As we start entering into physical production of the cycling garments for this project, a series of questions around our aims in relation to authenticity are arising, and it is proving to be really interesting terrain for deciding exactly what the project should articulate.
When we present textiles as a way of understanding a historical context, there is a complex set of questions to ask about the reproduction. Many of the processes of the time are no longer available – we might have a sewing matching from the correct era, but we don’t have thread, or what we could find would be weak and ineffective. If we do find a vintage textile, the ethical dilemma of cutting it is too great as the outcome will modify its preserved historical form into a modern object. These garments themselves were not made with a material that was hard to source, delicate or from an era which required specialist access. They were made with everyday, hardwearing cloth or existing clothing that was currently in use at the time.
I recently attended a conference organized by Material Histories at the Geffrye Museum, titled Ways of Seeing The Domestic Interior 1500-1700 which proved useful in thinking about and negotiating some of these questions.
The curatorial team at the Geffrye museum showed us, in relation to current upholstery projects a few new aquisitions and their decisions on how to care for, whilst allowing people to see and engage with these pieces- a continually oscillating set of priorities between use and preservation common to much archival work. One example was a dining chair with a turkey work panel which was re-mounted thanks to hidden contemporary supports to appear as it would have in use, and a series of tassels are added to the bottom of the upholstery. These are brightly coloured and voluminous, unlike the original, dulled down, flattened parts. The additions will never age enough to be more in keeping. Though the tassels are produced as they would have been, their colours are matched to the unseen unfaded back of the turkey work (for accuracy of how something would have looked not as it does look now). The new wool is too fluffy- the breeding of sheep since 1600 means that new wool with the same qualities is simply no longer available. Another Early Modern project is an easy chair – unique as it is so everyday- in such good condition is will simply be left as is, literally not touched, and the deterioration is seen as a benefit to studied understanding of its construction.
A round table discussion reiterated the problem of presenting something as era specific for another reason – we are not the first to be engaged with historical materials and replicas. Any environment or product with more than one component to it is a result of a mixture of originals. In an era where tailoring was often handed down and adapted, the specific year of any garment is only as recent as its current iteration.
In order to produce what our versions of these garments, we are exploring technological improvements in fabrics and construction techniques that allows them to be accessibly and easily understood without a historical gaze. Just like the bouncy wool tassels and technologically advanced additions to the early modern furniture at the Geffrye, our hybrid cannot be anything else but a combined product. This in turn allows it to be used rather than protected, and seen as a teaching and story telling aid to convey ideas about Victorian women inventors and their ingenious cycle wear.