“The everyday is the most universal and the most unique condition, the most social and the most individuated, the most obvious and the most hidden.“(Lefebvre The Critique of Everyday Life)
Much has been written in recent years about the role, position and display of dress in museums, about the ways that fashion exhibitions function as manifestations and metaphors for the predominant preoccupations of our times. Less explored, however, are the numerous garments that reside within museums archives, things which are for the most part hidden from view. More broadly, as museums increasingly address their dress collections as ‘fashion’ rather than ‘costume,’ it is important to think about what is excluded or left unsaid in this reframing. While “fashion” (both as a system and a bodily-material language) is an important aspect of our relationships with clothing, equally important are the habitual embodied practices of wearing, maintenance and repair. Often, in framing dress in museums as fashion, these day-to-day tactile and bodily relationships with clothing are excluded: an omission that, I suggest, limits our understanding of everyday dress. My research is concerned with this absence, the ways that certain things are overlooked. It highlights the emotional affects of these objects, the things which sit at the peripheries of our understanding of fashion.
Clothing is one of our most prevalent forms of material culture – most of us wear clothes most of the time. And yet everyday dress, much like many aspects of the every day, is often both underrepresented and overlooked in museum collections and archives. In fact, clothing is particularly susceptible to this under-representation, both because the types of objects which have traditionally been collected (those of the wealthy and the western) exclude it and because of its inherent material fragility.
It is this fragility, the fact that garments are so susceptible to change, that my research explores. It examines the ways that our bodily and emotional experiences of everyday dress are made present through the traces we leave on our clothes and the power of these imperfect garments when the body has gone from them. My work interrogates these creases, crumples, rips, and stains – the remnants of use that sit, present but unacknowledged, in archives, hidden in plain view. It highlights the emotional impact of these traces- the ways they act upon us as emissaries for now absent bodies. Traces, which I suggest, have particular emotional power, a voice, which speaks of the lives lived within them.
Clothes are active objects, busy agents in our networks of things. Whilst clothing may be manipulated into fashion, frequently everyday garments are simply worn: wearing as mundane practice. Though the decisions and discourses that structure the purchase and disposal of our clothing are important, a far greater part of this relationship is the everyday experience of being clothed. Through use, people and the things they wear become entwined – a transposition of person into thing and thing into person that takes place through wearing. These transpositions are both conceptual, psychic and material – minglings of identities, emotions, personhoods and material forms. Material things facilitate and produce our relationships with the external world.
These acts of wearing are both performative – the ‘fashioning’ of garments and selves – and also a habitual daily practice. The body and the garment are in a constant cycle of affecting one another, so that our garments, mediate and produce our sensory and emotional experience of the world. This mediating capacity is central to the embodied experience of dress – we experience much of the world both ‘through’ and ‘in’ our clothing. Many of our sensory entanglements with the world are mediated through and retained in multiple layers of cloth. The verb ‘to feel’, with its dual tactile and emotional meanings is particularly apposite here: the ways garments and wearers ‘feel’ are intimately entwined. More than almost any other object, clothes convey and retain emotional experiences – both our own and those of others. As peripheries of the self, barriers between our bodies and the world, garments mediate or interior and external worlds. Through use, garments become emotional objects-sites of memory, comfort, or distress.
The everyday is a coalescence of bodies and things, made up not only of the multiple ubiquitous objects with which we surround ourselves but with ways that they are habitually and intimately used: the gestures and behaviours that form the practice of everyday life. Much of our everyday practice is made up of these transitory or impermanent confluences: gestures, sensations, affects, and emotions. Because the practices of everyday life — the ways we walk and dance, drink tea or mow the lawn — are gestural and emotional, the meetings of bodies and things in time and space, they do not last. Yet as we perform the everyday our garments retain our gestures – the immaterial and temporary made material in creases, crumples, rips and stains. So that we find the everyday in these traces of this performance – the minute ways that ephemeral practices are made material through the entanglement of bodies and things. Over time material things, become records of the transitory aspects of our experience: carrying its traces in their creases and folds, and through this carry the traces of both our physical and emotional experiences. Our habitual embodied experience of the world is recorded in the minutiae of tears, splits, abrasions, stretches and mends.
It follows that the study of the everyday is the study of those things which are most often excluded from the clothing archive. Both the mundane (work-wear, uniforms, mass-produced and unexceptional clothes) but also the gestural and ephemeral–the things we choose not to keep and those which cannot last. Despite their prevalence these traces of the everyday can be hard to find — not because they are absent from the archive (where there are plentiful if unacknowledged) — but because the systems through which garments are catalogued and taxonomized often do not list them. They remain hidden within the garments themselves. It is in this context: of wearing clothes as mundane practice and of garments as both mediators and records of bodily and emotional experience, that I examine the affects of the everyday dress in archives. Taking Lefebvre’s statement from The Critique of Everyday Life (the everyday as the most hidden and the most obvious) as a starting point it is the outcomes of these tactile relationships, the material traces of our interactions with our clothes my research explores. It asks what is made materially manifest within these marks of use and how they act upon us: what these traces of experience make us feel.
