Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine

In the world of contemporary art, using embroidery to express yourself is risky. And while I impart a subtle subversive message in those textile pieces, it is hard to overcome the initial impression that I am doing dainty women's work.  In my attempt to understand that prejudice, I picked up the book "The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine."

Written by Rozsika Parker who has published widely in both Art History and Psychotherapy, the book delves into the history of embroidery to explore its associations with femininity. Parker defines femininity as "the behaviour expected and encouraged in women, though obviously related to the biological sex of the individual, is shaped by society." The key argument of this book is that the "changes in ideas about femininity that can be seen reflected in the history of embroidery are striking confirmation that femininity is a social and psychosocial product." (page 3)

In the revised and updated edition, the book is broken down into eight chapters:
1. The Creation of Femininity
2. Eternalising the Feminine
3. Fertility, Chastity and Power
4. The Domestication of Embroidery
5. The Inculcation of Femininity
6. From Milkmaids to Mothers
7. Femininity as Feeling
8. A Naturally Revolutionary Art?

This is a scholarly text, densely written with abundant quotations, endnotes and black/white illustrations.  Unfortunately, much of the richness and beauty of the photo illustrations is lost in their small size of presentation in dull gray tones. Nevertheless, the book is a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the history of embroidery and its association with femininity and women's work. Of particular interest to me was the last chapter in which Parker explores the revolutionary aspect of contemporary embroidery by such artists as Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin. However, this book is not for a casual reader and is more suited for research in art history, feminist issues or embroidery.

From my reading of this book, I came to understand the reasons the disparity in status between embroidery and painting. The division between women's work and men's work seems to be at the core of this deep seeded antipathy towards embroidery. This particular quote from the eighteenth century sums it up:  "Sir, she's an Artist with her needle....Could anything be more laughable than a woman claiming artistic status for her sewing?" (page 172).  Luckily, today's definitions of art and femininity are somewhat more fluid, allowing me flexibility to chose the medium best suited for a particular message.

Title: The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine
Author: Rozsika Parker
Publisher: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, New York
First Published: 1984; Reprinted 1986 and 1989; Revised 1996; Reprinted 2010
Category: Non-fiction
Number of Pages: 247

Monday, July 26, 2010

Playing with Pictures

Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Playing with Pictures is an exhibition which celebrates the art of Victorian photocollage. In the 1860s and 1870s, photos of family and friends were cut-up and inserted into other backgrounds to create a whimsical and sometimes surreal image. For example, photos were inserted into the wings of a butterfly, the back of a turtle, a pickle jar, the head of an umbrella, the back of an envelope or onto a piece of luggage. Several albums of such images form the cornerstone of this exhibition.

Created mostly by aristocratic women of the time, the raw materials for this precursor to scrapbooking were cartes-de-vistre, small, inexpensive albumin photographs on thin pieces of cardboard. Trading photos with your friends and social circle was de rigeur. And to include the Prince of Wale's cartes-de-vistre in your album offered proof of high social standing.

This exhibition is a charming display of a largely forgotten Victorian past-time. Some of the pages on display show incredible skill in composition, layout and watercolour technique. (Unfortunately, the adjacent sound piece by Janet Cardiff is a bothersome distraction.) Given the ease with which photo manipulation takes place today, it is an amusing rediscovery of our innate desire to play with pictures.

If you like to play with pictures, the AGO is hosting an online exhibition of submissions. They offer three templates for download and can be posted to their Flickr group or emailed to  For more info, go to

Playing with Pictures continues at the AGO until September 5, 2010. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Bloordale Alternative Art Fair

Shepherdess in Blue by Ingrid Mida 2010

In Toronto, there is a fall art event where people wait for hours in the freezing cold for the chance to purchase a piece of artwork for $75. But this Saturday, you won't have to wait in line to find a piece of original artwork that makes your heart sing. All works at the Bloordale Alternative Art Fair are priced at $100 or less.

