Portraits in Lace: Breton Women review – returning to the patterns of a simpler life
Source:theguardian Author:Sean O'Hagan Date: 2015-06-03 Size:
Charles Fréger is a French photographer best known for his book, Wilder Mann, published in 2012, for which he travelled across Europe to photograph the often fearsome costumes and masks worn by……

‘Elaborate and mysterious’: Jobeline. Ensemble de cérémonie. Pays de Pontivy, pays des Moutons blancs, 1910-1920. Photograph: Charles Freger

Charles Fréger is a French photographer best known for his book, Wilder Mann, published in 2012, for which he travelled across Europe to photograph the often fearsome costumes and masks worn by revellers at the surviving pagan folk festivals that mark the coming of spring, winter or new year. As its title suggests, it is a visual chronicle of staged savageness, populated with horned demons, full-size bear-men and strange, hairy figures wearing hides and bedecked with antlers. Against the Urati – “ugly people” – of Romania, Britain’s folk devils such as the Burry Man from Scotland seemed oddly tame.

Now comes Portraits in Lace: Breton Women, an altogether more understated, though no less visually and symbolically elaborate, undertaking. Here myth and ritual are replaced by tradition and meticulous craft as Fréger turns his formalist gaze on the exclusively female traditional costumes of Brittany. Fréger has travelled throughout the region, making austere, formally beautiful portraits of young women whose costumes and headwear date back hundreds of years, each subtly different in design and detail, each pertaining to a place, but also to the age and social status of the wearer.

As with Wilder Mann, what was once a central part of rural life has become a revived tradition, with younger women donning their local costumes for folk festivals and formal ceremonies such as important birthdays, feast days, weddings. Alongside drawings, Fréger has included a foreword by novelist Marie Darrieussecq and detailed texts by Yann Guesdon, an authority on Breton traditional dress. The portraits, taken in the open air, often against wide, flat fields and blue-grey skies, or with shadowy figures and buildings in the background, are both quietly dramatic and strangely otherworldly. Fréger photographs children, teenage girls and older women, sometimes in profile and occasionally from behind, each point of view accentuating the elaborate craft of their making. A young woman from Pont-l’Abbé in Finistère looks almost Elizabethan in her towering cylindrical coiffe or lace headdress. Another coiffe, worn by a woman from Fouesnant in Finistère, recalls similar headgear immortalised by the painters of the Pont-Aven school, most notably Gauguin.

In some areas such as Pontivy, the outfits seem more stark, even Calvinist, in their sombre shades of grey and white, with the only coloured decoration visible on the embroidered aprons. Most sombre of all, unsurprisingly, are the funeral costumes, in which jet-black silk headdresses match lace shawls patterned with grey curlicues and fringes. Even here, though, the appearances of the outfits are deceptive, with some of the more elaborately decorated shawls once made during, and only worn after, a long period of mourning.

Fréger’s formally similar portraits often look like film stills from a French costume drama, echoing the staged rituals of tradition and display that are at the heart of these traditional folk revivals. As with Wilder Mann, there is the underlying sense of people’s desire to return to a simpler, more traditional way of life, when the turn of the seasons held sway over work and gave rise to collective rituals to mark the year's passing. In Brittany, as throughout the Celtic fringes of Europe, Catholicism eventually replaced the older forms of shamanistic paganism and Portraits in Lace, which is a long way from the bacchanalian suggestion of Wilder Mann, reflects that shift from the wildly ritualistic to the organised.

These portraits in lace also speak of meticulous female art and craft, and of the ways in which these Breton women not only created elaborately beautiful costumes for themselves, but invested them, in the infinite variety of their stitching, patterning and structure, with layer upon layer of coded – and, to the outsider, mysterious – meanings. How much those meanings pertain to the everyday life of the contemporary, often very young, women who wear them now on special days and at festivals is another mystery.

Portraits in Lace: Breton Women is published by Thames & Hudson, £24.95. Click here to buy it for £19.96

[Editor] 尹迎杰