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held: Guy’s Hospital Exhibition by Jane Fradgley

This week, a special exhibition by artist Jane Fradgley opens at Guy’s Hospital. held is funded by the Guy's and St Thomas's Charity, and is informed by the historical collection of restraining garments housed at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive & Museum, and investigates a largely unexplored area of mental health history.

During the "non-restraint movement" of the 1840s, the vast majority of asylums in England and Wales abandoned all forms of mechanical restraint. "Strong clothing" was a term used in the late 1800s to describe certain forms of protection or restraint which were reintroduced to asylums, and claimed not to be "strait-waistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint". The terms, descriptions and types of garment used were fraught with meaning for contemporaries, many of whom saw themselves as enlightened humanitarians.

With a background as a fashion designer, and a passionate interest in functional and tailored garments, Fradgley was inspired to delve into the archive after seeing Victorian portrait photographs of patients at Bethlem wearing unusual quilted dresses. By exploring this powerful and poignant subject, the artist’s intention is to open new dialogue and debate around restraint and protection, by setting a historical perspective alongside today’s treatments of chemical intervention and sedation.

She recalls:

“I was fascinated by the seemingly comforting strong dresses, and related this form of protective care to my own experiences in hospital and encounters with modern day psychiatric care.

“For me, the purpose of the strong clothing was not to invoke or exacerbate fear or anxiety in the patient; rather, the attention to detail in creating such well-constructed garments was to bring some dignity, serenity, peace and tranquillity to the wearer as an antidote to their anguish.”

It is easy for us to assume that such garments are relics of a brutal past, but in making such judgments we may miss many concerns that remain very relevant today. As Fradgley's haunting images indicate, the line between freedom and constraint, care and control, safety and coercion remain hard to draw.

held runs until 8 March 2012, in Atrium 2, Guy’s Hospital, Great Maze Pond, London SE1 9RT.

Readers who are interested in discussing the topic of strong clothing and restraint further are invited to respond to this blog in the comments section.