Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Dr Denim

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One of the stranger items I’ve ever made is currently on exhibition nearby in Devon. Dr Denim is a full-sized cloaked ‘figure’ wearing a beaked mask, similar to those used by Plague Doctors of the past. The mask is made from a deconstructed pair of old denim jeans; the cloak uses my exhibition stand background felt over a dressmakers’ form and the ‘remedies’ strung on the unstitched waistband represent thoughts on the current pandemic.

I feel every artwork should speak without words, and I hope it does. But if it intrigues you and you want to know more, please read supplementary information below, or on the exhibition’s own website where you will also find additional images. The exhibition is called 2020 (it’s basically, the annual Members’ Show) and is being held at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey until the end of this month. You can visit in person from Wednesdays to Saturdays. But you can also drop in online, from anywhere in the world.

The show was rigorously selected by a panel of Members and I was extremely happy to receive the ‘thumbs-up’ for Dr Denim. It is a particularly strong exhibition this year and contains fascinating and moving statements that Members have written about working during lockdown.

Exhibition links

2020 Exhibition, main page

Isabella Whitworth entry page

Vote for your favourite piece

Devon Guild of Craftsmen homepage

More information about Dr Denim

(this information is similar to that shown on the Devon Guild of Craftsmen 2020 exhibition website)

While making fabric masks during lockdown I looked into the historic use of masks during epidemics. An extraordinary 16thCentury Plague Mask is held at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. The mask had glass coverings to the eye holes and a curved, bird-like beak. It was believed that plague, such as the Black Death, spread through bad smells known as ‘miasma’ and the beak, strapped close to the nose, held aromatic herbs, dried flowers and sometimes a vinegar-soaked sponge. Fragrant smells were thought to fight the pestilential miasma. Plague Doctors were hired by a community during an outbreak of the plague. They wore a beaked mask, long dense robes and a wide brimmed hat. Their key role was not to heal the sick, but to separate infected from well, to write and witness wills, arrange burials and count and record numbers of dead. Some doctors were renowned for their skills and even wrote treatises to assist others. But many took advantage of their proximity to the dead and dying to line their pockets. 

We are now all familiar with manifestations of fear during an epidemic, and the universal desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Then as now, the medical profession offers hope, as does religious faith. Over the sewing machine making Covid masks, I considered remedies and ‘cures’ past and present, what they have in common, and I then made Doctor Denim.

‘Remedies’ are hung around the doctor’s neck in the manner of a Siberian  shaman’s costume. The remedies reflect and blend contemporaneous knowledge of causes and transmission, anecdote, religious faith, folklore, superstition, fake news and conspiracy theories, the role of leaders and the state, racial or religious prejudices leading to ‘persecution as remedy’, duplicitous quackery, and the ever-present spur of money-making. Inequality of social circumstances could affect the likelihood of plague infection and death, as it does with Covid. 

Materials

All materials used are recycled, ‘found’, or from existing studio stock. The only specially-bought items were the rainbow ribbons. The fabric elements are created from a partly deconstructed and entire pair of worn-out indigo-dyed (denim) jeans, a garment which has become iconic in our time. The black ‘robes’ are from my exhibition stand display.

Denim and indigo

Denim, from which jeans are made, is an indigo-dyed cotton twill suitable also for a Covid mask because its densely woven fabric will help to impede virus-carrying droplets from passing through it. Natural indigo-dyed fabric is revered by many for its healing properties; it coats fabric and offers a further layer of protection. 

Visitors may rest assured that in the spirit of true quackery the potions are not precisely as they claim. Unicorn horn remains hard to obtain and is substituted by brown sugar. Urine is Yorkshire Tea, the crushed emeralds and arsenic are Indian Holi powder. The ‘Holy Relic’ is a sheep or goat’s bone from a Cretan beach, theriac contains neither opium nor viper’s flesh, but is made of blue and white twine pills. There were no leeches in the box when I last checked. 

Construction of the piece has consciously reflected the raw quality of unpicked and chopped-up jeans.

Notes on the remedies

Chain

Blame is placed at both ends of the chain. The persecution by expulsion, fire or torture of marginalised minorities such as Jews, the disabled or gypsies, took place during times of plague. They were believed to be the source of the pestilence. Modern 21stcentury conspiracy theories about coronavirus continue to spread through the press and social media (for example, blaming a Chinese laboratory, the Freemasons, Bill Gates, G5 and even Norwegian Salmon).

