It’s written by the dress. Gothic sleeves, Gothic worlds


The second film to be shown at Gothic Feminism shall be It’s written by the dress. Gothic sleeves, Gothic worlds by Katerina Flint-Nicol from the University of Kent. Here is Katerina’s abstract for the piece: 

‘I’d risen this morning,

determined to break,

the spell of longing,

and not to think.’ Silence, PJ Harvey

‘Those solo show dresses were fitted and intricate and armour-like’ Maria Mochnacz.

I first saw PJ Harvey at The White Swan in Hampstead. Playing one of her first sets in London before the release of Dry, I was an immediate fan. Struck by the sheer force, potency and maturity of her music, the small crowd, I especially, were mesmerised by Harvey’s slight frame. How her body did not buckle under the weight of her cherry red Gibson guitar was seemingly an act of enchantment. My admiration (or obsession) for Harvey has grown with every album release and visual transformation since that first encounter. However, there has been one moment of wavering. Listening to Harvey’s 2007 release, White Chalk, I was taken aback with the bleakness and the extent of departure from her previous work. Listening to it just the once, I put it away.

Since that time, there have been many ‘returns to Victoriana’ appearing on TV and on film; Ripper Street (2012 – ), Penny Dreadful (2014 – ), The Woman in Black (2012), and Crimson Peak (2015), to name a few. Watching, I began to notice the sleeves in the female costume, images that kept on reminding me of Harvey’s dress in the photos for White Chalk and her live shows. Returning to this album, it was hard not to observe the prominence of sleeves at the shoulder were to Harvey’s dress, a design that found correlation in films and TV series I had watched. Since Rid of Me (1993), PJ Harvey has always drawn upon differing female identities to visualise her music. Predominately, these have been camp reconfigurations such as her ‘Joan Crawford on acid’ look for, To Bring You My Love (1995). For White Chalk, Harvey dresses as a Victorian governess, a costume with heightened sleeves. It is sleeves that are the focus of this video essay.

In collating the clips, I have not only searched for the obvious examples (no one can ignore sleeves in Crimson Peak), but also variations. This approach allowed for the inclusion of works that fall outside of a Victorian setting, whilst inviting consideration into the historical evolution of sleeves and their developed employment in costume on TV and film.

In constructing this piece, I considered many approaches but finally decided on shaping it by harmonising image with the music. Listening to White Chalk, you can’t help but be struck with how Harvey animates a sense of Gothic. She sings of longing, death, murder and solitude. The world of White Chalk evokes Wuthering Heights (1847), Northanger Abbey (1817), and Jane Eyre (1847). Talking of her work, Harvey has consistently described the writing process as the desire to create cinematic universes in her songs. Keeping this as a line to follow, many of the images carry a certain resonance with the songs, either by emotion or through the lyrics.

As a final word, this is very much a work at its inception! In pulling Harvey’s music together with costume, I am considering the cultural currency of this costume not only as a resource to approach the construction of female subjectivity, but also how costume functions in creating gothic worlds.

Text by: Katerina Flint-Nicol

Image: The Wolfman (2010)

Film by: Katerina Flint-Nicol

2016, 15 mins

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