Riley M. '20
How is the fashion of England in the mid-1880s symbolic of the conflict regarding feminist ideals amongst women in the late 19th century? How can women take their power back into their own hands based on new feminist ideals?
My artwork is a period-style dress from the 1880s, constructed of all-white fabric (except for a partially black bodice which, in all honesty, is not symbolic but I simply don’t have the skills to put in ribbing), which has subsequently been painted on and torn apart according to submissions made by women at Poly on a Google form. The piece was initially supposed to be a participatory art piece, which would allow women to reclaim their bodies and identities from the restrictions that the fat pads, corset, bustle, and high necklines represent. I also used white fabric as an underlying theme of female “purity,” particularly the double standard that apparently “permits” thinner women to be more sexually promiscuous than larger, plus-size ones.
I chose the central research question “how is the fashion of England in the mid-1880s symbolic of the conflict regarding feminist ideals amongst women in the late 19th century? How can women take their power back into their own hands based on new feminist ideals?” because I wanted to highlight the restrictions perpetually placed on women by the fashion industry by contrasting the modern “fat pads” worn by plus-size models to “size up” and the cinched waist achieved by the wire corset. The second part of the question-- the “reclaiming”-- is achieved through the destruction of the dress and therefore all of the societal pressures placed upon women’s bodies and minds.
I was inspired by the fashion of 1880s England because I found the garments simultaneously beautiful and shocking. The intricacies of the dresses were breathtaking, but it was equally strange and upsetting that the height of beauty was achieved with cages and ties to contort the female form into something artificial. When I researched further and read about the lies perpetuated by the plus-size modeling industry-- one that most would deem more “progressive” than tall and thin models of the past-- I included my own makeshift fat-pads underneath the historical dress. The fat-pads (worn by models on the smaller end of the plus-size spectrum in order to “size up” their butts, hips, and busts while maintaining a thin face and waist) are to indicate that the modern fashion industry is hardly better than that of 140 years ago. I also drew inspiration from Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece-- where she allowed audience members to cut the clothes off of her body-- for the participatory aspect of my creation, although I chose to only permit female-identifying members of the community to participate for fear of channeling a different message of sexual violence if men were to paint the fabric or tear the clothes off of the form.
From the beginning of the fashion industry, women have been expected to obtain a body that is simply unnatural, whether stuffed into corsets or searching for perfect curves and “the right fat”. I believe that women’s clothing has been controlled by others for too long. I want this project to finally begin to liberate the female body, mind, and spirit.