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From Function to Frippery

From Function to Frippery is a commentary on the collars of early 20th century nurses uniforms found in the archives of the London Hospital and Kings College .  Most of the pieces found had not been touched since they were archived in the early 70’s. The uniforms symbolized the glorification of self sacrifice and subservience, creating a picture of modest femininity and obsequious compliance. The collar served to perpetuate a type of enslavement. The collars, cuffs, caps and aprons I handled and examined were very heavily starched and held form rather like the way paper does. The outer surface was pristine and gave the impression of ordered anonymity. In stark contrast to this, the insides betrayed the marks of the wearer. The memory of the physical presence of some of the women was evident in the smudges of dirt and faint traces of blood embedded in the fibres of the accessories which had been repeatedly washed and starched.

Strong social identities of these women began to emerge, despite the absence of their bodies, through both the preserved garments and the visual photographic representations. In photographs from the turn of the century it became apparent to me that these women were uncomfortable, trapped by their cumbersome uniforms particularly the starched high collars. Conflating ideas of order and uniformity on one hand and subtle individual potential for expression on the other, led me to the discovery that the collars acted as instruments of restraint- creating painful weals on the neck of the wearer.

I wanted to represent this. I acquired some old cast off NHS uniforms and started to consider them, noting small details in the simple construction designed to make the wearers job easier, such as waterproof pocket linings, hidden side pockets and extra fabric across the back for bending over with ease. My aim was to create something beautiful out of their destruction. Through the medium of video the uniform is deconstructed  and the ‘binds’ are released. I played with the idea of peeling the uniform off a body form to symbolically reveal and release the humanity within. The remaining collar then takes on a new significance and grows into something beautiful and fantastical.

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