Loop Gallery is one of twenty Toronto galleries and artists that will be displaying their work at the Bloordale Alternative Art Fair (BAAF) on Saturday July 24, 2010. The fair takes place from 1 to 9 p.m.

Participating loop members include:
Tanya Cunnington
Tara Cooper
Elizabeth D'Agostino
Audrea DiJulio
Libby Hague
Linda Heffernan
Jane Lowbeer
Ingrid Mida
Suzanne Nacha
Mary Catherine Newcomb
Maureen Paxton
Barbara Rehus
Yvonne Singer

The BAAF is part of The New Bloor Street Festival. Previously known as Big on Bloor, this years' outdoor street festival is being hosted by the Bloordale Business Improvement Area (BIA) rather than being a joint effort between Bloordale and Bloorcourt BIAs.

For the festival, Bloor Street West will be a pedestrian-only zone between Lansdowne Avenue and Dufferin Street. Head to the west end of the festival for the Bloordale Alternative Art Fair, which takes place between Lansdowne and St. Clarens avenues. The BAAF is flanked by Toronto Free Gallery on the west end and Mercer Union on the east.

Coordinated by local curator Carla Garnet, the BAAF will include special events, performances and gallery exhibitions by artists, curators, art dealers and university art teachers. Art School Continues with teachers and students shared exhibitions tables. Curated projects by major commercial and artist run galleries.

Other fun stuff to see and do at the festival:
At Dufferin there will be an Art Court featuring student artwork by York University and The Ontario College of Art and Design students.

The festival will serve as the launch site of the Bloor Magazine, spearheaded by activist/artist Dyan Marie.

At 6:00 p.m. all the booths along Bloor Street will transform into a giant picnic table replete with table cloth, creating a dinner party banquet right out on the street.

The festival also features two live music stages, licensed outdoor patios, a food court, children's activities, and 300 vendors including not-for-profit organizations, as well as artisans selling jewellery, books and clothing.

Come join in on the fun! I'll be at the Loop Gallery booth from 2-4 pm.

P.S. I'll have four small works available for sale, all from my Revolutionary Fashion series.

Revolutionary Fashion Plate #3 by Ingrid Mida 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Memories of a Summer Dress by Von

Sketch of My Summer Dress by Von 2010

When I was about the age of seven, my mother made me a dress with her first electric sewing machine, a Pfaff. Until then, she had used a treadle Singer and made everything that she and I wore except for underwear and socks.

Much to my chagrin, I never wore a stitch of bought clothing until I was old enough to buy my own and I often longed for a cheap cotton dress that looked like the ones everyone else wore. If the truth be known,  I was mortified by some of the outfits I had to wear, but could never speak out or express my distaste; children didn’t in those days. There were other visible signs of difference between me and the other girls, but the clothes were the most obvious difference or seemed so to me at the time.

The new summer dress seemed in some way to even things out. It was a light cotton, with a pattern of pink and green flowers and leaves on a white background. The style and fabric made it comfortable and it looked fresh and clean. The bodice was cut in four sections with  ruffles running  from the front  waist over the shoulder down the back to the waist. It was cut so that a small cap sleeve was formed on the top of the shoulder. The skirt was cut in panels, so that it fell neatly from the waist, but flared slightly at the hem. It felt very gown up. Looking back, I always felt good in that dress and was my first dress that had this effect.

When the cold weather came on, the dress was hung in the wardrobe. I must have been going through a growth spurt, because when the next summer arrived, it no longer fit. I was very sad knowing that  I would never wear it again and I longed to have a replica made in a larger size and the same again the next year and the next. I felt I could go on wearing this dress forever.

That summer there was a serious bushfire in our area and many families lost their homes and everything they possessed. Mothers culled the wardrobes of any clothes that could be spared, anything that no longer fit. When school started again at the end of summer, there was a strong sense of comfort in being back in a safe environment, especially for those who had suffered the loss of their homes and those who had narrowly escaped. For me there was the odd dislocation of seeing someone a year younger wearing my favourite, special dress on a normal school day, which, given the events of the summer, was far from normal.

