Thursday, November 10, 2011

Creative Process Journal: Artists and the Disembodied Dress Form

Marie Antoinette Dress by Rita Brown and Isabelle de Borchegrave
As an artist, it is important to understand artistic precedent - where one's work fits compared to what has been done before and what is happening now. The disembodied dress form has been used by quite a number of artists in the past including Mimi Smith, Yonka Shonibare, Leslie Dill, Isabelle de Borchegrave and Rita Brown, Issey Miyake, Cathy Daley, Jana Sterbak, Caroline Broadhead, Mira Schor and Lun'na Menoh.

What is it about the dress without a body that makes it such a powerful artistic statement? Is it because the dress is a readily understood symbol for femininity? 

According to Mira Schor, the "idea of the dress as the subject of art" arose in the 1970s and in her own work she said "I saw [femininity] as a free-floating identity outside of the individual woman, that she could put on or take off",  from "Mira Schor," M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online, #4 Feminist Forum (2007).

In Susan Brownmiller's book on Femininity, she suggested that critical thought about the dress form arose around the time that women were able to freely chose between wearing pants and dresses in the 1970s. She wrote "I think my friends returned to dresses because they felt that life was getting gray without some whimsical indulgence in the feminine esthetic." (pg. 80)

Catherine Ann Laird analyzed the work of Jana Sterbak and Cathy Daley in her masters thesis called "Redressing Femininity: Power and Pleasure in Dresses by Jana Sterbak and Cathy Daley" (Carleton University, 2009) and suggested that these artists were "deeply transgressive" in an attempt to "redefine or redress femininity."

As an artist myself, I can attest to the fact that is can be difficult to step back and see one's own work objectively. I have made things - paper corsets, mesh dress sculptures, paintings of dresses without bodies but with the suggestion of movement - without really understanding where the ideas came from or what I was trying to say. Often times, my artist statement has come together after the work is completed. I know that many artists work this way, but for this project, since I'm documenting the process as I go, my work is a lot more reflective. I now know that at the root of what I do are two dominant themes - 1. the construction of femininity through fashion and 2. vanitas. For this particular project, the dress I'm making is meant to symbolize Marie Antoinette. The shape - with the exaggerated panniers - embodies the feminine. How I alter the dress to incorporate an element of post-modernist subversion requires more thought....

Looking at the artistic precedent of the dress form in an in-depth way is not possible within the scope of a blog post and so I'll suggest that if you are interested in reading more on this topic, here are some related books to consider:
Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art & Fashion by Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 1998.
Femininity by Susan Brownmiller, Linden Press, New York, 1984.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Prestel-Vering, Berlin 2008

Project Clock: +3 hours
Time to date: 24.5 hours

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