At the age of twelve, Kerry Bell fell in love with clothing. Not fashion, although the designing of women’s garments became her life’s work, but the dizzying possibilities of clothing in general. Its aesthetic, its affective resonance, its metaphorical depth. Clothing itself, she came to believe, wore many guises, some of them overt and others richly latent.
“Every Garment tells a Story,” at the Oxo Gallery until the end of September, is about many of these guises and much more. It may well be the most suggestively erotic exhibition to appear in Barga, although eroticism alone is not its central subject. “I feel strongly that emotion is inherent in every garment — an intended use and an emotional undercurrent,” says Bell. “a classic example is the wedding dress, in which use and emotional pairing are literal.”
There are no wedding dresses in the exhibition, but there are myriad erotic allusions. Among the first of Bell’s creations that a visitor encounters is a diaphanous “baby-doll” nightgown, rendered in sheer off-white nylon that leaves nothing to the imagination. Fringed in the fluffy white tail feathers of the marabou, an African stork, it is amorous invitation made explicit, a merging of nakedness and transparency, innocence and wantonness.
Just a few steps away, an elegant ivory gown, suitable for a dignified gathering in a royal ballroom, is less obviously provocative — yet at the same time more daring. The ruffles below its plunging back, Bell points out, precisely mirror the outer folds of female genitals. At its waist, on the same gown’s front, the crepe has been gathered into a tight swirl that closely resembles a navel. Both details reflect what Bell calls the “anthropomorphic” tradition in garment design, the symbolic representation of the human body in clothing.
The intention is not to shock: ruffles and swirls are commonplace in elegant fashion. The point, rather, is that latent suggestion is also commonplace.
Exhibits vary widely, with stylistic touches ranging from deceptively simple to simply ornate, all of them purpose-created by Bell for Oxo. Dresses and gowns are interspersed with hanging remnants of pure fabric, arranged in folds and drapes. A video screen displays footage of the Impermanence Dance Theatre – a London-based modern dance company performing in Barga five years ago, its dancers costumed in Kerry Bell creations.
Overall, the mostra invites us to consider the form, content and function of women’s clothing outside of the usual contexts by which it is defined: historical trends, social class, uniforms of every sort, age categories, heights and weights. There are no male exhibits, although Bell argues that the pleats at the hemline of a silk broadcloth cocktail dress invoke a flaccid uncircumcised penis.
The decontextualized approach transforms the way we usually view garments, shifting attention away from expressed function to the more compelling theme of emotional undercurrent. That’s the story of greatest interest to Kerry Bell herself. In her view, the principal attraction of a garment lies in its capacity to provide psychological comfort — and the wide range of styles, suggestive details, colors, lengths, and fabrics reflects the multiplicity of ways in which comfort is sought by each individual.
Much of the fabric comes from her own archival stores of silk and other dressmakers’ materials, the treasure-trove of an artist whose adolescent dreams were forged in the pages of “Seventeen,” a popular magazine aimed at young American women in the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually those dreams led to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in California and a lifelong career.
“The magazine was my sanctuary from a childhood that was often fraught,” Bell recalls. “The September issue each year was full of photo shoots conducted in the golden hour of an autumn evening. Wool plaids. Warm colors. The emotional role of fabric and fashion in soothing and comforting.”
All articles by Frank Viviano can be seen here
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).