Veil as Muse

by Vinny Stapley

Veils have always fascinated me.  I remember seeing Arab & Asian women as a very young child, learning about their cultures and then later loving the feel and delicacy of the finest silk tulle veiling when I worked for a wedding dress designer;  so delicate so sheer, so intriguing and at the same time secretive and feminine.

Veils feature in our language which is in itself interesting: veiled threats, veiled in secrecy, hinting at a slightly mysterious and sometimes flirtatious or malevolent side to the feminine.  They express so much about female identity, nuns ‘take the veil’ to signify the giving of themselves to god, brides wear a veil to demonstrate chastity and widows wear a veil to express their grief.  Katherine Bond writes “In 16th c Italy, fashionable delicate and translucent veils were highly prized…gossamer veil cloths evoked an aesthetic delicacy and transparency with the allure of youthful, feminine beauty.  Their affective impact stirred the emotions, precipitating attraction and enchantment.”

Traditional veil makers were called ‘Velettai’, a possible title for a new body of work.

In modern times Muslim women have described taking the veil as ‘liberating’, freeing them as it does from unwanted male attention and gaze, while feminism reads their veil-wearing as impractical and oppressive. 

Veils feature in Fine Art and Design practice. 

A significant piece for me on my journey to Textile Art has been Lenore Tawney’s ‘In Utero’ 1985.  Michele Grabner writes “In this hanging sculpture, a found rustic wooden child’s chair with a straw seat, similar to the iconic subject of van Gogh’s painting Van Gogh’s Chair, is encapsulated in a soft geometric bubble of fleshy, translucent fabric.  It floats in a protective membrane, either muse or guardian.”  For me it floats as if in a womb, a cowl (yet another name for a veil).

Another significant piece which featured in The Hayward Galleries, ‘Addressing the Century’ Exhibition 1998, was Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘Veil’ 1938, inspired by Tunisian wedding costumes.  Having spent time there as a child, some of her greatest fashion innovations came from studying Tunisian dressmaking techniques.

Veils have become a part of my own work, using transparent delicate veil-like materials  to express the concept of delicacy and the passage of time.  In ‘Vanitas Veil’ 2000, family history is imbued with melancholy, ‘Miss Havisham-like qualities of fading, distressed ethereal beauty.   

In `Purslane Web Veil’ 2019, the constructed textile veil embodies the qualities of the plants in the intertidal zone, their fine, delicate roots mesh together to protect the fragile shoreline. 

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