The Absence and Presence: Disembodied Clothing as Relic by Jennifer Smith-Windsor PDF  | Print |  E-mail


fig. 2, Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1992-2004, shoes, animal fibre, and surgical thread, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Doris Salcedo *

Nina Felshin considers in her article Clothing as Subject that, ‘Clothing more than any other object or possession is closely identified with the body of the absent wearer.  Clothing acts as a surrogate by suggesting his or her presence’ and is ‘seen as a densely coded system of signification that transmits psychological, sexual and cultural messages’ (Felshin p. 20).  Juliet Ash writes of the universality of clothing.  ‘Even if people are dispossessed of all other ‘things’, she observes ‘they usually have some form of clothing to wear’ (Ash p.131).  Clothing is unique to the human race and excludes no one.  It transcends borders, class, gender and race.  Garments protect us, conceal us, and define us.  They are as necessary to our existence as breathing and yet so much a part of our daily lives that we often dismiss them. We are inseparable from them.  Clothes become our second skin; our shield, our physical defence against the elements but also act as a psychological safeguard against others and the outside world.  They are at once both bridge and barrier. 

As we dress ourselves, each layer builds our confidence; the underwear lying next to our skin is intimate and reassuring. The shirt, the blouse, the trousers, the skirt enables us to move into our domestic space where we can interact with ones close to us.  And finally, the donning of the overcoat, the scarf and hat, this final layer buffers our ‘self’ from the outside world.  Each article has a strict hierarchy which must be followed so that we can remain feeling secure and at ease.  We would never dream of going to work in our underwear or going to sleep in an overcoat.  Clothing communicates to us on so many levels and can elicit intense emotional responses.  It is meant to be worn and acts as an extension of the living body.  We become acutely aware of the wearer’s absence when the garment is abandoned.  Clothes without a wearer can have an unsettling effect on us (Wilson p.1).   Disembodied clothing represents both presence and absence (Ash p.135).   It is this complex relationship between clothing and the wearer which deserves further consideration.

Susan Stewart’s book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, examines in detail the significance of the souvenir/relic and the fetish. She writes in her chapter on ‘Objects of Desire: The Souvenir: The Selfish’ of man’s search for the ‘authentic experience’ and subsequently the search for an object that will embody this ‘authentic experience’ (p.133).  Stewart contends that the souvenir or relic fulfils this need (p.134).  The attribution of significance to inanimate objects is a basic human characteristic.  Properly defined, the relic is ‘an object having interest, because of its age or associations with the past; a keepsake; a souvenir’ (Gage Canadian Dictionary p. 951).  A fetish is a material object believed to contain a spirit or have magical powers, or anything regarded with unreasoning reverence or devotion (GCD p.438).  In either case, the relic and fetish seek to capture the essence of an experience, a person or in some instances both.   

Stewart clarifies:

…the memory of the body is replaced by the memory of the object, a memory standing outside the self and thus presenting both a surplus and lack of significance- it is saturated with meanings that can never be fully revealed to us (p.133).

An article of clothing selected as souvenir; as relic, evokes the presence of the absent wearer and the experience of the absent wearer.  However, not all and not every piece of clothing has this capacity. It is only items that represent an unrepeatable experience that warrant our memorializing (Stewart. 135).  Once the function or usefulness ceases and the object is removed from its normal context does the object gain significance.  Only upon graduation does the school jacket become a covet-able object.  Only after a child takes her first step do her knitted booties get wrapped in tissue and placed in a special box.  Only on the death of a loved one does their favourite cardigan assume a reverential place in the closet.

