Deconstructing ‘Ladies of Leisure’

How can a piece of feminized art provide a site of seduction and imagination? As a female artist, it is important to me to investigate this question from a gendered position. My interest lies in how experimentation in collage and mixed media can provide a space of sensual engagement for viewers. The mixed media surface uses conflicting textures to reflect on a wide range of undertones: from glamour models to the barbaric centerfold that exist in the exaggerated world of fashion. Collage is very important in my studio practice because it allows me to use an assemblage of different representations of women to create new female forms. Through my research and artwork I aim to understand how the historical representation of the ‘mysterious seductress’ applies to contemporary female identity. My work investigates the thinking, manners and expectations of upper-class Western women from the Enlightenment to modernity in relation to seduction. I am interested in looking at why fabric and patterns, portraiture and fantasy, underwear, hairstyles and headgear played - and continues to play - such a significant role in the identity, power and sexuality of women. My collages examine how the image of the full red lips, a provocative gaze framed by long eye lashes and opulent clothing are the external image of the pre-twentieth century woman’s psyche and manner, as well as how this image relates to contemporary feminine expectations.

My interest in specific art historical periods and innate understanding of the female body continue to support my research. I took a course in contemporary collage methodologies with Cathy Daley that introduced me to concepts of appropriation, deconstruction and hybridization using collage as a tool. In this course, I was captivated by Hannah Hoch’s photomontages that dealt with differences between images of women in the media and reality. As a female, I am concerned with the excessive pressure the media has placed on women to be physically attractive. Hoch’s critique of the beauty industry using the rise of fashion and photography to advertise unrealistic female images was what inspired my thesis topic: the feminine and sensuality. My work is research-based and revolves around the theme of how the female figure is rooted within the relationship of the provocative and the disturbing.

This semester I have been making life-size extravagant female figures that act as an entourage for viewers. By using a pre-twentieth century aristocratic aesthetic and focusing on the relationships between the cerebral and the sensual, as well as, enchantment and revulsion, the female figures explore how seduction was used as a way for pre-twentieth century women to achieve sexual agency. Distance is also a very important tool in my work. As the large female forms engage viewers from afar through their physical opulence, their fragmentation is only revealed up close. I choose to disfigure the female body for female viewers to analyze body image and identity. The collaged women are about reclaiming control of the female body and formulating a pictorial dialect to represent difference. The work is about taking control of identity and exposing the fractured nature of the female sense of self.

As a woman, I feel I am well equipped to research how the role of women as seducer in the seventeenth century onward gave them sexual and political freedom. Jean Baudrillard says that the seductress creates mystery through appearance and artifice to achieve her erotic presence. In Seduction: A Celebration of Sensual Style, author, Caroline Cox, says that throughout history seduction was one of the only routes to female power before the twentieth century. Moreover, Cox highlights that the pre-twentieth century woman was able to set the stage through creating an uncompromisingly erotic presence through the use of lingerie, feathers, silks, furs and heavy perfume (Cox, 7). Seduction: A Celebration of Sensual Style has heavily influenced my thesis work and my interest in how fashion gives persuasive force to the seductress. Clothing was the number one factor that rendered the men weak and the pre-twentieth century woman strong. Fashion is what gave the woman covert control and an opportunity for social advancement in the patriarchal system.

During the Victorian era, the specific cut, material and colour of a garment revealed the social class of the woman. The collages focus on the complex fashions for women of the higher classes andcexplore the Victorian “hourglass” shape that was idealized to best flatter the female form. Dresses were composed of several layers of different shades, cloths and trimmings, and intended to be worn with both under- dresses and over-dresses (The Victorian Era (1837-1901).

