By appropriating British colonial maps as unexpected pieces of fabric, the ‘Colonial dress’ blurs the boundaries of public and individual history and touches upon complex subjects regarding postcolonialism and feminism. Susan Stockwell, who started sewing at an early age, long before she studied sculpture, describes its creation as follows:
‘I used the maps to make an extended world on the skirt, a sort of world map in itself. At this time, I was drawing comparisons between maps, country and continent shapes and human anatomy. I had a scan of my liver and was struck by its resemblance in shape to Brazil, hence Brazil is placed where the liver is, Africa in place of the stomach and Manchester (my hometown) is placed where the heart is.’
Manchester is more than a town in the artist’s personal history. With its flourishing cotton textile industry, it was one of the most prominent cities of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, in its turn, was a major driving force behind the radical expansion of European colonial powers during the 19th century.
The ‘Colonial dress’ is an artistic reflection on these historical facts and, on another level, it makes a strong feminist statement. The artist says that, in making a dress out of maps, she talks ‘about women claiming their territory and claiming the female body’. In line with her other dress sculptures, this artwork provides an empty sheath ‘to be filled with the untold stories of the women who might have worn’ it.