Refused presences

Rebecca Arnold on The Concise Dictionary of Dress
9 June 2010

Dresses face wax imprints Pretentious. Photograph by Julian Abrams

Revealing: "Knowing the other person’s desire, or pretending to; speaking on someone else’s behalf."

In fashion, absence is a constant presence. Designers often sketch dresses without the three-dimensional body that they hope will one day wear them. Machinists and embroiderers work on the fabric without knowledge of the whole garment, and without the body they are dressing. In shop windows, mannequins mirror the forms and poses of living flesh, but remain an eerie reminder of its lack.

In exhibitions this absence becomes more acute – the garments refer to a living being – a subject - that once wore them, but they are now consigned to the archive. They have been transformed into objects, to be catalogued, conserved and stored for the future. Presence is constantly simulated, but never quite achieved.

The Concise Dictionary of Dress is unafraid of this ghostly lack that haunts fashion. It does not place dresses on mannequins that refer to bodies. Nor does it label each with totemic reminders of its past – the designer who made it, the person who donated it – in an attempt to capture its meaning, to fix it in time and reassure the visitor that it is knowable and contained within a framework of knowledge.

Provenance and description are rejected. This raises questions about exhibiting and viewing dress. It articulates ideas about the relationship between looking, reading and meaning. Allied to this, it asks what value we attribute to objects and labels and exposes the role of curator in choosing, positioning and writing our experience of dress and its histories.

Rather than soothing the visitor with neat summaries of names and dates, which speak of presence, Judith Clark’s installation designs confront, incorporate and explore absences. Adam Phillips’ definitions in turn remain slippery and open to interpretation. Both refuse closed meanings and engage the visitor directly. To visit the exhibition is to embark on a journey through an archive, a physical dictionary, which, through its use of space, object and text challenges visitors to reflect on their own role, that of the curator, and indeed, of dress itself, in making and shaping histories and meanings.

In the installation called Pretentious, rolling racks are pulled back laboriously to reveal a row of couture dresses and accessories. Opposite each item, the shape their designers anticipated for them when worn has been sculpted into wax. This makes it seem as though each garment has left its imprint as the racks have been closed on the display. The visitor is reminded of the bodies that once inhabited the dresses, of the warm flesh that lived beneath these inert fabrics. The wax opposes the hard metal pegs on which the dresses hang. It speaks of the organic and signifies warmth, plasticity and softness – the missing bodies and lives of wearers. The display’s design alludes to Phillips’ overarching themes for his definitions: wish, desire and anxiety. Designers, curators and visitors wish for presence, desire embodiment, but fear the absence that haunts the museum.

Pretentious: "Something pretending to be something that it is."

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Rebecca Arnold is Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles at the Courtauld Institute of Art

The Artangel 500s are a series of short responses - 500 words each - to Artangel projects. Check here for a full list.