|Peach and cream silk evening gown c.1910-1915 |
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2012
Clothing is material memory, carrying the imprints of our body, absorbing sweat and stains, and straining with the stress of wear, especially at seams, hems and closure points. Although museums and study collections generally seek to collect items in near-perfect condition, there are stories hidden in the marks and stains of living. In a poetic essay, Peter Stallybrass describes how the clothes of his late colleague Allon White triggered sensory memories. “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits” .
The Ryerson University Fashion Research Collection is a repository of several thousand garments and accessories acquired by donation, with the oldest garments dating back to 1860. For several years, this collection was dormant and largely unknown by the student body, and in editing the collection I examined each and every item within the storage facility. It was during the process of handling of each piece that I was haunted by the traces of the makers in the hand-stitching and the turns of the hem, and by the traces of the owners in the faint sweat stains under the arms and the worn patches at the elbows. There is such poignancy in these pieces, because they are still beautiful, but not to a pristine, museum-like standard. Some of these garments are in an advanced stage of decomposition, literally crumbling into dust due to the presence of weighted silk, and embody a duality of beauty and decay, life and death, emptiness and nostalgia, memory and transience. These fragments, which mirror the fragmentary nature of the records, became the source of my curatorial obsession.
In this project called Memories of a Dress, I created a series of photographs focusing on the rare historic garments in the Collection, and manipulated those images to suggest narratives that evoke the concepts of memory, fragility and transience. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida defined photography as an artistic medium that was intimately linked with death as “a witness of something that is no more”, and this project fixes the process of decomposition in time, marking a moment that has already passed as the items continue on their trajectory into dust.