On female representation in the textiles art sector.

by Helen

For an art form so ancient, so illuminating and so universally pervasive, it seems strange that the significance of textile design is sometimes lost in the eyes of contemporary consumers. Whilst there probably isn’t enough data about to say whether more people are practicing the art form or not, thanks to the internet, those who do practice are able to reach a wider audience with their work. And yet still textile art still suffers from a drab association, a veritable stigma surrounding it’s name- and that arguably comes from the inextricable link it has with femininity.

This is a problem we not only see in art, but in vastly every other media that shares that unforgivable characteristic- be it women’s literature patronisingly stamped with the ‘chick-lit’ diminutive, or how the non-threatening androgynous pop music catered towards young girls is routinely dismissed- or rather, it’s followers are- as vacant and insipid. Nothing taints a piece of art more so than an association with women, and once this is considered, it’s easy to see why textile art, one of the perversely and unashamedly, historically ‘female’ art forms out there, is sometimes not taken as seriously as it’s male-dominated fine art counterpart. Did you know that

  • 83% of the artists exhibited in the Tate Modern are men,
  • 70% of the artists exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery are men and
  • 70% of the artists that have been nominated for the Turner Prize have been men and only 3 women have ever won (just 12% of all winners)- according to a survey carried out by Women’s Words in 2011??

Women may still hold the fort in regards to numerical representation within the textile sector, but that’s exactly why it’s deemed a fort not worth conquering. The representation issue is not within the numbers, but in how the wider community perceives the practitioners.

To talk to people about ‘art’ and to talk to people about ‘craft’ is to receive two very different types of response, and textile art has always somehow stood uneasily in both camps of these definitions. ‘Craft’ has belittling, hobbyist connotations, and draws to mind nothing of the skill and discipline often associated with fine art, or, as I have heard it called so many times, ‘real’ art. But what gives fine art this ‘realness’, this respectability, when compared with textile art. Unfortunately there’s a clear pattern.

What do Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso and countless others, all the ‘great masters’ have in common? They’re men. Historically speaking, when considering countless millennia of female repression, the fact that it’s only male talent that is remembered and exalted seems only natural; after all, if women had had the same opportunities men did in those times, then surely they would be held in similar high regard? Sadly, these hypothetical scenarios are irrelevant to the problem of how women are represented in art today. Thanks to these hundreds of years of women and their contributions being wholeheartedly dismissed by the rest of society, there is a still a permeating institutionalised belief that things are only valid and legitimate if men do them. And just because, historically, men have done most things deemed valid and legitimate, largely because women were not able to. Therefore, it’s not difficult to see why the typically more male-centric and dominated art form of fine art is in many ways hugely more respected than the silly, insipid womanly pastimes of such frivolities as knitting and embroidery. Knitting pershaps is a very obvious example of the ‘drab association’ I talk about earlier. To those the word brings to mind ideas of 50s housewives and Granny-knitting-by-the fire have obviously never met the guerrilla yarn-bombers we have present today.

As part of my research, I asked various people who were the first ten fine artists to spring to mind- they came from all different periods, all different schools, all different styles… but pretty much invariably- I came name only a few exceptions, Frida Kahlo, and Tracey Emin being notable examples- they were men. In some cases, only men were named. Moreover, there was positive correlation found between men dominating the fine-artists section and a belief that fine art is a more ‘legitimate’ (I term I allowed the participants to define as they pleased) than it’s counterparts such as textile design, fashion, sculpture and even architecture. Of course, it’s harder to determine whether we as society find fine art inherently superior, and thus men succeed more in simply for being men, or if it’s because men historically having the means, time and will to pursue the fine arts, and subsequently dominated the area, that we tend to have a higher opinion of it, but the correlation is unignorable.

But, this isn’t an inequality in practise, but an error in judgement. As we tend to find in all walks of history, while the achievements of the ruling elite- be it men, the rich, white people, the able-bodied or non-queer people- take precedence in memory, the cogs of history are kept steadily turning by a silent, forgotten army of the underrepresented, whose contribution to world change, in this case, in regard to the arts, is no less monumental just because it’s often not recognised. Like today, where we have hundreds of thousands of women working in the textiles sector globally- whether it be an arts graduate selling bespoke work at craft fairs or a factory worker undergoing 26 hour days for minimal pay making throwaway fashion items for the shops in the West-, women, and this uniquely female art form, have made countless contributions the vast and varied international ‘art’ scene, just are grossly unrecognised for them.

The Bayeaux Tapestry is one of the most significant- and certainly one of the most well-known – historical documents of the Middle Ages. It depicts men,- only 3 women appear throughout the entire tapestry- it was, in all likelihood commissioned by a man, and yet it was hundreds of female hands that set about the creation of this majestic piece of textile art. Hundreds of women- probably noble and English-Saxon, some of the most skilled embroiders in the land, living in nunneries and convents- were part of an extraordinary task, the veritable creation of a historical source, and whilst it’s perhaps understandable that’s it’s Harold Godwinson’s losing an eye in the field of battle that gets more reception- after all, it is the subject of the piece. But it doesn’t suppress my frustration that it is the creators of the tapestry that are lost in the mists of time, whether it be because they’re women, or because it’s textiles, or maybe a mixture of the two- when the ‘greats’, the artists who have permeated the public’s consciousness are mainly men.

