: the taking apart of existing materials in order to invent new possibilities. The same applies to the fabric works below, all Untitled (2000/ 2001/ 2000). How delightful for instance to turn old tapestries into a modern totem. But I knew nothing of the background of the artist or what she tried to convey. I also had a sense her work was ‘difficult’.

totem2
Remember the pastel colours, they return later 😉

totem1Or perhaps it simply wasn’t for me at the time.

 

I forgot about the book and about Louise Bourgeois.

 

lullaby-boek
The original ‘Lullaby’ is a series of 25 silkscreens Bourgeois made in 2006.

Until this Spring at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna: imagine my surprise that the artist whom I had considered difficult, had become the subject of a children’s book! Amy Novesky’s book is attractively illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault – but I didn’t recognise the images: there are much more colours ànd textile references than I remembered.

I did get a summary of Bourgeois’ life story, with a prominent role for her mother’s tapestry workshop. There is also some reference to the dysfunctional family in which she grew up, with Bourgeois’ father rarely at home (his philandering remains unmentioned in this book) and her mother dying when she was still a student.

I was intrigued again. And discovered yet another book, entirely devoted to her ‘Fabric Works’.  There I readlb-boek2 that in a virtually artless period (1955-66) Bourgeois returned from New York to Paris and opened an antique shop specialising in children’s literature and illustrated books. The children’s book with her story is not so strange after all! Alas I must omit a lot of Bourgeois’ multifaceted work: my focus here as in Cloth Lullaby will be textile.   

Louise Bourgeois has had a long artistic life. But recognition only arrived in the late seventies, with her definite breakthrough on the international stage with a retrospective in MoMu in 1982. It seems that recognition also ‘liberated’ her in the sense that she could finally comment on the artistic translation of the psychic wounds of her childhood. Yet many commentators insist that her work is not so much autobiographical as it is archetypical: it refers to universal themes as fear and hurt – and the need for recognition. As Bourgeois put it herself: “All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs we have. It’s about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognised, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognising oneself.” (LB 1988)

What is fascinating is that it’s through fabrics that Bourgeois attempts to recognise herself: she ‘sculpts’ with her own old clothes and turns them into records of her emotional life, into self-portraits in fact.

clothes1
Blue Days (1996)
clothes2
Detail of Cell Clothes (1996): “The cold of anxiety is very real.”
Femme-Maison 2001
Femme-Maison (2001)

 

 

 

 

 

The body is also omnipresent in Bourgeois’ work. She strongly believes that emotions live in the body – strong, intense, past and present.

rood-hoofd
Untitled (2002)
Arched Figure 2004
Arched Figure (2004)
The Child 2003
The Child (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

And her representation of memory and emotion is very much determined by her use of colour. She herself says: “Color is stronger than language. It’s subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, medition, and escape.” Note how much this runs parallell with the analysis of Michel Pastoureau which I mentioned earlier! “Red is an affirmation at all cost – regardless of the dangers in fighting – of contraction, of aggression. It’s symbolic of the intensity of the emotions involved.” (LB 1992)

The Waiting Hours 2007
The delightful textile book, The Waiting Hours (2007)
red-cell 1994
One of the so-called Cells: Red Cell (Child) (1994)

Would it be disrespectful to call Bourgeois a colour funda-mentalist? 😉

 

 

Red is omnipresent in Cloth Lullaby, presumably to indicate the intensity of Bourgeois’ artistic endeavour. This is no art pour l’art, the artist is deeply and personally engaged with the universal themes she explores. lullaby-clothesIn fact, the particular, such as the usage of her own clothes, gives body to the universal. As Novesky puts it: “Louise gathered all the fabric of her life […] and she cut it all up. And then she spent the rest of her life putting it back together again.” That seems like a fair synthesis. In the family business 17th- and 18th-century tapestries were repaired and resold: rentrayage, to make things whole again, is a dominant theme in Bourgeois’ work. The technique of assemblage that is so present conveys a deep urge for ‘wholeness’ that appears forever elusive and invariably infused by anguish. Her personal unhappiness is never very far way, yet she keeps exploring the hope that the damage can be undone or patched up. This is the driving force, the ‘endless pursuit’ illustrated earlier, behind everything she made: can one recover from the past? Is it possible to put back together the fragments that loneliness and neglect have scattered? In other words, taking clothes apart refers to Bourgeois’ fears of abandonment and disintegration. And sewing them back together is a form of reparation.

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Untitled (2005)

Cloth Lullaby rightly gives Bourgeois’ mother a very prominent role. In her pursuit of reparation the artist herself shifted her emphasis from the theme of the neglectful Father, to the capable Good Mother – patient spinner, weaver and sewer. It is not difficult to see how the background in Arsenault’s drawing (left) refers to a spider web (right) such as Bourgeois produced time and again. The reference is very much deliberate: “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.” (LB 2007) Clearly this is what Bourgeois strives for: to let go of the anger and start again. It may be an endless pursuit but with every work the artist attempts to capture the past and thus allow a new present, to be her own repairer. 

