http://www.helenbarff.co.uk

Belongings give a sense of belonging. Clothes are spaces we inhabit. They encase us, wrap around us, give or transform our physical edges. They help define our identity – our sense of self. When we move from elsewhere we pack our clothes, they give a continuity of self in a new space. Clothes contain memories and also contain us – in that way we inhabit our memories.

I am currently exploring connections between autobiographical memory and clothing, working with neuro and cultural psychologists. This research began with informal chats with Dr. Catherine Loveday (neuropsychologist at Westminster University). These chats gained momentum and Catherine’s PhD and undergraduate students have conducted studies to explore its scientific interest and significance as part of memory formation and identity.

My recent work has involved casting the inside space of clothing. Sometimes incorporating sticks or other props whose lengths refer to the dimensions of my body.

Image: Big Stick (hip), 2015, jesmonite and found sticks, 124 x 50 x 10 cm

I am interested in how clothing contains both physical ‘body memories’ as well as ‘autobiographical narratives’. As memories are often recalled verbally, I am keen to see how verbal narratives can be integrated into my very tactile work.

I recorded a series of ‘wardrobe interviews’, where I ask volunteers to choose and discuss 4 items of clothing that have a particular memory of place, time or person. Participants include friends, colleagues and those who have experience of ‘displaced memories’ – where they might be disconnected from the memory, for example through age, mental health or emigration from their home.

 

Image: Folded, work in progress. 2017, jesmonite (cast of the inside of a child’s trousers)

 


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Stockings filled with stones and earth

 

Worthing Museum has boxes of stockings and tights – some worn, some still in packaging. A note with these stockings states they were given on the occasion of the wearer’s 21stbirthday, 7thSeptember 1942.

 

Brenda and Jean mentioned stockings a few times in our conversations.

They shared memories of wearing them at school, the suspender belts and elastic to hold them up. They compared memories of the stockings worn as part of their wartime uniforms. I asked what would happen if they laddered them. They answered that they never laddered as they were so thick. They spoke of the physical memory of putting them on. They talk about ‘roll ons’ that were seen as liberating compared to the corsets their mothers might have worn.

In 1943 a booklet ‘Make Do and Mend’ was issued by The Ministry of Information. In a time of rationing this booklet had guidance on care of clothing and shoes, including washing, storage, darning and lots of ideas for alterations to make clothing last. What is striking is the amount of time all these tasks must have taken and sewing skills needed to undertake them.

“Stockings. Rinse new stockings through warm water before wearing them, and again after each wearing. You should use your precious soap for washing them only when they are dirty. You can wash them after your bath in the same water, using soap for the soles only. Never iron.

If stockings are too short, sew a piece of tape on the tops for the suspender to fasten on to; or lengthen with the top of another old stocking, or the suspender with tape or ribbon.

Strengthen new stockings before wearing them by reinforcing the heels and toes with widely-spaced shadow darning, and sewing two circular patches, cut from the tops of old stockings, on the tops where you clip your suspenders. Also run double rows of stitching round the tops of the stockings just above the join. When the foot is too worn to darn, a new foot can be cut from an old stocking and sewn on.”

I had go at these alterations:

Then I printed the stockingss onto paper:

The ‘Make Do and Mend’ booklet also refers to care of fabrics, one suggestion using hand soap and used bath water to wash delicates such as stockings. I decided to try casting the insides of the stocking in soap. I grated the soap into a pan, added water, filled the stocking and folded them – thinking about care and routine. Once cooled I peeled the stockings off.

My choice of soap was important. Smell is so reminiscent. The smell of soap is so familiar, and so corporeal – you instantly think of the touch, the routine of washing or a particular person who uses that soap. Imperial Leather soap always reminds me of my late grandmother, her house and stone cold floor in her bathroom. ‘Make Do and Mend’ refers to Lux soap, so I also chose that.

Over the duration of the exhibition the soap will dry out and may start to crack.

 

 

 

 

 


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The majority of the work I have made is weighty and will sit on the floor. I decided I wanted to make something about Brenda and Marion’s stories in the WAAF. Something that refers to the air, the sky and lightness in both meanings of the word.

I started by tracing the shapes (along the seams and edges) of the WAAF uniform in the museum collection and cut them out:

I had already made some cyanotypes on postcards, so went back to this process. Cyanotypes are a mix of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate, which becomes sensitive to UVlight. They have a female history, some of the most famous examples being botanical photograms made by Anna Atkins in the mid 19th century. I coated the chemicals onto a bed sheet – a used bed sheet.

I divided the sheet into four, then placed the tracing paper shapes in four different compositions on each piece of fabric. Then exposed them to light.

I wanted each composition to reference a female warrior. The ladies we interviewed talked about the liberation the war bought, but of course women, with rare exception, weren’t allowed to pilot planes. So I wanted these pieces to resemble banners to commemorate these heroic women who weren’t allowed to fly.

The title of the banners are ‘Brenda’, ‘Marion’, ‘Mrs Adams’, ‘ER Hammond’. The first two are ladies we interviewed who were in the WAAF (see previous post ‘Memory of Clothes – Worthing Museum (Womens Air Auxiliary Force)), the latter two name being linked to the museum uniform.