Holy relic

The bone is mounted in a denim pouch, blinged up by gold ribbon from a chocolate box. The power of a holy relic was historically believed by Christians to effect a miraculous cure, or aid the intercession of a saint on the patient’s behalf. Belief in the power of prayer and intercession is still with us today.

Blue and white threads

The remedies are suspended from blue and white twine cords. I use the twine for tying shibori and once through the vat they are dyed blue with indigo. Some cords are made with reference to the knotted technique of tzitzit, or fringes, for the tallitor Jewish prayer shawl.

Knotted threads

It was believed by Christians that the plague was divine punishment for human sin. Processions of flagellants would whip themselves and each other as penance, in the hope of avoiding the pestilence.

Stellar pills

Pharmaceutical companies compete or co-operate to develop lucrative medications which may alleviate symptoms, cure, or prevent infection.

Disposable ‘gloves’are fronted by a cartoon by The Times cartoonist Peter Brookes. 

Eyam (hung in isolation down the back of the Doctor)

During the Black Death there were no remedies, beyond quarantine, that made much difference to outcome. When the Black Death arrived in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665, the rector and a minister introduced a number of measures, such as outdoor church services and burial of the dead by their own families. They further persuaded villagers voluntarily to quarantine themselves as a community, in an act of great sacrifice and selflessness, with the aim of not spreading the disease beyond the village.

Donald Trump’s ideas on preventative measures are covered in a brief treatise.

Lockdown Pack

With no current cure or vaccine for Covid, a main course of action has been to avoid contracting and spreading the disease by means of quarantine and lockdown.  Connection to locked-down friends and family through the internet has eased isolation for many: online contact has been a kind of remedy.

Flowers, herbs and incense

Bound up, dried fragrant herbs and flowers comprise a selection of scented remedies to ward off miasma.  These include rosemary, mint, lemon balm, sage, lavender and meadowsweet. The Doctor’s beak is stuffed with lavender and rosemary. Incense is carried in a hanging pocket, together with Café Rouge matches. At exact time of writing, Café Rouge has announced that it too is a Covid casualty and is going into administration.

Medical knowledge: The Four Humours

Much medical knowledge during the Black Death was based on ancient theories of Hippocrates and Galen who described four bodily humours. This theory stated that the elements of earth, water, air, and fire are linked to bodily fluids of yellow bile (fire), blood (air), phlegm (water), black bile (earth). Remedies were prescribed to restore a natural balance which had been corrupted by the plague. 

Bloodletting

Deliberate bleeding of a vein, with leeches (expensive, but less painful) or a knife (cheaper, and it hurt) was believed to be an effective method to rid the body of undesirable ‘hot’ blood.

Theriac

Theriac was a popular remedy among the wealthy and included many ingredients such as viper flesh and copious amounts of opium. Ingredients were mixed with honey or treacle and could be thickened and made into pills.

Crushed emeralds, arsenic, mercury (quicksilver)

Crushed precious minerals were made into concoctions to drink. Those who couldn’t afford them drank mercury or arsenic – which probably despatched them even more swiftly than the plague. It was thought that ‘like could be treated with like’, and one poison could cure another.

The feather: the Vicary Method (after inventor and doctor Thomas Vicary)

A live chicken had its back and rear plucked. The chicken’s bare skin was then applied to the swollen area of the body, and strapped on to ‘draw the disease’ from the patient. The chicken died, or the patient died, or both.

Unicorn horn

Drinking a potion comprising ground unicorn horn was thought to be an effective remedy for many sicknesses including the plague, and, not surprisingly, was very rare and expensive. To obtain any horn, the unicorn had first to be lulled into submission by a young female virgin.

Urine

Bathing in urine or smearing oneself in faeces was a cost-free remedy open to the poor. 

The hope pocket

Our hopes for a Covid solution centre on the research to find an effective vaccine and the pocket contains part of a syringe. I’m happy for people to write their hopes on slips of paper and put them in the pocket.

Sources: 

https://www.ancient.eu/article/1540/medieval-cures-for-the-black-death/

https://www.livescience.com/plague-doctors.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virology

https://www.eyam-museum.org.uk/about-us

https://www.dhm.de/blog/2017/07/27/beaky-plague-protection/

2 thoughts on “Dr Denim

  1. I do love the image of the Plague Doctor (and love your clever placement of the seams for this modern take!) and found reading your notes incredibly interesting. I agree art should speak for itself but there are a million clever little things in this I would have missed if it wasn’t for your great notes – thanks a lot for sharing and hope the exhibition goes well.

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