Elegant Subversions: An Interview with Cat Chow

by Francesca Granata

Undress, 2005

The doorbell to Cat Chow’s apartment is marked through a pictorial language of sort, as her name is spelled out by a sticker of a cat and one of sushi; the Chicago artist’s studio is taken over by stunning garments and objects made of disparate materials: plastic nipples, zippers, chain mail…. Her doorbell presages Chow’s quirky sensibility and subtle humor, which often comes through in her work, despite the fact that her pieces often tackle weighty socio-political issues. They do so in a painfully elegant and at times quiet aesthetic attained through a painstaking and skillful mastery of crafts.

Some of her pieces veer towards the ironic, as is the case with her Power-Ranger Kimono, which seeks to subvert stereotypical representations of Asian women by constructing a kimono out of power-ranger cards, or with Measure for Measure, a 1950s house dress woven out of measuring tapes of different colors. Other pieces are characterized by a certain lyrical sadness embodying a painful and contradictory beauty, which comes across as symbolic of female beauty.Ultimately, her garments speak of empowerment but also of constraint, as with the Heavy Metal dress-an all-metal dress, which appears deceitfully soft and fluid despite its weight-or maybe even more so with her zipper garments (for which she is best known), which more explicitly bring up questions of pain and beauty: Their potential to be completely zipped or unzipped posits a dangerous scenario, which reminds the viewer of the vulnerability of the unclothed body.

Her work has been shown internationally within various contexts which vary from Fashion museums, (the Met’s Costume Institute and the Museum at FIT) to contemporary arts museums (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston) to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This doesn’t prevent her from holding on to her inherent unpretentiousness and her punk-rock spirit which lives on in the band she recently started with her boyfriend: Fashion Show.Measure for Measure, a 1950s housedress woven out of measuring tapeBefore moving to Wicker Park you were at Northwestern studying costume design.

How did you get started doing what you do now?

I kind of fell into it. I worked in a jewelry factory growing up, and was quite good at putting things together with my hands. I was also very interested in chain mail, which consists of putting together metal rings to make a mesh. When I was in college, I worked at a chain mail store. Then in a costume design class, we were given a project for which we had to use alternative materials….

How did you enter the art realm? And how did people become aware of what you did?

For my first fashion show, I made four chain mail dresses and showed them in Chicago. Then someone told me about a wearable art exhibition that was happening out in Barrington, Illinois, and I ended up showing work in a gallery there. I think a big turning point was showing the zipper dress at the Gen Art fashion show. It was a big deal for me, because I got a lot of press and it led to a lot of different opportunities. There, I met someone who helped me get a window installation at the New Museum when they were back in Soho. The exhibition at the New Museum made me stand up more in Chicago and led to other opportunities. Valerie Cassel, one of the Whitney Museum Biennial curators, wore one of my zipper dresses to the opening. Also it is at the New Museum that Harold Koda, the curator at the Met, saw my work and later asked me to be in the “Goddess Show.”

I saw your pieces at the Museum at FIT within an “avant-garde” fashion context, and then at the “Artwear” show at the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, which had a more craft focus. As of late, your work seems to be exhibited primarily within what is considered a more traditionally “high art” context. How do you reconcile showing in such different contexts? Do you find it confusing or do you enjoy occupying this space “in-between”?

I like to be able to reach different audiences, from the fashion people to the crafts and fiber arts communities to a more “high-art” realm. It has always been very enticing, though it was the craft part that got me into it in the first place-the urge to create this material out of different objects. And I had always been very interested in clothing.

A doorbell rings. A rich lady enters Cat Chow’s studio for a fitting. She tries on a purple zipper skirt with a very small ruffle at the back which she would like to be taken in a bit…

Rich Lady: As long as we have become a bit thinner then let’s go ahead and accentuate it. It is a gorgeous outfit whoa…

FP: It’s so pretty.

RL: So April and Nora and I are going to go to New York in July. We are going to fit in the Chanel exhibit, which actually has not received great reviews. I think it was almost a slapdash type of show, so there would be something wonderful for their yearly gala where they raise all their million of dollars for the Met. And I think Coco would be rolling over in her grave if she saw the plastic cubes that they are using to display the work.

FP: I haven’t gone yet. I guess The New York Times was really critical of it, because they didn’t mention her history, especially during the war years.RL: Exactly. I get The New York Times, and the criticism was pretty harsh.

FP: But I have heard that the Costume Institute doesn’t really receive any money from the Met. Actually they give part of the money they raise through the Gala to the Met. Maybe that is why they have to please their donors, particularly the design houses. Or so they say….

