artbeat (2006-06)

Recycled Fashion

Jaime Bravo transforms Victorian garments into modern art

by Leslie Wylie

Victorian-era women’s fashion was a thing of elegant torture, featuring a vast artillery of gut-strangling corsets, fussy bodices and awkward bustles. It was a second skin that reshaped the feminine form into an exaggerated caricature. It was idealism gone awry, but it was also, admittedly, beautiful.

Today, for many people, Victorian clothing evokes a romanticized memoir of an era characterized by stiff lace and even stiffer manners. Others criticize it for its repressive, anti-feminist implications, the way it literally and metaphorically caged women’s bodies. But Jaime Bravo, a Mexico-born Chicago artist whose work is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Knoxville, harbors yet another interpretation.

At first glance, Bravo doesn’t look like the kind of guy you’d expect to have a fixation with Victorian fashion. Dressed-down in rumpled jeans and an un-tucked plaid shirt, he stands with arms folded, squinting his dark, onyx-colored eyes at the web of string he’s just assembled in the exhibition space’s corner. A swath of tattered fabric clings to the strings, looking like a blackbird that’s entangled itself in some monster spider’s sticky engineering. It’s a new work he’s titled “Slighting the Mourning,” and Bravo explains that the fabric is actually the bodice of a post-Civil War mourning gown. A matching, and equally grim, bonnet and skirt are slung over a nearby ladder, waiting to be hung as well.

“I respect where the garments come from,” Bravo says in his lilting Latino accent. “I put myself in this receptive state, listening, imagining what they’ve gone through.” In the case of this morbid black gown, which dates back to the 1880s, he speaks empathetically of the suffering its wearer must have endured—an emotion that comes through clearly via his presentation of the garment. The piece lurks like a shadow in the corner, with a network of tense black thread streaming out from it.  

Bravo finds most of the vintage garments he uses through eBay. They’re typically in various stages of decay, clothes people discover in their attics and aren’t quite sure what to do with. Bravo doesn’t attempt to repair anything he receives; he studies their fold-marks and torn hemlines as one might examine the topography of a grandparent’s face, excavating the history each crevice contains. Of a shabby, champagne-hued wedding train that’s suspended mid-room, for example, he says, “I love how beautiful it is and how lustrous, and how it’s falling apart.” The juxtaposition of sadness and grace collides neatly within the parameters of the wooden cube it’s encased in, with excess sentiment spilling out into a fabric puddle on the floor. “I do believe in energy,” Bravo explains.

Most of the garments displayed aren’t immediately recognizable. “I’m showing the same information in a different form, and abstracting it,” Bravo says. Stings woven into their hemlines contort them into abstract shapes, dictated by the garments’ biases and cut. “The garments dictate how the lines will look,” he explains.

In one corner, for instance, a ruffled magenta bodice is distorted almost beyond recognition: waist pulled open like a pouting mouth, sleeves outstretched like satin wings, chest tugged upward by a network of delicate strings. An intricate, jewel-toned bodice in the adjacent corner is turned inside out, exposing an imperfect network of hand-stitched seams. “It was a sacrifice,” Bravo recalls of his decision to reveal the garment’s lining in lieu of its more aesthetically appealing exterior. “But it shows you the structure; it shows you how it works. The details make it more human.”

He speaks of his work as though it were equal parts architecture and sculpture, both being former pursuits of his. The garments, laid out flat, remind him of a floor plan, ready to be expanded into three-dimensional form. He compares the process to drafting or technical drawing, with a sculptural twist. Traditional sculpting materials, however, aren’t tangible enough for his taste. “I love sculpture, but I need to touch my materials. I’d like to work with metal, but it’s hot and I can’t touch it, and that frustrates me,” he says.

But the task of manipulating materials that are sometimes 150 years old comes with its own unique set of challenges. Watching Bravo work, however, it’s clear that he possesses the necessary sensitivity; without so much as measuring tape, he rearranges the garments into perfectly symmetrical designs and, with minimal experimentation, knows exactly how tight to pull each string.

In a sense, it’s like watching a surgeon perform a medical operation—the tiny movements of his fingers, the thoughtfulness with which he makes each decision, the skillful, confident rhythms. Methodically, Bravo questions the garments’ traditional role as instruments of restriction and re-imagines them on their own terms, celebrating their beauty and giving them permission to expand. “I want you to think of your own body, what you are without a body,” he says. “It’s aggressive by its nature, but it is also delicate and respectful.”

What: Jaime Bravo