Alice Kettle is Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University and Lesley Millar is Professor of Textile Culture and Director of The International Textile Research Centre at the University for the Creative Arts. Together they edited The Erotic Cloth: Seduction and Fetishism in Textiles (Bloomsbury). Their new publication, Reading the Thread: Cloth and Communication, will published in 2024.
Cloth is the mediating surface between the visceral body and the world beyond the body, describing what is hidden and mysterious. There are three words, sensuous, erotic and desire, which are used interchangeably but describe aspects of this relationship between cloth and the body. This is something that has been underexplored and under-considered when we think about textiles and what they reveal and evoke – until very recently.
We are Lesley Millar and Alice Kettle and we edited a book which was the first critical examination of this charged relationship between the surface of the skin and the touch of cloth: The Erotic Cloth. To us, the sensuous is located on the body and in haptic experiences (or tactile sensations) – the feel and touch of cloth, of smooth silk, seductive velvet – which may then enable a sensuous awakening to the erotic condition.
Bob White, Between Cloth and Skin, 2004. Acrylic on calico. 163 x 66 cm. Photographer: Bob White.
We took the erotic to be personal and subjective, located in the mind, the imagination, the memory: indirect,ambiguous, an unnamed anticipation, varied and inconsistent, much like the multiple characteristics of cloth.Cloth is used physically as a covering for respectability, shame, vulnerability: from nineteenth-century marble sculpture’s depictions of puberty, Montague Glover’s photographs of men dressing up, of eroticism and death, to Vivienne Westwood’s subversive punk clothing, seventeenth-century corsets and the sensuality of clothing in ‘Blade Runner’. Simultaneously, repressive sexuality is at counterpoint to liberating of the erotic which is experienced through cloth.
Susie MacMurray, (detail 2), 2006. 22,000 mussel shells, red silk velvet. Installation at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex, UK. Photographer: Susie MacMurray.
Within this context, we place artistic understanding of textile as materially sexual in the elaborate drapery of historical portraiture through to more recent feminist works which explore the gendered self and beyond. We ask how the drape, fold, touch and feel, the sound, look and movement of cloth, can allow for the exploration of identity as a sensual or political experience that can be encountered as erotic. These were the ideas we wanted to develop as we asked: what is that erotic narrative that may emerge when we think about cloth, how it sits, frames and falls on the body?
Lesley Millar and Alice Kettle