or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tissue? I Hardly Know You

The French word for "fabric", I noticed yesterday, is "tissu", which is obviously the source of or a relative to the English word "tissue"; the French word is the past participle* of "tistre", "to weave", which is from Latin "texere", with the same meaning and obviously the progenitor of English "textile". The Spanish word for "fabric" (or also apparently "canvas") is "tela", which is related to French "toile", which is also a kind of fabric in English and which also means "canvas" in French; "tela" is also Latin for "web". (The fabric known to every bride as tulle is unrelated to these words: it's the name of a French town in which net-based lace was manufactured.)

While Jim and I were in New York, we went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that McQueen was a genius and a visionary, and I am grateful to have been able to see his work so close. Not, perhaps, as close as I would have liked, considering the unbelievable crowds at the place (it's the best-attended clothing exhibit in the Museum's history), but close enough.

I don't know a whole lot about clothing — it falls on the continuum of "Potentially Artistic Things I Know About" with perfumery (quite a lot) and food (just about enough) on one side, architecture (not very much at all, really) and cars (virtually nothing) on the other — but I know art when I see it, and McQueen was an artist. A great one. Just look at this dress, the first thing you see when you enter the exhibition:

I wish you could see it from a couple of feet away. It is astounding. It puts ideas in your head. It is made of ideas. Even not knowing much about clothing, I can see how the following ideas and contradictions pile up and fight with one another in this piece:

1) It is superficially in the form of a dress, but it is made of razor-clam shells, so it is unwearable. (You might be able to walk down a runway with it on your person, but you couldn't actually wear it.) It's clothing, but not-clothing.
2) The shells look like fingernails, or claws: it's a dress made of weapons.
3) The layering of the shells resembles that of the feathers on a bird, and McQueen also used feathers** in his work; but where feathers are light and airy, shells are heavy and born of water.
4) It's made of what is essentially waste —clamshells found on the seashore, then cleaned up—and yet it is couture, and art.
5) It's clearly armour.
6) Though it calls to mind weapons and armour, it is also incredibly fragile. The show's notes say that the model who wore the dress on the runway "trashed it", surely through no fault of her own***; presumably it was reassembled for display. Look at the trail of shards:

Did it cut her as she tried to walk in it? Did she give her blood for art?

McQueen might have liked that, unfortunately. He was not a nice man. Geniuses so rarely are.

*Hedging my bets here: as far as I know, regular French verbs that end in -re have a past participle that ends in -u, though of course there may be exceptions, and sometimes these words show up in English: the pp of "fondre", "to melt", is "fondu", hence English "fondue", and "pursue" is from the old verb "porsivre", which was turned into "poursuir" and then anglicized into "pursuer". It would be amusing to think that through some tortured etymology, "ecru" was the past participle of "ecrire", "to write", but of course this is not so: it is of course French, but initially from an intensified version of Latin "crudus", "raw", and refers to an unbleached white colour usually known in English as "eggshell".

**Speaking of feathers, look at this astonishing, horrifying object:

The skirt is of feathers that shade from blood-red to black, a disturbing progression that in this context makes me think of someone bleeding to death, especially considering that the bodice is constructed of medical slides, bored with tiny holes to string them together and hand-painted red. Does that not create all sorts of dreadful associations in your mind?

***Actually, I later found a video of part of the show, and she does kind of smash up the dress, clutching at the shells and crushing them in her hands. I assume, then, that it was re-created at some point, possibly for the exhibition.


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