The spider features largely in the artist’s work since first drawn in 1947. Seen over time, the changing forms of the creature reflect the development in Bourgeois’ oeuvre itself. The ‘Spider Works’ – and they are many – are both about fragility and about self-protection. 

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The first appearance (1947)
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Spider, sixty years later (2007)

The spider is a symbol of learning: one can capture one’s psychological condition and repair emotional wounds so as to rebuild the web of one’s life. Is it surprising then that the spiders turn (in)to tapestry?

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in 2003 its body has become tapestry.
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In 1997 the spider protects the tapestry in a cell-structure,

 

 

As a patient spider Louise Bourgeois relentlessly re-created the past: her entire oeuvre can thus be interpreted as work-in-hopeful-progress. And the great news is: she did recover from her childhood traumas and her artistic intensity grew more gentle. This is illustrated by the change in the colours she used: pastels enter the scene and mark the transition from an aggressive fury to softer, more accepting emotions. As Bourgeois explained herself: “Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self.” (LB 1992)

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An early occurance in: Pink Days and Blue Days (1997),
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pink weaving in: Untitled (2002),
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completed with ‘pods’ in: Untitled (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Now pastel & soft (2007)

The best illustration of Bourgeois’ growth and achievement is the conversion of ‘her’ spider. This is why the pastel spider adorns the cover of The Fabric Works: it illustrates almost intuitively the path that Bourgeois has travelled personally and artistically – and both very much linked. Spider (2007) is widely understood as an ode to her mother. The drama of the separation, from her father as well as from her own self, is resolved. She can allow softness both in material and in colours because she has allowed it into her own life. From 2005 onwards, the long journey of suffering thus has reached a ‘wholesome’ conclusion: “To create is an act of liberation.”

Liberation is also letting go. Once more Louise Bourgeois: “Fear is a passive state. The goal is to be active and take control … If the past is not negated in the present, you do not live. You go through the emotions like a zombie, and life passes you by.” (LB 1998)

The historian in me is not sure that the past must be negated: to explore it may of itself enable an active life. But I was (and am) inspired by Bourgeois’ emphasis on taking control over one’s emotions, on awareness and self-careThis is the essence of mindfulnessAnd I let myself further be inspired when in a box installation I explored the concept of letting go and its promise of repair.

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The central image is based on a nightmare that kept repeating itself years ago: I’m a child standing in a room full of grown ups and I’m being attacked by a crow. The adults ignore my anguish. I can’t understand why I’m being abandoned and neglected. Feeling utterly lonely I fear disintegration when the crow would get to me. And “the cold of anxiety” is “very real” indeed. Until I discovered in yet another repetition of the dream that there was a door behind me – and I myself could open it and let in the light, which scared off the crow. I never dreamt the dream again.

 

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The fun of assemblage: actually Icelandic fish skins to be recycled into fish ‘leather’,
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a holder to fix rainpipes,
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and a crystal ball that was the centre piece of a discarded chandelier.

 

 

 

 

 

Any box installation uses assemblage, here of photos taken long ago and of objects mostly found at car boot sales. Together they create a new ‘whole’ – and express the hope of wholesome integration. In reality I was being torn by conflicting loyalties – and feeling utterly alone, surrounded by non-understanding and disdain for at times clumsily expressed sensibilities. Conceptually this installation is about the function of agency in the integrating process: if we actively acknowledge our fears and emotions, they loose their at times disabling power over us and we can let go of them. The past need not control us, we can learn from it. We can be our own spider and through the process of reparation, weave a ‘new’ life. Or to confuse the metaphors, the installation suggests snakeskins, symbol of renewal. In that new life, we can practice self-protection better: the pin of the ‘neck collar’ indicates where one’s boundaries lay – don’t come closer. And good self-care further promotes growth and enrichment which will strengthen the light and colour in our lives. “Being a self” is difficult. It’s a mission the ‘endless pursuit’ of which may at times be intense, painful, angst ridden, complicated, unrecognised, discouraged. But it’s also the herald of purpose and meaning. And I believe it to be worthwhile. 

I found the accompanying quote on the blog of Bart Moeyaert, writer and artistic leader of Flanders & the Netherlands being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in about a month’s time. The quote needs a little explanation: in Dutch the word for ‘glove’ is composed of two words, being ‘hand’ and ‘shoe’, hence handschoen.

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You think of letting go, and you draw a glove.

In the installation I visually separate the two again – and concentrate the notion of self-protection in the needle felted hand. It’s obvious that Bourgeois’ spiders served as inspiration. I very much intended to associate the spider-hand with Bourgeois’ emphasis on the possibility of reparation and thus integration and wholeness. Whatever caused the ‘darkness’, the hand can let in the light. It’s also the tool par excellence to repair and make things. And being ‘assembled’ from wool, the self-care it administers is naturally gentle and accepting. Agency is very much part of life-in-hopeful-progress.

