Kachina Leigh’s ghostly dresses
When you first view Kachina Leigh’s Little Girls series you’re left breathless. Each delicate dress invokes memories of a more graceful time and conjures sad, ghostly images of little girls lost in the past.
Yet the story behind the dresses isn’t quite that spooky. When her grandmother— who had taught Leigh to embroider and sew—passed, her mother was left with a collection of little girls’ vintage dresses from the 1930s and 1940s with the hope to give them to Leigh for her future offspring. “I have these beautiful dresses and inherited a lot of fabric from my grandmother. She was one for saving things and passing them down. It was very important to her. She had grown up during the Depression and didn’t waste anything.”
With the vast amount of fabric and dresses left to her, Leigh decided to experiment and play with the garments as sculptural entities. “I think many times that these beautiful little works of art get dismissed because they’re fabric, they’re smaller and no one takes the time to really look at the way a shoulder may be inset or the beautiful detailing, whether it’s hand or machine made.”
During her period of experimentation, she decided to make them three-dimensional and have them stand on their own, absent of a body that would form its shape. She embellished the dresses--both back and front--with embroidery that explores anamolies in nature (Conjoined) and also played with the juxtapositions of the virginal white dresses with more complex imagery of unbridled sexuality (Salome).
Among the series of dresses that has garnered the most interest has been “Forgotten” that Leigh admits was an experiment where she used a powder coating material and then underbaked the dress in a kiln, resulting in a charred appearance, but also giving the fabric a brittle quality, especially around the edges.
To give the dresses “body” Leigh uses a number of products to stiffen them— from Elmer’s Glue to more commercial stiffeners. “A lot of the time I have to look at the condition of the garment and how much it will take.” She adds that some of stiffeners might add a glistening quality, which she doesn’t particularly like because it changes the integrity of the fabric. To shape them, Leigh explains the process is usually trial by error and a bit of challenge of how she wants to mold the dress to a specific form. There’s constant fiddling and shaping of the garment’s folds so that the end result emulates an arrested movement—as if there’s a body within that space.
Although the dresses will never be passed down to other children, they still hold great meaning and power for Leigh. As she wrote, “These indelible marks—stitches, stains, mended holes, and spots rubbed almost bare by continual contact with the body—speak to the hours invested in the making of the garment as well as the years that have passed as it was worn, again and again.”
To view more of Kachina Leigh’s work visit www.kachinaleigh.com.