The skin, the garment surface, and the production of modern magic




Journal Title

Journal ISSN



Volume Title


Association of Art Historians



Peer reviewed



As the membrane which serves as the interface between what is ‘inside’ and what is ‘outside’ the body, skin possesses a powerful symbolic function in generating metaphors for the boundaries between the self and others. This metaphorical function of skin is most powerfully present in our clothes, perhaps due to the material quality of cloth which is ‘empathetic’ with the skin. Our need to create and represent social membranes is reflected in the complex conventions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of bringing skin into contact with cultural surfaces such as clothing. This paper addresses the fluid and transformative meaning of garment surface, focusing on that of the handmade, a concept which dialectically evolved through the rise of mechanised industry. With the advancement of digital manufacturing now forecasting a “new industrial revolution,” what might be the consequent approaches to the skin, touch, and garment surface? I juxtapose my own experience of making garments via a hand-woven seaming method with the anthropological notion of magic, which also appeared alongside industrialisation. The significance of tactile engagement with material objects via their appropriation, personalisation, and reinterpretation is emphasised, and this is illustrated by the “contagion-like” transition of distinct boundaries in my hand-woven seams. The deeply reflective yet visceral quality of making and using process is highlighted to reveal that rationality and intuition can coexist, mutually generating empathetic social communication—“magical effect”—which imbues the artefact with an authentic value.




Lee Y. (2014) ‘The skin, the garment surface, and the production of modern magic’, Association of Art Historians 40th Anniversary Annual Conference. Royal College of Art, London, 11-12 April 2014.


Research Institute

Institute of Art and Design