Material Matters: Dressmaking and Exhibition-making for “Poets in Vogue”
Volume 8, Cycle 1
“Poets in Vogue” is an interdisciplinary exhibition held at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre, London, from 17 February to 10 September 2023. Sophie Oliver (University of Liverpool) and Sarah Parker (Loughborough University) worked with Gesa Werner, an expert costume-maker and mounter, to explore the relationship between poetry and clothes through the work and dress of seven twentieth-century women poets. The exhibition includes imaginative recreations of some of these poets’ signature “looks,” along with archival and reconstructed garments. In the following reflections on making the exhibition, Sophie’s and Sarah’s words are distinct, to emphasize two specific concerns of the project: a collaborative process and the materiality of language.
Part way through the exhibition “Poets in Vogue,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s mock-epic poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” (1945) materializes on the wall, splendid and opulent. Its lines, enlarged, emerge out of looping twists and folds of silk; Brooks’s words bloom among fabric flowers (fig. 1).
The poem’s eponymous subject is a poor but fashionable Black man who dresses sharply in a Zoot Suit. In the 1940s, this imaginative outfit—long coat, exaggerated lapels, trousers that ballooned at the hips and tapered at the ankles—was worn by African American and Mexican American men. It was vilified by white onlookers as a sign of excess and poor taste. Brooks takes up these charged questions of taste and style, comparing her ornate, intricate language to Satin-Leg Smith’s sartorial art:
The neat curve here; the angularity
That is appropriate at just its place;
The technique of a variegated grace.
Here is all his sculpture and his art
And all his architectural design.
Perhaps you would prefer to this a fine
Value of marble, complicated stone.
Brooks’s fashion subject, freighted with queries over significance and value—of art forms, of bodies—lets her ask: what and who matters? As an heir of modernism, language matters to Brooks: this is her material. But her analogy between the crafting of words and the art of dressing also points to the hierarchies implicit in a modernist valuation of aesthetic autonomy, and it challenges them. What else matters? Brooks cared about the everyday lives, bodies, and expression of Black people in Bronzeville, on the south side of Chicago: “If you wanted a poem, you had only to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.” As Satin-Legs Smith knew, to shape this material with the aesthetic material of language or clothing was to claim beauty and its power for Black people. Politics also matters to Brooks; it could never be separated from her poetics.
Our installation of Brooks’s poem sought to follow the poet’s lead, by aligning words and clothes as artistic material and challenging the hierarchies that have valued one so much more than the other. The whole exhibition starts from the premise that clothes matter, and that they mattered to the seven women poets who are the exhibition’s focus: Brooks, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Edith Sitwell, and Stevie Smith. Dress often mattered in the choices they made about what they wore, politically and aesthetically. And it often mattered as material for their poetry, in content, form, or performance. As women aware of the restrictions of clothes, both physical and metaphorical, they also knew the burden of clothing’s significance. Brooks ends “Sundays” with a woman dressed in “Queen Lace stockings and ambitious heels,” a sight enjoyed by Satin-Legs Smith “like new brown bread.” When clothes matter, Brooks suggests, they risk turning women, especially, into things to be consumed.
By exhibiting and making clothes to explore and display these arguments, “Poets in Vogue” also asks: What forms of knowledge matter to us as feminist scholars? How can materially led methods of research—here, dressmaking and exhibition-making—be incorporated and valued in our scholarly work?
Poems, of course, are insistently material in their own way. On a basic level, poetic volumes are physical objects, with careful decisions made about paper, binding, cover imagery, font, and the appearance of the poem on the page. Stevie Smith’s work introduces a fascinating new element to this process of “dressing” a volume, as she insisted on accompanying her poems with her own illustrations (as Amy E. Elkins and Glenn Adamson have discussed previously in Visualities). These sketchy drawings, apparently dashed off in a few minutes, bear an oblique yet consequential relationship to the poems themselves. Like Smith’s poems, the illustrations have an eerily child-like quality, a deceptive simplicity that becomes more complicated, and even sinister, the longer one focuses on them.