My feelings too were complicated by the fact that I was adopted. Adoptees start life with one identity, which is changed by adoption, so that at times I have grappled with having two sides to my life and two identities. When I was a child, I had no choice about clothing and this created feelings of loss. Over time, I've been able to think through how I want to present myself. It used to be an area of vulnerability, but is something that I worked through years ago. In my life today, I am comfortable in work clothes mucking out but I also enjoy the classics, good quality and design. I have it all!

Von is the author of the blogs The Good Life (Life in the Slow Lane) and also Once There was Von.

What is hanging in the back of your closet? Do you have memories of a special dress? This Memories of a Dress Project is an extension my documentation of the dresses my mother wore. I encourage all of you who have a dress or special outfit hanging at the back of your closet to share your memories with me. Please email me at to participate. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why do Women Keep Clothes They No Longer Wear?

 Photo by Ingrid Mida 2010

The most interesting part of the book Through the Wardrobe, Women's Relationships with Their Clothes was the chapter called "Discontinued Selves: Why do Women Keep Clothes They No Longer Wear?" by Maura Banim and Ali Guy.

Like many women, I have clothes at the back of my closet that I no longer wear but simply cannot yet part with. These items embody special memories for me. That is why I read Chapter 12 of Through the Wardrobe first, before going back to reread the rest of the book.

In their introduction to the chapter, Banim and Guy mention that the relationships that women have with clothes they keep but no longer wear is one aspect of clothing "that has received little attention in the literature and when it has been mentioned it has often been in disparaging terms".

In their research they gathered and interpreted data from 15 women who:
1. provided a personal account that reflected their interest in clothes
2. kept a clothing diary for 2 weeks
3. participated in an interview alongside their wardrobes

Some notable quotes from the women participating in this research included the following:

"They've got histories to them...and that makes them more difficult to get rid of." Pam

"Really I don't wear these clothes - I just kind of keep them". Julie

"There's nothing really wrong with it - it just isn't me." Jill

"I've got one item at the moment that I absolutely hate and I can't bring myself to throw it out because I've only recently bought it." Helen

"I keep thinking that's a lovely dress but I'll never wear it." Sheila

"I have enjoyed wearing it but the colour's not right at the moment, it's out of fashion but I can see myself coming back to it." Wendy

"I have two hideous nighties which I never wear. I keep them in case I have to go to the hospital." Deborah

"This drawer is full of things my mother has knitted. I'm quite ashamed of all the things I don't wear. Where do you put things that your mother knit but you didn't wear?" Sheila

These particular quotes highlight some of the reasons that women keep clothes they no longer wear:
* memories or association with a particular event, person, or identity;
* the cost or quality of the item;
* the chance that the item might come back in style or be appropriate in presenting a particular image.

In their conclusion, Banim and Guy state:
"Kept clothes are not only tangible reminders of past identities but, more importantly, they provide a set of symbolic links across women's past, present and future identities. Women's decisions about keeping these clothes and the status of these clothes are often ambiguous as the meanings associated with them are often complex....We found that kept clothes can enable a woman to remember who she was, who she could be, and who she wants to continue being. Some of these items also help her establish who she isn't or who she doesn't want to be". (page 216)

The researchers suggested that this a field ripe for more study. They wondered if "throwing out these clothes represent a woman's decision to let go of part of herself". 

Please share your thoughts on this subject by participating in the blog poll or leaving a comment.

