My initial blog entry documents the research, musings and creative meanderings of the last three months. In 2011, I want to further my exploration of domestic craftsmanship and its relationship to fashion, a concept which evolved from my graduate collection Saves Nine. Having submitted my proposal some time ago, further research and design development have informed some conceptual and aesthetic changes/evolutions. So here is what I was initially thinking……….
Honours Outline, 17 January
In my honours year, I wish to question the trivialisation of domestic art and pursue a fashion practice which pays homage to its technical skill and artistic merit, thus preserving diminishing domestic craftsmanship techniques through contemporary wearable design, rather than adopting a more conventional, and arguably alienating, museum studies approach. While my research and practice will focus on the “intensity of detail and level of craft” (Sparke 1995, 401) in textile arts (for example embroidery, quilting, smocking), there are also interesting parallels to be drawn with two dimensional domestic works and I am particularly interested in appropriating Still Life and internal scene painting which flourished during the Dutch Golden Age. Just as domestic art has been criticised as “mindless and prosaic” (Araujo 2010, 181) and considered inferior to art produced outside the home, still life painting has been dismissed as a “mere matter of ornament”, devoid of real “mental labour” (Reynolds 1975, 57). Having superficially explored domestic techniques in my graduate collection Saves Nine, I would like to further explore use of these laborious handicrafts and the ways in which they have been de/valued.
Domestic crafts are an inherently gendered art form and “writers on art form Michelangelo to Sir Joshua Reynolds have identified the detail with the ‘feminine’” (Chadwick 2002, 119). Weaving, embroidery, spinning and lace making have been recurring symbols of feminine virtue and household stability (McEwen 1993; Robertson 2010, 87), the quintessential example being Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. Pious images of women engaged in domestic crafts were popular subjects in 17th century Dutch painting, including Judith Leyster’s The Proposition (1631) and Johannes Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (c. 1665-68) (Chadwick 2001, 124). A significant body of domestic work was produced during the Victorian period, during which ‘the cult of the home’ (Ponsonby 2003, 206) was privileged and the assumption existed that decorative tendencies and a predilection for details were an inherent part of femininity (Buckley 1986, 401). An article published in an 1860 edition of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (in Bryson 1990, 178) instructed: “Let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those kinds of art they have always preferred.” Anscombe (1984, 130) suggests that “conventional art history has belittled [‘craft art’ works]…by insisting that they were logical, almost inevitable, developments within traditionally female fields.”
As textile arts and still life painting were considered appropriate endeavours for women, the genres have been devalued relative to more ‘masculine’ art forms. According to Callen (1989, 154), it was during the Victorian period of Industrial Revolution and related bourgeois domestic ideal, that the schism between ‘craft’ and ‘art’ was cemented. This binary relationship between public art and private craft, and its related value judgements, have been perpetuated since the 19th century. Parker and Pollock (1981) argue that the label ‘craft’, which carries connotations of domesticity and creates a divide between high and low art, is defined not only by “methods, practices and objects but also where these things are made, often in the home, and for whom they are made, often for the family”. Furthermore, craft arts, especially quilting, promote knowledge sharing, which is often inter-generational, rather than individualist ownership of designs (Robertson 2010, 87). Domestically produced designs by women have been considered to represent use rather than exchange value (Buckley 1986, 401), perhaps contributing to their marginalisation with capitalist cultures. Conventional art theory has similarly “relegated [still life] to the lowest rank” (Bryson 1990, 136), perhaps because the genre embodies all that a “[phallocentric] system of political value refuses: domesticity, routine, repair” (Bryson 1990, 157).
Although numerous modern and postmodern feminist theorists have identified the trivialisation of ‘craft’, existing critiques largely perpetuate the devaluation of detail, delicacy and personalism inherent in domestic art. For example, Buckley (1986) and Anscombe (1984) criticise male Victorian writers’ use of feminised words like “pettiness, grace and whimsy” to praise craft arts. Roszika Parker (in Callen 1989, 157) goes so far as to describe the relationship between women and embroidery as “mutually destructive”, both “mindless, decorative and delicate – like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding at, adding taste and status but devoid of significant content”. The process of design within the home also carries negative restrictive connotations of “seclusion and confinement” (Araujo 2010, 181). Furthermore, domestic textile arts continue to be stereotyped as “traditional and non-innovatory” (Chavé 1992 in Araujo 2010, 148), fostering a ‘craft cringe’ culture within ‘serious’ fashion contexts. Somewhat ironically, it is the the intricacy, detail and delicacy of embroidered couture fabrics which, within conventional fashion hierarchies, contributes to the distinction between couture and ‘lower’ forms of design. Neither trivialising nor critical of restrictive gender constructs, my honours research and practice will celebrate the artistic merit of domestic crafts.