RL: Yes, and it is because of the Gala show that we found you…(to Cat)

CC: I kind of pinned it on the side.

RL: I don’t want to destroy what you are doing,

CC: Could you try walking in it, and see how it feels…

RL: Good good good. Thank you so much for reworking it, because I really want it to be something I wear all the time.

Rich Lady exits…

Cat Chow wearing her Measure for Measure Dress.

I think it’s quite brave that you make your pieces wearable. Most of them are, at least to some extent, right?

CC: Yes, I think the zipper ones are really the most wearable. And that’s my thing with the fashion and the art world. I have worked with some clothing designers and I know that people want clothing that is comfortable and here I am making material that’s not practical….

To me that is the side that’s more in keeping with avant-garde fashion. But now that your work has entered art museums and is being written up within a more traditional “high art” context, do you ever feel that to keep making garments for people to actually wear, which means adjusting some pieces to individual bodies could “devalue” your work on a financial level? Or that doesn’t concern you…?

Well, sometimes people tell me you have to start thinking about your future. If you want to make a t-shirt with a zipper on it and than mass-produce it, you can easily do it. But I am not interested in doing something like that…. I’d rather make one-of-a kind pieces. Also, the pieces, which are in gallery shows, sell as sculpture work, even when they are wearable.

I found it a bit funny to see the woman who was just here trying on a zipper skirt. When I saw the zipper dress at the museum at FIT, I thought it was really beautiful, but I also couldn’t help thinking that the fact that it unzips all the way really highlighted the possibility of skin getting caught. And obviously with the chain mail dress there is a reference to S & M and fetishwear. Your work looks so stunning yet it’s also subtly disturbing.

There is a lot you can read into the work. I think there is that juxtaposition. I like using hard industrial materials and make them soft and elegant, so it makes you think about the contradiction of it. I made one all-metal dress, which is called heavy metal and is probably my heaviest dress, yet it looks so elegant and fluid and so easy on the body.

As you mentioned contradictions, I was thinking about the Not for Sale dress-the one which involved shredding dollar bills, which, as has been pointed out, is a felony. And it is painstakingly handmade, using what’s really a couture technique, but it also has a punk-rockish subversive element to it.

Yes, that dress was very painstakingly constructed. It was made exclusively of paper rings, which were connected in a chain mail pattern, and it’s cut on the bias. The paper rings are made of dollar bills. Each bill was shredded into about 25 strips and connected into rings…and they are connected in a pattern and that’s how it stays together.

Obviously, your work has a close relation to the body. Take the Measure for Measure dress. It’s so pleasant and cute yet it’s made of seamstress tape measures of different colors, which is a bit unsettling, as they seem to relate to fashion policing the body and thinness, but the dress is also really pretty and colorful.

Well, I had done this other tape measure dress and I really wanted to empower women with their bodies and their sizes. I wanted to address my own experience of having worked in fashion and dressed models and being a woman myself. With the Measure for Measure dress, I really wanted to address that for other women. Yet, of course, someone sees it and tells me they love the cut or the closure. And this is the Power-Rangers kimono to empower Asian women.

What you are doing really taps into “women’s work,” even though it’s presented as sculpture which has a more masculine lineage. I was wondering whether you find the work you do to be a bit isolating or whether, you have found there is a community around art/fashion makers?

I think in relation to art wear and wearable art, I have come out at a really good time, as there have been a lot of exhibitions of that sort. And you are seeing that in what they are teaching in fashion design schools now, too. It’s just what’s going on with boundaries with architecture and fashion and sculpture. Everything seems to be crossing over and there aren’t these set limits of what art or what fashion is….

Do you ever feel that living in Chicago is sort of difficult for the kind of work you do? Or again, perhaps, a bit isolating?

It’s funny you ask me that because, as I said, I lived here a while and it has been a really nurturing environment. I have made so many connections and met some really great people here. Yet I am going to move to New York soon. I am excited because I got an artist residency through Artists Alliance in the Lower East Side, which means I’ll have a free studio for six months this Winter and Spring. My boyfriend is an artist too, so we are both really excited.

Are you moving together?

Yes. We are in a band together called Fashion Show. I was in another band called Plastic Crimewave Sound but because I had to move I started a band with my boyfriend. We alternate singing, keyboard, guitar drums, and in the performance there is some fashion: costume changes and things like that. On stage we wear these outrageous outfits, which I design.

Do you still have fashion shows? Or do you mainly show on dress forms in gallery?

I mainly don’t show the pieces on models. I don’t usually like doing fashion shows, and people kept asking me about it. So now if they really want a show there is the band Fashion Show, and that’s sort of how I want to do it.