This quality extends to Stevie Smith’s own iconic look. Almost every photograph of Smith (including those in the National Poetry Library’s media files) depicts her wearing a neat, schoolgirlish starched white collar, often secured with an eye-shaped brooch and accompanied by a pinafore. Accounts of her live performances in the 1960s describe her as singing her poems in a strange, child-like voice. As Seamus Heaney recalled, “She chanted her poems artfully off-key, in a beautifully flawed plainsong that suggested two kinds of auditory experience: an embarrassed party-piece by a child half-way between tears and giggles, and a deliberate faux-naif rendition by a virtuoso.”
Such descriptions of Smith’s appearance have often been read as evidence of her eccentricity and linked to other details of her willfully “odd” life (such as the well-known fact that Smith lived in the same house in Palmers Green with her aunt for over sixty years). However, for “Poets in Vogue,” we wanted to reconsider Smith’s dedication to repetition and stasis in both her fashion and life choices in terms of her poetic practice, asking: what does such repetition afford?
Our installation, “Repeating Patterns: Stevie Smith’s Collars” (fig. 2), plays on parallels between poetic and sartorial rhythms. Though at first glance the nine collars are identical, on closer inspection they are revealed to each be slightly different. Like the lines of Smith’s deceptively simple poems, this installation hinges on repetition-with-difference, connecting Smith’s dedication to a consistent look to the sing-song rhymes and off-kilter measures of her poems. As several critics have observed, Smith’s work both employs and subverts conventional poetic forms, establishing rhyming patterns only to puncture them with a deliberately clanging note, or by cutting them short entirely. The poem “Pretty,” displayed alongside our installation, shows this practice at work, as Smith’s quatrains insistently repeat the word “pretty” until it degenerates from an adjective describing pleasing natural scenes, in the first stanza, to a signifier emptied of meaning. Thus, both Smith’s work and her clothing habits make poetic and sartorial forms strange by repeating material, in the process defamiliarizing the patterns that underpin both poetry and dress.
This defamiliarization through the materialization of language and clothes was a strategy shared by the Korean American poet, performance artist, and filmmaker Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who often used dress and textiles in her interdisciplinary work. In the performance stills from Aveugle Voix (Blind Voice) (1975; fig. 3), one of which we reproduced on a large veil dividing the space (fig. 4), Cha stands in baggy sweatpants and an unzipped hoodie: the anonymous, homogenous comfort of American leisurewear. Her all-white outfit recalls, too, the white hanbok, everyday clothes historically worn in Korea as daywear and in rituals. Cha is blindfolded: she cannot see, and her eyes are concealed. This complex dispossession––her view is obscured and so is the audience’s view of her––is also registered linguistically and materially in the scroll of fabric she holds, which reads “Me Fail Words.”
Cha’s use of clothes and fabric extends her interest in “language as language,” to use Trinh T. Minh-ha’s phrase: a materialism that productively obscures meaning. Wearing American and Korean clothes, and calling attention to the problem of reading signs, Cha invokes the colonial damage done to Korean culture (as in Japanese suppression of the language) and the difficulty for colonized and diasporic subjects of what Kimberly Lamm calls “beholding,” a belonging that I take to include seeing and being seen. Cha gestures to a people whose humanity and expressive forms appear to matter less than those of others. But her (con)fused signs––sartorial and linguistic––frustrate representation and identity rather than redeem them. In this sense Aveugle Voix is a knowing form of Anne Anlin Cheng’s ornamentalism. Cha materializes her “ornamental personhood” by referring to Korean dress and American consumer culture. As Cheng frames it, although ornamentalism witnesses the violent history of people reduced to objects, “treat[ing] oneself like a thing” also rejects the person/less-than-person binary that enables racist objectification (19).
