The nightdress I wore to give birth in: performative materialities and maternal intersubjectivities

Chambers, Paula ORCID logoORCID: (2017) The nightdress I wore to give birth in: performative materialities and maternal intersubjectivities. Performance Research, A Journal of the Performing Arts, 22 (4). pp. 18-27. ISSN 1469-9990


It begins with a pale blue cotton nightdress from Mothercare; I don’t remember buying it, but suppose I must have done. Strange that I should have thought it necessary to buy a maternity nightdress to give birth in when nudity or a large t-shirt would have sufficed. I don’t wear nightdresses, yet I gave birth to my son wearing a pale blue cotton nightdress from Mothercare. Another story about materiality and childbirth. My mother tells me (although she is not a reliable witness) that when she gave birth to me in 1966, she was left to labour alone with only an occasional check up from a young male doctor wearing a hand knitted arran jumper. During the course of her labour, my mother, in much discomfort and distress, pulled at this young doctor’s jumper until it began to unravel. What ties these two stories is the role of materiality as the stuff or substance of the performativity of childbirth. Together they tell of maternal relations evidenced and consolidated through materiality, of intersubjective experience and memory materialized; literally. Both the physical experience of birthing and the emotional memory of the performance of giving birth have an ambivalent and ambiguous relationship to death, horror, haunting and the uncanny. This essay looks at four artworks that position the nightdress as a performative object resonant with maternal relations, intersubjective experience and the uncanny. Cornelia Parker’s ‘Blue Shift’, the nightdress worn by Mia Farrow in the horror film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Cell VII’ where nightclothes and undergarments hang like pale ghosts trapped within a claustrophobic enclosure of heavy wooden doors. Megan Wynne’s ‘The Night Gown I Wore When I Gave Birth to Her’, a photographic image of the artist with her five-year-old daughter curled under the stretch fabric of the nightdress they both wear. And my own ‘The Nightdress I Wore to Give Birth in’, the pale blue cotton nightdress that opens this essay, now performing as sculpture. Analysing these artworks as performative objects vibrant with the agency of materiality, with specific focus on how the materniality of agency in this context imbues materiality with uncanny resonance. Drawing on recent writing around feminism and new materialities, Maurizia Boscagli positions clothing as the material signifier of femininity, the choosing of clothes as a potentially radical act of non-conformity. Judith Butler developed our understanding of gender construction as an ongoing series of performative acts; clothing, outward appearance and restricted modes of behavior being key indicators of femininity. Jessica Benjamin positions maternal intersubjectivities as the active engagement of identification and recognition, the individual growing in and through their relationship to other subjects. Alexandra Kokoli’s recent publication on the feminist uncanny explores through an analysis of feminist artwork, the uncanny as the ambivalent space through which feminism engages with psychoanalysis. Barbara Creed in ‘The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis’ challenges the notion of the female body as terrifying, as such disrupting the understanding of woman as victim within the genre of horror; in the context of this essay, the performativity of birthing becoming the site/sight of horror. This essay analyses the performativity of materiality as the signifier of maternal intersubjectivities, engaging with texts that position new materialisms alongside the uncanny material and performative resonance of the nightdress as worn to give birth in.

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