Outtakes

Lesley Millar, curator of `Revelation', on human hair dresses by Emily Bates
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Emily Bates calls these dresses "impossible dresses", because they don't work. When you look at them hanging up on the wall, they're very elegant, but they're actually 10-foot long and so impossible to wear. The bodices are even smaller than a child's bodice, and then they've got these incredibly long skirts, so they're very deceptive. Emily is dealing with impossible notions of beauty, as represented by supermodels. No woman could wear these dresses; no woman is this shape.

The bodices are hand-knitted, and the skirts are machine-knitted, from spun hair. Emily gets the hair from hair salons. Initially, she used friends' hair, but, of course, you've only got so many friends who are having their hair cut at any one time. She sweeps it all into a bag, and then goes home to separate it out into blonde, brunette and red hair. She then spins it, unwashed - spinning the appropriate kinds of fibre with the hair so that it will actually hang together - and once it's spun, it interestingly all becomes this homogenous brown colour. But, if you look at the dresses very carefully, you can see the strata of different coloured hair in there.

Lots of different ideas have come together in these pieces. First, there's our dual response to hair, which is one of fascination when it's alive - there's the notion of our living hair being something beautiful, our "crowning glory". But once the hair is cast off, it reminds us of otherness and death.

There's been a tradition in painting, and latterly in sculpture, of depicting Mary Magdalene, and Lilith - Eve's dark sister - as being clothed entirely in their own hair. Kiki Smith, in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery about three years ago, actually had a sculpture of Lilith completely covered in hair. Hair then becomes equated with forbidden sexuality, and Emily is dealing with that which is forbidden - that which is normally hidden being put on the outside.

The idea is very transgressive. We're not revolted by our own hair, but we are revolted by dead hair, on the floor - other people's cast-off hair. You can see this in the way people react to Emily's frocks: they are drawn toward them, but when they realise that they're made of hair, you can see them pull back

`Revelation', a touring exhibition by 15 international contemporary textile artists, Pitshanger Manor and Gallery, Mattock Lane, Ealing, London W5 (0181-567 1227)

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