PUBLIC TIGHTS WASH: SWISS COTTAGE, CAMDEN

Taken from John McKiernan’s Re-imagining Ladies Tights blog post, 20th March 2014

Public Tights Wash: Swiss Cottage, Camden

Outside Swiss Cottage Public Library

On Saturday 15th March 2014, students from the MA Music Theatre course at The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama joined Re-imagining Ladies Tights artists Anna Kompaniets and Lenka Horakova to create the Swiss Cottage public tights wash. This is the first of three street interventions with Royal Central, supported by London borough of Camden and Veolia to ascertain how to improve recycling rates in the borough, which have flat lined over the last five years.

This post will touch briefly on the set up and reason for using public washing as a metaphor, it will then give an overview of some of the many stories provided by Camden residents during the event before concluding provocatively.

The Wash

The Public Wash of used tights was an intended act exploring how to make women feel more open about their body image and to start questioning the idea of tights being seen as underwear. Similarly to the Suffragettes’ burning their bras in early 20th century, tights were left hanging on the washing line as a symbolic act of woman’s liberation and rights. As societies have developed there has been a desire to clean, to wash the body, its adornments and the required habitat. Over recent generations a perfect version of laundering has developed, usually by the woman of the house. The domestic chores of caring and cleaning while maintaining the idealised image of the perfect women have come to dominate our culture.

Challenging cultural conditioning is the start point of every Re-imagining Ladies Tights intervention. The interventions do not only challenge the public, who become the unwitting audience, but also the artists and crew involved (see Prof Andy Pratt study The Enigma that is Platform-7).

The StoriesThe tights wash intervention gathered a huge amount of stories outside Swiss Cottage library regarding how people interact with tights and stockings, the alternative uses and why people purchase them. What became interesting was the differing reactions, not only about the idea of people washing ‘underwear’ as one lady put it, but the way many view the very idea of recycling.

What follows are abstracts from almost 100 conversations, which varied wildly throughout the intervention.

Re-purpose

One woman suggested how we could make tights into body weights for exercise. A family told how they make fairy wings from coat hangers and tights and one lady stuffs toys using old tights. Toys are clearly a popular idea for re-using tights, with one woman suggesting making stress balls, a third recommended them as play blocks and a number of people mentioned puppet making, some of the students made a skipping rope and skipped. This led to a few people saying how this reminded them of using tights for skipping as they had little money as kids to buy a real skipping rope.

Re-use

Functionally, a man spoke of how he would use old tights to hold his cricket ball and then tie the tights to a pole and hit it with his cricket bat for practice. One lady uses old tights as a strainer while another found her lost engagement ring that she hovered up by mistake by filtering the dust through old stockings. Using coloured tights for camera filters came up a few times during the 2013 Lewisham project and a new tip is that tights are perfect for removing nail varnish. A woman makes draft excluders out of old tights and tights as hairnets are clearly as popular in north London as in south London. A man mentioned using tights as Christmas stockings for presents and this reminded the team of a very amusing story from 2013 of tights resembling dismembered legs [click]. Creating a machine to return tights to yarn was proposed by one woman, an idea that Akleriah have been advocating for a number of years now.

A woman from Somalia demonstrated how one of the performers should actually use the soap to wash the tights while three older English women were ‘appalled’ by the sight of people washing what they regarded as ‘underwear’ in the street. One Sierra Leonean lady told us that in her country ‘every woman wears tights despite the heat’ while a lady from Pakistan explained that women ‘only wear pop socks in her country because of the heat’. A Jamaican lady elucidated on tights as a ‘status thing’ in Jamaica, how tights make ‘women feel American’ and it is this perception of tights that this project is particularly focused.

A Provocation: Perception

As with 2013 intervention in south London, the tights wash quickly accumulated numerous stories of not only how people relate to tights and recycling but also how they view themselves and others. A distinct difference was detected between Swiss Cottage and Catford in that several people spoke of ‘disgust’ at the wash and some people also shared a ‘distain’ at the very thought of recycling and the entire concept was ‘repellent’ and one person was ‘appalled by recycling’. This kind of negativity had not been experienced previously.

People stemming from African and Asian continents appeared less aggrieved by the public display of washing and were open in sharing stories of reuse and repurposing. There was a feeling in the post discussion that women in the 30s and 40s were more reticent to disclose tights stories, especially to the male students. This may appear natural reaction to many people, a woman not wanting to reveal ‘intimate’ details to a man who is a stranger. In her essay, earlier on the Re-imagining blog [click],

Candela Delgado states;

Women have long been the objects of mainstream social architecture. Their bodies have been moulded and framed, like buildings under construction. And in resonance with the same simile, like interiors, they have been decorated, disguising their original distinctive natures. The pressure exerted by tightening dresses and the overbearing presence of accessories has annulled the female voice of individuality. As a consequence, the female body was turned into a white canvas encoded by others (Davies, 61). Accordingly, women have been gagged, as surfaces to be painted, covered with an alien message, or sewn in patterns, having words forced into their essence as the discourse is pierced through them. It would not be a surprise then to state that “women learn to see themselves and other women through men’s eyes, thereby becoming accidental policemen of the very power structure that excludes them […] they are […] alienated from the very bodies by which they have been trapped” (Davies, 62).

