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Weaving Narratives: A Close-Up Look at The Fabric of Democracy Exhibition

In 1928, a catalogue for the Soviet Textiles exhibition recognised fabrics as 'ideological goods' with significant societal impact.

While textiles are not typically seen as political, "The Fabric of Democracy" at Fashion and Textile Museum explores how printed fabrics convey political messages and ideologies, both worn on the body and integrated into home spaces.

The Fabric of Democracy Exhibition

The Fabric of Democracy Exhibition. Source: AG Press

As the mechanisation of textile industries democratised textile decoration, governments and corporations harnessed print techniques to communicate ideologies, from wartime slogans to revolutionary ideals. This exhibition challenges the perception of textiles as 'women's work,' demonstrating that fabrics can contribute to and shape political debates within the home.

The showcased objects reveal how textile design responded to political upheavals across centuries, offering insight into how textiles were employed as tools of the state, spanning communism to fascism. In the context of global upheavals, the exhibition takes on new dimensions, reminding us that the themes explored are not confined to history but resonate in our contemporary world.

"Propaganda," traditionally associated with top-down communication and world-forming, finds its expression in the art and design of textiles. Originating from the Counter-Reformation, political propaganda evolved alongside technological advancements, from pamphlets to mass media.

The exhibition delves into the role of art and design as essential tools in shaping and communicating worldviews.

a cream scarf with red and blue design tied around mannequin head

The Fabric of Democracy Exhibition. Source: AG Press

While discussions on propaganda often centre on public artworks, and textiles, used both within the home and as garments, it blurs the lines between public and private spheres. 

The exhibition unfolds the evolution of propaganda through physical forms, showcasing posters, pamphlets, buildings, and statues that have played a pivotal role in shaping political narratives.

"The Fabric of Democracy" weaves a narrative that goes beyond history, resonating with contemporary challenges. Just like fabric, democracy, as demonstrated by recent events, can fray – a powerful reminder of the enduring impact textiles have on our political and social landscapes.

From the mechanisation of textile industries in the eighteenth century to the modern age of digital misinformation, this exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London explores the evolution of propaganda through textiles.

Textile printing techniques, initially developed in Asia, revolutionised European fabric production. From bans on Asian fabrics to the industrialisation of print processes, textiles became a potent medium for political messages. The exhibition traces this journey, showcasing methods from blocks to screen printing.

Maps, as early forms of propaganda, solidified ideas around kingdoms and empires. British Empire territories were often marked in red on maps during colonial rule. The Latin origin of "map" relates to fabric, exemplified by wartime escape maps made of cloth during World War II.

The relationship between textiles and wartime is profound, serving various functions from making uniforms to fundraising. Napoleon Bonaparte recognised the contribution of textile workshops to the "war waged on battlefields."

The Battle of the Nile celebration led to fashion souvenirs, blending uniform details into women's dresses. The post-World War era witnessed Cold War symbolism in textiles, incorporating motifs of agriculture, industry, and progress.

National holidays, Olympics, and world fairs showcased textile designs to reinforce national stories globally. The Festival of Britain in 1951 used printed fabrics to promote democratic values and modern design.

a yellow cloth with photo of Barack Obama in the centre

The Fabric of Democracy Exhibition. Source: AG Press

In the era of "post-truth," propaganda extends beyond print into slogan clothing and the digital realm. The 2010s saw divisive politics, populism, and post-truth ideologies, impacting democracy. As we navigate the digital age, the exhibition suggests that propaganda, like fabric, continues to shape our reality both in our homes and through screens.

Populism often portrays politicians or movements as champions of the people against a perceived corrupt elite, as seen in leaders like Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro, as well as the Brexit vote. After the 2016 referendum, pro-EU marches featured Remainders wearing yellow and blue, symbolising support for the EU. Despite the fashion industry's predominantly pro-EU stance, challenges post-Brexit, such as increased bureaucracy and costs, were reported by fashion businesses, reflecting the ongoing debate on EU membership through textiles since the 1990s.

In unravelling the intricate threads of political narratives woven into fabrics, "The Fabric of Democracy" reveals that even the seemingly mundane textiles hold profound political significance. From the expressive prints worn on our bodies to the patterns adorning our homes, the exhibition underscores the enduring power of textiles as silent messengers of political ideals.

As we explore the nuanced history displayed in each carefully crafted piece, we are reminded that in every stitch, democracy's story continues to be intricately woven into the fabric of our daily lives.


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