Audre Lorde, on the other hand, made a direct request for representation through dress. In 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and had her right breast removed. Defying beauty norms, she chose not to wear a prosthesis, and instead wore—and designed—clothes and jewelry that emphasized what she called, in The Cancer Journals (1980), “the changed planes” of her body. In her poem “A Litany for Survival,” Lorde insisted it was “better to speak” of Black female experiences, rather than accept that, as Barbara Smith wrote in 1978, they are “beneath consideration, invisible, unknown.” Like poetry, clothes were a visual and material language in which Lorde could “say” that “invisible, unknown” bodies matter. Post-mastectomy, she played with the new “grand asymmetry” of her torso, embracing asymmetrical patterns and wearing a single earring in her right ear (Lorde, Cancer Journals, 60, 67).
Our collaborator Gesa Werner reconstructed one of the caftans in Lorde’s archive at Spelman College, a gold shot-silk, floor-length robe with a hand-printed pattern that affirms difference and variation (fig. 5). The dress substitutes the right breast not with a prosthesis but rather with ornament that outlines the loss. Its African associations, if not origins—we do not know who made this garment or where it was made, though possibly it is one of the items Lorde designed—reflect Lorde’s galvanized Africanism after a trip she made to West Africa in 1974. Lorde also associated this heritage with a lesbian feminist erotics, as in “A Woman Speaks.” Her theory of difference is materialized in the caftan, which asserts Blackness and illness as materially “real differences.” In turn, the original garment materially helped produce Lorde’s identity as a Caribbean American post-mastectomy lesbian woman.
Theorists of material culture and fashion, from Daniel Miller to Ilya Parkins and Celia Marshik, recognize clothing as an agential object that produces the subject rather than expressing a preexisting identity. Lorde, too, had known the shaping force of clothes as a young, broke, outsider poet. In her 1982 “biomythography” Zami, she described “reinventing the world” with “navy surplus turtleneck sweaters” and cheap sneakers. The caftan we studied during Zoom calls with Gesa and Holly Smith, the Spelman archivist, also helped Lorde materialize the world she wanted, “transform[ing] silence” about cancer and non-normative bodies into a sartorial form of “language and action.”
Our recreation of Lorde’s caftan begs the question: why not display more original garments in our exhibition? One reason for this is practical: many of the garments belonging to our poets are untraceable or are too fragile to be displayed. On a more profound level, we see the exhibition as itself a creative act, rather than a passive display.
Our one original garment is Sylvia Plath’s plaid skirt (fig. 6). The skirt is amazingly well-preserved, with Plath’s name neatly sewn into the waistband in baby blue lettering. The skirt, owned by The Second Shelf bookshop, tells us something about how Plath wanted to appear in the 1950s: neat, together, capable, classic. But rather than viewing it as a material projection of Plath’s essence, we wanted the skirt to raise questions about the politics of such relics, especially in the case of much-mythologized writers like Plath. Why do people want to see a piece of Plath’s wardrobe? What does such fetishism suggest about our enduring view of Plath? We’ve displayed the skirt alongside lines from Plath’s “The Munich Mannequins” in order to raise further ideas about objectification, plus Ariana Reines’s How to Wear It, an example of a contemporary poet responding to the skirt. We want our installations to be catalysts for new work, as well as artistic creations in their own right.
As with Lorde, our Edith Sitwell installation is based on a garment owned and worn by Sitwell herself. Sitwell wore a long brocade dress (with matching cape) for her one-woman performance as Lady Macbeth at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950. This costume was preserved in photographs taken by George Platt Lynes. The original dress was sold at auction in 2021 and we were fortunately able to track down the person who bought three of Sitwell’s gowns, including this iconic Lady Macbeth dress (fig. 7). The new owner was kind enough to bring the dress to the National Poetry Library, where Gesa was able to sketch a pattern from it (fig. 8).
