strong stuff

Clothes can change your state of mind. Imagine you live in late Victorian times. You are in a state of extreme mental distress, and have been admitted to Bethlem Hospital. Perhaps you believe your soul has been lost, or all your organs have been removed, or some great harm is imminent. Early in your stay, you are dressed in strong clothing — a heavy dress, lined with felt, laced at the back, and with sleeves that enclose your hands in mittens. How does that make you feel? Safe and comforted? Cared for? Or restricted, controlled, imprisoned?

The current exhibition at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, held, is a series of photographs by Jane Fradgley, portraying some of the items of strong clothing from the Museum’s archive. Fradgley’s tender photographs capture the ambivalence of these garments, resulting in portraits — rather than clinical documentation — that are beautiful and haunting, or haunted. The mostly life-size photos hang in the new gallery space, and when I visited last week, I was struck by the calm and contemplative feel of the show, despite the troubling nature of the subject matter.

I got to know Jane last year, and we’d had a couple of long conversations about her held project, and some of the issues that strong clothing raises. I was fascinated to learn that very little is known about the history of the garments — who made them, the circumstances in which they’d been used, how much compulsion or consent was involved. With a background in fashion, Jane’s interest is also in the fabrics and the details, such as a frill around the neckline, which make these more than mere instruments of restraint. We discussed how the idea of being held encompasses both comfort — being hugged, for example — and enforced restraint. When Jane asked if I would consider writing a poem for her proposed book of photographs, I accepted what felt like a rather daunting challenge.

The resulting poem, Strong Medicine, had a long gestation. Jane emailed me copies of her images, the clothes floating against a white/cream or more often black background — disembodied, voiceless, yet speaking a mixture of delicacy and pain, something like a husk or shadow of accumulated anguish. Jane had lent me Presumed Curable, a book of photographs taken in the late 19th century of Bethlem Hospital patients, with brief accounts of the circumstances of their admission and eventual discharge — though some patients initially ‘presumed curable’ ended their days in the hospital. The acute distress of most patients is palpable even in the short accounts, with many expressing a feeling that their soul was lost or had died. When I came to write the poem, I was thinking about how many individual crises each item of strong clothing had contained — the specifics now vanished — and tried to bring out what might have been healing and hopeful in that experience.

My poem is included in the handsome booklet that accompanies the exhibition, along with reproductions of a number of photos and a short essay, all for only £2.00. A limited edition hand-bound book featuring 36 photos, my poem and other texts, is being launched at the gallery on 19th August. held, a thought-provoking and poignant exhibition, is on until 21st August.

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