ONE WORK: Nancy Youdelman, Fashioning a Feminist Vision, 1972-2017
California State University Northridge
Through December 8th
By Betty Ann Brown
While women have spent decades, if not centuries, batting away the narrow definition of what is expected of them, the clothes they wore helped make their intentions known. What causes society to panic isn’t different hemlines, but rather women defining for themselves what it means to be a woman. ~Melissa Wheeler, “Fashion as a Feminist Tool,” Huffington Post, 2018
Nancy Youdelman’s Ellen’s Regret (2007) is an encaustic and mixed media dress. The fitted torso is papered with yellowed love letters. The flared skirt and puffy sleeves are covered with torn photographs and punctuated by dried gardenias. Careful reading of the letters reveals that they document a woman becoming disillusioned with her male partner. We assume that she leaves him, shreds the photographs of their time together, and discards the flowers he sent her.
The dress operates as an objective correlative of a woman (or all women) and the feelings of betrayal and loss that accompany break-ups. As such, it symbolizes experiences every human has gone through–but, importantly, it situates this universal narrative in female form rather than the usual “generic” male personification.
Youdelman’s work reminds us that clothing is understood as an expression of personality, that it constructs identity. And, like the other early feminists who were, with Youdelman, challenging historic stereotypes about women, the artist urges us to interrogate gender bias.
If baby girls are supposed to be about “sugar and spice and everything nice,” Youdelman gives us a child’s dress covered in rose thorns. If femininity is supposed to be fixed and stable, Youdelman gives us a dress made of shattered then re-assembled glass. If women are supposed to be, in the end, romantic victims, Youdelman gives us a Self-Portrait as Ophelia. Ophelia, a fictional character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, threw herself into a river and drowned, as a result of grief-induced madness. In Youdelman’s work, the clay face, hands and feet of the artist emerge from an earth-filled grave that sprouts living flowers as symbols of new life and resurrection.
Ellen’s Regret also up-ends the woman as victim trope. The dress’s protagonist emerges as a powerful figure creating a transformed self out of the rejected detritus of her relationship.
Llewellyn Negrin (in his 2008 book Appearance and Identity, Fashioning the Body in Postmodernity) argues that early Feminists regarded fashion “primarily as an instrument of oppression in which women were turned into passive objects of the male gaze.” I would say instead, that Feminists like myself protest the historic binary that asserted that men should be valued for what they do, and women for how they look. Or as John Berger so succinctly put it in Ways of Seeing (1972), “Men act and women appear.” Berger continued, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relationships between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves.” Having gone through health challenges that radically changed the way I look, I am aware that although I’m the same person intellectually, emotionally, and in terms of my creative work, I have seriously exacerbated self-opinion troubles because of my altered appearance. To put it in Berger’s terms: My relation to myself has changed because of the way I look.
Yet when I explore Nancy Youdelman’s astonishing oeuvre, I find alternatives to the seductive victimhood for which women were raised in my generation. I can reject the texts I’ve been offered, much as Youdelman’s “Ellen” rejected her lover. I can be as strong as the jewel encrusted dresses that line the exhibition walls. I can find regeneration in loss, as Ophelia does in the blooming flowers. I can arm myself with thorns when I need to. Or with zippers and pins. Or with jewels. Or with buttons. Or with re-constructed glass fragments.
Like Nancy Youdelman’s protagonist Ellen, I can turn the signifiers of femininity into weapons of self-assertion. I can become whole in spite of the fact that I have been shattered.