Tuesday, 8 February 2011


I’ve noticed lately that my reading seems to have come to a confluence of similar ideas, themes and subplots. I’m not sure how this came about. Perhaps it is to do with publishing and the great circle of “what’s in” and “what’s out” at any given time. I like to think that I’m a more original reader than to fall into such traps, but there it is and I don’t know how it happened. 

Last month, I  purchased a book about Louise Bourgeois' fabric works, which is amazing. The Bourgeois family were tapestry restorers in Paris and whilst Louise’s foray into this world did not quite meet the expectations of the family business, she continued to use fabric as a medium for her artworks. Her pieces are often laden with autobiographical detail and feminist themes. Beautiful and intricate, yet often naïvely finished, her designs are centred around the idea of womanhood and the sometimes perverse stigma that is attached to feminism. 

One would think that Louise Bourgeois’ fabric works, whilst not quite as overtly provocative, are an influence for the artist, Tracey Emin, who uses words and design to create her distinctive “blankets” that have made her so famous. Again, I only just read about Tracey’s recent exhibition in London (www.vogue.co.uk). She began making quilts -  or as she terms them “blankets” – using material from important items from her life. A girlhood outfit, a doll’s dress, a piece from her Mother’s clothing, another from a household item from her childhood. The finished artwork is again plainly autobiographical, and whilst her work is caught up with complex messages about sexuality, the work is again a commentary on perspectives of womanhood. 

Do men who view these works see them through the same eyes as women? Am I missing the point? I don’t think so. But then, I’m certain that women who sew look at these works with a differing eye to those who don’t. There is an intimacy in sewn objects. We wear them, we put our heads against them at night, we use them on a daily basis. Sewing can be a lonely and laboursome occupation. It can also be the work of a collective that brings succour and friendship not only to those involved but often the greater community. I think this is where the greatest irony lay with these two artists, in that the purpose of what many deem to be a domestic and useful handiwork by women, has been made redundant by becoming a higher art form. 

Siri Hustvedt, who has long written about women on the periphery, champions the domestic arts in her new book Summer Without Men (due for release in March 2011), which I also picked up recently. Not only is this a whimsical and touching portrait of a wife who has been forsaken by her husband, it is also a moving testament to all womanhood. To the trials and the tribulations that are uniquely ours, but also the joys that only we experience.  There is a character in this terrific book (I can’t get enough adjectives in this about how wonderful this book is), for whom sewing gives her a secret life. Sewn into the pockets of her garments or the inside of her underclothes - only ever in places where she can see them and be touched by them, are graphic images of a sexual cornucopia. From a joyless and childless marriage, sewing provided a means of creating intimacy in her otherwise lonely existence.

This is a theme that Linda Grant, who is an award-winning author and Vogue contributor has also often explored. In her book The Thoughtful Dresser, she discusses how incredibly important oft-unnoticed enhancements to feminine dressing are to defining ourselves. Whilst it is not a major theme of her new novel We Had it So Good, it is certainly apparent to her that clothes also define an era. The novel moves from California in the 50’s – Hollywood furs and glamour – to times more deconstructed in 70’s London, and takes us up to modern day where we wear our psyches as uniforms. In this novel, they are a construct of our hopes, lost dreams, newfound status and even ill-conceived expectations. I kid you not. The clothes that hang within the wardrobes of Linda Grant’s journeymen and women are no accident and are by no means unimportant. They help create the picture of a real life, of times that have gone and like that favourite pair of jeans, can never be fitted into again.

This has been my reading list for the past month or so and it’s definitely been a thought-provoking exercise. I did not read all these books together on purpose, and it’s possible that the thoughts on one have lingered into the other and that I have given meaning where none was intended. But I do think I have been fortunate to discover these books together. I’ve never before been one to read on a theme based on place, time or even characters. It’s always seemed a singular approach to me and I am certain I will go back to reading without rhyme or reason in the future. But in the meantime, I will contemplate my playful forays on my sewing machine with much more significance than is really required and will look for the next pattern in my reading that throws up such interesting and correlating themes.

Written by Megan

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