Object Narratives: Fur and Fashion

This week’s blog post is a preview of “Object Narratives: Fur and Fashion” coming up on January 29th. Clara Berg, Collections Specialist for Costumes and Textiles at MOHAI is our speaker and the author of today’s post.

Clara Berg. Photo credit: Kathleen Knies / MOHAI.
Clara Berg. Photo credit: Kathleen Knies / MOHAI.

I love the deeply personal nature of clothing. Clothing has an intimate, sensory relationship with the body, and every object has an intriguing history.

Ann Hamilton’s exhibition the common S E N S E includes more than forty garments from the collections of the Henry Art Gallery and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. The garments are made from animal materials: fur, feathers, skins, guts. Depending on the piece and your sensibilities, you may find the idea of wearing the clothing repulsive or enticing. You may be passionately opposed to any kind of animal suffering, and recoil at the idea of wearing their skins on your body. Or you may find the materials interesting and inviting, and wish to experience their luxurious textures against your skin. Either way, there is something visceral about viewing these garments.

Clothing is also personal because it is full of stories. There is the story of the material itself—where it came from and how it was manipulated and changed. Then there is the story of how a garment was pieced together and shaped. Something hand-stitched takes hours of care and precision, but even the most industrialized clothing factory still requires human labor. You can’t put a bolt of fabric in a machine and have it spit out a pile of shirts. Human hands put pattern pieces together, guide sections through the sewing machines, and clip loose threads. Commercial garments also have the story of the seller—the person or people running a business which builds relationships with clients and promotes a certain aesthetic or lifestyle. Finally you have the wearer (or perhaps a succession of wearers) who take the garment out into the world—wearing it in daily life or only for special occasions.

If you are interested in learning more about the stories of the garments on display in the common S E N S E (and others from the Henry collection which are usually in storage) I’ll be giving a program on January 29th about the history of fur and fashion in Seattle. Who were the people and businesses involved in the industry here? Who were the clients who bought furs and where did they wear them? What did fur mean to the people of Seattle? I’ll talk about those histories, take a close look at some garments in the Reed Collection Study Center, and then tour the garments in the exhibition. For me, learning those historical stories increases that visceral experience of the garments. In addition to your own feelings about the materials and style of the garments, you can add a connection to the people who created, touched, and cared for the objects in the past.

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