These objects, as relics/fetishes are by their very nature incomplete (Stewart p.136).  They are merely reminders of the original, genuine experience. This incompleteness is essential to their relevance.  These relics, act as catalysts for the memory.  Stewart writes: ‘they must remain impoverished so that they can be supplemented by a narrative discourse’ (Stewart p.136).  The object, firstly as relic, references the person and then subsequently as fetish, to the experience of the person.  To illustrate this point, Stewart uses a ribbon from a corsage as an example.  The ribbon represents the corsage, which in turn references the dress, and subsequently to the dance, the evening, and finally to the emotions of the night.   If the experience could be relived in full each and every time, then the relic would not be required.  To maintain its power, the object as relic or fetish, must be preserved; removed from its ‘natural location’. However, the relationship to this ‘natural’ location must be maintained, as it provides the reference point from which the memories begin (Stewart p.135).  The relationship to the relic is an intensely personal one.  The object is of no value except to the keeper.  It is the unique, intimate narrative that gives the object its significance to the possessor (Stewart p. 136).     A disembodied garment requires us to re-live or in some cases invent a narrative (Felshin p.20).  Even when the narratives are different, for example, a school blazer for one individual may conjure up recollections of a blissful adolescence, and yet for another, feelings of exclusion, the ability of vacant garments to stimulate memory and emotion is undeniable. 

Clothing as relic acts as a powerful cathartic medium through which memories of a person or a past experiences can be coped with.  Judy Attfield in her book, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life examines the theory of the ‘transitional object’ presented by the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s and its strong and unique relationship to clothing and textiles (Attfield p.124).  Winnicott’s theory was derived from his observation of a baby’s attachment to its blanket.  It represents the mother and all the securing emotions associated with her providing the baby immediate comfort.  The baby’s blanket and similar maternal substitutes could be considered to be the original relic.  The blanket enables the baby to come to terms with a world without her and in time, the blanket facilitates the baby’s gradually weaning from his dependency on his mother.  As adults, articles of clothing can have a similar effect.  Relics provide comfort.  The relic/fetish allows us to re-live and then set the experience aside, leaving us with the consoling thought that it is there for the taking whenever we choose.  Attfield notes:

So the experience of time passing is sensed physically and subjectively through fabric as a form of transitional object that acts as a mediating tissue between the body and the outside world (p. 123). 

The possession of these relics is, paradoxically, a means of letting go of our old ‘self’.  By keeping these vestiges of our past they enable us to move forward into the future.  An abrupt final farewell to someone or an experience can seem unbearable and unthinkable. The relic/fetish enables us to come to terms with our past and can facilitate a gradual acceptance of this ‘loss’ (Attfield p.145-146).  The strong unconscious and conscious associations we all have with clothing, positions it as one of the most influential signifiers for the human experience (Ash p.131).  When used for artistic expression, its impact is all the more powerful because of this strong connection. 


 fig. 1, Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1992-2004, shoes, animal fibre, and surgical thread, dimensions variable. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Doris Salcedo * 

Atrabiliarios from the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo, and Cell (Clothes) and Pink Days and Blue Days by the French artist Louise Bourgeois perfectly illustrate this argument.There is a certain strangeness in seeing, not just disembodied clothing, but disembodied clothing displayed in a public space.  It as if the two sacred tenets of clothing, i.e. it will protect and stay with the body and it will remain part of our daily, familiar experience, have been violated.  The public display of clothing removes it from its intimate relationship with the body and also out of the realm of the everyday.  Doris Salcedo’s work Atrabiliarios  In the exhibition, forty boxes were recessed into the walls of the gallery.  Each box contained one or two women’s shoes (Fig.2), their view obscured by a membrane that suggested human skin stitched around the borders with surgical thread.  The shoes represent the women who have disappeared in Salcedo’s homeland of Columbia.  Their shoes bear their imprint.  Creases in the leather, scuffed toes, worn heels; the mark of the wearer is undeniable.  Their presence is palpable but they are gone.  The shoe can no longer be worn.  Their lives can no longer be lived. And yet their stories live, made real and vivid by the respectful presentation of these ordinary, everyday objects. With each visitation, the painful poignancy of the experience is gradually released and the memories lose their acute potency.  These relics are ‘transitional objects’ that allow the viewers to come to terms with their shared grief. They are cathartic tools for reconciliation. by the French artist Louise Bourgeois perfectly illustrate this argument. (1992-2004) (Fig.1) uses clothing to communicate loss and suffering.

