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Sartorial poetry: fusing the lyrical with the political

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The Poetry Round

In a chilled St Andrews’ church hall near a coffee shop where a banner claims that ‘Will met Kate (for coffee)’, a strange constellation of still figures meets the eyes. Seemingly unmoved by the bustle of booksellers surrounding them, a young girl in a white dress stands massaging her neck and an elderly woman rests her head on the girl’s shoulder

For a moment the woman seems to frown, straining to hear something, and then she smiles, as if she has just grasped the meaning of a foreign phrase.

The girl is modelling one of three lace sensor dresses designed by New Zealander Meg Grant together with Anja Hertenberger from the Netherlands. Each dress is embroidered with a poem but, more remarkably, the dresses are also decorated with lace made from cotton and conductive threads. The adoption of a certain posture triggers the same poem to be ‘spoken’ through miniature speakers hidden in handmade lace flowers.

Putting on someone else's skin

Anja and Meg are both artists who are particularly interested in ‘wearable technology’, a small scene which has grown over the last six to seven years. With the lace sensor project they had been particularly interested in technology, femininity and the history of embroidery, explains Anja. Embroidery used to be considered paid, men’s work. However, from the eighteenth century onwards women embroidered samplers with poems for religious or household use, a task for which they were rarely paid. While these poems (as anyone who has been round a folklore museum can attest) frequently tend towards the trite, the artists uncovered a few poems in which the women reflected on their own situations, leading to a more rebellions tone. They picked three of these to develop the dresses. ‘We were thinking about how the women felt when we made the dresses,’ remarks Anja. ‘Putting on one of the dresses should be a little bit like putting on the woman’s skin.'

Lace sensor dresses (c) Ceris Aston Thus the emotion the poem expresses corresponds to the gesture the wearer must make to generate the poem. The poem in the dress Emma describes embroidery as hard work, and so the model must massage her neck to hear the poem. (The dresses are named after the women who are recorded reading the poems.) Sian’s poem muses over the idea of being remembered after death, with the model hugging herself to evoke the melancholy of the poem. In contrast, the wearer of Pat must strike a strong, challenging pose with her hands on her hips, expressing the defiance of the speaker who gains control over her life through learning the skill of embroidery.

Slightly hesitantly, although with evident enthusiasm, Anja tells me about the motivation behind the lace sensor dresses. ‘I think it was a kind of feminism, but not in a hard core way. We sort of dived into history, to find out what the women women who embroidered these samplers did, and how they expressed themselves. Our aim was to make something beautiful and with beauty, to bring in other, political themes – not party political, but kind of political. We wanted to transcribe artists’ old knowledge about a craft, and combine it with modern technology.’

Straining for subtle words

Following the poetry festival, the dresses will be displayed in the lace factory museum in the town of Horst in southeast Holland, where they will remain. This seems a shame not only because of the hours of design and craft that have evidently gone into the dresses, but also because of the strong sense that these are very personal items. This is particularly clear in the fact that the recorded poems are extremely quiet, so as to be heard by wearer alone. Modelled in the bustle of the StAnza poetry festival, listeners have to strain to make out the subtle voices. Far more than anything on display in H&M, or even more exclusive haute couture creations, these dresses have very much been designed with people in mind, acknowledging and celebrating our need for beauty, our yearnings and our small triumphs. The idea of relegating something created with that level of care and insight to the darkened rooms of a museum seems baffling. Anja sighs and explains, ‘I wish we could make clothes to be worn in everyday life, but it’s really a lot of work.’ She breaks off and then adds, ‘I really wish that it were possible but then only very rich people could buy them. I wouldn’t like that.’ She smiles. ‘But perhaps technology will change. I don’t know, it depends on how technology develops, and whether people would be willing to pay a bit more for clothes.’

I can only hope she might be right. Until then I will dream of the day that I can slip on a little black dress to whisper ‘Do not go gentle in that dark night’, or a hiking jacket which murmurs ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less travelled by’.