The Fabrics of Democracy and Revolt
Made by Su Richardson, 1976.
Su Richardson’s 1976 artwork “Bear It In Mind” hangs in one corner of Tate Britain’s vast exhibition Women in Revolt. It literally “hangs” because it’s a pair of striped denim overalls on a clothes hanger covered in expressions of mother’s work: yarn sausages, unfinished crochet, lost buttons, clocks, and lists.
Lists predominate saying, “LISTS, LISTS, LISTS,” “don’t forget,” and finally a note in her pocket: “remember lists.” This is a different kind of self-portrait fashioned out of every day things and every day preoccupations.
In what Time magazine calls “the year of elections,” 49% of the global population will go to the polls in 2024. Not all of these elections will be fair and free, but they will have a sea-change effect on how we all live in the future.
Though the contenders for votes will speak in broad strokes about greatness or change, we the people must pick through slogans to learn how our act of suffrage could lessen suffering and promote collective good in the day to day minutia of overalls, yarn sausages, and paper, aka clothing, food, and shelter.
Two current exhibitions in London ask visitors to consider art and textiles as a means of political propaganda and protest.
In The Fabric of Democracy, curators at the Fashion & Textile Museum show us how everything from a lady’s scarf to a feed sack dress can act as a badge of allegiance or an ideal of the future.
Archer Brand Poultry Feed Packaging, circa 1930. Many companies switched to water-soluble inks to help with the bags’ second life. some began using paper band-labels to avoid this entirely: ‘TO REMOVE BAND-LABEL & PRINTING SIMPLY SOAK IN WATER.’
In Women in Revolt, curators at Tate show us the myriad forms protest art can take from crocheted sculpture to punk videos.
There’s a beautiful scarf in The Fabric of Democracy exhibition which, when seen from a distance, looks like a desirable addition to any fashionable wardrobe. Draw closer and the images come into focus including a metal trash can, a bicycle, an iron bedstead, a hot water bottle, and a baby carriage.
One of dozens of designs by Jacqmar of London in aid of the war effort. These were printed on scarves and also made into dress fabric.
The script along the borders reads, “Rubber into aircrafts, paper into shells, bones into bombs, bedsteads into bullets.”
But what about a symbol of allegiance that can be recognized from down the street? How about the French with their Phrygian caps—usually red soft hats with a curl at the top worn by revolutionaries and famously knitted by market women in audience at the guillotine.
Here’s one worn in a poster of 1794:
Reproduction of a 1794 French Engraving showing the symbols of revolutionary dress that represented the French Republic, including the Phrygian (liberty) cap, tricolor flag, and cockade.
One’s hat as a badge goes back far further than the French Revolution. The phrygian cap is a descendant of the wool pileus worn by freed slaves in Rome. Now, fast-foward two thousand years later to the pink Pussyhat knitted and worn by tens of thousands of people in solidarity for women’s rights in protest against the incoming Trump administration on January 21, 2017.
From Rome to France to Washington, across two thousand years, it turns out you really can say it all with a woolly hat.
Enter Women in Revolt at Tate Britain whose collective and individual voices call, in particular, for women’s visibility and equal status in society. Whether it be a Pussyhat or patchwork banner, textiles know how to speak.
Rita McGurn who worked as a television and film designer made these figures in the 1970s and 1980s.
Take Rita McGurn’s crocheted tableau of of a domestic scene. Several figures in a riot of color sit among crocheted cushions on a crochet rug. The artist’s daughter remembers that no sweater was safe from her mother and would inevitably end up in her sculptures. Work like McGurn’s was sidelined in the 1970s by gatekeepers who had little time for textile art. Textiles were women’s work.
Tate welcomes us to women’s work: performance art, banners, zines, badges, and installations on equal pay, childcare, contraception, body image, feminine ideals, and disarmament, among other concerns.
Thalia Campbell put her patchwork and appliqué skills to use sewing a banner commemorating the violence against striking miners in South Yorkshire.
This banner portrays the Battle of Orgreave, a violent confrontation between police and thousands of miners in South Yorkshire.
Margaret Harrison recreated a perimeter fence covered in clothes, toys, photographs, and banners like the one created over many years by women living at Greenham Peace Camp calling for nuclear disarmament.
In this installation Harrison recreates a portion of the perimeter fence at Greenham Common military base. These protests and encampments lasted from 1983 to 2013 and were largely in response to American cruise missiles being stored on behalf of NATO on the base.
Harrison, Hunt, and Kelly used schedules, photographs, and audio recordings to document the daily schedule of women at a London box-making factory—meals, laundry, work, shopping, meals, mending, laundry.
This takes us back to Su Richardson’s lists, yarn sausages, and overalls—a self-portrait with a difference, but which nearly fifty years later could be a portrait of many of us across the world, each with a single special vote to cast.
In 2024, this year of elections, The Fabric of Democracy and Women in Revolt ask us to consider what political messages we are sending in both what we wear and what we make. Which hat? Store-bought or knitted? The red, the blue, the rainbow, or the pink? Pussyhat, Phrygian, or baseball cap?