The quote implies that men govern the discourse and, as talking with a police officer as a suspect, extreme caution is required. It is arguable whether most men intentionally govern as they are subject to conditioning as much as women. A fascinating exchange took place between one of the female students and some male teenage skateboarders. The young men took a particular liking to The Tights Ball and were intrigued, offering an opening to a conversation about how they view tights. In their opinion tights were horrible and they didn’t like the way girls use them to try and impress older boys. The discussion created some embarrassment and awkwardness. As if to counter the entire premise of this blog post, one of the boys spoke of his hate of tights because he had to wash his sisters tights and hated doing it. This exchange captures how early experience shapes future interaction with a product.

A man told of his love of silk tights and chocolates while a ‘saucy’ Frenchman informed as seductively as possible of his passion for fishnet stockings, yet as many men spoke of a dislike of tights as those who were fans. One lady became irritated when she told that she ‘hates tights and only wears stockings’ for her husband of many years to note ‘I never knew that!’

A particular interesting conversation was with a woman who described how she changes her behaviour according to the tights she wears. Tights advertisements have since the 1970s attempted to reinforce the association that tights dictate behaviour, as the 1971 Tights by Time television commercial illustrates [click]. A number of women have discussed throughout various interventions, and posted to the Re-imagining blog, how they use tights for specific purposes. Whether for work or seduction these seemingly innocuous items often dictates the entire outfit a women will wear. Anna Kompaniets kept a two month diary of her tights wearing and reveals how mood, occasion and weather all contribute to the tights she chose to wear and the reaction to them, especially from men.

The majority of the comments made by women discuss covering up ‘imperfections’ like cellulite, hair, veins, moles etc. At the moment there is guessing that it is the hiding of flaws that provokes the reticence, disgust or view that tights are underwear, not to be seen.

As the project develops, attempts will be made to better understand why some women have such loathing and others such attachment to tights and stockings. We want to understand whether there is direct connection to the uncommunicativeness or negativity of many ladies in relation to tights. One told of a wish to be ‘buried’ surrounded by her tights, another lady said she pays £20 a pair for her tights as ‘they last 20 years’, which would probably appal the woman who finds tights ‘smelly and horrible’.

The reactions garnered from this two and half hour intervention demonstrates the extreme difference of opinions such seemingly insignificant garments generates. Hosiery clearly carry immense cultural coding that few people appear to fully grasp or appreciate and even less understanding of the environmental impact the consumption of so many tights is having on landfill.

What has this got to do with recycling?

The Re-imagining project has already revealed that tights and stockings have numerous connotations with cultural conditioning and previous experiences directly affecting how a person feels towards these items of clothing. The majority of the people who have interacted with the project only considered the environmental impact of nylon tights when noticing The Tights Ball (and Tights Dress in 2013). This is due, we would argue, because the power of marketing of tights and wider perceived demands for women (and lesser extent men) to be viewed in certain ways develops a one sided pressure to consume without regard for consequence.

There is an inherent contradiction in this last sentence. Marketers develop a need for a product and satisfying that need by the consumer buying the product; the purchase will create the perception of positive consequences, a happier life, more friends, better job, place where the sun always shines. These consequences are all personal to the consumer without taking into account of the wider environment in which they live. For the producer, there is little or no ‘economic benefit’ in considering consequences beyond the immediate satisfaction of the consumer. For the consumer, there has to be conscious effort to think beyond the initial purchase and their own desires rather than the consequences of their action. There is a form of collusion between producer and consumer, both implicitly accepting that few, if any product will really be the Holy Grail to a fulfilled life. So how do we all overcome this complicity if, as the scientist are saying, we are heading towards an environmental catastrophe?

Project Aims

This project is seeking to find ways of engaging people to look beyond the pressure to only consider the immediate pleasure in product consumption. We believe that if when purchasing a product wider considerations are taken into account new patterns of behaviour will emerge. We are already aware that when people engage The Tights Ball, wider deliberation surfaces into the issues surrounding recycling, consuming and waste. What we are suggesting here has been verified by University College London Professor, Maurice Biriotti and his team at the international insight company SHM following a case study of the 2013 Re-imagining Ladies Tights project [click to read on the case study].

By merging the conversations between how we view ourselves and how we view others and the world around us, a broader more critical debate will take place, not necessarily with other people but internally, a discussion with oneself. The project triggers a more positive self-reflection, comparing embedded opinion to an artwork that has an accessible language that appeal and resonants across generations, nationalities and people from various backgrounds. The Tights Ball artwork can be seen as replacing the notion of celebrity and/or brand worship. This we believe will allow freedom for people to become more informed and deliberate on the issues before coming to their own conclusion on how they wish to live their life and consume.

The next two interventions will be in June 2014 in Camden followed by a series of live performances by The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama MA Music Theatre students responding to the project. Kindly supported by London borough of Camden and Veolia Environmental Services.

View the Public Tights Wash photo gallery here

Visit the Re-imaginging Ladies Tights project: re-imaginingtights.tumblr.com

John McKiernan.

John McKiernan is the founder of Platform-7 events and producer of abstract performance events in public space.