Button Box at Festival of Quilts

It’s been quite a while since my last blog post as much of my effort has been focused on my Women & Domesticity – What’s your Perspective? duster project and blog during this past year. However I have also been working on an exciting project with ladies from the Unfold textile-art group that I belong to. We have collectively responded to the book The Button Box by Lynn Knight, which charts the history and stories of women’s lives through the investigation of her Grandmother button box.

I chose to explore advertising aimed at women, as this is something that is repeatedly referred to throughout the book and it links well with my other research interests. Within my duster project I’ve been exploring collage using domestic advertisements from the 1950’s, so for The Button Box I extended this to beauty advertising. It struck me that this media positions a woman as a figure who should apparently always be striving for physical perfection, whilst seeking to get and then keep her man. Just as the choice of button displays and presents a variety of visual messages depending on its size, colour and style, so it seems does a woman.

The text included in all of my work has been lifted directly from real advertisements, mostly from the 1950’s post-war period. I’m interested in this period because it was a point in time when women were being put ‘back in their place’ after experiencing a comparative level of freedom during the Second World War. I had anticipated the need to subvert or change the text in some way in order to make my point, however the text is so ridiculous it was enough to simply apply it. It seems that we have been fighting these expectations ever since and I perceive that sadly little has changed from the adverts then to those we see today.

Text and images have been hand-embroidered onto vintage dressing table cloths and garments as a means of connecting the feminine art of embroidery with the declarations of female perfection presented in the media. The objects selected, the process of hand stitching them and the embroidered outcomes are each intended to reflect both the powerlessness and the pleasure of being a woman whist challenging patriarchal perspectives on a woman’s body.

I’ve loosely divided my response up onto four areas, which all relate to the expectation of enduring beauty.

As long as you’re beautiful!


(Dressing table cloth ‘quilt’. Assorted cloths and messages presented at a dressing table – cloth with assorted trinkets, mirror etc)

This collection of hand-embroidered vintage dressing table cloths explores the idea that a quilt in its most basic form is a collection different pieces of fabric that are pieced together to form a whole. By isolating individual words and phrases, taken directly from make-up advertisements from the 1950’s, the messages are ‘quilted’ together and the absurdity of the language is highlighted. I’ve also snuck in a few messages of my own, such as ‘rebel often!’ The dressing table pulls all of these different aspects together into a female space that has perhaps become lost in modern living.

Inspiring quotes:

What price beauty?’ Page 111

 ‘When you’re really going to town your makeup must be Max-Factor Pan-Cake’ page 183

‘In 1958, Elizabeth Arden promoted a new foundation, ‘Veiled Radiance’. Page 238

 ‘Read fashion magazines and study advertisements’ page 87

‘Who sits at a dressing table now?’ page 240


Ways to get your man…

IMG_2654(Adverts on dressing table cloths)

These are exact copies of real adverts. I discovered several more with a similar theme. In each narrative the girl is offered a magic potion of sorts that will ensure her success in ‘getting her man’. Lipstick or soap solve the problem in these examples but it’s a small step to a magical elixir directly from a fairy tale. These narratives set the tone for expected behaviour as well as appearance.

Inspiring quotes:

‘Men ask, is she pretty? Not, is she clever?’ Page 110 

 ‘A good figure, large eyes, well-shaped nails, slender, to say nothing of a good figure – all those things add up to … one’s potential in the marriage market’ page 110 

 Tangee lipstick’ page 152


Feminine Niceties 


Women are expected to do things to their bodies for the sake of appearing feminine and nice that are actually contrary to the natural state of things. Advertising has made this so normal that we often don’t question it further.

Vintage nighties or slips were selected because this is an item of clothing that is not actually necessary yet performs the purpose of perceivably making the woman become more visually appealing. I selected ‘normal’ changes that we make to our bodies: the removal of body hair; wearing underwear that impacts our shape (even the modern bra still does this); and dieting.

It was particularly interesting to see that weight is a fashionable consideration (rather than to do with health). Skinny is positioned as undesirable back in the 50’s, the exact opposite of now, with solutions and diets to put weight on rather than off.

Inspiring quotes:

‘The modern figure… must be corseted to be svelte. Be thankful that firmly woven elastic takes the place of whalebone’. Page 214

 ‘[In the 60’s] everything was being debated… you didn’t [even] have to shave your armpits!’ Page 255

The messages and expectations presented here persist. The Button Box offers an opportunity for women to question them and to present themselves with a button of their own choosing.

The response at the festival was overwhelming and positive. We hope to exhibit it again soon and I for one already have more ideas for embroidering onto dressing table cloths.



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