We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware. The penultimate event in the series is Prescription: Clothing as Sanctuary featuring journalist Hilary Rose, Caterina Radvan (London College of Fashion) and Nigel Hartley (St. Christopher’s Hospice).
Tonight's event explored the psychology of fashion in relation to illness and how, after death, the protective and comforting aspects of clothing are no longer essential, but their symbolic values may remain.
In July 2010, Elle Magazine published Hilary Rose's article on her response to cancer diagnosis and treatment. In the piece, Rose hailed the morale-boosting effects of fashion: "When I looked better, I felt better," she wrote. Clothes were her defence against illness, an investment in a cancer-free future and something to think and talk about beyond the "dreary grimness" of hospitals and treatment. In this way, fashion became a powerful psychological tool: "The bottom line is that I wasn't interested in cancer before I got it, and I'm not interested in it now: I have better things to talk about."
Tonight's other speakers, Caterina Radvan and Nigel Hartley, worked together on a joint project between London College of Fashion and St Christopher's Hospice. Radvan and a group of volunteers worked with a group of five terminally ill women to create a 'dream outfit' for each of them.
Nigel Hartley (far left) in discussion with audience members
Hartley: "A lot of their conversation was around the fact that their clothes didn’t fit them any more; if they went onto the high street they couldn’t find anything that made them feel OK or comfortable. It's that conversation that moved us to get in contact with Caterina and her colleagues at LCF.
"Each of the women in the project had their own story and I think it’s very important that we remember that. For instance, the woman who initially inspired the project, part of her story was that she wanted to have a wedding dress because she was never going to have the experience of getting married."
Radvan: "I suppose we were like catalysts in the process. We helped them to design their dream outfit and then we made them, along with some other graduate students.
"People ask me what were the outfits like, and they were all completely different because they were all suited to the person. We started them off by asking them to make a mood board of fashion photos or anything that gave them inspiration. That gave us an idea of their personalities and what they wanted to wear."
A fashion show was staged to show off the finished results. The RA's Alison Bracker asked Hartley what effect the project had within the hospice.
Hartley: "There is something about it that changed the organisation. I think it was one of the first times that we really gave the control to the people who came to be cared for, and there was a real risk in that. My strongest memory of the fashion show was sitting there thinking I had no control whatsoever… It could have gone in all kinds of directions.
"Their families were there, they talked about it, they read poetry… there was a real sense (for the women) of still being beautiful, of people still paying attention to them at a time in their lives when some people might see that as a waste of time, or not possible. There was something really inspiring in that."
Radvan: "Were you surprised that they were thinking about their appearance at a time when perhaps they weren’t looking their best?"
Hartley: "I wasn’t surprised because I think people do it in all sorts of different ways. That you can still be sexy at a time when your body is actually completely disintegrating… I think the whole relation of beauty, being loved, feeling sexy, it’s something we all want. It’s such a common human condition."
Hilary Rose Rose explained how she found herself dressing differently after her cancer diagnosis.
"I subconsciously upped the ante with what I wore and how I wore it, because your life immediately spirals out of your control. You’re at the mercy of the doctors - they tell you what they’re going to do to you and when they’re going to do it, and you either go along with it or you die. It seemed to me that the one thing I could control was my appearance, certainly from the neck down.
"For most of last year I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes… you lose a lot of the anchoring points for your self-image. You look in the mirror and you think ‘who is that bald person looking back at me?’, but if you’ve got a cracking dress on and a corking pair of high heels… It helped me take control in a time when I had no control."
Rose described how she would browse the fashion website Net-a-porter on her Blackberry with one hand, while having intravenous chemotherapy into the other arm: "You know, a girl needs clothes. And I lost quite a bit of weight, so that was an excellent retail opportunity… it’s whatever gets you through the day.
"If you’re having a less than ideal time and your appearance is in many ways ravaged but you don’t want people to go on about it, clothes are a good way of distracting people from it. If I was wearing a beautiful coat I would much rather people say ‘wow, cracking coat’ or something like that than ‘oh dear, are you OK, you’re not looking so good,’ because I wasn’t interested in science and cancer before I got it and I wasn’t interested in it when I did get it.
"I just wanted to get on with my life and looking good seemed to be as good a way as any to go about it. So I basically stopped wearing flats this time last year."
Bracker raised the idea of clothes as a defence mechanism, something that Rose touched on in her article.
Rose: "Yes, because people are coming at you and doing horrible things to you. I don’t know how to describe it but it’s almost as if you withdraw into what you can control… I might have to push my sleeve up so they can get the needles in, but gosh, what a beautiful sleeve it is.
"Some people immerse themselves in the science of the cancer in a bid to find out more about it and deal with it, but you can’t defend against it; it’s happened and you’ve got to deal with it. It’s a coping mechanism as much as a defence mechanism.
"I wasn’t interested in Googling things and questioning treatments. I was extremely fortunate; I was being treated at the Marsden by specialists at one of the world’s best hospitals, which allowed me the luxuries of being able to worry about other things, like hem lengths. If I’d been treated somewhere else then maybe I’d have spent more time worrying about tumours and all the rest of it.