This pattern forms the basis of the amplified gown featured in the “Poets in Vogue” exhibition, in which the skirt has been extended to exaggerated lengths and transformed into a dress/theatre (fig. 9). Inside nestles a dressing table littered with replicas of Sitwellian paraphernalia, including a velvet turban on a hat-stand, long hands adorned with rings, and (fake) ostrich feathers (fig. 10). Like Plath’s skirt, through these objects we aim to conjure a sense of Sitwell’s absent presence and raise the question: how far is Sitwell’s persona an artistic composition in its own right?
It was fascinating to observe Gesa tracing a pattern from the original dress. The discoveries made during this process helped illuminate our understanding of the relationship between Sitwell’s style and her work. Gesa observed that although the dress was made from an ornate brocade material, resembling Victorian curtain fabric, the angular, architectural shape of the gown was modern, recalling the creations of Balenciaga, who used expanses of fabric in a sculptural manner to create voluminous forms. Gesa also noted that the dress was specifically cut for performance, with the arms shaped to allow freedom of movement, particularly when raising them (fig. 11). This accords with Platt Lynes’s photographs of Sitwell in the gown, in which she holds her arms in front of her chest in a striking pose that emphasizes the triangular shape of her oversized gown.
This combination of the antiquated, the modern, and the theatrical brings to mind Sitwell’s own poetry, in which she combines rococo ornamentalism (what Harriet Monroe called her “crinoline art”) with avant-garde modernist techniques. We can see this at work in poems such as “Waltz,” from Façade (1922):
And the nymphs of deep waters,
The nymph Taglioni, Grisi the ondine
Wear Plaided Victoria and thin
Like the crinolined waterfalls;
Wood-nymphs wear bonnets,
Floating are seen.
Rather than the pared back, austere aesthetic associated with modernist poetic movements such as Imagism, in “Waltz” Sitwell’s sound patterning is profuse and luscious, interweaving rhythms into a rich linguistic brocade that echoes the nymphs’ opulent garments. In this sense, Sitwell’s poetry and her dress are cut from the same cloth.
These were the kinds of things we learned from making dresses while making an exhibition. In the last year of her life Anne Sexton wore the same red dress to her readings, a dress that produced a statuesque silhouette: full-length with buttons all the way down, its clinging fabric accentuating Sexton’s broad shoulders and long legs. So representative of Sexton did this item seem, her daughters had her cremated in it.
We recreated the dress, and the pose Sexton struck when she wore it at her final reading at Goucher College in Maryland, on 1 October 1974, so as to access this lost archive (fig. 12). Because the dress is an archive: of Sexton’s body, of her attitude and presence, and of the affect she generated in her audience.
Gesa made and mounted the dress using our research: photographs taken by Arthur Furst in 1974 (figs. 13–15) and information that Arthur gave us; anecdotes from those who had seen Sexton reading and commented on her clothes, physique, or bearing; and archival material in Goucher’s library (fig. 16). In turn, we learned new things from Gesa’s process and from the garment. The emphatic cuffs would have highlighted Sexton’s conspicuous, “garish foreign hands.” The neckline-to-hem buttons, if not fully fastened, allow the legs to be visible, for drama and sensuality. But the buttons (and the tie at the waist) also make the item comfortable and let the body move, enabling the wearer to gesture and perform.
We learnt that the dress was synthetic and possibly mail-ordered: Sexton rarely went out in these last years, said Arthur, apart from her many speaking engagements. It was therefore modern, relatively cheap and unpretentious—similar to the feminine but functional wrap dress that Diane von Furstenberg introduced in 1972—and bore the traces of her anxieties, vulnerabilities, and limits. Audience members consistently remarked on the strong impression Sexton made in clothes: a journalist documenting the first Poetry International festival in 1967 recorded her in “shocking pink and pendulous earrings”; Anne Higgins remembered the “long red dress” seven years after the Goucher reading. Yet this was a garment any of them might have owned.
