The initial question that entered my mind when I encountered Nancy Youdelman’s mixed-media and bronze sculptures of girls’ and women’s clothes in a group show at Eight modern was, why are clothes as an armature for art still so compelling? What was it about Youdelman’s work, among the seven strong artists in this show, that captured and held my attention? After all, many artists, especially feminist artists (a category to which Youdelman assigns herself), have explored clothing. The works of Lesley Dill and Mimi Smith come to mind, as do the idenitity-bending photographs of Cindy Sherman. Hasn’t all that can be said through clothing been uttered already?
I might well have asked myself why I still treasure my father’s bronzed baby shoes; why I keep in the back of my closet the purple cut-corduroy, dropped-waist dress my mother made for me in the seventh grade; why I stubbornly hold onto the sheared beaver jacket that I bought as a young executive, though I rarely wear it and would never again buy a fur coat.
What we wear defines who we are: our economic class, our ethnic and cultural affinities, our tastes, our tribe. We decide what we wear based on a multitude of factors, conscious and unconscious. We transmit to others our notions of selfhood and status through our attire. We constrain ourselves, and are constrained by, our clothing. Clothing is our protector and imprisoner, beautifier and beatifier, cloaker and controller.
Yet it is of little import that we know all these things. We succumb to, even pride ourselves in, adhering to societal expectations regarding clothing. I no longer wear very short skirts or midriff-baring shirts—not because I can’t carry it off (although that’s questionable), but because (according to precepts by which I was raised) I am 50, and 50-year-old, middle-class American women “shouldn’t” do so. (I saw a friend of similar age in just such a shirt the other day. Part of me was appalled; the other wart wanted to holler, “Bravo!”)
There. I’ve answered my own question. Youdelman’s works are still compelling because we are compelled to dress ourselves every day, and despite our awareness of all that clothing does for and against us, we must continue to put on clothes.
Youdelman uses real garments that she adorns with found objects: sewing notions, costume jewelry, old photographs and letters, even plant materials. Some of them are bronzed. Hung on the wall or free-standing, her sculptures alternately spark nostalgia, a sense of history and loss, sometimes anger or humor.
“Cocktail Armor,” a form-fitting, strapless dress that Xena the Warrior Princess might have donned, is covered with beads, necklaces, and vintage buttons in concentric circles over the bodice and in linear patterns on the skirt. Its sheer weight alone suggests the burden of entertaining or of the corporate wife’s role as entertainment; the sexualized treatment of the adornment emphasized the gender rigidity of formal attire and behavior. The woman who wore this dress was truly imprisoned in it, and in the role it conveyed, willingly, or not.
Likewise, “Captive” is a bustier fabricated if late 19-th century to early 20-th century tintype photographs of men in formal portraits, the images linked together by jewelry chains, suggesting the bondage of women—within society and at home—in that era.
But a free-standing bronze of an ornamented toddler’s dress, open at the top an appropriately titled “Vessel,” bears none of that heavy baggage. Instead, it evokes the bronzed-baby-shoe sigh, remembrance of things past, and musings about the beginnings of life and its promises.
“Foolish Mistakes,” a mixed-media relief, is a mid-20th-century woman’s dress with balloon sleeves, a fitted waist and wide skirt. Zippers, buttons and hair combs are included, and the entire thing covered in half- to 1-inch strips of a letter in florid handwriting and similarly sliced-up black-and-white vintage photographs of women. Here, there is mystery: What mistakes? What did the letters say? Was it a “Dear John?” A declaration of love? What we know is that we have all made such mistakes; we have all said things we wished we could recant and written letters we wished we could retrieve from the depths of the mailbox. And we all have garments just like this dress. We keep them because of the memories they represent, the mysteries and secrets they harbor, that only we can decode.
“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “We may make them take the mold of arm or breast, but they mold our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”