I would like these banners to hung high up. The room at the museum has a wide glass ceiling. I like that these banners be high, connecting to the sky and that the blue of the cyanotype will change slightly during the exhibition because of that.

‘Brenda’ ‘Marion’, cyanotype on fabric, 102 x 76 cm each

 

 


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Another stack of museum boxes that takes my interest are the swimming costumes. The location of Worthing by the sea would logically suggest the reason why Worthing Museum has so many in its collection. The earliest costumes appear more like outfits covering most of the body:

‘Sun and Fashion’ – page from a museum leaflet about swimming costume styles.

 

Suzanne Joinson discovered this great collection of ‘bathers’ in old photographs. The only one with any writing on the back says ‘Bathers in Boulogne’. I think they are mostly unrelated, but beautiful images:

Jackie and some others remember Heene Baths in Worthing that originally opened as a Victorian washhouse, later becoming a swimming baths, and now demolished. Some others remember the feeling of wearing a sagging woolen swimming costume. Or the postwar roushed styles that filled and ballooned with water. I came across two swimming costumes that match these memories:

Firstly in a Peckham charity shop. It dates from the 1940s. The elastic is wearing out, but otherwise in good condition.

Suzanne Joinson also came across this swimming costume in her in laws attic. It is made of wool and was worn by Auntie Betty.

I can’t bring myself to cast these swimming costumes, instead I rummage through drawers at home and ask friends and family to donate:

I decided to stitch together these swimming costumes into various shapes. Then fill them with liquid jesmonite or plaster, till the weight of the material started to split the seams.

 

Then peeled the fabric off. And decided to place them upturned on mirror. I like the idea of viewers peering down into the mirror, and the reflections of the skylight above that will appear once in place in the gallery. The weight of the casts and weightlessness of the reflection bring to mind the immersive feeling of swimming and the boundary of the surface or water level, above and below.

‘Bathers I, II, III, IV’, 2019, jesmonite, plaster, steel, perspex, mdf, 168 x 122 x 72 cm, and detail in the studio.

 


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Worthing has lots of charity shops. I love charity shops (so much more than shops selling new clothes). They are museums; each anonymous item has stories and memories within its worn fabric. I am interested in how the contents of these shops reflect the seaside town as a depository of memories, and the stories this opens up. As charity and vintage shops became more commonplace, donations to museums have decreased.

During workshops I asked people to write a memory of clothing on a postcard. I then went round charity shops trying to find clothing that matched their description. Obviously it’s virtually impossible to find an exact match, but I liked that impossibility of it – seems appropriate to memory, which can become distant, mediated or sort of lost in translation.

I then cast each piece of clothing I found on a rope. The casting process involves stitching up the clothing, filling it with jesmonite (material similar to plaster but with resin component) or concrete, then peeling the fabric off. The colour and pattern comes from the clothing.

I’ve used rope before in my work. In this case it loosely resembles a washing line, but also refers to story told by 97 year old Jackie. She was taught to swim by a lady on her street. This lady, who had swam the channel, took it upon herself to teach the children of the neighbourhood to swim in the sea. Jackie recalls having a ‘gridle’ attached to a rope tied round her middle and wading out to sea. My rope (about 7 m long) with 11 casts on it, will meander across the floor resembling a tide line and washed up objects.

Not having enough space to photograph it all in one go, I took photos in sections:

‘Untitled (eleven)’, detail, 2019, Jesmonite, rope, concrete, 675 x 60 x 18 cm


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Jackie was bought up in Worthing, the daughter of a pub landlord. She joined the Womens Land Army in Ferring. She cycled to work, her main duty was digging vegetables, until she did her back in lifting a box of potatoes. Then she worked on the buses in Worthing for the remainder of war. I asked if she continued gardening or growing vegetables after the war. She said no as she lived in a flat once she was married and they didn’t have a garden.

Womens Land Army Uniform – Worthing Museum Collection

I came across a book by Vita Sackville-West about the Land Army. In it she romantically promotes the noble work of the Land Girls, at the same time sympathizes with a seemingly prevalent snobby attitude towards the Land Girls and their appearances. She reminds the readers they were not part of the military, so not expected to adhere to their standards, but wishes they could see how ridiculous they look with example their hats on crocked, which seems extremely harsh!

I bought a pair of WLA breeches on ebay. I am not convinced they are genuine. The fabric feels slightly synthetic, less course, than the pair the museum has. I asked the ebay seller, she said she doesn’t know about their history. She herself had bought them from ebay to wear Goodwood Festival, but they were too big so she never wore them. I might put them in the exhibition as handling item, people could try them on!

I think about Jackie and the photo in the Vita Sackville West’s book of heaps of potatoes. At the same time I collected some stones from Worthing beach. I started to draw stones and potatoes on postcards, making connections between the two. Both dug up from under the earth, a geological link to place, a similar size and weight, a size that fits neatly into the hand. Year’s ago I was told that there is a German word (Handgröße)that refers to something that fits satisfactorily in the hand.

Potato and Stone drawings on postcards


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