“I was fascinated by the seemingly comforting strong dresses, and related this form of protective care to my own experiences in hospital and encounters with modern day psychiatric care. My aim was to create a representation of the pieces which lay somewhere between documentary and poetry, incorporating my love of abstraction yet offering a clear portrayal of the pieces for the viewer to interpret themselves." --Jane Fradgley, Held
Last week a friend brought me to see a wonderful exhibition of photography by artist Jane Fradgley; the body of work, entitled "Held," responds to a collection of "strong clothing"--i.e. restraint clothing used in 19th century asylums--kept in the stores of Bethlem Royal Hospital and Museum. The exhibition will be on view in Atrium 2 of Guy's Hospital through March 8, 2013. You can see a few of Fradgley's strikingly uncanny photographs above, but I highly recommend you visit them in person if you can to get a real sense of scale (they are printed life-sized) and emotive impact.
Full information follows:
by Jane Fradgley
Funded by Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity
7th November 2012 – 8th March 2013
This new photographic exhibition by artist Jane Fradgley is informed by the collection of strong clothing housed at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive & Museum, Beckenham, Kent. The history of this largely unexplored area of mental health care is both powerful and poignant. Through investigation, the artist’s intention is to open new dialogue and debate around protection and restraint in mental health practice. With a background as a fashion designer and a passionate interest in functional and tailored garments, Fradgley was inspired to delve into the archive after seeing Victorian portrait photographs of patients at Bethlem wearing unusual quilted dresses.
“I was fascinated by the seemingly comforting strong dresses, and related this form of protective care to my own experiences in hospital and encounters with modern day psychiatric care. My aim was to create a representation of the pieces which lay somewhere between documentary and poetry, incorporating my love of abstraction yet offering a clear portrayal of the pieces for the viewer to interpret themselves. I enjoyed the intimacy when alone with the garments, and felt closer to them by zooming in on details. One by one the pieces were carefully brought to me like offerings for my lens. They appeared reverential and it seemed fitting to respect this when arranging them in a staged setting in the studio. As each session passed I grew very fond of the pieces, perhaps my own projection but I felt as though they had certain characters. I hoped to convey the essence of the people who wore each garment as I felt great energy from the textiles - possibly there were many wearers and many stories never to be told. I had never imagined that these old garments would hold so much emotive substance. For me the purpose of the strong clothing was not to invoke or exacerbate fear or anxiety in the patient, rather the attention to detail in creating such well constructed garments was to bring some dignity, serenity, peace and tranquility to the wearer as an antidote to their anguish. Wishing to engage with that sense of calm, I explored soft lighting techniques, however some of the garments responded best in the darkness of the shadows, a reminder of the inevitable blackness of mental illness”.You can find out more about Jane Fradgley's work by clicking here.Thanks so much to Jane for the images and materials, and to Phil Loring for introducing me to her work.
Strong clothing was a rather euphemistic term used to describe certain forms of restraint used in late 19th century asylums. While chains, strait-jackets (known as strait-waistcoats) and similar garments were outlawed during the ‘non-restraint’ movement of the 1840s and ’50s, other methods of ‘mechanical restraint’ were permitted by the Commissioners in Lunacy (the government body who inspected and licensed asylums for much of the 19th century). The intention of strong clothing (including strong dresses and padded gloves) was to protect patients, both preventing self-inflicted injury and the destruction of their clothing.
“Strong dresses,” as described by Bethlem Superintendent George Savage in 1888, were “made of stout linen or woollen material, and lined throughout with flannel. The limbs are all free to move, but the hands are enclosed in the extremities of the dress, which are padded. …There are no strait-waistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint in Bethlem”. Savage claimed that, by avoiding recourse to the use of sedatives or padded cells for violent or destructive patients, many “were thus really granted liberty by means of the slight restraint put upon them”.
The terms, descriptions and types of garment used were fraught with meaning for contemporaries, many of whom saw themselves as enlightened humanitarians. Others, however, did not agree, and the ‘principle of non-restraint’ remained an ongoing matter of debate. By the turn of the 20th century strait-jackets appeared to have returned to some institutions. Although the exact dates of the garments seen in these photographs are unknown, given the types of garments reported by the Commissioners in Lunacy as in use at this time, it is likely that they were adopted in the period 1880 –1920.
Through this historical perspective, held reminds us of the difficulty of placing a clear line between care, cure and control in a mental health context. Treatment providers invariably have to make extremely difficult decisions, indicating the importance of opening up debate around physical restraint and chemical intervention in mental health care today.
We are planning a symposium on the subject in 2013, if you would like to be informed about or participate in that symposium contact Sarah Chaney at firstname.lastname@example.org.