LIPSTICK & OTHER SERVITUDES
From Literati Magazine’s Portfolio Series.
Featuring BEFORE ME. [SHAPED BY : RESISTANCE] By Georgia Kelsey
BEFORE ME. [SHAPED BY : RESISTANCE]
Originally published in Literati Magazine on May 2, 2020
Recently I designed and showcased an art piece titled Before Me [Shaped by: Resistance], which marked my first experience with fabric as a medium. This piece repurposed my mother’s wedding gown as a feminist ode to the great women who came before me. While the title is mostly referring to the great feminists who paved the way for the women of my generation, it also hints at the existence of a gown that literally came before me.
I hand wrote Trump’s inauguration speech in red script and then sewed the speech into the bodice. I then re-stitched the lace overlay, so that his words could be seen behind the lace while the script letters echoed the embroidered looping patterns in the lace. I then hand wrote the legislative language and the names of the recent states like Alabama who are trying to ban or restrict access to abortions; I again sewed them into the side panes of the bodice in-between the piping. I see the bodice of the dress as the tight, restricting, even pinching element often designed with a stiff, unforgiving corset to be worn underneath. Clearly corseting women’s mid-sections is an act of reducing and cinching the female body with implications of its own. My work on the bodice, however, symbolizes the historic oppression of women and the current restricting of women’s rights, especially under this current administration.
My piece is ultimately hopeful, however. I am truly inspired by the women who fought for our rights to vote as well as the countless other women, known and unknown, who persevere as powerful and effective in their respective fields. Therefore, I painted an assortment of flowers on the skirt. Each flower reaches up from the hem toward the bodice to demonstrate that women cannot be crushed, that women can, do, and will continue to bloom. Flowers are stereotypically associated with the feminine, but I chose to use flowers because they are so colorful and diverse like the women I admire. The multi-colored variety of flowers painted over the white fabric is meant to represent intersectional feminism. I painted the flowers on the skirt because this element of the dress is less constricting and, in fact, billowing with potential, with freedom. Finally, I wrote the names of powerful women (including my mother!) on the stems of each flower: Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Rosalind Franklin, Benazir Bhutto, Billie Jean King, Shirin Ebadi, Maya Angelou, and many more; these women inspire me, but mostly they demonstrate the thesis of my piece as a whole — that women still flourish even in misogynistic times.
I have participated in two Women’s Marches in my home city of Los Angeles. Each experience motivated me. I particularly enjoyed seeing some women dressed like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I was struck by the seemingly heavy, suffocating style of their dresses and hats, as lovely as they were. So, I began thinking about other fashion trends and how they intersect with feminist movements. I soon discovered wedding gowns. Recently my family moved to a different house in our neighborhood, and I noticed a large, shiny cardboard box with some white netting cascading out from the corners. My mother opened it and showed me her wedding gown from twenty years ago. Most daughters, perhaps, would want to try it on or imagine wearing it for her future wedding, but not me. I began thinking about how I could use this dress to make a political statement, my own Declaration of Sentiments if you will.
I had recently written a paper on the 19th Amendment for my U.S. Government class. I focused on the importance of the women who fought for our right to vote in the midst of intense criticism and controversy. The incredibly sexist and harmful propaganda that was being published to oppose suffrage, inspired me to think a lot about the ideas that manifest in my piece, Before Me [Shaped by: Resistance]. The idea of a wedding dress being the canvas in a sense stems from the traditional, restrictive reasoning that if women could vote, they would simply vote for the candidates their husbands liked. The opponents of suffrage dug their heals into the antiquated gender roles that made them feel comfortable, especially the concept that women were meant to be perfect, pretty, doll-like wives who care about their dresses not political issues. I was also inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fight for women of color to gain the right to vote. My choice of a white wedding gown is integral to the subversive nature of my message.
Specifically, I was horrified by the women who opposed suffrage. Led by Josephine Dodge, a wealthy woman who was also the head of the Republican National Committee, the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOWS) would create political posters mocking suffragettes, pass out pamphlets, and sporting the motto You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink and A vote for federal suffrage is a vote for organized female nagging forever! These opponents believed that voting rights masculinized women and feminized men; they also saw suffrage proponents as extremists who supported free love, the labor movement, and birth control. While suffragettes were accused of being warmongering, neglectful, violent shrews, I acknowledge their fight for my right to vote and want to honor their courageous efforts.
I am only seventeen, but I still believe strongly that it is vital for women to have agency, to have a voice in voting and politics, and to actually have a say in their reproductive rights. Women are still working every day to fight sexism and oppression, such as the battle for equal pay and against objectification, and I hope my piece celebrates these women. Regardless of the election, inauguration, and actual presence of President Trump, there are small successes for women every day. The founding women of first-wave feminism, the suffragettes, fought for all American women’s rights today, and thanks to that representation and passion this next year it will be one- hundred years since the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified! I hope that this wedding gown art piece demonstrates my gratitude to all the women who came Before Me.
Interview with Mum and Dad
Georgia’s dad, Kevin E. Kelsey, is the Athletic Director at Pacifica Christian High. Her mum Candice Kelsey, is an experienced educator and poet and we’re glad to say, an LM author too. LITERATI MAGAZINE spoke to Candice, Kevin and Georgia about this project.
LM: What were your initial feelings and /or reactions when Georgia / Candice told you about the ideas for the dress?
Kevin: Well, Candice didn’t know anything about it. Georgia mentioned what she does doing but I didn’t know the details. The week before it was due, she was just stressed about getting all the painting finished.
