Written by Stephanie Benzaquen   
Friday, 26 December 2008 22:41

(original text in .pdf available here)  

Up to you 

“The robe does not make the monk” (character Faux Semblant in theRoman de la Rose, written between 1237 and 1280)

“Only a fool does not judge by appearance” (Oscar Wilde)

 Shirtwaist strikers, 1909

Designing fashion for the Alytus Art Strike

The idea originates from a 2006 article by fashion researcher and curator Deirdre Clemente, “Striking Ensembles: The Importance ofClothing on the Picket Line” (Labor Studies Journal). In her article,Clemente compares the clothing worn by female workers during twostrike movements in the US, the 1909 shirtwaist strike in New YorkCity and the late 1920s-early 1930s wave of strikes in the Southerntextile mills.

Bright hues ensembles, hats adorned with feathers and faux flowers,jewellery, lace blouses, fur accessories, and French heels: Clementedescribes the clothing of the shirtwaist strikers as an overdone “ladyhood”style made necessary by both the implicit “ban” on womenprotesting in the public space and the eagerness of the strikers(mosty immigrants) to display their knowledge of American culture.The strikers of the 1920s-1930s adopt a completely different style.They’re dressed in red, white, and blue regalia. They mix overall (typicalmen’s working wear) and men’s cap with feminine garments likehair barrettes, necklaces, blouses, silk stockings, and fire-engine redlipstick. Clemente explains these dramatic changes by on the onehand the rise of consumer culture and the transformation of fashiondesign into cultural phenomenon; on the other hand the strikers’attempt to re-define feminity. These two styles might be in “starkcontrast”, Clemente comments, yet “each group had created a ‘hybridized’style that served as a visual representation of their cultural status as both women and workers.”

Now, that’s a fascinating idea. Which garments would we, as culturalproducers and art strikers, choose to wear if we were to form a picketline? The question immediately brings forward a basic issue.


Strikers at the gate of a textile mill, 1934

For centuries, people have displayed distinctive garments associated withtheir calling. So, is there anything in the way we (artists, curators, artcritics, etc.) dress today that indicates the socio-professional categorywe belong to?

Non-bohemian rhapsody

Once upon a time artists were so proud of being artists that theyscreamed it in the face of the whole world. It was the good old timeof bohemia in Europe and America. The way bohemians, the culturalproducers of that time, dressed signified their unconventional, antibourgeoisway of life. In other words, they favoured an “oppositionaldress” that emphasized how separated they were from conformistmajority (Wilson: 184). Clothing was part of their “experiments in living”(Virginia Nicholson). It was not to everybody’s taste as the caseof Baudelaire proves: he disliked so much “the sartorial vulgarity ofFrench bohemian circles” that he wore black in protest (Wilson: 183).

In Dada’s Greenwich Village, artists went hatless and dressed with abluestocking uniform of lose shift and brown socks. One of the strikingfigures then was undoubtedly Else von Freytag-von Loringhovenwith her black lipstick, her yellow powdered face, head shaved andpainted in vermillion, and long ice-cream spoons for earrings. Samething in 1930s Chelsea where female artists wore “full peasant dirndlskirts, tight waists, kerchiefs” and had an “exotically gipsyish appearance”(Wilson: 185). Montmartre, Camden Town, Schwabing, Soho:we could keep on reviewing bohemian fashion for hours.

Anyone who has ever attended an international contemporary artevent knows it: 1) wherever we come from (Sao Paulo, Riga, Istanbul,Tel Aviv, or London), we all look the same; 2) we look utterly ordinary.The least we can say is that fancy is not our strong point. Butconventional good taste yes. Would you wear a vegetable grater as abrooch and a Mexican blanket as a coat (as Else used to do), chancesare that your colleagues would look at you as a retard who has mistakenan international art event for a circus fans’ gathering. At best,they would think you’re pathetically re-enacting some obscure avantgardeperformance.

Else von Freytag-von Loringhoven

Let’s face the truth: visual low-key uniformity reigns supreme in thecontemporary art world. Does it mean that we’re no longer proud ofbeing cultural producers?

That being said, what is the Picket Line Clothing about?