I have a preoccupation with why makeup and clothing were the external reflection of the dreams, desires, fears and forbidden longings of the pre-twentieth century woman. I call my collaged images of women ‘ladies of leisure’ after the Victorian ideal of the perfect lady as a symbol of status. In the book, Nineteenth-Century Woman: Her Cultural and Physical World, Lorna Duffin describes the perfect Victorian woman as a “…symbol of conspicuous leisure and the agent of conspicuous consumption” (Duffin, 26). The social role of the rising middle class woman was a role of lethargy and inactivity (29). In a changing industrialist society doctors saw themselves as the moral and physical guardians of women (28). The middle class woman was the ideal patient because her illness was rarely severe, required visits and long-term treatment, which were paid for by her affluent husband (33). Defining women as invalids began by deeming all female functions as pathological. For example, menstruation or lack it were treated as an affliction (32). The illness of women disqualified them from becoming healers and entering economic competition with male medical practitioners (33). The symbolic status gave the woman no purposeful activity. It was the ideal of the perfect lady that led to the belief that the Victorian woman was useless and incapable. The Victorian woman was seen as disabled and must be protected from serious participation in society (26).

My collaged ‘ladies of leisure’ look at how extreme ideas of beauty like the female consumptive can create sensual, challenging and audacious images. The female consumptive was an extreme of traditional female beauty that was reflected in portraiture and literature (Enrenreich and English, 21). For example, in the novel, Little Women, the sweet and tragic character of Beth embodied the female invalid (22).Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English influenced the aesthetic of my proposed artistic endeavors. Ehrenreich and English describe the female consumptive as the embodiment of female beauty through bright eyes, translucent skin and red lips. The facial features of the female consumptive are a significant part of what I hope will aesthetically compel the viewers of my work. For me, the attraction to the imagery of the female consumptive is the pale complexion allowing the seductive bright eyes to catch the viewer’s attention, followed by the kissable red lips (21). I am appropriating the imagery of the female consumptive through the sensual appearance of the collaged women to invite the viewer to examine if the woman is an invalid. There is a confrontation that occurs between the collaged woman and the viewer. The collages do not need the authority of male doctors to make judgments as to who is physically fit and who is not. The collages reflect on how Victorian medical theory helped shape the options and roles available to women. The work exposes how medical knowledge played a crucial role in ideas about sexual differentiation, discrimination and disability (Duffin, 26-27).

Fashion often reflects the state and feeling of the world through its cuts, colors, patterns, and fabrics. Clothing was a daily disguise for the pre-twentieth century woman, and continues to function in this way for contemporary woman. I intend my collaged images to suggest excess and frivolity. My approach to fashion and design through collage reflects a rococo style, which is”…characterized by the pursuit of pleasure” (The Kyoto Costume Institute, 7). The clothing my ladies are wearing is an investigation of fantasy, conceit and artificial aesthetics. The styles I have collaged together are a combination of fickleness, extravagance and flirtation that has driven the fashion world from the seventeenth century to modernity.

Growing up, I was surrounded by a heavy Chinese aesthetic in my family home. This aesthetic and sensibility is illustrated in the complex and curvaceous forms in my work. My ‘ladies of leisure’ reflect this Chinese influence in the textiles with asymmetrical patterns and unusual color combinations. The inclusion of the oriental folding fan has been a preeminent accessory for my ‘ladies of leisure’ to complete the ‘chinoiserie’ ensemble (The Kyoto Costume Institute, 9).

My ‘ladies of leisure’ demonstrate how seventeenth to pre-twentieth century fashion regarded the human body itself as the object to “wear.” This made me realize that fashion repeating certain styles is inevitable because the shape of the human body limits options. My hope is that my collaged ‘ladies of leisure’ help the viewer to contemplate that with each reemergence of past styles an entirely new social context arises. I created my ‘ladies of leisure’ in an attempt to reveal the dominant social circumstances and concerns in history of female ethics and beauty through the study of clothing from the Enlightenment to modernity.

Work Cited

Cox, Caroline. Seduction: A Celebration of Sensual Style. New York: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 2006. 7.

Delamont, Sara; Duffin, Lorna. The Nineteenth Century Woman: Her Cultural and Physical World. U.S.A.: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1978. 26-33.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973. 21-22.

The Kyoto Costume Institute. Icons: Fashion From The 18th Century To The 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2004. 7,9.

The Victorian Era (1837-1901). 29 March 2011. < victorianlife.html>.

Deconstructing ‘Ladies of Leisure' BFA Thesis Paper (2010-2011)