The Erotic Cloth - Abstracts

Session 3: The Alternative Cloth

The shirt off your back, Jack, James and Bobby - Prof. Catherine Harper,  University of Portsmouth

There is a moment in the film Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee) when the cowboy Ennis seeks out the smell, the scent, the presence – in sorrow – of his lover Jack, who was beaten to death by homophobe rednecks earlier in the film. Ennis finds a worn denim work shirt, stained with Jack’s blood on the cuff, hanging in the wardrobe at Jack’s parent’s home. The parents, waiting downstairs, silently acknowledge their son’s illicit love and the grief of his lover. The love caught here in the fabric of a denim shirt is indescribable in its poignancy, its sense of loss, its use of a simple shirt as a device for human suffering of immeasurable scale.

Death and desire couple on cloth, creating a lexicon of erotic intimacy and masculine mourning. This paper explores this lexicon through three cloths: Jack’s shirt, the shirt in which Irish Easter Rising patriot, James Connolly, was shot, and the homo-erotic symbolism of the non-shirt shit-impregnated blankets of Northern Irish Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands.  


Guilt and Pleasure - the transposition of the historical fetishist image - Dr. Nigel Hurlstone

This paper will primarily focus on the translation and re-contextualisation of a single collection of homosexual fetishist snapshots taken between 1910-1950 by Captain Montague Glover in a recent installation of embroidered work made by Hurlstone entitled ‘What Pleasure?’ Central to the discussion will be how combinations of embroidered and digital print methodologies have been utilised to release the snapshot from the context of an individuals private pleasure and reveal the historical poignancy and potential universality of the images when they are read both through lens of history, and significantly, through the medium of cloth and stitch.

New iterations between cloth, image and stitch are realised in this work through epic translations of the domestic snapshot on a scale remote from the original artefact. Images are re-printed at human scale rather than the thumbnail gauge of the original, thereby revealing more acutely the sexual arousal of the model and the detail inherent to their militarisitc ‘costume’ displayed in their state of dress and (un)dress. These individual scenes of fantasy played out in the single frame are re-worked to read collectively as if occupying a stage set. The erotic pose of the models now plays out not in the private realm, but in a deliberately open arena set for collective, rather than individual perusal.

This deliberately brings into the question fundamental issues of how we engage with the erotic image within a public space, and how the medium of cloth can assist in both re-constructing and de-constructing both the aesthetic, content and context of it. Stitch methodologies are employed to deliberately veil the printed image and break the surface of the cloth. The subjects that gaze out at us become embedded in a surface that forces the viewer to shuffle through a reading of the image against a blur of dominant vertical stitched patternation. The photographic time exposure test strip floating in darkroom chemicals where images recede and advance is deliberately referenced, thereby bringing to the work, not only the presence of the model, but the fetishist at work in the manufacture of his own photographic pleasures.   

However, this work also reveals Hurlstone as the maker as much a fetishist at play as the original photographer. The intensly time consuming and intricate handling of the stitch processes utilised in this work involves an intimacy, contact and knowledge of the image that goes far beyond their intial purpose of charging and stimulating a sexual moment. And this knowledge of the image, bought about through the process of stitching, makes for a relationship with that work that is itself simultaneously sexual and overtly voyeueristic, as much as it is based on any technical and aesthetic judgements relating to the production of the final artefacts. The resulting textile is charged with sexual content in new and unexpected ways and is ultimately meant to question what sexual pleasure is, and where and when it might be located. 


Transgressive Touch: The fetishizing of cloth in Hitchcock’s  Rebecca (1940) - Samantha Broadhead

Rebecca (1940),  made shortly after Hitchcock left Gainsborough for David O’Selznick Studios, contains a key sequence in Rebecca’s  room which revels in the scopic and haptic qualities of cloth that suggests an erotically charged and transgressive sexuality. Through the camera’s lens the tactile nature of the fabrics that construct the mise-en-scene are used to guide the viewer through Rebecca’s room, enabling a sensory thrill that also articulates corruption and unspeakable desire.  Although the character of Rebecca has no bodily presence she remains as an uncanny protagonist who still drives narrative forward; the fabrics and textiles are her surrogate. They tell her story of sensual delight, that we know ultimately results in tragedy.  The sequence ends when Mrs. Danvers, (who is sometimes referred to as Danny) is left alone with her own memories of Rebecca, gazing through a veil of white drapery at the sunlit room beyond.

This paper argues that the eye can become an organ of touch within the context of cinema viewing and that this introduces an additional pleasure to be gained from watching a film. The vicarious caressing of cloth has particular relevance to 1940s film audiences, who would have a tactile understanding of the qualities of fabric although opportunities to touch it would be diminished by rationing. Theories of the female fetish and the tactile eye are used to understand the eroticism of cloth within this particular cinematic experience especially where flesh and fabric meet.

Barker, J. (2009) The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Dormer, C. (2008) Skin, Textile Film. in Textile.  Volume 6: Issue 6, pp. 238-253.

Doy, G. (2002) Drapery: Classicism and Barbarism in Visual Culture. London: New York, I.B. Tauris.

Harper, S. (1994) Picturing the Past.  London: BFI Publishing.

Harper, S. (2000) Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.  London and New York:  Continuum.  

Gledhill, G. and  Swanson, G. (1996) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and Cinema in World War Two Britain (Hardcover). Manchester: Manchester University Press. 


Video:  Windmills of your mind - Louise Adkins

‘Erotic awareness of the body always contains an awareness of clothing’ - Anne Hollander – Seeing Through Clothes (New York: Viking Press, 1978)

'Windmills of Your Mind’ explores the theatrical dynamic of a striptease performance in opposition to perceptions of the gendered gaze. The research project investigates how new technologies both digital and material can be used to further discourse around Perniola’s ‘’the transit’ theory (‘Between Clothing and Nudity’) with a focus on the cloth and erotic performance.

The film presents practice-based research working with high-visibility fabrics and surveillance/night vision technologies within a performance art context. It utilizes this technology to create an alternative reading of a striptease performance. The technology foreground’s clothing as opposed to the naked body in order to examine the conventions that underlie the experience of sexual stimulation as a viewer. 

Further Information.

‘Windmills of Your Mind’ was commissioned for the international exhibition curated by Joanna Tekla Wozniak and Zbiniew Kotkiewicz ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ at Arsenal Gallery and Museum, Poland.  ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ has had multiple outputs nationally and internationally including Badhaus Nextex St Gallen in Switzerland, Manchester Art Gallery Summerfield Gallery, The University of Cheltenham, Grand Union/Lombard Method Birmingham Outcasting and Another Roadside Attraction, London

The work was funded by a research support award from the University of the Creative Arts (2007-8) and funded by the Arts Council of England (2010), Galleria Miejska Arsenal, Poznan Civic Council, Scottish Polish Cultural Association and Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Edinburgh.