Elizabeth Bishop, Exchanging Hats (Carcanet 1997)
Where do you stand on this issue of colour? I wondered about this as I went through the small but vibrant exhibit of work by knitting guru and textile designer Kaffe Fassett at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. I’m someone who believes black is the loveliest colour there is, and like Elizabeth Bishop I like black with brown – earthy colours. This show was way out of my league colourwise.
Colour is vital and has great significance – historically, culturally, politically. Just think of the fuss made this week about what colour tie various newsreaders would wear when reporting on Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. We know that in different cultures colours mean different things. In Britain, for example, white only became associated with wedding dresses in the mid-nineteenth century, during Queen Victoria’s reign, after she was married in a white dress. Marrying in white meant you had money; otherwise you got married in whatever your best clothes were. In the US, red means Republican; in Britain it means Labour; in India it’s the colour of weddings. For anyone interested to learn about colours, have a look at Pantone: A Color History of the 20th Century; Brain Pickings has a lively review of this ‘fascinating and uncommon lens on familiar cultural history’ on its site at www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/11/23/pantone-book/.
‘Extravagant’ is one term used by the Fashion and Textile Museum to describe the range of colour and texture Kaffe Fassett uses in shawls, sweaters, cushions and quilts. That’s an ambiguous term, suggesting lushness but without purpose. For some, Fassett’s work lies on the decorative crafts end of the art spectrum, with all the twee connotations of knitting and interior design. For others, his pushing at the boundaries of traditional arts, including knitting but also quilting and embroidery, is inspirational - and all the more so for being a man in a traditionally woman's world.
Whether you like his work or not, there’s something unnerving about so much bright colour in one place. It’s a sort of assault on the senses, but in my view that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes we need to be assaulted – shaken and stirred.
Kaffe Fassett: A Life in Colour is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 29 June 2013.