The Erotic Cloth - Abstracts

Session 1: The Place of Cloth

Video:  Moi Non Plus - Liz Rideal

The film title refers to the Birkin/Gainsbourg duet from 1969; ‘Je’taime…moi non plus’ (‘I love you…me neither’), fabled to have been recorded live during sex, in a studio in Marble Arch (there is much heavy breathing). Rideal’s film balances three elements; William Hogarth’s pornographic diptych, ‘Before and After’, 1731 (Collection: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), a voice over of poems translated by Robert van Gulik that accompany erotic colour prints of the late Ming period and film of cloth either at rest or in syncopation, some of the footage relates to previous exhibition installations by Rideal of film projected onto cloth in motion.

The question of ambiguity of sexual power, cloth used as a vehicle in male and female arousal and the tensions surrounding the sexual act are the focus of this short film. Avoiding overt pornography and using voice over to imply, through poetic suggestion, the ‘variegated positions of the flowery battle’, the desire is to provoke thought about the complexity of arousal and the repetitive narrative of sexual congress. The opening text, ‘The Bronze Man holding the Dew Basin’, refers to a large bronze statue of a man holding up a basin that belonged to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. The bowl was meant to catch the morning dew that the Emperor used as an ingredient in the Elixir of Longevity. Referred to in the context of the original print and poem, the implication was that the vaginal secretions containing the woman’s Yin essence, could be collected by those wishing to attain the goal of immortality. The mixture would ‘complete’ their Yang essence.

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Always in the Act of Becoming: Folds, Scissors and Cleavage in Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Il Tagliapanni - Angela Maddock

My secret. I look for you, my pulse racing and cheeks slightly flushed. Down corridors I hurry and there you are again, head tilted, eyes returning my gaze - those very lovely, deep brown eyes – the thumb and index finger of your left hand tenderly holding the edge of a chalked up stretch of black cloth. A cloth lain across a table and marked for the flesh of a body that will never be dressed. And yet you are so beautifully dressed. Silk at your throat and wrists, folds of cloth at your hips. I like to imagine the cloth you hold might be for me, for my body. And there are your scissors, huge tailor’s shears, your fingers expertly laced through their bow, the tips parted in anticipation. You lean towards me and I look again at those scissors and what is there, what is there emerging from the folds of your bombasted hose, a smile comes to my lips and my seduction is complete.

Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Il Tagliapanni (1565-70) is one of the most popular paintings in the collection of the National Gallery, London and a particular favourite of tailors. It is also a profoundly erotic painting, steeped in desire and the anticipation of what might be, Il Tagliapanni is a painting eternally poised in the act of becoming.

This paper adopts psychoanalytic theory, particularly Freud’s thinking on the fetish and cleavage and Lacan’s idea of the erotogenic, to unwrap Il Tagliapanni, to explore the painting’s erotic staging and also the reiterative role played by the tailor’s scissors, his tools of the trade. I unfold some of the paintings secrets to suggest that the ‘marking’ and anticipated ‘cutting’ of the cloth perform as acts of longing and that this ‘mise-en- scene’ might also be read as foreplay, a teasing display of anticipation that confirms cloth as erotic and desirous site. Il Tagliapanni with his scissors, bombasted hose and deep brown eyes reminds us that cloth and its fabrication has the capacity to seduce, to set us adrift into the imaginary, a place where all seems possible and where things are felt more than known. I propose that Il Tagliapanni is much more than a beautiful painting of a skilled craftsman; it is a perfectly poised erotic moment that confirms the central and crucial role of cloth in our sensual lives. 


Textual Textiles - Undressing Anne Lister - Caroline Baylis-Greene

‘To some people, the nimbus of “the sexual” seems scarcely to extend beyond the boundaries of discrete genital acts; to others it enfolds them loosely or floats virtually free of them’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick[1]

 In my current research, I focus on queer subjectivities, desire and forms of closeting in nineteenth-century women’s life writing and poetry.   As part of my thesis, I explore links between dress, performance and queer identities in long nineteenth-century texts written by six women writers, and situate them alongside contemporary queer, feminist theory. 

  • Anne Lister 1791-1840. Anne Lister’s diary is one of the longest and most complex pieces of life writing in the English language (1806-1840).   Lister’s coded diary sections (now available in decoded form) are famous for their depiction of explicit erotic and sexual relationships between women.   However, what is less well known is Lister’s highly complex and eccentric relationship to textiles, clothing and indirect touch.  Clothing occupies a charged and anxious space in the diaries, where Lister often exhibits a strong aversion to others touching, repairing, or washing her clothes (highly unusual for an upper middle-class woman in the period).   In constantly holding and handling cloth, Lister fetishizes textual and textile touching as forms of self-fashioning, manufacture and self-comforting.  Lister’s diary persona, like her clothing, is made up of many shifting and changing parts, and she employs a multitude of strategies to extend sensual and erotic space through indirect material touch.

My paper and performance piece will explore the relationship between clothing, text and the body; using Lister’s writing as a framing device, to explore the notion of charged touch, the extension of erotic space, and its potential for wrapping and unwrapping.

[1] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p.25


A Perverted Taste: Italian depictions of Cloth and Puberty in mid-19th century marble - Dr. Claire Jones

This paper addresses the role of cloth in mid-nineteenth century sculptural depictions of childhood innocence. I focus on Italian sculpture, whose spectacularly realistic depictions of cloth and lace were perceived as dangerous by (Protestant) English critics:

Only a very perverted taste can see aught to admire in such a triumph of mechanical cleverness. True sculpture scorns to waste itself on needless fripperies and imitative lacework. Its right and noble office is to express the poetry of form in the noblest and purest manner; not to enchant us with mere feats of millinery in stone.[1]

Focusing on surviving works at Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire, I will demonstrate the unparalleled ways in which Italian sculptors could create cloth from marble, and explore why its qualities of texture, touch, concealment and flesh, as well as its invitation to close and sustained viewing, were so troublesome for some contemporary commentators. Critics were uncomfortable with these depictions of cloth. They channelled their discomfiture through a narrative of realism and making, focusing on ‘excessive’ likeness to cloth, and to ‘mechanical cleverness’ in making the marble.

Yet the critics’ focus on realism and making concealed deeper fears regarding the interrelationship of cloth and eroticism in sculpture. It revealed an anti-Catholic discomfiture with sensuality, and shifted the gaze away from the problematic role of cloth in depictions of young, pubescent girls. Guiseppe Lazzerini’s Nymph Going to Bathe (c. 1862), for example (see below), despite its allusion to a classical nymph, portrays a young girl experiencing puberty. Rather than being swathed in amorphous antique drapery, a cut and stitched chemise hangs at her waist, its unbuttoned buttons within the lightweight gathered cloth, creating apertures and hollows below her navel. The contemporary realism of the cloth undoes the veneer of classical allegory, complicating traditional depictions of innocence through the female nude.

[1] ‘The Art-Show at the Great Exhibition’, Dublin University Magazine (August 1862), 141.