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Fashion (MA)

Emily Tonge

Emily Tonge (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of sculpture, textiles and performance, from the North West of England, currently based in London.

Female stories of performativity, power and dress, are central to Emily's practise, by investigating structures and materials that exist in proximity to the body. She’s particularly fascinated by the in-between spaces and blurred lines created by these structures and the female body. This approach is underpinned by deep dives into heritage and archival research, to unpick how the past, frames the contemporary. Bringing to the surface neglected stories of importance, surrounding gender and class.

Emily received a full tuition fees scholarship as part of Burberry’s Design Scholarship programme (2022/23) and received additional funding from the Leather Sellers Livery Company during her MA. As a winner of The Arts of Fashion competition, she partook in the AoF Summer Masterclass (2021) in Paris with couture embroidery houses from Les Métiers d’Art. Has received featured in press with Puss Puss magazine (2021) and 1Granary (2020). And more recently exhibited work in collaboration with performance artist and designer Abbie Stirrup (2022).

Degree Details

School of DesignFashion (MA)No WearRCA2023 at Truman Brewery

Truman Brewery, F Block, Second floor

Photograph of Emily's grandma as a child

The manufacture of cotton yarn and fabrics transformed rural East Lancashire, and Emily’s hometown of Bolton ‘into an engine of fast fashion at the epicentre of a web that stretched across the globe; commandeering human and environmental resources across continents in a vicious cycle of labour, manufacture and trade that persists today’ (British Textile Biennial 2022). 

With her own family heritage entangled in this web of cotton manufacture in Bolton, Emily began to investigate her grandparents' lives as weavers. Studying film archive footage of the Cotton Industry within the North West, she learned of the phenomenon called The Cotton Queen Quest, a forgotten piece of working-class history from 1930s Lancashire. 

The Cotton Queen Quest aimed to revive the declining cotton industry in Lancashire. Inviting working women from the mills to take part in a pageant. A queen would be crowned and reign for an entire year before passing the baton to a new queen. During their reign the queens would travel across the country, as an ambassador of Lancashire cotton goods, giving speeches, dressed in a new wardrobe, staying in luxury hotels, and even being received at parliament. This was kept in mind by the judges and contestants, making this not just a beauty competition, but a search for a ‘mill girl’ who could represent and help heal the failing industry.

The competition relied on Eurocentric and exclusionary ideas of beauty, to promote an industrial agenda, while also creating a specific search for a mill girl’ who could be a representative of her industry. The competition constructed ‘a feminine type that was fashionably modern but also remained attractive to regional tastes’(Rebecca Conway 2013) - an aspect which makes it unique. The role these women had to play was often contradictory – ‘mill girl’ but glamorous, special yet ordinary, royalty but achievable… ‘a figure that could be deployed by advertisers to connect with consumers in Lancashire.’.

Amongst this identity is clear regional specificity, although elocution and deportment lessons were given, her background as a 'mill girl' remained central and it demonstrates how the contest chose to deploy ‘an imagined notion of ‘Lancashire’, which was culturally constructed around heavy industry and labour.’


Mock up of sculptures placed in Truman Brewery

Through a feminist lens, Emily has created works to address the lack of documentation around the Cotton Queen Quest and the working women caught in the web of capitalist cotton manufacture, in the North West of England. From building her archive of information and ephemera around the phenomenon, she has been able to form the foundation of the sculptural outcomes.

This body of work examines historic notions of the Northern female identity, paying homage to the women who partook in the Cotton Queen Quest, while also discussing labour, automation, and exploitation - blurring the lines between human and machine. 

There is a sense of ridiculousness and humour to be found within this story. The beautification of an industry as a solution to its decline, is of interest here. Particularly when trade and economic issues are at the heart of this deterioration. Following the methodology found within the pageant, Emily began extracting elements of machinery from the industry that these women worked with, and inflating, manipulating, and dressing them up, as if ready for the show. 

The materiality of the work has been central to this. Working between soft forms and cotton fabric, contrasted by metal work and industrial shapes, often trying to make heavy industrial elements appear soft. The statuesque scale of the objects is another important part of this discourse, evoking thought around monuments and public statues and the individuals represented in these memorialisations.

Collaged page, showing process imagery
Collaged page of archive imagery
Imagery of the Scutcher Machine and some illustrations of the machine, showing key parts in the process of recreating them
Collaged page of archive imagery
Collaged page of archive imagery
Collaged page of archive imagery
Collaged page of archive imagery and process
development page with fabric development and sculpture building
Left image shows gloves and fabric, right image shows metal work from waving machine
pencil drawings of sculptures

Burberry Design Scholarship