LM: Has it influenced or shifted your own long-held ideas about how Georgia might navigate the complexities of life as a young adult woman?
Georgia is a strong kid. we have raised her to have a voice and to never feel inhibited. She is the president of the student body. I work at the same school where she goes to school so I her throughout the day and I get to see what a strong leader she is. But it hurts to see how the election of our president has affected her. How she realizes that has a female she is till a second class citizen no matter how talented she is. And I loved how she showed respect to the women who came before her. Proud that she has the humility to realize she has this standard to live up to.
LM: Has the collaborative nature of this project between mother and daughter taught you any new perspectives on the feminine / female identity especially as a husband and father, and has this project changed how you see / understand / relate to Georgia?
It helps me to understand how shocking it has been for her to see how misogyny is alive and well in our country. She was 13 when our president won the election and now I realize how traumatic that was to all women. Until this project, I guess I thought the election would only impact women who had been raped, assaulted, or harassed. But now I realize when misogynists are given a free pass and still lifted up it has a damaging effect on all women, particularly 13 year old girls who are trying to figure out their place in the world.
LM: Candice, what is the significance of this experience for you, both as a woman and as a mother?
In a house with two full time educators and three active teenagers, life can become a slide show of good mornings and don’t forget your lunches. I do remember her asking is my wedding dress was still in a box in our garage and some murmurings about an art project. During the weeks leading up to her Winter Arts Gallery showing, I heard bursts of where’s the paint and I’ll never finish in time. I knew she was busy creating something, but I never really heard her full vision. When I arrived at the Santa Monica Airport Arts Gallery for the showing in January, life’s slide show became live theatre — there on a dress form at the top of the gallery was a new creation made of raw silk and lace.
LM:Has it shifted your feelings or ideas about the traditional relationship young girls have with the idea of marriage and the dress, the day… etc?
I was overwhelmed by my daughter’s execution, her vision, and her courage. When I saw what she titled it, my chest filled with pride. But when I stood back a few feet and observed her interacting with the public (including the judges), I saw her again for the first time. She explained the meaning of her choices and boldly stated her political stance as if no one would disagree with her. The dress I wore 20 years ago is but a two dimensional slide — the dress as she has refashioned it today is live theatre! And I love it.
LM:What sort of things have you learned from Georgia through this whole transformation of what might be the most important dress / symbolic memory of your life, aside from childbirth?
It’s interesting that because I wanted that particular dress so much, I foolishly sold my beloved piano in order to afford it. That decision haunted me for a decade. In my immaturity, and perhaps vanity, I traded an invaluable childhood piano for basically layers of cloth. Just this summer I finally had saved enough money to buy a used piano and undo what I had done as a misguided bride. Georgia knew my regrets in that exchange, so I think she understood that the dress already symbolized misplaced values.
LM:How has this project influenced your mother/daughter relationship?
The greatest honor and privilege for me has been watching my children become their own truest selves. Georgia established herself as an independent, creative, opinionated young lady early in her life. My job was to encourage her to use those traits for good, for the betterment of those around her. I think I always understood she was confident and bold, but I don’t think I truly understood that fact until I saw that art piece. As much as we try to see our daughters as separate individuals and not extensions of ourselves, mothers sometimes fail. In some ways, the dress undressed Georgia’s identity for me. I think it caused me to lift a veil of sorts and see her for who she has truly become — her own dynamic person wedded only to her heartfelt convictions.
LM to Mum and Dad: .… a few thoughts from you both about Georgia’s unique undertaking;
Mum: As much as we try to see our daughters as separate individuals and not extensions of ourselves, mothers sometimes fail. In some ways, the dress undressed Georgia’s identity for me. I think it caused me to lift a veil of sorts and see her for who she has truly become — her own dynamic person wedded only to her heartfelt convictions.
Dad: Until this project, I guess I thought the election would only impact women who had been raped, assaulted, or harassed. But now I realize, when misogynists are given a free pass and still lifted up, it has a damaging effect on all women; particularly 13 year old girls who are trying to figure out their place in the world.
LM: When you decided to use your Mum’s wedding dress in this innovative and dissenting way, how did Mum react and what was your impression of the impact the idea had on her at first?
Georgia: I wanted to tell you that my mom had little knowledge of what I was planning to do with the dress. I think at one point when she put something in my room she saw the flowers in process. So when she saw the full piece finished, I think she was amazed. It seemed like she was really proud of me.
LM: As you began working on the dress as a medium, how did your sense of what it means / symbolises for young women today change for you – how has it influences your ideas of marital partnership or of gender roles in the marital context?
Georgia: While I worked on the dress I was surprised at how much more passionate I became about honoring the work of the women who came before me. Something about interacting so closely with the fabric deepened my appreciation for the suffragettes. I’d say the process of creating this piece steeled my resolve to carry on the feminist movement they worked so hard to begin.
LM: How has this project influenced your relationship with your Mum; has it shifted in any way?
Georgia : Honestly, I would say that the dress has strengthened my relationship with my mom. We definitely feel a sense of respect and admiration for each other while also enjoying just being silly and laughing with (and at ) each other. Sometimes we fight because we both have strong wills and are sensitive, but we love each other so much.
GEORGIA KELSEY is a twelfth grader at a private high school in Los Angeles. She serves as the Student Body President, Team Captain for both the varsity volleyball and soccer teams, and active member of the Visual and Performing Arts department. She also acts as a student editor of Marginalia, a supplement to the Los Angeles Review of Books. In her free time she likes to surf, go to concerts with friends, and spend time with her corn snake, Gus.
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