The inclusion of clothing in the work of Louise Bourgeois is a recurrent theme.  Her work is directly centred on her personal experience; an experience in which clothing plays a significant role.  She describes the effect clothes have on her:  ‘You open your closet and you are confronted by so many different roles, smells, social situations’ (Nichols p. 20).  The clothes she uses in her works are all of a personal nature, either her own or belonging to friends or servants (Nichols p.21).  She maintains that she has never bought or made any of her clothes. ‘They are always someone else’s’.  Her 1996 work Cell (Clothes) (Fig.3) depicts a fabricated room filled with disembodied garments.  The reviewer Robert Radfod writes of the work: 

This partially visible, intimate and protected interior is spatially defined by hanging garments including a well-worn coat on which is written…, “The cold of anxiety is very real”. The other works all related directly to the body, largely through its missing traces marked by worn and intimate clothing, clothes with a history of use, once glamorous, now melancholic’ (Radford, p.122).    

 In Pink Days and Blue Days (Fig.4), children’s clothes are hung from a form resembling a clothes line.  Suspended and unconnected they evoke a lonely, fractured childhood.  Bourgeois claims that as a child, her parents vied for her attention by buying her designer clothes from Chanel and Poiret (Nichols, pp.20-21).  The complicated domestic situation she endured as a child left an indelible mark on her psyche.  This piece, using disembodied children’s clothing is no doubt an attempt to work through some of these difficult memories.  In both of Bourgeois’s works, the clothes are ‘souvenirs’ from her past, hanging; physically empty but full of meaning.  The nature in which Bourgeois and Salcedo present their garments is crucial to the efficacy of their works.  They are treated with veneration.  Each piece is intrinsically linked to the whole and yet respectfully distinct and separate.  Their installations are reliquaries.  Visible signs of wear and ageing are an essential criterion in the selection of the pieces.  New, pristine items would not leave the same impression.  Peter Stallybrass writes in his article “Marx’s Coat” that 19th century clothes makers and repairers referred to these signs as “memories”.  “Those wrinkles recorded the body that inhabited the garment.  They memorialized the interaction, the material contribution between person and thing” (p.196).  Without these ‘memories’, the works would have as much emotional resonance as a rack of clothing or a shoe display in a department store.   It is this past relationship, so uncompromisingly commemorated in a crease, in a hole, or in a stain that gives clothing, these material relics, the capacity to remind us what it is to be human.



Ash, J., ‘The aesthetics of absence: clothes without people in paintings’ pp. 128-142. In de la Haye, A and Elizabeth Wilson, eds., Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning and Identity. Manchester: University Press, 1999.

Attfield, J., Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life, Oxford: Berg, 2000

Felshin, N., ‘Clothing as Subject’, Art Journal, v.54 Spr ’95, pp. 20-29.

 Neufeldt, V., ed. Gage Canadian Dictionary, Toronto: Gage Publishing Ltd., 1983.

 Mackie, V., ‘Doris Salcedo’s Melancholy Objects’, Portal: Journal of Interdisciplinary International Studies, vol.5, no.1, January 2008, pp. 1-14

 Radford, R., ‘Louise Bourgeois:  Exhibition review’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.141, No.1151, Feb.1999, p.122.

 Stallybrass, P., ‘Marx’s Coat’, pp 183-207. In Spyer, P. (ed.) Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Places. New York and London: Routledge, 1998

 Stewart, S., On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

 Nichols, T. trans. and ed., ‘Interview  Paul Herkenhoff in conversation with Lousie Bourgeois’, Louise Bourgeois, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003

 Wilson, E., Introduction in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: Virago Press, 1985

Image Credits:
* Fig. 1 & 2, Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1992-2004, shoes, animal fiber, and surgical thread dimensions variable, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2004.232_sfmoma


Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein, Patricia and Raoul Kennedy, Elaine McKeon, Lisa and John Miller, Chara Schreyer and Gordon Freund, and Robin Wright

© Doris Salcedo. Images provided by the San Fransisco Museum of Modern and Used with permission

permission to use the Louise Bourgeois images was not provided you can find them on line in various locations try this review of her Stitches in Time exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art
Fig. 3, Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Clothes) 1996 

Fig. 4, Louise Bourgeois, Pink Days and Blue Days, 1997

Bio: Jennifer Smith-Windsor

Jennifer is currently enrolled in the Fine Contemporary Crafts program at the Ottawa School of Art specializing in textiles. She recently repatriated to Canada, after having lived in England for the past twelve years. Her work explores the capacity of cloth to evoke memory.

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