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Belongings give a sense of belonging. Clothes are spaces we inhabit. They encase us, giving or disrupting 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. Memories of absent clothing can take us back to a remembered place or person.

I am currently exploring connections between autobiographical memory and clothing, researching alongside neuropsychologist Professor Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster). From a neuropsychological perspective, our research has proven the scientific significance of clothing in the development and maintaining of identity and self, informed theories of multi-sensory memory and how memory is embedded. Memory of clothing and belongings can provide connections to the past and with others. People who are displaced from their homes (including the elderly in care or those who have migrated) often lose their personal clothing or find that their clothes and other material possessions are disregarded.

My recent work has involved casting the inside space of clothing. I am interested in how materials are shaped by temporality, or how memory becomes embedded in matter. A sensitivity to touch is central to my practice. Each series of work indexes a ‘site of memory’ or references particular memories. By pouring plaster or concrete inside clothing I am casting the intimate inside interior texture and seams. 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

My research began with an AN bursary for which I recorded a series of ‘wardrobe interviews’: I ask volunteers to choose and discuss 4 items of clothing that have a particular memory of place, time or person. This has lead to various collaborations, seminars and projects, including Memory of Clothes at Worthing Museum with writer Suzanne Joinson which was on from February till June 2019.

 

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

 


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The following images are taken during the exhibition Memory of Clothes at Worthing Museum from February till June 2019. The information below is copied from the gallery guide:

Memory of Clothes was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Memory of Clothes documents research into autobiographical memory and clothing by artist Helen Barff and writer Suzanne Joinson. Their research focussed on the museum’s extensive clothing collection and memories of elderly residents at Guildcare, a local care home, during a series of workshops. Here they met Jackie, Jean, Brenda and Marion amongst others.

Suzanne Joinson developed the interviews with these ladies, as well as various other academic, scientific and creative professionals and into a series of podcasts. The podcasts be heard by following this link: www.worthingmuseum.co.uk/exhibitions/memory-of-clothes-podcast/

Untitled (eleven), 2019, jesmonite, rope, concrete, on mdf, 675 x 60 x 18 cm

Helen asked people to write a memory of clothing on a postcard, and then went round charity shops trying to find clothing that matched their description. She was drawn to the impossibility of her task, which seemed appropriate to the way memory functions, with degrees of distance, mediated or ‘lost in translation’. She cast each piece of clothing she found on a rope. The colour and pattern comes directly from the clothing. Helen has used rope before in her work, in this case it brings to mind a washing line, but also refers to story told by 97 year old Jackie about learning to swim by being cast out to sea on a rope! The rope meanders across the floor resembling a tide line and washed up objects.

Mrs Adams, ER Hammond, Brenda, Marion, 2019, cyanotype on fabric, 102 x 76 cm each

The four banners were inspired by stories told by Marion and Brenda. Both were in the Women’s Air Auxiliary Force during WW2. Brenda signed up to the WAAF and was based in barracks in Oxfordshire during the war. She met her husband there who was also in the RAF and remained so after the war. Marion drove ambulances to aircraft that had come down, navigating through the dark. She wasn’t allowed near the crash site as she might see something too upsetting for a woman.

Cyanotypes are one of the earliest forms of photography, the chemical mix being sensitive to UV light. Helen’s cyanotype banners have been cut from a used bed sheet, alluding to the body and the domestic. Cyanotypes have a particular female history, some of the most famous examples being the botanical photograms made by Anna Atkins in the mid 19th century.

Helen traced shapes directly from the WAAF uniform in the museum collection on to tracing paper, and cut them out. Then arranged these in four different compositions onto the fabric and exposed them to light.

Each composition represents a female warrior. The ladies talked about the liberation the war bought for them, but of course with rare exception, women were not allowed to pilot planes. These banners are intended to commemorate these heroic women who weren’t allowed to fly.

In contrast to a lot of the work in the exhibition, the banners are intentionally light, referring to the air, the sky and lightness in both meanings of the word. As a result of their position under the skylight, the blue of the cyanotype will change slightly during the exhibition.

Stockings (Make do and Mend) I, 2019, ink on paper, 150 x 151 cm

During WW2 the ‘Department of Information’ released a leaflet to encourage care and repair of clothing in a time of rationing as part of the ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign. Looking closely at these prints you can spot a stitched on foot, ribbons or sections from another stocking sewn to top to lengthen it, or reinforcement on the toe and heel or where the suspender belt clips attach. Helen attempted to stitch and alter the stockings according to the ‘Make do and Mend’ instructions. Brenda and Jean told stories about wearing stockings and ‘roll on’ corsets, which compared to their mothers corsets seemed liberating.

Remy’s Hat, 2019, concrete, 27 x 27.5 x 24 cm

Nan’s Summer Hat, 2018, jesmonite 11 x 18 x 19 cm

At Remy’s wedding she wore a hat will pink netting. Helen found a similar hat in a charity shop and cast it in concrete. The animated legs and delicate netting contrast with the solid, inert helmet-like cast of a memory.

On another postcard someone wrote that their Nan had a summer and winter hat. In summer she decorated her hat with a ribbon, in winter with holly.

Stockings (Make do and Mend) II, 2019, soap, various sizes

The ‘Make Do and Mend’ booklet also refers to washing, folding and storage. One suggestion was using hand soap and used bath water to wash delicates such as stockings. By casting the insides of stockings in soap, Helen refers to gentle caressing care of the skin. Smell is known to evoke to memories. Helen chose soap brands whose smell might be familiar. For her ‘Imperial Leather’ soap immediately invokes memories of her grandmother and the cold bathroom tiles in her house. Over the duration of the exhibition the soap will curl and dry out, the smell begin to fade.

Bathers I, II, III, IV, 2019, jesmonite, plaster, steel, perspex, mdf, 168 x 122 x 72 cm

‘Bathers’ references Worthing’s location by the sea and history of bathing both in the sea and at the local Heene Baths. The heavy weight of the casts and weightlessness of the reflection sink and rise, above and below the water level surface, bringing to mind the immersive feeling of swimming. Helen was inspired by the museum’s extensive swimming costume collection and devised this piece whilst swimming. She stitched together her families old swimming costumes. She then fill them with casting material till the weight of it started to split the seams before peeling the fabric off.

Postcard series I – Stones and Potatoes

Jackie was in the Womens Land Army in Ferring. She grew and dug up vegetables, until she did her back in lifting potatoes. A picture in Vita Sackville-West’s book ‘The Women’s Land Army’ featuring heaps of potatoes reminded Helen of Jackie’s story. At the same time she collected some stones from Worthing beach. She started to draw, making connections between the two – both dug up from under the earth, a similar size and weight, a size that fits neatly into the hand. Both are shaped underground, a geological link to place.

Postcard series II – Planes

Images of planes photocopied from Brenda’s ‘Flypast’ magazine.

Postcard series IV – Memory of Clothes, please add your own memory of an item of clothing, write a note or draw a picture… By the end of the exhibition we had 400 postcards of memories. Here are a few:

With thanks to Andrew Youngson for taking the installation photographs.

 


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I worked with the elderly residents at Guildcare to make these clay figures. They clothed their figures using bits of old clothing, jewelry and sewing scraps. Each figure told a story. We also made cyanotypes on postcards of some of the materials used on the figures. These figures and postcards were displayed at Worthing Museum as part of the exhibition Memory of Clothes.


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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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