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A Stubborn Bloom: Imagining an Archive of Femininity and Home Economics

Two women in formal clothes behind table
Two women in formal clothes behind table

Written by
Daniela Monasterios -Tan
Published date
24 May 2021

A Stubborn Bloom: Imagining an Archive of Femininity and Home Economics

Daniela Monasterios-Tan

Since graduating from the MA in Fashion Curation in 2017, I have joined the School of Fashion at Lasalle College of the Arts as a lecturer specialising in fashion history, curation and design conceptualisation. In 2019, I co-founded interdisciplinary collective A Stubborn Bloom (@a_stubborn_bloom) with artist Stephanie Jane Burt. A Stubborn Bloom is a collective that investigates concepts and tropes of femininity and material culture.

During the course of my MA, I was introduced to both experimental and traditional modes of curating through workshops, guest lectures and exhibition visits. I was enamoured by the introduction of fictional archives and narratives, as exemplified through Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence exhibition, which I first viewed at Somerset House as a student and its entirety in Istanbul in 2019.

With a lack of access to institutional archives and private collections, I began to collect items online to create a fictional archive of femininity for research. Many of these objects found their way into our first project, ‘Lucy’s Dictionary of Femininity’. The project is an investigation into the apparent feminine attributes of designed objects and consumer culture. The objects procured were evidence of various feminine lived experiences—a box of trimmings belonging to a seller’s mother, a pair of lace gloves made in Japan, a hair curler produced in the 1970s. Closer to home, we discovered oral history interviews with women from various vocations and eras in the National Archives of Singapore. Instead of choosing a single biography, we decided to develop a proxy to retell these collective stories. Lucy became the protagonist and her relationship to these objects, vehicles to express her inner life, is narrated through photography, prose and poetry. As with Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, the objects were remnants of real life even if the narrative that tied them together was fictional.

red pinafore

'A red smock in a pinafore-like cut, dungarees perhaps, line Lucy's days. It is the representation of modernity during this period that causes women to dress in the latest fits from Robinson's. Lucy often wanders through the shopping malls at Raffles Place pondering the quality of dresses on display, she bristles at the particles of dust against the windowsills and feels an unrelenting urge to wash her hands. This maniacal back-and-forth pacing from public toilets to the window displays causes her a great deal of distress and she wonders why she leaves the house at all.'

pink fabric with zip fasterner

'Trivial yet necessary, this simple minor action holds up an entire garment, a single purpose for a brace, a fastener for an outfit, a ligament in clothing, a joint in a network of patterns, a tie-up for strap, which such a small gesture and yet, an imperative detail.'

Accompanying the website, we made a short film, Home Economics with a Stubborn Bloom. Fashion studies and design finds many early influences in home economics – the act of making clothes was a fundamental element of the syllabus. Here in Singapore, Home Economics was a subject taught exclusively to young girls until 1998 and the syllabus was intertwined with government policy, reflecting the changing role and expectation of women as homemakers. The film narrates sections from textbooks used in secondary schools in the 1970s. On one hand, the film highlights the extreme performativity of femininity, especially in the highly gendered text. On the other, the film invites us to reconsider the importance, and aesthetic joy, of domesticity at a time when most of us continue to experience stages of pandemic lockdown in our homes.

'Never wear a dress that needs repair or has a fastener missing' Film stills, A Stubborn Bloom, 2021

hands doing embroidery on gingham fabric

film still of 2 formally dressed women behind a table decorated with flowers

'Get yourself ready to welcome the guests' - Film still, A Stubborn Bloom, 2021

As part of the wider Home Economics project, we presented Lucy’s Dictionary of Femininity as a physical iteration at Singapore Art Book Fair 2021. We displayed photocopies of our research, physical objects and our film. The exhibition was accompanied with a magazine which included quotes, conversations with eBay sellers and scans of our objects. The ‘zine also folded out into a paper pattern to make your own apron, which was displayed in the installation.

mannequin hands on display in front of wall-mounted documents

2 women standing in front of a display of textiles

mannequin in front of wall mounted document display

Installation, Lucy’s Dictionary of Femininity physically at Singapore Art Book Fair 2021

As an independent multidisciplinary collective, we are able to experiment with fictional interventions without the weight of provenance and institutional objectives. Through multi-disciplinary research and art-making, fashion can be understood not only as material object, but also as a product of ideology and a very personal (albeit fictional) vehicle of identity. Through our work, we hope conversations around fashion in Singapore will continue to explore fashion’s social-cultural nuances.