Let’s try not to listen to the faraway little bird telling us that we’vethrown our sense of vocation and protest with eccentricity. There’sno need to nostalgically lament about some loss of originality orboldness, nor to pit in judgmental way past colourful bohemian-nessagainst contemporary subdued non-style. No, what is of interest forus is rather how fashion might help us understand how we constructthe image of the “cultural producer” for ourselves and for others.

The Picket Line Clothing started with a simple issue. If we are that ordinaryand indistinguishable from other socio-professional categories,how are we supposed to make ourselves visible in the public spacewhen needed? Clearly, it’s way easier for nurses, postmen, or policemen,At least, they have their uniform. But we don’t. So how the hellcould people get why we’re striking (protesting, fighting, criticizing,etc.) if they don’t know who we are?

Over weeks though, as result of watching so many pictures of openings,conferences, and the like (by the way, I recommend the diaryof Art Forum, it’s “enlightening”), more issues surfaced. What ifordinariness were nothing more than a sneaky re-configuration, forinitiate, of Sumptuary Laws [laws which in medieval Europe regulatedthe correlation between clothing, income, and status] parallelingthe implicit mecanisms of exclusion and co-optation that rule thecontemporary art world? Worse even: do we actually form a distinctsocio-professional category?

This field of exploration is not entirely Terra Incognita. It is fair tothink that you already have some answers to those questions. Yet,we can’t venture into it completely unequipped. So here are a fewhypotheses likely to provide us with guidance as we head toward ourreconnaissance mission:

1. The absence of easily readable visual signifiers of our socio-professionalcategory (if any) does not mean that visual siginifiers do notexist at all.

2. Past visual signifiers have been either replaced by new visual signifiersor recoded into new sets of meaning.

3. New visual signifiers accurately reflect the multilevel changes thatinform and shape our socio-professional category (if any).

4. New visual signifiers re-inscribe in more subtle ways identificatoryand hierarchical markers onto our socio-professional body (if any).

The main question raised by the Picket Line Clothing is whether dresscan become a transformative experience when it comes to our relationshipwith and among ourselves, and with the others. In that sense,besides making our socio-professional category visible to a public thatis not familiar with art and articulating via fashion our criticism towarda variety of issues affecting our job, the Picket Line Clothing is also anattempt to propose alternatives (for expressing ourselves, connectingto audiences, or handling our professional problems).

Concretely, how will it look like? At this stage, a couple of thingscan be said, based on the principle that fashion is and will remain thesource of inspiration.

First, the Picket Line Clothing is about occupation of space (is it notwhat strike is about anyhow?). More exactly, it is about saturationof space. We have drawn here the lesson of medieval way of life (atleast in the courts):

“To have power, it was necessary to give the impression of occupyingas much visible space as possible. It was imperative to attract theeyes of others for status was overwhelmingly judged by appearances.Dressing a group of companions extended a lord’s personal appearancebeyond the confines of his natural body, allowing him to inscribehimself on several bodies.” (Heller: 333).

Second, the Picket Line Clothing is conceived as visually pleasing, forboth ourselves and others. It is again a demonstration in the US thatgives the framework:

In January 1938 a fashion show called “Life without silk: from morningto midnight in cotton and rayon” was held in Washington at theinitiative of the League of Women Shoppers (LWS). It promoted theboycott of silk imported from Japan in order to hamper the warfareJapan waged in China. While models paced the catwalk, another groupdemonstrated in the street, against the boycott this time: womenrepresenting the American Federation of Hosiery Workers (AFHW)(Glickman: 573), for fear of unemployment. Despite their radically opposedgoals, the two groups shared similar strategies. They made itclear that showing a bit of leg and attractive garments was the mosteffective mass communication weapon. Let’s remember it: beauty andethics can go well hand in hand.



Works cited

Deidre Clemente (2006). “Striking Ensembles. The Importance ofClothing on the Picket Line”. Labor Studies Journal 30(4): 1-15
Lawrence B. Glickman (2005). “Make Lisle the Style: The politics ofFashion in the Japanese silk Boycott, 1937-40”. Journal of Social History38(3): 573-608
Sarah-Grace Heller (2004). “Anxiety, Hierarchy, and Appearance inthe 13th Century Sumptuary Laws and the Roman de la Rose”. FrenchHistorical Studies 27(2): 311-348
Elizabeth Wilson (1985). “Adorned in Dreams. Fashion and Modernity”.London: Virago Press Limited