When art is created from politics and humor are we still to consider it valuable or does it exist just for the laugh of it? In Fiona Phillips work we stumble across a collection of dresses with a lot to say for themselves: things I suspect we as Housekeepers can relate to both on a humorous level and as part of the wider political discourse about what it is to be a woman and mother. Because here's the thing: while we may want to consider ourselves political beings, we simply cannot escape the practical requirements of a life at home: all the oojimiflips and wotnots we could do with carrying upon our person if we are to to be promoted to the realms of domestic goddess and so, in these dresses Fiona Phillips, manages to capture both the need to elevate what we have to consider an art if we and the wider society we exist in are not to denigrate the roles we have chosen and the borderline hysterical edge all of us feel at some point when it comes to the sheer drudgery of motherhood and housework.
All while taking a gently, sly dig at the fifties silhouette so many of us still revere...
Fiona herself describes the motivation behind her Glamorous Work dresses as such...
My new body of work began with inspiration from looking at old snapshots of my mother in her lovely dresses from the 1950's and 60's and also from research I have been doing about the advertisements targeting and creating the glamorous housewife or "domestic goddess". These images seem quite ridiculous now, and although I am giving the whole theme an affectionate poke, I am also wondering if there is a possibility of nobility for those who choose to stay home and raise children. Career options for women are quite diverse and attainable in our day. But choosing home over career has been looked down upon since the feminist revolution. The saying "I am only a housewife" pretty much sums up the self denigration of women who are stay at home moms. That statement could also be a defensive retort deflecting the current social stigma of stay-at-home moms being lesser persons than women who choose external careers over home and children. To me, the depiction of women in dresses and heels doing housework , though completely impractical, and definitely outdated, still speaks to a certain generosity of thought that women can do all the "maintenance work" of reproduction, and still maintain femininity and creativity.
I can't help but think the wearing of beautiful clothing while doing mundance tasks is an ironic take on dressing for success. And one can't help but question who these well dressed homemakers were trying to please. Historically and philosophically it was the male gaze that defined woman as a sexual object - and since most advertising of that era was designed by men - there is logic in that thought. However, marketing analysis indicates that the audience of advertisements for the new fridgidaire, washing machine, or vacuum cleaner was women. Women often dress to please other women and themselves as much as men. So, by dressing up to do the vacuuming were women trying to achieve a sense of dignity in their housekeeping tasks? And who was there to see? I acknowledge that during the 1950's through the 1970's creative and feminist thought concentrated more on setting women 'free' to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, with the seriousness of intent and with the same social respect as expected from men. This is still a battle today that has not been completely won - check statistics of wage discrepancies between men and women doing the same jobs for instance. However important that may be, I have chosen to focus my work through a subtle sense of humor on the feminine rather than the feminist.
For me the only thing missing from these dresses now is a iPad and a router keeping them permanently wired up to the internet, for in my world at least, I no longer know a single Stay-At-Home Mother who has not had to find a way to supplement the family income one way or another, and thus does not find herself permanently torn between being the Mommy perpetually doling out toys from hidden pockets in her apron and her professional self, who exists, to some degree very often only in a virtual land peopled by women trying to make a life on their own terms.
Always with a sense of humor. Always with one eye on the political impact we as women have whenever we make an educated choice for ourselves and our families.