Jessica Worrall: Decoding Fashion through Collage

‘What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today… Fashion is an instant language.’ 

We all know the importance of first impressions, and this quote by fashion scion Miuccia Prada lends it some official weight. However – and I promise it gives me no pleasure to correct such nobility – how you present yourself has always mattered. And no one understands this better than Jessica Worrall, by far the most interesting decoder of fashion language, which she explores through digital collage.

Jess grew up in Yorkshire, studied at Nottingham Trent, and built a thriving career as a theatre designer. She’s worked in London and across the UK, creating costumes for independent drama companies and prestigious institutions alike. Her last assignment for the main stage of Shakespeare’s Globe concerned work on Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, and Henry V. To modernise the plays, she came up with a style dubbed ‘Strebethan’, which mixed Elizabethan elements with streetwear. ‘There were doublets, for example, but they zipped up and had hoods,’ Jess explains. ‘I was fusing different periods together. I’m not making a re-enactment; I’m making it relevant again.’

'Versace 1587' Clothing: Versace Painting: Portrait of a Young Woman Artist: Giovanni Battista 1578 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This mash-up approach has become her mainstay formula. Since lockdown, Jess has created artwork combining historical paintings and catwalk couture, resulting in a completely new, and occasionally uncanny, effect. But this project, organised into two main series – the Ruff Portraits and the Renaissance Portraits – is not just an aesthetic exercise. 

‘Working on plays means researching history, art, and period dress – and I realised things haven’t necessarily evolved that much,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to examine that.’ Luckily, sharing her knowledge is part of the project. Having launched on Instagram, she’s made a point of considered captioning. Each collage comes with a new brain-scratcher, historical insight, or puzzling social dilemma. She questions, reveals, informs, and ruminates.

‘I’m interested in power,’ Jess continues. ‘In theatre you use costume as a way of indicating class and status. When a character comes on stage the audience needs to know who they are and where they come from. Class and female identity have always been part of my work – especially as I’m from a working-class background – and I wanted to look at it without the understandable constraints that crop up, like budgetary issues.’

'Givenchy 1435' Clothing: Alexander McQueen for Givenchy 1999 Painting: A Lady Artist: Robert Campin 1435 National Gallery, London

Amongst her core themes are the Sumptuary laws, which were used to regulate spending or ‘extravagance’. Primarily targeting women and the middle class, Sumptuary laws forbade the use of certain fabrics, modes of dress, jewellery or hairstyles which were considered the sole preserve of the aristocracy. This meant that outward social mobility was virtually impossible: even if you had the means to buy luxury, you could be legally forbidden from wearing it. 

Another of Jess’ fascinations is the ruff. ‘It’s white, it’s starched, it’s a massive amount of uptake,’ she shares. ‘You couldn’t bend over and do the housework, which meant you were rich enough to have servants. The ruff acted as designer labels do now – by announcing the wearer’s status.’ 

Primarily targeting women and the middle class, Sumptuary laws forbade the use of certain fabrics, modes of dress, jewellery or hairstyles which were considered the sole preserve of the aristocracy. 

In exploring these dynamics, Jess interacts with the real-life stories of the subjects (whom she lovingly calls ‘models’). A wealthy wife from 1628 who had 7 children is redressed in a loose Comme Des Garcons cocoon, ‘more comfortable than a loosened corset!’ In several posts titled ‘Immodest Modesty’, Jess uses skin-tight catsuits and bodycon to liberate figures from the popular 15th – 17th century belief that ‘clothing confirmed not only “status” but also moral decency’, meaning women could have been ‘declared mentally insane and thrown into an asylum’ for wearing what we consider the latest trends today. 

Other pairings are less contrarian. There’s a beautiful ruff portrait partnered with a power suit from Versace – it goes because, well, both ruff and suit scream high rank. Elsewhere, a Bronzino in a gold headdress is matched with a gold Gucci number. It’s a clear statement of how wealth has been displayed throughout the ages… and how connected it still is. 

'Schiaparelli 1526' Clothing: Schiaparelli 2022 Painting: A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling Artist: Hans Holbein 1526 National Gallery, London

The questions she asks, such as whether nudity celebrates the female form or objectifies it, are not necessarily new. But the historical slant and exquisite visuals are. The result is addictive: it’s a fashion page that makes you think, and a thoughtful page that’s full of fashion. 

The result is addictive: it’s a fashion page that makes you think, and a thoughtful page that’s full of fashion.

In releasing the portraits from their moorings and giving the subjects new life with new meaning, Jess is also changing her own path. ‘I love doing theatre, but you’re always within someone else’s creative parameters. I wanted to see what I could do alone… so I gave myself permission to play. That’s how it started.’ 

Now, Jess has realised that with her fast-growing following (boosted by reposts from Schiaparelli, who love her work), she can make an income selling prints. ‘I think it’s a privilege to make money doing what you want,’ she says. ‘I do struggle with imposter syndrome, and there are parts of me that say, “Oooh, you’re getting away with it!”’ This is a special privilege, one that Jess’ models would have never been able to enjoy, regardless of how much their clothes cost. This, surely, is the real meaning of modern luxury. 

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