My practice embraces a holistic design philosophy, consistent with domestic art, whereby “the finished cloth…is almost incidental in relation to the processes of its production” (Plant 1998, 67). This approach diverges from the outcome driven focus of most commercial fashion design, whether fast high street, pret a porte or couture, and resonates with the ‘Simple Life’ movement of the 1920s, which fostered “an intuitive approach to design…so that the objects [artists] made would communicate [a] deeper meaning” (Anscombe 1984, 146). With a tendency to model garments on organic forms or domestic objects, my design approach is somewhat surrealist, although certainly less explicit than designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, Alexander McQueen and Viktor & Rolf. Reminiscent of couture traditions, it is imperative that I create garments with immaculate construction, finish and detailing; each is a precious object designed to stand the test of time. Similarly sustainable, is my environmentally and ethically conscious approach to material selection, preferring to work with undyed or naturally dyed, locally sourced and largely organic fabrics. Through my honours practice, I seek preserve not only diminishing craft knowledge but also associated narratives because, as Indian designer Samant Chauhan (in Brown 2010, 94) believes, making is “an indirect way of going back to [our] roots and bringing to the present the essence of [our] past”.
There are numerous modern and contemporary artists and designers who have also engaged with domestic arts. Textile arts flourished during the early 20th century, with designers like Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Sonia Delaunay and Sophie Tacuber-Arp promoting the “understanding that artistic expression is equally valid whether executed through canvas and paint, tapestry or printed textile” (Anscombe 1984, 115). In the 1920s the ‘Simple Life’ craft movement aimed to rediscover techniques which almost disappeared during the industrial revolution, including spinning, dyeing and weaving (Anscombe 1984, 145). These techniques have been appropriated by contemporary textile practitioners, including Erna Van Sambeek, Arjan Van Arendonk, Jan Lomens, Woky Shoten, Barbara Wisnoski, Piper Shepard and Elana Herzog. However, many artists (like their theorist counterparts) continue to perpetuate the degeneration of ‘craft’, for example, Freddie Robbins’ Craft Kills instillation, featuring a machine-knitted grey bodysuit with the hands sewn together and pierced with needles (Reiss 2007, 350). Without romanticising Victorian domesticity (which was in many ways repressive for women), I believe it is important to recognise the artistic expression and technical skill of domestic art. As designer Natalie Chanin (in Brown 2010, 17) believes, “Living arts are an essential part of the social fabric of our communities…Such traditions are the backbone of what makes a community home.”
Anscombe, I. 1984. A Woman’s Touch: Women in Design from 1860 to the Present Day. London: Virago Press.
Araujo, A. 2010. Repetition, Pattern and the Domestic: Notes on the Relationship Between Pattern and Home-Making. Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture. 8 (1): 180-199.
Brown, S. 2010. Eco Fashion. London: Laurence King Publishing.
Bryson, N. 1990. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Buckley, C. 1986. Designed by Women: ‘A Woman’s Touch’ by L. Anscombe. Art History. 9 (3): 400-403.
Callen, A. 1989. Sexual Division of Labour in the Arts and Crafts Movement. 151-164. Attfield, J. and Kirkham, P. (eds). 1989. A View from the Interior: Feminism, Women and Design. London: The Women’s Press.
Chadwick, W. 2002. Women, Art and Society. London: Thames and Hudson World of Art.
McEwen, I. K. 1993. Socrates’ Ancestor: an Essay on Architectural Beginnings. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Parker, R. and Pollock, G. 1981. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. New York: Pantheon Books.
Plant, S. 1998. Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate.
Ponsonby, M. 2003. Ideals, Reality and Meaning: Homemaking in England in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Journal of Design History. 16 (3): 201-214.
Reiss, J. 2007. Exhibition Review: Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting. Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture. 5 (3): 348-354.
Reynolds, J. 1975. Discourses on Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Roberston, K. 2010. Embroidery Pirates and Fashion Victims: Textiles, Craft and Copyright. Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture. 8 (1): 86-111.
Sparke, P. 1995. As Long as it’s Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste. London: Pandora.