"As it was, I spent quite a lot time when my surgeon was speaking to me when I was diagnosed thinking, ‘Wahey, this could be the breast reduction I’ve always wanted.’ He didn’t seem to think that was comprehensible, let alone funny. But you cope with it whatever way you can, and clothes and humour were my way of doing that."
An audience member asked about Rose's relationship to fashion and clothes before.
Rose: "I’ve always been interested, like any other girl. I would trawl the high street on a Saturday, but I think what happened when I was diagnosed was that I raised my game. I was more conscious of what I was wearing and how I was wearing it and what I wanted to achieve.
"It was a brilliant excuse to go shopping and it was a way of affirming that I was going to get through this. There’s no point spending an awful lot of money on clothes and shoes if you’re convinced that you’re going to die. And once I decided that I wasn’t, it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to buy more."
Bracker asked the speakers about the effect of weight loss.
Hartley: "I think it’s both about weight loss and weight gain. I know one woman was taking steroids and was gaining weight all the time… I think it’s more about the alteration of body image which feels out of people's control.
"Sometimes people are controlled by the cancer or by the medical professionals. By the time people come to us, they have gone through all of that and come to a point where there’s a period of time before death is inevitable.
Caterina Radvan It’s quite common when you’re talking to nurses who are with people right at the end of life that they’ll ask ‘will you just pop my lippy on for me' or 'will you comb my hair'. It’s intriguing what’s behind that - whether it’s people preparing to go somewhere, or about an image they leave behind.
"I was talking to a young man who’s dying a couple of weeks ago, and in the cupboard at the side of his bed he had a pair of brand new Paul Smith pyjamas, and he said, 'When the time comes, I want to be wearing them'. People are thinking about those things, when maybe we don’t think that they are."
Radvan: "I didn’t know that the women were going to be buried in their outfits, and I was very moved when I found out because it’s changed my attitude to it. My mother-in-law died last year and I made her a gown to wear, after she died, because I didn’t like what was offered by the funeral home. I went out and bought fabrics, cotton that I knew she’d have loved and I’m very pleased I did it."
Hartley: "I’ve often thought about having a project making clothes specifically for people to be buried in. We did a project once making death masks from different cultures. I think it is interesting what our perception is of where we go afterwards and what we need to look like in order to get there, and how you leave this world. It’s really extraordinary."
Touching a chord
The conversation moved on to the public response to Rose's article.
Rose: "Lots of people emailed me after the article came out to say that they felt the same, but that they’d felt trivial articulating it - as if people would think ‘have you not got bigger things to worry about than frocks?'
"They liked reading something in a reputable publication that validated what they thought, because it is a distressingly visible disease, but it’s also the sort of disease where much of the time you actually feel OK. And if you feel OK, you want to look OK too."
Hartley: "I think we live in a culture where there’s a subliminal blame to the fact that we take care of ourselves and look good, that it’s selfish. Maybe we carry it within ourselves, 'I shouldn’t spend that much on that coat…'
Rose: "I certainly got that impression from people who contacted me saying they felt shy to say they’d bought a new pair of shoes or put on red lipstick to go to the hospital.
"Obviously you deal with things in your own way. But at a time when it would be very easy to let yourself go, because that’s what’s happening on the inside - a lot of people like me decide instead to ramp it up, and against the odds try to look presentable."
"The other thing that occurs to me with (the hospice women) as well as myself, is how much it's to do with personal vanity and how much it’s to do with presenting a shell to the world. I bought all these new clothes and stomped about in heels, but for basically the whole of last year I didn’t look in a mirror - and if I did I stopped below the neck.
"I didn’t really look in them because I didn’t like what was looking back at me, no matter what I was wearing - which would imply that it was more about socking it to everybody else."
Kindness and control
Hilary Rose and Nigel Hartley Hartley relayed the story of an elderly patient at the hospice: "He was dying but every day he insisted on getting into a three-piece suit and his tie and his tie pin and all the rest. It took the nurses hours, but he insisted and he couldn’t face the day without it… he’d done it all through his life, he wasn’t going to stop now."
Rose: "It’s a sense of control. In normal life, pre-diagnosis, you get up, put your clothes on, look at yourself in the mirror and you go to work. I decided that as far as I was humanly able, I was not going to stop doing any of that. In fact, I was going to raise my game slightly because if you stop doing that you’ve let them win and you’re defined by hospitals, doctors and all the rest."
Hartley: "I’m also struck by the importance of kindness, being kind to yourself and being kind to others. So often in our lives we forget to be kind. With that gentleman, if people hadn’t helped him he wouldn’t have been able to do it. It’s the same with the (LCF) project - being kind to people and asking them what they want, and then finding out how we can make that happen."
Rose: "I found people were desperate to be kind and generous and in a way were slightly rejected when I said 'there’s honestly nothing you can do; next week when I feel better you can buy me a glass of wine'.
Hartley: "I think we’re all very good at giving an impression of being kind because we think that’s what we should do, but there’s a difference in the reality of it. Are we doing it because we think we should? I’m not interested in giving an impression, it’s how we actually make something happen for people."
Supported by Bastyan.