The Fabric of Democracy, Propaganda Textiles from the Frech Revolution to Brexit, Fashion and Textile Museum, London
29 September 2023- 3 March 2024
From subversive graphic t-shirts to Andy Warhol's prints, the Fashion and Textile Museum in London has produced intriguing exhibitions with radical themes. Their most recent show, The Fabric of Democracy: Propaganda and Textiles from the French Revolution to Brexit, celebrates printed political textiles across two centuries and is the ideal follow-up to their more socially engaged shows.
Curated by design historian Amber Butchart, it explores how textiles and garments, as well as their makers and wearers, have been used to circulate propaganda by governments, regimes, and corporations. Fabric designers and manufacturers have responded to political upheavals from the 18th century to today, and the show charts these events through various textile cultures. We see French toile de jouy, chintz skirts with images of the Dutch West India Company, and rarely exhibited Japanese robes of the Asia-Pacific War and Cultural Revolution-era Chinese fabrics. The exhibition begins by defining propaganda, “the art of persuasion,” and shedding light on how printed textiles, on the body and at home, have been used to communicate political messages and ideologies. The first few objects range from a 1930s silk showing flags, and a hammer and sickle emblazoned on a Soviet scarf. Around the corner, visitors are taken through a whistle-stop tour of recent political events and their propaganda, a reminder of the horrors and protests of the past and present and the tumultuous changes they proliferated. From the Norman conquest of England in 1066 depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry to posters against the conflict in Vietnam (1955-75) and the demolition of a Soviet monument in Kyiv in 2022, the brief timeline speaks for how governmental actions are embedded into our daily lives. The exhibition’s main focus begins in the following gallery and spreads across two floors. The first space delves into war, conflict, and revolution through European, North American, and East Asian examples. Upstairs, the narrative turns toward nationalism and questions how textiles can both celebrate and critique it. With over 150 objects, the exhibition demands a lengthy visit and allows visitors to journey through a series of textile case studies. The variety of objects and detailed labels make the exhibition accessible and intriguing, often bringing in more relatable and contemporary examples to highlight a point. The object list is broad, with fans depicting the naval Battle of the Nile, handkerchiefs designed by Fougasse, dahua beimian, or quilt covers from China, and even decorated chicken-feed sacks, an ingenious way for American farmers in rural populations to reuse fabric for Amber Butchart ©