This post also gives me a chance to remind readers about my Memories of a Dress project . I am attempting to collect memories associated with a special dress or outfit worn by yourself or a female relative. To participate, please leave a comment or email me at

And if you are ready to let go of your special items and are looking for a good home, please consider donating them to Seneca College Fashion Resource Centre in Toronto. For more information, please see my post Hidden Treasures or contact Dale Peers, Coordinator at

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book Review: Through the Wardrobe

In doing research for my Memories of a Dress Project, I came across this book which is a compilation of articles on the relationships that women have with their clothes. Edited by Ali Guy, Eileen Green and Maura Banim, the book Through the Wardrobe: Women's Relationships with their Clothes is organized into three sections:

In Part I, Consuming Images: Shopping Around for Identities,  researchers address how women shop for clothes. The experiences of young women, plus-size women, brides and women who use personal shoppers are considered in these chapters. "Shopping for clothes becomes an opportunity to create and transform themselves through playing with the image on offer" (page 11).

In Part II, Constructing Images: Presenting Status and Identities in Public explores how women attempt to discover and present different aspects of themselves through clothing. In particular, the challenges of dressing by women academics to convey power without looking "stuffy" are considered. As well, the issues surrounding ethic inspired clothing, accessories and jewellery by black women is also addressed. The creation of identity and the reconciliation of the public self and the secret self is considered in a chapter on women and body art.

In Part III, Personal Images: Revealing and Concealing Private Selves, chapters consider how women reveal and conceal parts of their identity as they select clothes from their wardrobe to develop a personal look. The impact of breast cancer and mastectomy on a woman's sense of self and identity through her clothing choices is explored in two chapters within this section. The presentation of a lesbian or queer identity through clothing is also considered. Of most importance to me was the chapter called "Discontinued Selves: Why do Women Keep Clothes They No Longer Wear?". (This is worthy of a separate post so stay tuned).

This book is a scholarly work but it is not only for academics. Well-organized and thoughtfully presented, most chapters are well-written and readable. Some of the most fascinating tidbits can be found in the sections called "Unpicking the Seams" which are presented at the end of each chapter in which the researchers discuss their motives and conduct of their research in an informal manner. And although the research seemed to lean somewhat towards the not-so-ordinary woman (ie., plus-size, breast cancer survivors, lesbian, women with body art, women academics, brides etc), the book provides thought-provoking analyses of the evolving relationships that women have with their clothes.

Title: Through the Wardrobe, Women's Relationships with Their Clothes
Edited by: Ali Guy, Eileen Green and Maura Ranim
Publisher: Berg, an imprint of Oxford International Publishers Ltd., New York 2001
Category: Non-fiction - Dress, Body, Culture
Number of Pages: 286

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Made with Love Atelier in Memory of Lee Alexander McQueen

In collaboration with the LABoratoire Créatif and the Canadian Mental Health Association, Made With Love Atelier is presenting an event in Montreal today that will honour the memory of the late Lee Alexander McQueen. Five Canadian designers,  Cluc Couture, Chiara, Jean-Paul Corbeil, Héricher and Helmer will create haute couture looks in front of the audience.  The passion and intense creative energy intrinsic to a designer’s studio will be on stage for all to view.  The outfits created will later be photographed as part of the evening events.

This fundraiser for the Canadian Mental Health Association will take place at 207 De la Commune which is adjacent to the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. Tickets are $15 for access from 3 to 5 pm or $25 for access for the evening 3 to 11 pm. Profits will go towards increasing mental health awareness.

The late Lee Alexander McQueen committed suicide in February of this year. Although his bouts of depression and anxiety were common knowledge, it only recently was revealed that he had attempted drug overdose twice before. If you live in Montreal, support mental health awareness by attending this event.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lessons from Artist Doris McCarthy

Doris McCarthy turns 100 years old today! This accomplished artist has created a vast legacy of work that celebrates the beauty and majesty of Canada's landscape. But she is more than just a painter. An art teacher for 40 years, a writer of four published books, and a friend to many, she has lived a full and glorious life. 

