We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware.
Third in the series: When Clothes Speak: The Fabric of Our Heritage
Participants include artist Yinka Shonibare, Carol Tulloch (Victoria & Albert Museum), Dr. Jonathan Faiers (Central St. Martins) and artist Freddie Robins
The politics of tartan, whether knitting is cool, the unravelling of personal history and the fallacy of authenticity were all strands woven together in tonight's discussion.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Little Rich Girls, 2010, Commissioned by the London College of Fashion and the Royal Academy of Arts. © The Artist. Photo: Andy Stagg, Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London The RA's Dr Alison Bracker started proceedings by asking Yinka Shonibare about 'Little Rich Girls', his work in the exhibition, commissioned by the RA and the London College of Fashion.
The work features an array of exquisitely tailored Victorian girls' dresses. The batik fabric used is strongly associated with Africa, but was actually originally designed and printed in Holland and exported when it found no market in Europe. The motifs themselves were originally inspired by Indonesian batiks.
Shonibare explained that his work was primarily about the history of identity, and about coming to terms with his own personal history and postcolonial identity.
"There are a number of very serious issues around colonialism - economic deprivation, racism and the residue of discrimination, class differences, power relations - the question of who has the money and who has to provide the labour to enable the rich to enjoy their status, which is tied in to the history of slavery generally.
"But I try to avoid any kind of victimisation - I'm not interested in passive images of the poor and oppressed. I enjoy parody, so I take what I'd describe as a Trojan horse approach - I actually embody the guise of the powerful. Celebrating power, opulence and success is central to my work, so in a sense 'Little Rich Girls' is a sort of flirtation with my audience."
Children's clothing was an underexplored area of fashion history, Bracker noted.
Dr. Jonathan Faiers said there were similarities with his own research on the history of tartan.
"So often when you consider children's clothing, they are the bearers of systems of power, systems of control."
For example, in the 19th century there was a craze for dressing the children of the privileged in 'Scotch suits', featuring tartan and approximations of Highland dress, Faiers explained. This reflected the change in status of tartan.
Highland dress had been outlawed in Scotland following the battle of Culloden - henceforth becoming a symbol of rebellion - before gaining popularity among the upper classes in the 19th century, when political upheaval in Scotland had been quelled and it became associated with a sense of nostalgia and the romance of the Highlands.
There was a residue of this upper class appropriation of tartan in the continued use of kilts in school uniforms - again, bringing connotations of power and control into children's wear.
The discussion moved to heritage, history and what can be 'inherited' from colonialism.
Carol Tulloch said we often think of the term heritage as the passing down of objects, generally among the wealthy. She mentioned the book Girlitude: A Portrait of the 50s And 60s by Emma Tennant. A passage in the book describes the author's coming out at a debutante ball, dressed in an incredible gown and pearl jewellery: "She’s going to marry someone wealthy but the jewellery is going to be passed on to the wife of the heir. Her parents are stuck in a mythical idea of what England is."
An audience member asked about the wearing of clothing associated with one's heritage - doesn't it give a sense of security, of comfort?
Shonibare said that for him, the issue was about the heritage that people choose to occupy versus the heritage that is projected onto them as a stereotype.
"I'm interested in exposing the fallacy of authenticity. The fabrics I use have 'the African' projected onto them, they are not indigenous to Africa."
An audience member from Goa described how colonial history there had affected dress. Portuguese colonial powers had passed a law to ban Indian dress such as dhotis and saris, along with quelling indigenous hinduism. Years later, the rule obviously no longer applied but Goans were left with a legacy of hybrid clothes - such as people combining traditional Indian garb with colonial Portuguese detailing that had survived from that era.
Faiers agreed that heritage was an unstable notion in relation to tartan, as well. The idea of clans being associated with specific tartans was not an ancient tradition but a 19th century construct.
"And the tradition of wearing tartan is most vigorously defended outside of Scotland - by people who don't live there, but identify as Scottish as some way."
Personal and political
Bracker asked how people defined personal heritage - did they think of it consciously in a politicised way?
In a different take on the issue of heritage, Freddie Robins spoke about what knitting meant to her, as an artist using textiles in her work.
"If you ask most people what they think of in relation to knitting, they'll talk about people's grandmothers knitting, about knitted gifts perhaps being unwanted and unfashionable. But interestingly my connection with knitting was never like that.
