I am haunted by the ghostly presence of Agnes Richter’s strange, hand-embroidered jacket. It has an uncanny presence. Even psychologist Gail Hornstein says that ‘encountering her jacket feels more like seeing a ghost than inspecting a work of art’. The power of any garment that survives its owner lies partly in the way it evokes the body which once wore it, but Richter’s jacket feels particularly haunted. Its tiny waist, its marks and sweat stains, and the way it is tailored to fit the curvature of her spine all powerfully conjure the mysterious woman who turned an anonymous patient’s gown into a deeply personal, bespoke jacket. Richter was committed to Hubertusberg State Asylum in 1895. When she was given a uniform to wear, she ripped it apart and remade it into a fitted jacket, tailoring it to hug comfortably around the unusual shape of her body and embroidering it with mysterious marks, inside and out. She must have been a distinctive, and perhaps rather frightening figure around the asylum, wearing her unearthly coat with its magical markings, a shamanic, priestly figure in her mysterious vestments. I have been obsessed by this highly-wrought garment ever since encountering it as one of the items in the Prinzhorn collection of ‘outsider’ art.
Hans Prinzhorn was assistant director of the psychiatric clinic at Heidelberg University in the early twentieth century. He was deeply curious about the connection between madness and creativity, and became convinced that the seclusion of patients, not just within asylum walls but also within their own interior worlds, meant that any art made by them was particularly ‘authentic’ as untainted by outside influences. He collected examples of patients’ art from asylums across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Amongst the many extraordinary objects in his collection is this jacket.
There is an important tradition of subversive stitching by asylum patients, particularly amongst women detainees who were denied writing materials but permitted domestic activities such as sewing. Even in the Prinzhorn collection, there are other examples produced by women such as Marie Lieb, Hedwig Wilms and Katharina Detzel. Agnes Richter was part of this tradition, but also went beyond it. Her jacket is more than a work of art, it is an object of power.
Garments as magical objects have a long history. In the folktale Catskin, for example, a young woman seeks to escape dangerous patriarchal attention, variously the incestuous or oppressive desires of a father or stepfather, by disguising herself in a homemade garment (in most of the stories, this is a coat made from a patchwork of animal skins). This garment provides her with protection and becomes the source of her power, reappearing magically in the story as a dress made of the sun, stars, or feathers. But Richter’s jacket is more even than this: it is a whole new language. The inside and outside surfaces of this jacket are covered with a dense, finely stitched writing, an embroidered language that cannot be read in the usual way but still communicates. A few words can be deciphered but most are either in an archaic German dialect or in her own secret language of asemic marks, signs and patterns, punctuated by surplus needle marks and unpicked stitch holes. This is a language which would have pressed into her skin and fitted itself to her physical and mental state of being; a text which makes meaning from the folds and seams of the garment itself. It invites the onlooker to imagine putting it on, slipping arms into tightly cuffed sleeves and buttoning it up to the neck so that its writing tattoos itself onto the wearer’s skin. Or at the very least, we are asked to construct multiple expressions of Richter’s story from its different colours and textures.
Richter had good reason to write in a new language. She was imprisoned within the old one. She was confined in the asylum with a diagnosis of ‘chronic madness with notions of persecution’ and so her protests were heard simply as further evidence of her ‘hysteria’ and delusions of persecution. And so instead, from the grey linen of institutional fabric, she fashioned a textile-informed alternative text to the gendered diagnoses and legal judgements within which she was constrained. Hers is a language of an embodied becoming which reaches beyond her individual body in its vocabularies of materiality and making, and which challenges binaries and fixed definitions with its tucked and folded architecture. This is why it haunts me. Richter died in 1918, still confined to the asylum. But her jacket continues to cast its spells and to raise from the dead a powerful creative presence inhabiting a unique and potent language.
Richter’s jacket took on a whole new relevance for me when I ended up wearing a patient’s uniform of my own. Being issued with a regulation hospital gown was almost the first thing that happened when I was admitted to hospital in January 2021. It was at the height of COVID lockdown so only the two big C wards (Cancer and COVID) were still open at my local hospital. Within a week of my emergency cancer surgery, only the COVID ward remained in operation. You could say I was incredibly lucky. And perhaps that partly explains why this hospital gown is so important to me. But, at first, I hated it. I hated its huge, baggy anonymity and the way it tied at the back like a bib or a straitjacket. In fact, as soon as I could get out of bed, I donned my purple dressing gown to cover it up – only realising later that as a dark, spectral figure, hooded like the Angel of Death, I may have terrified the other patients! But in the weeks and months following my surgery, I realised that, in order to come to terms with the feelings of helplessness and loss of control that come with being a patient, I needed to do some refashioning of my own. And so I turned again to Agnes Richter’s jacket.
Inspired by Richter, I started a project to cut and restitch my surgical gown (a duplicate ordered via the internet), remaking it into a costume or a disguise. I wanted to respond in some way to the fact that my body had been cut into, reshaped and restitched, leaving me with a nine-inch scar. And so my first intervention with the blue-spotted cotton gown was to create a nine-inch seam, hand embroidered in gold thread: a line of glittering stitches on the outside of the gown that exactly matched the line of surgical stitches beneath. This seam is imperfect, as is my uneven scar, but it holds the two edges of the torn garment together.
