Bethlem hospital. Formerly known as Bedlam, the infamous psychiatric hospital, known for coming under scrutiny for the mistreatment of it's patients, up until the new reforms of the 1700's and 1800's, forms the basis, of fashion designer, turned artist, Jane Fradgley's new exhibition 'Held', presented at 'Plymouth Arts Center' in Devon.
Intrigued by an emotive encounter with a photograph of former Bedlam patient, Emma Riches in 1856, she was drawn to the sense of comfort the heavy quilted garment portrayed. Wrapped around the women like a protective cocoon, it challenged historical, and even contemporary views of mental asylum's. 'Held' begins to explores the psychological, and physical qualities of the garments worn at the asylum during the mid-late 19th century, focusing on the debate around clothing as protection and restraint.
The exhibition is held within a small, intimate room, which felt to be a reflection of the intimacy experienced between the patiences, the workers, the clothing and the hospital. After all, you can't get more intimate than the expression of one's 'madness'. As I walked in, I was presented with a stand alone table, which encased 4 beautifully haunting images of former patients, encapsulating you into their previous worlds. Whilst 9 large, almost full scale photographs of garments worn at Bedlam hung gracefully on the surrounding walls. The detail shown within the photography was impeccable, and inspirational in terms of texture, folds, design, shadow and lightness. The images, shot by Fradgley herself, portrayed the clothing constructed in a manner to impose a feeling of life into them, Fradgley states that she "hoped to convey the essence of the people who wore each garment" as she "felt great energy from the textiles".
However, I failed to feel any real connection to the clothing or to the individuals that they may have protected. The entire exhibition felt distant, and for what is considerably a personal subject, it was impersonal in presentation. It lacked atmosphere, emotion, and content to make the impression I felt the subject deserved. The images of these "heavy, limp and lifeless" straight jackets and cloaks, remained lifeless and disconnected from the human form, whilst the impression of how heavy the 'strong clothing' actually was, diminished by an appearance of floating lightness.
However, shot in this lightness, did capture the elements of comfort, they were more welcoming than frightening, making a pleasant change against the depictions of historic mental asylums that are portrayed in contemporary TV shows and films, such as the recent 'American Horror Story: Asylum', which exploit our lack of knowledge, taking the absurd treatments that we do know about, and over-dramatising them into acts of terror.
The text that accompanied the 4 photograph's of former patient’s, shed positive light on the use of restraint and 'strong' clothing for providing “more freedom than alternative measures...including sedation and incarceration in a padded room.” allowing patients to socialise whilst protecting them from their own harm, such as clothes ripping, and quilted gloves to prevent self-harm. Therefore leaving you to ponder that these horrific and 'inhumane' looking garments, are actually the very tools needed to help, protect and save, those people.
When looking at the exhibition from this alternative perspective, I can only praise Jane Fradgley in successfully achieving her mission of intent. Her contribution to argue the debate of protection and restraint in clothing has certainly opened my eyes and challenged my own preconceptions, that the garments caused further mental distress and a sense of imprisonment for the patients. But as 'Held' suggests, they were in fact designed to care and to comfort them.
Unfortunately though, it suffered poor curatorship, and lack of substance to really evoke a strong emotional response. For an exhibition based on the garments themselves, I would have liked to have seen at least one piece of clothing on display, to really emphasis the point.