"My introduction to knitting was through my godmother, who was a single woman with a job, and I saw her as an independent and creative woman. I always associated knitting with independence, so learning that it had other stereotypical associations was quite a shock to me."
An audience member noted that knitting was an interesting medium to talk about in relation to heritage. Fair Isle knitting was a case in point - Fair Isle jumpers were hand-knitted by a small group of people on the island and there was concern about whether the tradition would survive.
Equally, the recent craze for Fair Isle designs meant authenticity was in question as cheap high-street copies flooded the market. (read more on the subject here
An audience member spoke about her dual Irish and Ugandan heritage, and how being raised in a westernised family meant there had been no African textiles in the home. She now used the distinctive fabrics associated with West Africa in her work, because something about them resonated with her, even though they were not specifically Ugandan.
Shonibare recalled the questions that had led him to use African textiles in his work.
"I was at art college and my work was about with Perestroika and what was going on in Russia after the cold war. One day a tutor asked me 'Why don't you make authentic African art?'"
Shonibare began to explore the idea of what this 'authenticity' would mean. His research took him to the Museum of Mankind and also Brixton Market, where a conversation in a fabric shop revealed the surprising colonial history of what are usually thought of as 'African' fabrics.
"So the use of fabric in my work is a useful metaphor… my work became a question mark."
Ultimately, all ideas of heritage were artificial, he said. "No culture is essentially authentic, every culture creates its own identity."
The conversation moved on to the museum on Ellis Island off the coast of Manhattan, the gateway to America for myriad immigrant communities. An audience member noted it was interesting to see the museum's examples of the kind of possessions people chose to take with them when beginning life in a new country. Often, it is clothing that becomes heirlooms - especially wedding dresses.
Robins: "People want to save the things that mean something to them as opposed to saving things that are useful, there's that emotional need."
Returning to the political associations that certain fabrics or clothes have, an audience member relayed an anecdote about denim.
"For someone my age who grew up in the 1960s, denim went from being a working man’s item of clothing to having very definite associations with political, counter-cultural movements. One of my most horrifying fashion moments was when my mother came home one day wearing a pair of blue jeans and a blue jean jacket and said, 'Look, I’m wearing denim'.
"I thought, 'No - that's not for you! You’re about high heels and matching everything. That’s for us’. I wonder about how youth cultures have influenced clothing, how fabric and clothing have become cross-national and create sub-cultures."
The subject was particularly relevant to tartan, an audience member noted.
Faiers said that tartan had recently been picked up by high-fashion Japanese designers, to create a punk take on the fabric that was filtered through a Japanese minimalist aesthetic: "It also picks up the affinities it has with traditional Japanese textiles which in many ways look like tartan anyway - you get that complete melting pot.
"Certain fabrics which have such a strong visual identity are able to do that - come in and out of being fashionable, re-emerge and develop and accrue extra layers of mythology. It's been there from the beginning because to be honest the whole origin is a myth, it’s just a further layering of it all."
An audience member wondered how, and why, tartan had been co-opted by punks in the 1980s.
Faier: "You could argue McLaren and Westwood would choose a material that is on the one hand identified with the establishment and also, because of its history, with sedition. A material like that was an obvious target for designers who are very culturally aware."
An audience member asked Robins about the idea of craft heritage. How does she balance craft and art?
Robins felt that the two fed each other.
"The general stereotypical view of a knitter is something I really enjoy subverting, although it deeply irritates me at the same time - so it has that duality.
"The more recent incarnation is to do with how the media have announced it's now trendy to knit. It’s something I’m not at all convinced by."
There was an inherent paradox in this sort of coverage.
"They seem amazed that models knit, but if they didn’t think that knitting was a frumpy old activity then they wouldn’t be amazed that models knit. So you have that on the one hand, but then in popular culture - you'll have TV advertising talking about nanas knitting Shreddies.
"There's another side to this, in that I do really love the knitting process in a way that's nothing to do with heritage; it’s a complete love of the movement and motions and the process of and the working out of patterns and the transforming of thread into a three dimensional object."
But knitting was also part of her personal heritage: "After I had my baby and I was very depressed, the one thing that saved me was knitting - doing something that I physically knew how to do, at night when I was really down.
"It embodies me, it’s my heritage and that's very powerful."
Supported by Bastyan.