The act of looking for the everyday in retrospect, of finding these bodily and gestural traces, is in many ways an act of reconstruction, of piecing together the past through what is left behind. Because everyday practice is transitory — made up of gesture, sensation, and emotion — when one searches for it in archives, in photographs, in oral histories and letters, in the multiple ways the past is preserved, one is looking not only for commonplace objects, but for the traces of the performance of everyday life: searching for the traces of what is no longer there. In her paper “First Impressions: Footprints as Forensic Evidence in Crime in Fact and Fiction”Dress Historian Allison Mathews David applies this idea forensic looking, of speculative reconstruction, to the work of dress historians observing that this “object-based approach can yield new information that challenges established histories…(it) turns traditional object analysis on its head by interrogating instead the impressions and traces that objects leave behind.”
So that looking for the everyday in the dress archive is an act of retrospective reconstruction: an act akin to forensic or archaeological practice. Freud in “Constructions in Analysis” (1937) used the metaphor of partial and speculative archaeological reconstruction to describe the unconscious and memory work, which he wrote that it “…resembles to a great extent an archaeologist’s excavation of some dwelling place that has been destroyed and buried…”
For me this excavation takes the form of a particular kind of archival research: one which seeks through photography and filmmaking to uncover these traces, the absent bodies, and absent gestures, which materialize the practices of the everyday. And in turn to amplify their emotional affects — to make the power of these overlooked objects present outside the archive. Both those marks which are records of exceptional events, tiny traumas like a sudden rip or tear, and those which record repeated daily actions, abrasions and stretching, frays on the edge of a hem: minuscule remnants of performances of everyday life. Garments which bear traces of use, the footprint in a shoe, a run in a stocking, a collar’s frayed hem, are what museologist Jeffery Feldman in his article “Contact Points and the Lost Body Problem” terms ‘contact points’, ‘a general category of object that results from physical contact with the body, and then subsequent removal or destruction of that body’ (246). Discussing the ambiguous affects arising from examining these contact points Historian Hillary Davidson observes in her article Grave Emotions:
I like the ways what I found in the pieces eludes the documentary; slips into a silence that is eloquent if you can read its messages. I like the presence of absence, the holes left by stitches, the impressions and the corrosions and the challenge of unpacking incomplete, incoherent remains. (24)
And it is this affect, the power of “incomplete, incoherent remains” which I seek to highlight and transpose.
Within my practice, this close looking takes the form of photographic practice. Of finding these creases crumples, and stains on archival clothing and recording them. I use the camera to attend to the materiality of the garment and respond to it: making close-up images (cyanotype, polaroid and medium format slides and 16mm and 8mm film) as a means of engaging with the intricacies of wear, gesture, and trace. I draw these overlooked objects out of the archive not as object but as images. In particular, I am interested in the ways that these interventions, making images and film, might allow viewers to engage with garments that would otherwise not be displayed: those which due to their condition are either unappealing or too fragile to display.
In doing so, I draw upon the writing of Roland Barthes and Georges Didi-Huberman, exploring the analogies between the photograph and marks of use. In particular, I draw upon Didi-Huberman’s, framing of both photographs and stains as indexical imprints, traces of something that was once there but is now gone. And equally of Barthes’s positioning of the photograph as ‘a confluence of spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority’ both ‘there then’ and ‘here now’ in Camera Lucida. For Barthes it is this bridging capacity, the ability of the photograph to sit between two times, that lends photographs their emotional impacts: their punctum, an idea which I think could equally be applied to the marks of use which litter our clothes.
This image-making is thus a process of uncovering the intimate and hidden parts of the garment, making these spaces unavoidably present. Through the making of intimate and enlarged images which highlight the marks of wear these abstracted images attempt to transpose these affects of the archive and make them present for another body in another place. In doing so I do not aim to unpack the particular narratives or histories these traces embody but instead to bring them together to build an archive of my own. An archive, not of objects, but of traces and their attendant emotional resonances — an archive of marks which highlight the entangled and emotional nature of everyday things.
The everyday is mundane practice, a habitual confluence of people and things. It is both unique — the meeting of particular bodies at a particular time and place, the specificity of our gestures which makes them ever our own, and also prevalent and multiple: littering the surfaces of our clothes. My work is a call to attend more closely to the materiality of the things we wear and to the ways they age and alter: it invites us to become more sensitized to these tiny shifts and changes, the ways we affect and are in turn affected by the material world.Asking us to attend to these garments, because these imperfect and entangled things are in themselves archives of the everyday.
Ellen Sampson an artist and material culture researcher whose work explores the relationships between bodies, memory, and objects, both in museums and archives and in everyday life. This essay is part of a larger project, ‘The Afterlives Of Clothes,’ developed while on a Fellowship at the Costume Institute of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her website is www.ellensampson.com.