Outline Reflection and Re/directions, 7 February
While I was attracted to the Dutch Masters’ interior scenes and still life paintings conceptually, it is hard for me to feel a stylistic affinity. Drawing design inspiration from such luxurious, stationary and ‘arranged’ flower and fruit seemed forced. In fashion terms, I felt as though I was doing a ‘Dior’ with floral shapes; that is I was designing highly structured garments reflecting an artificial ideal of the flower (and metaphorically the female figure and femininity/sexuality/fertility also). By no means do I wish to disregard Dior’s New Look pieces (admirable couture masterpieces) or the work of 17th century still life painters. In fact, I love both. I cannot, however, work with integrity, honesty and devotion from these images – they are inconsistent with what I want to achieve and they are simply not me.
Nonetheless, after spending so much time looking at these vibrant, lush oil paintings, I have rediscovered colour – and the beauty of ‘natural’ colours. Avoiding toxic dyes remains an inherent part of my holistic design philosophy. Hence I have begun sourcing naturally dyed fabrics.
Anne Vallayer Coster, And a Lemon
Christian Dior, AW 1949-50
Naturally dyed materials
I have begun sourcing naturally dyed fabrics (predominantly silks and organic cottons), as well as naturally dyed yarns for embroidery. Although I’ve order samples from a few American, Japanese and Australian companies, these are quite expensive.
New shape inspiration
I am continually drawn to botanical illustrations. The way in which they reconcile technical precision and detail with natural beauty resonates with my own design aesthetic. I suppose it is also party due to my fascination with the Victorian period, when (at least in Europe, America and Australia) society was industrialised and institutionalised but also a time during which conventional scientific, class, gender, political and racial and ultimately religious paradigms/structures were questioned (perhaps due to increasing literacy). Victorian society’s predilection for science and colonial exploration sparked popular interest in botany, and botanical illustration consuequently flourished.
The popularity of botany in Victorian England relflected society’s “urge to collect and systemize nature” (Shtier 1997, 29), which paralled the advent of art/craft heirarchies. Like domestic arts, botany, the most accessible scientific field for women, “became widely gender coded as feminine” (Shtier 1997, 29). Priscilla Wakefield’s Introduction to Botany (1796) represents the science as an improving home-based activity to be shared between sisters and from mother to child. Like craft arts, botany was perhaps trivialised due to its domesticity. Even when recognised as a serious science, botany was differentiated from more frivolrous feminine ‘naturalist’ pursuits. John Linley, Botany teacher, writer and author of Ladies’ Botany wrote in the 1830s:
“It has been very much the fashion of late years, in this country, to undervalue the importance of this science, and to consider it an amusement for ladies rather than an occupation for the serious thoughts of man.”
Having always been drawn to the aesthetic of Victorian botanical illustration, I was pleased to discover this correlation between the domestic arts and botanical science. It all fits so nicely, naturally and effortlessly together. I’ve started researching female artists/scientists who lived and worked in the Victorian era. These are some of my favourites…..
- Berthe Hoola van Nooten (1840-1885): She travelled to Jakarta and produced Fleurs, Fruits et Feuillages Choisis de l’Ile de Java, which was published in 1863-64 (Studiobotanika 2010)
- Maud H. Purdy (1873-1965): An American botanical artist who studied at the Philadelphia Institute of Art, Purdy also designed textiles, tapestires, china and ceramics. She was hired by the Brooklyn botanic garden in 1913 to produce pen-and-ink illustrations of plants collected during the 1930 Astor expedition to the Galápagos Islands (Studiobotanika 2010)
- Anne Pratt (1806-1893): a botanical illustrator from Kent (Shtier 1997, 38)
- Augusta Innes Baker Withers (1792-1869): Painter in Ordinary to Queen Adelaide, who exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1829 to 1846
Margaret Gatty (1809-1873): English children’s author
Jane C. Webb Loudon (1807-1858): Married to landscaper John Loudon, Jane collaborated with her husband to produce horticulture books. She also wrote science fiction novels.
Nooten, B., P. Depannemaeker, and C. Mufquardt. 1880. Fleurs, fruits et feuillages choisis de l’ille de Java : peints d’après nature. Bruxelles : C. Muquardt.
Shtier, A. 1997. Gender and Modern Botany in Victorian England. Osiris, 2nd Series. 12: 29-38.
Studiobotanika. 2010. Special Exhibit: Women and the Art of Botanical Illustration. http://www.studiobotanika.com/exhibit2.php (accessed 24 January, 2011)