Primitive Streak - Science Meets Fashion

27 September 2009

Interview with

Helen Storey MBE, Helen Storey Foundation

Helen Storey is a fashion designer who was inspired by developmental biology to design a series of stunning and thought-provoking dresses.  Meera met Helen in the Researchers Revealed auditorium to find out about the Primitive Streak Collection...

Helen -   It's a collection that elucidates the first thousand hours of human life, going from fertilization through recognizable human form.

Meera -   How did you go about coming up with this concept and how did you actually research it in order to know how to then design your dresses?

Anaphase DressHelen - It was a gift from my sister [Professor Kate Storey], who was at the time at Oxford, she's a developmental biologist.  She's now at Dundee and she noticed a call out that the Wellcome Trust to put up scientists and artists together to see if they can come up with unusual bodies of work that de-mystified the complexity of science and captured public imagination.  So, that is what her invitation was and she asked me to go down to Oxford to look down her microscopes.  And basically, what she studied was the first thousand hours of human life.  And we worked with chicken embryos because chicken embryos are almost identical in terms of development to human embryos, and I was blown away by what I saw.  So I was instantly inspired and tried to allow the science or the biology, if you like, to tell me what to do, which is also the reverse of being a fashion designer really.  You have this sort of amazing narcissistic vision that you put out there, but this was very humbling.  I had to do what the science told me to do.

Meera -   And I guess you haven't created a thousand dresses for each hour, so how did you go about dividing up these thousand hours and what are the stages that you have shown to portray?

Helen -   We ended up picking 11 key events because you're right, we couldn't do a thousand dresses.  I relied on Kate really, in terms of her identifying the ones that she felt were the most important narrative, if for example, you're talking to an 8-year-old.  So we worked out instantly that we wanted it to be understandable and accessible for somebody, some short person who might not even know what biology is.  But, likewise, one of the things that's been quite amazing as we, one of the places we showed you was a National Trust castle in Scotland.  And I had three elderly women in their 90s, looking around the collection and one of them began to weep and she said, "I had no idea that this is what was happening in my body all these years ago."  So if you can do a body of work that manages to kind of, touch an 8-year-old and a 90-year-old, you are probably on to a good thing.

Meera -   So what are these key stages?

Helen -   So we have fertilization, implantation, neurulation, formation of the primitive streak, we have something called India streak, we have three different stages of heart development, limb development, and we end up with recognizable spine formation and formation of the ribs.  And then, in cell division, for example again, we have three dresses that look at cell division in its different phases.  So it's not 11 distinct ones where there is a natural progression, like in heart development, it took three to show us that.

Meera -   So an event has actually just started in the auditorium. Helen, we've had to move outside, out into the main part of the museum into one of the exhibits but we brought your dresses here with us.  Now this first one, it's beautiful.  It's white and it's got lots of lace all around it and what is this portraying exactly?

Helen -   It's part of the fertilization group.  There were three pieces actually on that and this is the particular lace work that's been constructed from scratch, if you like.  Two Japanese students from the London College of Fashion have embroidered each of the sperm heads.  I don't quite know if there are a thousand, but I might be close to it.  They embroidered it on to a backing which dissolves when it's put in water so it just leaves this rather beautiful lace work.

Meera -   I guess that just shows how many sperm are needed in order to actually fertilize an egg.

Helen -   I mean this is only a fraction but I suppose the fact because it's actually covered in it.  That is just a colossal amount of sperm that it takes to fertilize one egg.

Meera -   Now, say, that one's very kind of pure-looking and white.  Now the other two we've got here are very red, a scarlet red.  This first one, which has a kind of a black drawing essentially put into the middle, so which stage is this?

Red Silk Spinal column dressHelen -   That dress represents implantation and it's taken from a very, very early biological drawing and there's something about the handwork that I really liked.  So we transferred that into embroidery and placed that on the front of the red dress.  But in order to show how the embryo actually embeds into a uterus wall, you know, there is a boundary there of sorts, three-quarters of the side of it is in black chiffon.  So if you like, the red part of the dress plugs into the black part of the dress.  And what we try to show is that the outer layer of cells become placenta and the inner layer of cells will determine the body.

Meera -   Now, this last one, I have to admit, I think, is my favourite because there's just a beautiful lustrous piece of velvet that just folded and curled over and runs the length of the mannequin.  Is this the primitive streak?

Helen - It's not - this is actually a phase called neurulation, but it's quite close to primitive streak in terms of sequence of development, if you like.  But the fold that you're talking about down at the back is the neural fold and then either side are symmetrical structures, amongst the first structures in the developing embryo known as somites.  And all this dress represents I suppose, are the parts of the embryo that are destined either to become brain or eventually spinal cords and spine itself.

Meera -   These various stages, I have to admit, they worked really well.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I thought that dresses would be showing the first thousand hours of human life.  And they depict it very well, but I'm now curious, because you don't have it here with you, what does the final stage look like, what does the final dress look like?

Helen -   Well, the final dress in some ways was supposed to be slightly tongue-in-cheek.  It's got a very beautiful but very obviously clear spine, and it's a cast of a female spine which has been cast and plated in silver foil. And then through it, we run 500 fibre optic fibres that run like very long hairs and when they're lit up, their sparkling effect, if you like, is supposed to be symbolic of the signalling that happens up and down the spine.  And then the dress itself is a massive gown with a six-foot train on the back, and that again is in red and black and it shows a DNA sequence on it.  So I suppose I wanted to start off with something that people were familiar with, sperms and eggs people would  - if they know anything about biology, they seem to know about that bit.  And then end up with something that people were familiar with; most people know what the spine looks like.  And in between, trying to elucidate the bit which is a bit more mysterious and a bit more complex. So if you'd like the beginning and the full stop, were quite deliberate in terms of designing the collection.

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