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Dressed for literary success?

In April 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath made an ill-fated journey to Paris; she was pursuing the “large iron violent virile physique” of Richard Sassoon, however was diminished to watching her “tears [fall] scalding and moist on the paper” when she learnt that he was not within the metropolis. Amid this unhappiness – she drank pink wine alone in cafes, considered Ted Hughes, whom she had lately met in Cambridge, and deliberate a visit to Rome – there was one factor that appeared to cheer her up. From her delicate “paper-thin pink ballerinas” to an outfit of “black velvet” that made her really feel “most stylish”, Plath turns her poet’s observant eye to garments: she notes how one other girl was “exquisitely clad in a black tweed go well with”, and she or he walks down Rue de la Paix lusting after “glowing diamonds, […] and orange and smoky blue footwear and gold footwear”. In a single picture her look after her personal model is obvious: she stands in entrance of Notre Dame wanting polished in a pink and white polka-dot scarf, an aqua sweater and a pleated darkish plaid skirt.

That skirt – with its preternaturally small waist and a baby-blue nametape sewn into the again – is now on present on the Southbank Centre as part of a compact new exhibition, Poets in Vogue. That includes the work and elegance of seven feminine poets, it goals to display a hyperlink between gown and language.

In latest months and years there was feverish curiosity in feminine writers’ garments and equipment. On the finish of 2022 a pair of tortoiseshell Céline glasses owned by the late Joan Didion bought for $27,000. Again in 2018 Frieda Hughes held an public sale of Sylvia Plath’s belongings (the identical public sale at which A. N. Devers, proprietor of The Second Shelf, a feminist uncommon bookshop, purchased the tartan skirt). Jewelry, clothes and recipe books all bought for hundreds of {dollars}, and much exceeded what was raised by the sale of Ted Hughes’s possessions. However nothing fairly rivals the 2021 public sale “Your Personal Sylvia”, through which the poet’s letters, rings and tarot playing cards had been in the stores. The boldness of the public sale’s identify reveals a elementary reality about all these gross sales: individuals are not merely shopping for one thing owned by their favorite author, however one thing that represents, or is, part of them: a talisman; a relic; an icon. The author’s picture – from Didion smoking sultrily to a stern Anne Carson staring out from a well-liked printed T-shirt – has come to face for them and for his or her work.

There’s something deeply discomforting right here. Such a reductive picture worship hardly ever occurs to male writers: who would hanker after a pair of Philip Larkin’s wool socks or search to mimic Seamus Heaney’s duffel coat? However it’s a difficulty that the curators of Poets in Vogue are conscious of and handle (virtually) to keep away from. Plath’s skirt is the one genuine object of clothes current, and the others – from Anne Sexton’s pink studying gown to Audre Lorde’s caftan – are recreations or artworks impressed by the originals.

Edith Sitwell is represented not by an actual copy of one in every of her outlandish outfits (she as soon as stated in an interview that she couldn’t “put on trendy garments” as a result of she was an excessive amount of of a “throwback” to her “distant ancestors”), however by a tent-like gown that hangs from the ceiling. Designed as an outsize recreation of the gown that she wore to play the position of Woman Macbeth in New York in 1950, it dominates the exhibition as a artistic testomony to Sitwell’s innovation and boldness.

Likewise, Stevie Smith’s well-known eye-shaped brooch isn’t included, and nor are her starched white shirts and pinafores. As a substitute, 9 white collars are mounted on the wall: some with the attention motif, some with out. Designed to attract consideration to the position of repetition in Smith’s works, they sit above the final stanza from her poem “Fairly”:

Cry fairly, fairly, fairly, and also you’ll have the option
Very quickly not even to cry fairly,
And so be delivered fully from humanity
That is prettiest of all, it is extremely fairly.

As a touch upon Smith’s hypnotic, repetitive patterning and her misleading simplicity, the exhibit works splendidly – and all with out deifying the poet’s picture. Equally, the show of gaudily colored materials, ties and flowers alongside Gwendolyn Brooks’s mock epic a couple of man carrying a “zoot go well with”, “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”, additionally traces hyperlinks between materiality and poetry.

Anne Sexton’s inclusion is much less profitable. The recording of her studying on the 1967 Poetry Worldwide competition on the Royal Pageant Corridor reveals a poet who sounds humorous, scandalous and amusing – she blew kisses to the viewers and was reviled for being sensationalist in modern opinions – however the lifeless recreation of her pink studying gown fails to say something about her clothes’s relationship to her work or about materiality and language. As soon as once more the feminine poet is diminished to little greater than a picture.

The best of the visible displays is a big veil displaying a nonetheless from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1975 efficiency “Aveugle Voix”. Cha stands with material sure around her eyes and mouth, which is emblazoned with the phrases “voix aveugle” (“blind voice”), and holds one other roll of material that proclaims: “ME / FAIL / WORDS”. Out of the entire exhibition, that is probably the most attention-grabbing have a look at the hyperlink between textual content (textus in Latin may be translated as “having been woven”) and cloth: Cha makes use of material to talk for her whereas obscuring her personal look. In one other efficiency from the Seventies she separated herself from the viewers with an opaque sheet.

Alongside the exhibition are commissioned works by the poets Amy Key and Jane Yeh. In “Self-Portrait as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Others”, Yeh performs with the thought of an idolized picture of a “stylish” author:

What’s the purpose
Of dwelling like a cartoon nun when you possibly can pose for the digital camera
In a shantung sheath?

The “shantung sheath” is a reference to a gown Plath describes in The Bell Jar. However for all Yeh’s consciousness of the stress between picture and identification, the exhibition nonetheless falters. It can not resolve whether or not it’s a commentary on creativity in clothes and creativity in writing or, as an alternative, a much more pedestrian catalogue of the outfits well-known ladies poets wore.

In September 1951, 5 years earlier than her journey to Paris and the outfit with the tartan skirt, Plath requested in her diary: “Why can’t I attempt on completely different lives, like clothes, to see which inserts finest and is extra changing into?”. Poets in Vogue is sensible in components, however actual perception into these wearers’ lives – and work – is commonly absent.

Francesca Peacock is an arts journalist. Her first e-book, Pure Wit: The revolutionary lifetime of Margaret Cavendish, will likely be printed in September

The publish Dressed for literary success? appeared first on TLS.



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