(Available as part of the Summer 2018 “Labor” edition of Surface Design Journal)
Known colloquially as “green-screen”, chroma-key compositing is a “technical term in video and television for placing a person or an object against a uniform background, onto which any given situation can subsequently be (realistically) superimposed.” Using post-production technology, this uniform “green-screen” background can be replaced, overlaid or projected onto. Oddly, the intensity of chroma-key green is necessary in order to render superimpositions with the proper density of information. The color’s visibility is paradoxically necessary in order for it to remain invisible. Stephanie Syjuco’s most recent project, The Visible Invisible, foregrounds this vivid shade within the rubric of historical garments. Fashioning iconic American dresses out of chroma-key fabric, the artist examines how our historical narrative has rendered certain populations invisible, both literally and metaphorically.
Syjuco’s work frequently merges physical objects with the unfixed quality of the digital, uncovering relationships between the two worlds. Focusing the “insistent physicality of the digital world” within the realm of the political, the artist examines global flows of capital, hierarchies of power, and activism through playful and complex imagery and pattern. While much of Syjuco’s projects have focused on the outward gaze of the United States toward foreign “others”, her two most recent projects have turned inward, examining what it is to be an American.
In one, CITIZENS, Syjuco’s 2017 exhibition at Ryan Lee Gallery in New York, the artist began her exploration with chroma-key and transparency, continuing her thread of image distortion in the internet era. In one section, Syjuco blanketed an entire gallery wall in the gray-and-white checked transparency background recognizable by users of Photoshop. In another, lush archival-pigment photographic prints featured flags, sticks and barriers, detritus from the 2016 election protests at UC Berkeley, rendered entirely in chroma-key green. Both the pattern and the monochromatic technique render visibility and invisibility in digital visual culture.
In the other, The Visible Invisible, to be first exhibited as part of a larger project at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in November 2018, Syjuco continues to expose the subjectivity of historiography by applying the lens of (in)visibility to fashion, labor, and the female form. American history is not always positive and rarely linear, and the strains of our past are woven into each of Syjuco’s garments. Consisting of four dresses emblematic of important periods in United States history, the dresses are constructed almost entirely from chroma-key cotton muslin.
The Visible Invisible consists (for now) of four historic adult dresses and one child’s growth-gown, symbolizing iconic moments in American history: a pilgrim dress denoting early settlers, a 1776-style Revolutionary-era frock, a prairie dress representing Manifest Destiny, and a Civil War-era gown. The choices are deliberate; each is a simultaneously celebrated and derided time in US history. Undercurrents of slavery and the genocide of indigenous North Americans, both during colonization and Western expansion, abrade the grain of each garment.
Syjuco constructs each dress from commercially available modern-day patterns from companies like McCall’s and Simplicity. Syjuco says of this decision, “I wanted the mass-produced commercial version. I chose the iconic garments that I assumed the everyday person might be able to identify.” The Pilgrim dress in particular is stereotypical: it is almost cartoonish with its wide, flat collar and upturned cuffs.
Meant to replicate historic dress for the modern home sewing enthusiast, these commercial patterns, though often complicated to construct, are not historically accurate. They provide an inauthentic, aggrandized version of our nation’s past through fashion. Historically accurate patterns are available through specialist companies, particularly for Civil War-era garments. Actual patterns from this period have (miraculously) survived, but the artist’s choice of marginally accurate “costume” patterns accentuates the romanticized and often flawed eye we cast on our own past. As Syjuco hems 120 feet of monochrome green satin into Civil War-era ruffles, she gives us an opportunity to see through the construction of clothing to the construction of history.
Commercial patterns have been mass-produced and distributed since the mid 1850s, with detailed instructions appearing since the late 1800s. Patterns democratized fashion by liberating its production from tailors crafting expensive bespoke garments and contributed to the standardization of sizing, allowing the home-sewer to approximate the style previously reserved for only a wealthy few.
Paper sewing patterns became available initially throughout the United States by mail order through fashion magazines. With instructions printed or stamped on semi-transparent tissue, suddenly a very complicated bodice became accessible to a casual dressmaker or home-sewer. The accessibility of patterns and their relative ease of construction was advantageous for new settlers during westward expansion. Though newly annexed Western territories offered opportunities for Anglo-American settlers, the Manifest Destiny ideal forced the relocation of indigenous North American peoples onto small tracts of land, driving them out of sight as they struggled to re-establish lifestyles and traditions.
In terms of instruction and materials, contemporary commercial patterns are very similar to the ones of the late 1800s. They offer a plan for garment construction, but leave individual choices (fabric, size, etc.) to the user. Functioning within a commercial or standardized rubric while subverting its intended outcome is a common strategy in Syjuco’s work (see The Counterfeit Crochet Project, 2008 or Cargo Cults, 2016).