Similar stories are found all the over the globe; ancient and undeniably feminine forms of art dismissed and forgotten. India, for example, and the Middle East have a rich and varied past in regards to textile art, dating back as far as 3000 B.C and whilst perhaps it’s more down to the inherent racism and remnants of colonialism present in our society than the fact it’s a women’s art form, that many people know next to nothing about it- I speak culturally relatively. Even still, it’s a sad comment on the state of representation in our society that, to use one example it’s hardly common knowledge that the mass-produced Pashmina scarfs sold all over the country, can trace their roots back to the shawls woven by hundreds of thousands of women in Kashmir as early as the 1500s.

However, I think the most relevant and hard to ignore example of this apparently universal discarding of the importance of textile art is societies, and also the arts community’s- relationship with fashion. Fashion is arguably the most democratic and all-permeating art-form of them all. Even if you actively spurn the idea of fashion- and it would have to be actively- the way in which people creatively express themselves through their clothing and style is completely unavoidable. Fashion is the most immediate way a person has in communicating something about themselves, and sometimes this is taken a step further, whether it be in Vivienne Westwood raising awareness about climate change in her collections, or the spray-painted political polemic on the t-shirts of bands like the Manic Street Preachers. And despite all this, fashion is continually derided as vacuous, vain and most scathingly a women’s domain. We’re confronted, of course, by a chicken-and-egg scenario here; is it because fashion is inherently vacuous and vain that women, in their infinite weakness, are attracted to it? Or is it because women have largely chosen to express themselves through fashion and image, more so than men – (and who can blame them, when as a rough average, 8/10 artists exhibited in art galleries will be male… I don’t think there’s any shame in trying to forge a niche of one’s own), that it must therefore must be subject to ridicule, because anything to do with women must be taken less seriously than if a man were to carry it out?

One thing that rubs salt in the wound even more is that, despite all the ‘womanly’ sphere fashion primarily influences, men still hold a very powerful place within the fashion industry. Similarly to the questions I posed regarding fine art, when I asked who were the first ten designers to spring to mind, the gender distribution, predictably, was a lot less skewed than it had been with fine art- Vivienne Westwood, Coco Chanel and Donna Karen all got mentions. Yet at the same time, fashion was consistently viewed as one of the least worthwhile of all the art forms listed- reasons cited including ‘requires less skill [than fine art]’ ‘superficial’ ‘has more of a negative effect on the rest of society than fine art etc’. Furthermore, just because we had more women appreciated in this category than with fine art, yet again the majority of artists- in this case, designers- listed were men. Gianni Versace, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs… and even when people talk of Prada, you have to confirm whether they mean Mario, the founder, or Miuccia, the now- owner of the fashion line, who, according to Forbes.com “turned the [family owned business] into a fashion powerhouse.”, who has a PHD in political science and yet remains relatively unknown.

Equally, some of the most witty and intelligent female minds in contemporary journalism and blogging are found within fashion writing, for example, the journalist, photographer, stylist, model and blogger Hanneli Mustaparta, Leandra Medine of Man Repeller, who has been quoted as saying “good fashion is about pleasing women, not men” But why do we as a society so often condemn these people for ‘wasting their talents’ on something as evidently insipid and worthless as fashion, rather than respect fashion as a legitimate art form in its own right?

Even beyond the remit of fashion, the success of well known female artists is always a dubious matter. To use Tracey Emin as an example, irrespective of the arguable merits or otherwise of her work, continually finds her efforts patronised despite the notoriety she enjoys. Arguably this comes from the fact that her work is undeniably, sometimes intrusively, feminine, and despite her apparent longing to go down in history as a “kooky” and “edgy” character in modern art, it’s her –perhaps inadvertent- embracing of the feminine stereotype, hyper-emotionality, shameless self-disclosure- that has allowed her to permeate into the general consciousness. Because she embodies the stereotypical hysterical trivialities of the female condition, she is no threat; she fits the mould set out by society; she is, despite all her best efforts, what we expect.

If women in the textiles art sector were underrepresented numerically, I’d have a much easier, more straightforward argument. But predictably, sexism in all walks of life, permeates in the most insidious fashion possible, and in the textiles sector, we are faced with no exception. I can name a number of exceptionally talented local textiles artists, including Sue Barry, Shevonne Hutchins, Joanna of ‘ChicThrows’, but how many of these could ever ‘make it’, assuming that they wanted to? How many times have textiles artists had their work dismissed as ‘a bit of a hobby’, the patronising diminutive of ‘craft’ and had it sneered at as somehow inherently inferior to its fine-art cousin? For an art form with such significance both historically and contemporarily, one that requires as much discipline and skill as oil painting or sculpture, there is still a drastic problem with how it is externally perceived. And, over 7000 years later after potentially the first ever Persian carpet was ever woven, I think it’s high time that both the women and the men practising in the textiles art sector take the opportunity to truly make sure that textile design, in whatever form it takes, gets the respect and due reverence it deserves.