The story has archaic origins but deep contemporary resonance and relevance. Hunted to virtual extinction, four-legged wolves pose little current threat to mankind, but the two-legged variety still has to be reckoned with.
Although in fact just as likely to be female as male, wolves are traditionally seen as male predators with female victims. Using the folk tale as a context familiar to most, my work sought to raise questions about relationships between men and women.
Like witches, werewolves are considered today to be the stuff of medieval ignorance, but the idea of the male as shape-shifting manipulator has endured. It would be easy to dismiss Little Red Riding Hood as a parable about rape, but research has shown that, in its original oral version, it is also about rites of passage and a celebration of the female. Only in later, written versions does a “friendly” huntsman come to the girl’s rescue; in the early version she relies on her own ingenuity and controls her own fate. The adolescent rite of passage, the status of the wolf/werewolf and the physical and metaphysical embrace of the girl and the wolf are important themes of the story that I have sought to draw on.
My reading around the subjects of myth, story-telling and fairy tales, and the influence of the work of Paula Rego, Kiki Smith and others, have inspired me to use the essence of Little Red Riding Hood to create work which tries to say something contemporary about the female/male dynamic. I have used natural fibres, recycled materials and worked by hand, for the most part, and this has afforded me plenty of valuable thinking-time within the making process and, on occasion led me to feel almost physically part of the work. (I would draw an analogy with the mesmeric, immersive experience the female story-tellers of old produced for their listeners, conjuring an atmosphere which encouraged participation in and further embroidery and repetition of the tale told). This was particularly true during the making of a felted hooded cloak, red on the outside, grey and lupine on the inside, combining girl and wolf in an inextricable embrace, felted and felt. Iconic, yet also suggesting male and female as but two sides of the same entity, I like to think of it being worn by the girl in Angela Carter’s wonderful short story The Company of Wolves. She knew that “the worst wolves are hairy on the inside” and embrace the wolf who had devoured her grandmother. At the end of the story “sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf”.
I made another piece for Red Riding Hood’s wardrobe. Wolf Gang, 2007, is made from a reclaimed fur coat, unpicked at the seams and recut to make a sleeveless jacket for a potentially emancipated Red Riding Hood. With the fur on the inside, the back of the jacket was inspired by bikers’ jackets. I have hand-embroidered a wolf’s skull in gold and, utilising a font similar to that used by the uber-macho Hell’s Angels, machine-embroidered the legend “Wolf Gang” onto red felt. This is the mantle of Red Riding Hood as predatory gang-member, the wolf relegated to the role of totem. Wearing it, she may simply have bought into a pack mentality or be biding her time to aspire to the position of leader of the gang.
The foundation for Hunter, 2007, is a reclaimed hunting jacket, which I have hand-embroidered with the face of a wolf. I was inspired to make the piece after considering the implausibility, in those accounts of the Little Red Riding Hood tale in which a male hunter or woodcutter coming to the rescue of the girl, (and that is to say, most versions), of that saviour arriving at exactly the moment when Red is most at risk from the malign attentions of the wolf. I concluded that the only credible explanation was that the hunter and the wolf were one and the same being. And so my Hunter, archetypal male authority figure in his hunting pink, a uniform that legitimises his malign, predatory agenda, displays on his back his true colours: the insignia of the beast. Lascivious and ludicrous, he is wolf/werewolf/man, able to arrive right on cue to rescue Red Riding Hood because he is both wolf and hunter.
The companion piece, Innocence, 2007, is made from silk crepeline. It is a dress for an adolescent girl, machine-pieced in two layers. Pure, white, transparent, guileless, innocent, simple, unsullied, waiting and hiding nothing. But it has been blemished, encroached upon, touched by the hand-stitched prints of the wolf. Touched and marked, but not, however, torn. This was not a violent experience, not resisted, perhaps welcomed.