For the Civil War-era dress in this series, Syjuco pinned and sewed great lengths of grosgrain ribbon in pleats, attached six rows of ruffles and boned a bodice. A labor intensive process, these embellishments are indicative of the time period, where due to changing social mores and a higher social value placed on dress, elite women worked with seamstresses and dressmakers to recreate the fanciful frocks found in Parisian fashion magazines. Composed in newly available rich colors and bold patterns, heavy silks, taffeta and velvet with embroidery, lace and tatted collars, giant gigot sleeves, and convoluted crinolines and bustles, Civil War-era fashion was extravagant and ornate.
In Syjuco’s version, embellished in layers of monochrome, we can avert our gaze from the marvel of fine fabrics and instead superimpose the complicated class dynamics of the mid-1800s onto the garment. Social gatherings and leisure time, which necessitated such finery, was afforded, at least in part, by slave labor. Tailoring and garment construction was frequently at the hands of slaves and recently freed-women, their labor and specialist knowledge rendered anonymous and invisible beneath each stitch. Contemporarily, the unethical working conditions of sweatshops, fueled by fast-fashion industries, endangers the lives of its workers (as made brutally clear by the 2013 Bangladeshi Rana Plaza tragedy) and keeps its supply chain obscured.
All of the costumes created for The Visible Invisible are dresses, and sewing is often coded as feminine labor, but Syjuco resists a purely feminist reading of this work. She says, “I wanted to focus on female garments because I’m interested in how the female form, or being, or personhood, is equated to nationhood.” Bound together, women and nations have both been conceptual tokens of sanctity. The garments are placed on mannequins with white jersey covered heads and pose-able limbs. The blank white faces and bodies, though a common display technique for the exhibition of clothing, are a stark contrast to the chroma-key green fabric. The featureless white mannequins offer a second site for projection, as a stand-in for the anonymous women who would own and inhabit these dresses. Laid bare, these four costumes provide a blank slate, acting as a prompt for criticality.
Chroma-key compositing offers a liminal space where the real and the fictional interact: in film, actors are often placed within a sea of green and instructed to react and interact with featureless, objectless co-stars to be rendered only during post-production. The color becomes a placeholder, suggesting boundless potentiality between the real and unreal. This duplicity is at the core of The Visible Invisible, as the commercially viable version of American history is offered up as both a fact and a fiction to be superimposed, replaced, or projected onto. Pairing this relatively new technology integrated with historical dress links past and present. It offers the viewer a critical eye toward past narratives, with the implication that the problem continues in present-day.
 Wennberg, Teresa. “Through the Electronic Labyrinth: The Meanderings of a Visual Artist”, Leonardo, Vol. 29 No 3 (1996) p.182-191
 Ditzig, Kathleen. “Stephanie Syjuco”, Artforum, 2011.
 Interview with the author, 3/22/2018
 One blogger/Elizabethan garment scholar called out McCall’s “Victorian Splendor” costume pattern thusly: “…the bastard child of gowns from the mid-1500s and mid-1800s, with some late 1900s/2000s Faire gown and Wedding dress design genes thrown in for good measure.” From RaevenFae Blog, 3/11/2010 (http://raevenfea.com/historical/when-patterns-lie-mccalls-m6097/)
 For more information on the history of commercial patterns, see: Emery, Joy Spanabel. A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution, 2014, Bloomsbury Academic Press.
 The mid-1800s saw the development of synthetic dyes, including Mauveine Aniline dye, a purple shade developed by an eighteen-year-old chemist, William Henry Perkins, which took the fashion world by storm. (Source: https://library.si.edu/exhibition/color-in-a-new-light/making)
 According to Virginia Reynolds’ research for “Slaves to Fashion, Not Society: Elizabeth Keckly and Washington, D.C.’s African American Dressmakers, 1860-1870”, “Sewing was a common skill for domestic slave women… enslaved women often became competent dressmakers with a sense of what modern readers might recognize as fashion design.”
 For more information on transparent sustainability and ethics in fashion supply chains, see Fashion Revolution, “Fashion Transparency Index 2017” https://issuu.com/fashionrevolution/docs/fr_fashiontransparencyindex2017?e=25766662/47726047
 Interview with the author, 3/22/2018
 Chroma-key compositing has been used in news broadcasts since 1977. For more information see Tobias, Jenny. “Truth to Materials: Modernism and US Television News Design Since 1940”, Journal of Design History, Vol 18. No 2 (Summer, 2005) p. 179-190