But I wanted to go further and respond in some way to Agnes’ use of different coloured threads for the embroidery on her jacket. I started to wonder what the significance was of her choice of either blue, green, yellow or white thread? I wondered if this was part of the new language she was making, using different colours as a kind of grammar. Or whether the different colour threads allowed her to connect with different narratives and to express multiple voices? Although we will probably never fully unlock the secrets of Richter’s garment, I was inspired to use colours myself to connect with the multi-faceted aspects of my own (and possibly others’) experience of illness and treatment. Yellow, for example, seemed to connect with light and therefore with healing, whereas the intensity of red took me deeply into a state of anguish. Blue seemed to offer some containment and sense of safety in the face of mortal terrors, whereas white nudged at my own privilege and the fact that I didn’t have to deal with the worry of wondering whether the speed and success of my treatment might be inflected by the well-documented institutional racism of our health and social systems. Green, on the other hand, seemed to me to connect with my need to assert, against an anonymising system, an embodied sense of myself as more than a ‘patient’.
I applied words associated with each of these colours to my hospital gown, cutting out the letters from felt and stitching them in place with a fine gold thread. The choice of gold thread made this act take on a sense of ritual activity, acknowledging the fiction of what I was doing but also ritually fastening colour to word as an act of ‘what if?’. And so I attached the word HOLD in dark blue felt just below the shoulder seam so that it would rest safely on my collarbone when I wore the gown. A scarlet HOWL slashes diagonally across the gown’s breast. A yellow HEAL sits over a lung, rising and falling with my breath, and a white HIDE is almost invisible as it is stitched vertically on a white background. The word ICH (German for ‘I’) is discernible on Richter’s jacket (or is it part of the word STICH, German for sew?) and so, inspired by this, I stitch a green felt ICH just above the nine-inch seam which marks the start of my surgical scar. When I put on this altered gown, it now felt very different. It felt weighted with a different set of meanings, quite literally pulling the fabric in multiple directions.
As my imagination and desires started to reinvent the gown so it started to stretch into a dream garment. In my fantasy, the nine-inch gold seam on the surgical gown becomes not just a scar but a join, a meeting place for different experiences, different histories, and other selves. Whom I meet at this join in my fantasy includes other women, living and dead, as well as a younger version of myself who identifies even more closely with Agnes Richter. This is my teenage self, a more vulnerable self who responded to the intensity of extreme mental and emotional states by refusing to eat and by cutting and self-harm. This is a self who was diagnosed with an eating disorder and as needing psychiatric intervention. Unlike Richter, my younger self had no strategies for asserting that she needed more than this diagnostic language. The dream version of my altered hospital gown expanded into a new way of responding to this damaged, younger self and offered some repair.
I was influenced in my work on the hospital gown by another project I was undertaking at the same time. This other project involved making a series of visual pieces responding to the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Edition 5 (or DSM-5) by cutting and stitching directly into its pages, cutting it open to reveal apertures into other ways of reading and making meanings from it. I called these visual pieces DEFASURES, a compound of deface, erasure, suture, fray and aperture. Through its use of stitches, fabric patches and holes, my DEFASURES project problematises and poses questions about the DSM’s purely medical models of healing, ‘repair’, and the recovery of some supposed state of pristine and individualised mental health. Poet and friend, Martin Wakefield, has commented that this DEFASURES project ‘can be read as inflicting wounds to the body of the manual to obtain relief from the hegemony and reductive nature of the diagnoses therein…’ The stitched and patched surface of my hospital gown started to suggest some relief for the younger self I had tried to leave behind but whose voice kept intruding in my dreams.
To extend this dream garment, I realised I need to write it, to create a textual version of my imagined fabric language for expressing extreme states of being. And so my poetic project ‘A Method of a Jacket’ began. This is a work in progress which is exploring how to stage Richter’s jacket within the text itself. The coloured threads of my hospital gown re-emerge here in linguistic explorations of each colour. Along the stitches and seams of this ‘jacket as poem’, the experiences of my older and younger selves converge with those of other women who have dreamed their garments into a new language. These other women include Agnes Richter herself, my grandmother Kate who was also confined to an asylum, and the inspired, cross-dressing Joan of Arc. They are each linked to a different coloured thread. As these threads are pulled together within the poem, they align narratives from different historical time periods to create a connecting relationship or ‘sisterhood’ (Sister Agnes, Sister Kate, etc), which teases out an idea of women’s solidarity across the centuries. Each sister functions like a pin or tacking stitch which temporarily fixes the temporal fabric of their individual narratives into a spatial fold and brings them alongside each other.
The poem is structured as a weave of ‘threads’ and ‘stitches’. The ‘thread’ sections rotate through green, yellow, red, and blue, and utilise some textual fragmentation to suggest the unpicked selvedges which preceded Richter’s remaking of the jacket. For example, the poem starts ‘athre ada th readagree nthrea dat h read how a green’, whole words gradually forming out of their unravelled parts. These ‘coloured thread’ sections alternate with sections which are more like stitches fastened into the poem’s running threads. The poem thus spreads multi-directionally to form a textual space across which patterns emerge and possible meanings can be constructed.
Excerpt from A Method of a Jacket (work in progress)
I was already obsessed with Agnes Richter’s jacket before I discovered Gail Hornstein’s book Agnes’s Jacket (Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 2012) but I am grateful to Hornstein for information about Hubertusberg State Asylum and the subsequent preservation of the jacket.
Susie Campbell is currently working towards a practice-based poetry PhD at Oxford Brookes. Recent poetry publications include I return to you (Sampson Low, 2019), Tenter (Guillemot Press, 2020), Enclosures (Osmosis Press, 2021) and, just out, The Sleeping Place (Guillemot Press, 2023). As well as writing text poetry, Susie also makes visual, sound and textile poetry. More about her interests and work can be found here.