Watch Your Pockets

Now here’s a provocative thought: emancipation is not always a good thing. I’m sure lots of people have interesting thoughts on that – and I will be glad to hear them!, but here I want to concentrate on the somewhat quirky subject of emancipation & fashion.

I hear male friends complain that male fashion is so boring and I think they are right. Of course, if you have loads of money to spend, thus can buy designer clothes, then it becomes interesting again. But with a ‘normal’ budget, the choice seems limited to casual (think jeans & T-shirt or at best an unusual shirt) and business (boring suit, mostly black, navy or dark grey). Intriguingly this wasn’t always the case: male fashion in the past was magnificent, with amazing fabrics, luxurious embroidery, exquisite details and glorious high heels for instance.

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French waistcoat of embroidered velvet & silk, 1780s-1790s.
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English shoes for men (ca. 1650-1670)

 

 

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This statue of the philosopher Montaigne (16th century) in Paris illustrates that men indeed wore heeled, elaborate shoes.

I’m – alas – not a fashion historian but it seems obvious that in the vestimentary department men did not do well in terms of progress. 

 

 

 

 

 

For women too the evolution is not entirely positive. I happily concede that my sartorial taste may be somewhat idiosyncratic but I adore the wonderful stuff that is to be found in the fashion collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris) or the MoMu (Antwerp). These are dresses for ladies of standing: the clothing equally stands out.

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A bright red crinoline, seen in the Costume & Lace Museum (Brussels)

In the exhibition Fashion Forward the Musée des Arts Décoratifs shows three centuries of outstanding clothes, including an intriguing video about how many people were involved in putting on a crinoline.

The conclusion is simple: these are impossible clothes, unless you have a serious number of servants at your beck and call. 

Now there is an essential part of the story that’s gone awry. Not so much in the sense that most of us don’t have servants at all, let alone a whole battalion. But that fashion designers have not taken the consequences of that absence into account:

Interesting female clothes don’t have pockets.

So why is that? Well, because the women who in the past wore beautiful clothes, did not need pockets. Perhaps the company of servants was meant to compensate, for they had no money or keys of their own (too much responsibility surely), no pocket watch to keep track of time (someone else did that for them too) – hence no pockets, obvious.

And fashion designers have not adapted to the ‘new’ circumstances of female life: often dresses, skirts, even trousers still don’t have pockets. Perhaps you think now: but the handbag surely solves that problem? True, but they’re not really practical, are they? If they have any volume, you never find anything in them and become the target of endless jokes. Also, do you really want to walk around the office or your home with a handbag? Some years ago, some fun was made of the then queen of Belgium, Paola, who was spotted taking a leisurely stroll in her own garden surrounded by her children and grandchildren – and earnestly hanging on to her handbag. That doesn’t really set an example for us, mere mortals, does it? There is of course the clutch, but think reception for instance: what do you do when offered a glass of bubbles plùs an amuse-gueule? Clutch the clutch under your arm? It’s not particularly elegant, there is the constant danger of dropping everything (clutch, glass, food) at once, in short: horror.

I’m curious to know how you solve this ‘problem’. For I seem to have collected a garderobe which is almost entirely pocketless. And no, I don’t want to carry my keys or money around the house or the office. But a handkerchief comes in handy at times, as does lip gloss or lipstick – hence also a small pocket mirror. In addition, I like my iPod nearby and, of course, a pocket watch.

Thus confronted with no pockets in my dresses, skirts and trousers, I came up with a sort of ‘portable pocket’ – and then another and one more. Remember colour fundamentalism rules 😉

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Occasionally I start from an existing bag,

 

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here I added lace plus a laminated photo of a lace fan which I sew unto the bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started with felt bags, probably because it was Winter then, in Summer I moved onto fabrics.  Initially they were all designed to be worn with a (matching) belt, later I realised some dresses don’t accommodate a belt easily, so I made other ‘portable pockets’ which can be worn over one shoulder.

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Two more adventurous shapes, right with what once embellished church clothing.
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These are recycled old ties, the pocket watch sits under blue lace (left), under the felt patch embroidered with pearls (right).

 

 

 

 

 

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I tried a little cross-stitching here, seriously underestimating the time it took to fill the blue background.

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A dear friend can’t really function without her iPhone very closeby. And thanks to Apple’s policy to keep changing its format (and the friend’s boss who thinks people are not taken seriously if they do not have the latest model), I’m running a little side-business to satisfy her needs. Meanwhile the bag doesn’t only contain her iPhone but it also has two separate pockets for pay and business cards.  What more varieties can you suggest?

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The blue leather is fish skin, brought back from Iceland.
The blue ‘leather’ above is fish skin, brought back from Iceland. The bags on the right have three zips.

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