Since my recent experience at the painting workshop inspired by the work of Doris McCarthy, I've been rereading the books of her life, searching for tidbits of wisdom. It wasn't an easy task to distill her books into life lessons as her writing tended towards more of an account of her life than an attempt to impart her knowledge. And for that reason, I must note that this list of life lessons is strictly my own interpretation. I've included quotes in some cases, but in many, I've had to read between the lines.

Accept what comes your way! 
Doris did not have an easy life.  She faced setbacks, disappointment and heartache many times. In each of her trials, she tried to accept what life had to offer and look upon each day (and each painting) as a new beginning.

Forgive others.
In several of her books, Doris mentions the rejection of two banners she created for the chancel of St. Aidan's church. Not long after they were installed, they were removed without notice or explanation. As a member of the church, Doris forgave this professional insult and continued to be a full participant in the congregation, although she did admit "it took a lot of prayer and charity". Doris says "why waste my precious life spending energy on righteous indignation....every time my thoughts turn in that direction I pull them away to something else. Eventually I can laugh about it." (Ninety Years Wise, page 61)

Express gratitude.
"I am daily aware of and grateful for being alive and having the energy to work and enjoy people. I am sure that both the awareness and the gratitude are part of the reasons for my being so." (Ninety Years Wise, page 54)

Live simply.
In Doris' words, "As long as I have food and shelter, happiness doesn't depend on my standard of living. All of us who lived through the Great Depression, before the social safety net, learned that. Life wasn't easy, but it was good. Money was so scarce that it offered few options or temptations." This quest for simplicity stayed with Doris throughout her life, and in her books she often mentions how she likes to "know where I have put everything. The simplicity I value so much depends on having few things but keeping them in order." (Ninety Years Wise, page 33).

Exercise and eat well.
For as long as she was able, Doris stayed active with daily exercise including swimming, walking, and skating. And while there are several photos of Doris with a glass of wine in her hand, she learned the lesson of moderate drinking on her first painting trip to the Gaspe. In a comedic account of that incident, she states that it was the first and last time she overindulged. "Moderate drinking is an expression of my respect for my body, and of course moderation applies to food as well. Vanity was the root of my habit of eating temperately, to get rid of excess weight, but it is a habit I recommend." (Ninety Years Wise, page 76).
Be open to learning new things.
When Doris was in her seventies, she decided that she wanted a BA and she began her studies at the Scarborough College campus of the University of Toronto. After enrolling in a creative writing course, Doris learned how to use a computer. Doris got her degree and went on to write four books. "Writing gave me a second chance - not to change things, but to savor them. That is a great gift." (My Life, page 3)

Cultivate friendships.
In all of Doris's books, she mentions the many friends who have crossed her path. The reverence with which she describes her friends is proof of the great pleasure that she found from friends, making her life full while respecting her own need for solitude and quiet. Although her longest and dearest friends like Marjorie and Roy Wood passed on years ago, Doris still revels in their spirit citing that "death does not end a friendship.

Be true to yourself.
Given Doris' prolific career as a landscape painter, I was surprised to learn that she had extensive training in figure drawing and sculpture while at OCA. And in her early years as an artist, she even painted flowers when she needed to sell some work to raise cash. But over time, she must have realized that her heart was in the land. She stayed true to herself, not succumbing to the latest trends in the art world and painting what caught her eye and gave her pleasure.

The Doris McCarthy Trail 
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2010

How I wish Doris had written down some of her lessons as an art teacher of 40 years. Her books contain only a few fragments about how she worked as a painter. It is clear that she was disciplined in her work habits and often told others to "just paint". But I have not yet unraveled the mystery behind her powerful work. If I was able to ask her, she might reply:

"You don't need to prove what you know. (Who can prove the power of a great work of art?). You know it because you experience the power." (Ninety Years Wise, page 63)

Books Cited:
Doris McCarthy: Ninety Years Wise.
by Doris McCarthy.
Published by Second Story Press, 2002

Doris McCarthy: My Life
by Doris McCarthy and Chris Wahl
Published by Second Story Press, 2006.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: J'adore New York

Most of the year I read history, fashion theory or literary fiction, but summertime means I dip into lighter fare. At the top of my list was J'adore New York, by Montreal-based author Isabelle LaFleche. Having once had a corner office myself, I was drawn to this novel about high finance and couture.

