In the later stages of her life the sculptor, painter and acclaimed artist Louise Bourgeois left her home in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood only once a day, dressed in a black fisherman’s cap, teal silk scarf, and a long, navy peacoat. Though the outing was routine – intended as a brief tour around the block before Bourgeois returned to her studio to work – the accessories and clothes were always immaculate and carefully chosen.
Bourgeois – whose print works are currently the subject of a major MoMA exhibition, Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait – intimately understood the power of clothes and their capacity to invigorate, persuade, and seduce. To be photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, in 1982, for a portrait which is now regarded as seminal, she wore a coat of monkey fur, and tucked her sexually ambiguous plaster sculpture, “Fillette”, from 1968, underneath her arm as provocative accessory. Other artists, anxious to present themselves as having “serious” intentions, might have avoided stirring further controversy by grinning wickedly into the camera, but not Bourgeois. In the Seventies, she started experimenting with wearable sculpture, fashioning several outfits out of latex with multiple protruding breast-like bulges, and posing in them on the street and steps outside her home. “Of course, I was delighted to have so many breasts,” she recounted later, poker-faced, in a film made about her work. “I was kind of showing off… because I know men like that.”
For Bourgeois, clothes were of a way of being seen and commanding attention in the male-dominated art world of the Seventies, but also of connecting to the past and inhabiting the ghosts of memory. “You can retell your life and remember your life by the shape, weight, colour and smell of those clothes in your closet,” she once said, in connection to her 2007 work, “Ode à la bièvre”, a series of stitched portraits fashioned from old garments hoarded in the artist’s wardrobe. Bourgeois grew up in a tapestry restoration atelier, outside of Paris, where her whole family was engaged in the act of reviving textile-based wall hangings. This background urged her to see fabrics not as disposable objects, but as vibrant raw material which could always be repurposed for other uses. After the death of her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, in 1973, she cut up items stored away from her wedding trousseau and recycled them into “The Woven Drawings”, weaving her way through her grief. Still later, Bourgeois’s old clothes would be hung from the mesh walls in her infamous “Cell” series, where, emptied of bodies, they took on the conceptual appeal of architecture.
As well as charged items able to evoke the textures of past lives, clothes for Bourgeois were also communal objects, means of creating community and establishing bonds with others. In 1978 she staged what she called “A Fashion Show of Body Parts”, half performance-art piece, half dystopian catwalk show where she wrapped participants in white drapes studded with ambiguous nodules, reminiscent of her earlier breast-outfits. Attracting critics, art lovers and students alike, the performance was a reference for later collections by Rei Kawakubo and Hussein Chalayan, and vitally exposed Bourgeois’s three-dimensional worn sculptures to a live audience. At the time, Bourgeois subtitled the piece “A Banquet”, showing the extent to which she viewed fashion as a multi-sensory affair in which many people could partake.
In a conversation with Simone Rocha, who often cites Bourgeois as an influence on her collections, Bourgeois’s long-term assistant Jerry Gorovoy recalled: “I always found the way she styled herself fascinating. She was the wife of a historian – she circulated in one group which dressed in that way – but she was also an artist. You see these polarities in her wardrobe reflecting the really different identities she had.”
Whether playful in leopard print and dangling earrings to host one of her infamous salon sessions, or restrained in a grey pinafore and high-neck blouse to talk through her “Cell” series on camera, for Bourgeois, clothes were a vital form of self-fashioning, of presenting one’s ideal self in that moment to the world. Refusing to see the body as constrained by categories of sexuality or gender, she was one of the very first to see clothes as sculptures in their own right, opening fashion up to its potential as architecture. In this context, getting dressed could become a form of world-making – and of keeping certain emotions in check – but also of making contact with others. One of her most famous mantras for her decades-long creative practice – “I do, I undo, I redo” – reveals how for Bourgeois clothes were a mutable art form, alive with potential: to wake up each day, face the wardrobe, and begin again.
Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait is at MoMA until January 28, 2018