This material knowledge matters because of what it tells us about Sexton’s performances. (Poetry readings, including Sexton’s, have begun to receive more attention but are still often seen as incidental to the literary, especially their embodied aspects beyond the vocal.) Moving freely and dramatically, and yet never aloof, Sexton in this dress materialized what Jennifer Mason calls a “potent connection” with her audience: an “affinity.” In her poems Sexton was fascinated by the captivating properties of ordinary objects and people’s encounters with them, such as the Bonwit Teller nightgown that almost brings the speaker’s mother back to life in “The Division of Parts,” or the image of a mind like a cracked bowl, held out to a friend, in “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.” This address to another, a potent connection, is fundamental to Sexton’s confessionalism, but it also modifies our idea of that poetic mode. Emphasizing the encounter between poet or speaker and addressee—the process of meaning-making over any preexisting idea about the self—moves us away from straightforward confession (and a notion of women’s writing as strictly biographical) to a more exploratory confessionalism in which the self is continually remade.
The knowledge the red dress offers about Sexton’s reading, then, is also knowledge about her poetics. Sexton’s poetry is an embodied practice: performance is part of an expanded understanding of what poetry is, and embodied knowledge informs the poetry itself. We came to these conclusions through making. Just as our poets often saw in the materiality of clothes a form of argument, we used dressmaking to develop our ideas about their poetry. The embodied knowledge that clothes hold is unconventional and fugitive: glimmers that might otherwise escape. Consequently, it is also a feminist tool for renewing methods of literary research and criticism. If a “making turn” is taking place within dress history, a similar turn in the humanities—already underway through the work of Amy Elkins, for one, and, in a different sense, digital humanities projects—can extend the materialist approaches that have been so productive for feminist critics, from new historicism to new materialism.
This would include the making of exhibitions as collaborative, often interdisciplinary research. In literary studies, exhibitions hold an inferior place compared to privileged research outputs like articles and monographs. In the context of our own exhibition, this hierarchy recalls the long history of fashion’s (and women artists’) trivialization. Among all the knowledge we gained from making “Poets in Vogue” was the certainty that this kind of materially led research matters.
 See Kathy Peiss, Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 2.
 Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (Detroit: Broadside, 1972), 69.
 Seamus Heaney quoted in Laura Severin, “Becoming and unbecoming: Stevie Smith as performer,” Text and Performance Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1998): 22–36, 32.
 See Romana Huk, “Eccentric Concentrism: Traditional Poetic Forms and Refracted Discourse in Stevie Smith’s Poetry,” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 2 (1993): 240–65, and William May, Stevie Smith and Authorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Yeseung Lee, “The White-clad People: The White Hanbok and Korean Nationalism,” Cultural Dynamics 34.4 (2022): 271–96.
 Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 17.
 Kimberly Lamm, “Mouth Work: Writing the Voice of the Mother Tongue in the Art of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha,” Oxford Art Journal 43, no. 2: 171–93.
 Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 3.
 Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1997), 58.
 Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” The Radical Teacher 7 (1978): 20–27.
 Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Sex and Class: Women Redefining Difference,” in Your Silence Will Not Protect You (London: Silver Press, 2017), 95.
 Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a Biomythography (London: Penguin, 2018), 146.
 Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Cancer Journals, 16–22.
 Ariana Reines, How to Wear it [broadside] (London: Hurst Street Press for The Second Shelf, 2019).
 For more details of this performance, see Melissa Bradshaw, “Lady Macbeth Goes to Hollywood,” Modernism/modernity 23, no. 1 (2016): 23–27.
 Edith Sitwell, “Waltz,” in Collected Poems of Edith Sitwell (London: Duckworth, 1931), 122.
 Gail Crowther, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021), 220.
 “Performing Poets,” Times Literary Supplement (20 July 1967): 648.
 See Amanda Golden (ed.), This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016), Christopher Grobe, The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV (New York: New York University Press), and Peter Howarth, “Marianne Moore’s Performances,” ELH 87, no. 2 (2020): 553–79.
 Anne Sexton, “The Division of Parts,” in Mercies: Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2020), 28–32, 31; “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further,” in Mercies, 15–16, 15.