Catherine Lambert is a lawyer working in the world of high finance. She takes a transfer from Paris to New York and steps into a minefield of a workplace. She has to dodge advances from clients, dreary due diligence trips, conflicting assignments from partners, and malicious secretaries. The reality of her job is hard and unrelenting. Her hopes of finding love and taking pleasure in the big city seem unattainable.

Of course, like all good chick-lit books, this one follows a predictable pattern, but it did not diminish my pleasure. The author Isabelle LaFleche actually worked as a corporate lawyer in New York for several years and there is an authenticity and intelligence to her writing. J'adore New York was a delightful weekend read.

Favourite Passage:

"I stop in front of Dior's majestic store on 57th and take in every detail. They have multi-tiered beaded heels on display and ruffled leather handbags that make my jaw drop. I still can't believe I'll be doing legal work for Dior. I take a deep breath and feel totally intoxicated by the idea. I then move on to Madison and peek into Barney's windows. I love looking at the cuts, the fabrics, and the way the designers play with proportions. All the stores I've only read about in American Vogue and seen on my favourite French fashion blog are here in front of me. I let the world of prospectuses, memos and legal briefs slip away for today. Now I'm ready for dreams of taffeta, organza and mousseline." (page 32)

Title: J'adore New York
Author: Isabelle LaFleche
Publisher: HarperCollins 2010
Category: Fiction
Number of Pages: 390
Price: Amazon $22.95

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Drama and Desire at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Edgar Degas, L'orchestre de l'opera 
Oil on Canvas 1870
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

A list of my favourite things would have to include art, music, ballet and opera but rarely am I able to combine them into one experience. And yet, the Art Gallery of Ontario has done exactly that in their current exhibition Drama and Desire.  

This exhibition includes over 100 paintings, drawings and theatrical maquettes by artists such as Degas,  Delacroix,  David,  Ingres,  Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vuillard. The works were borrowed from the collections of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d'Orsay, the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Gerard Gauci, set designer for Opera Atelier, was the guest designer for this exhibition. With recreations of eighteenth and early twentieth century stage sets, sound and light effects, theatrical props and on-site performances, the art is dramatically brought to life. 

Visitors enter the exhibition by walking ‘onstage' through a life-size 18th-century set and a full-scale re-creation of an early 20th-century theatre maquette marks the finale of the exhibition. 

Visitors to Drama and Desire will experience the exhibition as audience members, actors and even stage hands,” says Gauci. “Designing this exhibition has been like designing an opera with an overture, a series of distinct acts, special effects and a grand finale.”

Although the exhibition is open during regular gallery hours, you will be treated to an extra special experience if you are able to attend at one of the times listed below:

Sun. July 4: Artists of the Atelier Ballet, Opera Atelier (1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm)
Sat. July 10: CanadianStage (between 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm)
Sun. July 11: Artists of the Atelier Ballet, Opera Atelier (1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm)
Sat. July 17: CanadianStage (between 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm)
Sun. July 18: Artists of the Atelier Ballet, Opera Atelier (1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm)
Sat. July 24: Single-Thread Theatre Company (between 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm)
Sun. July 25: Artists of the Atelier Ballet, Opera Atelier (1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm)
Sat. July 31: CanadianStage (between 1:30 pm and 3:00 pm) 

Performances will include actors from Canadian Stage Company performing excerpts from High Park’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Opera Atelier will feature ballet demonstrations in their production ‘Degas and his Dancers’.  Single Thread Theatre Company will highlight key moments in Shakespeare’s dramas.

Drama and Desire runs until September 26, 2010.

317 Dundas Street West
Toronto, Ontario
M5T 1G4