Strong Clothing: ‘Held’

From ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’, part of the BBC ‘A History of the World’ project. These items are on display in Bodmin Museum.

According to the article accompanying this image, ‘once the mere whisper of Bodmin’s lunatic asylum, St Lawrence’s, was enough to put the fear of God into Cornish men and women’ and the dark dress on the right, which would have been worn by women from the 1890s onwards, was ‘a poignant reminder of the uniform stigma of lunacy.’

An exhibition at Plymouth Arts Centre offers a new perspective on the subject of clothing, specifically, ‘Strong Clothing’, used in late nineteenth and early twentieth century asylums like St. Lawrences. Often regarded as inhumane forms of controlling patients, ‘Held’ by Jane Fradgley (currently showing until 16 June 2013) is a series of photographs that seek to show how “dignity and comfort for the wearer” are also part of the story of these “well-constructed garments”.

© Jane Fradgley 2013.

Fradgley was initially inspired by photographs taken by Henry Hering of patients in Bethlam in 1856. One shows a young woman, Emma Riches, in a thickly quilted garment with the hand of another person, possibly a nurse, seemingly offering comfort.

© The Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum

The BBC piece suggests that a culture of fear was prevalent around asylums like St. Lawrence’s and conforms to accepted representations of the historic ill-treatment of vulnerable mentally ill people. By contrast, Jane’s work offers us an alternative perspective on attitudes to both patients and those who provided care and clothing for them. It is well worth a visit to Plymouth Arts Centre to see the photos for yourself.

For more information on this fascinating exhibition, visit:

Jane’s work also forms part of a further event: ‘held: a symposium on restraint and strong clothing’, taking place on Wednesday July 31st, 5pm – 8pm, at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, as part of the ‘Damaging the Body’ series. Entry is free, and all are welcome. The symposium aims to offer a variety of perspectives on restraint in the care of the mentally ill, both past and present. More details can be found here:



4 thoughts on “Strong Clothing: ‘Held’

  1. Firstly I would like to say that I welcome you setting up this forum to allow people to consider and reflect on this aspect of Cornish history. ‘Going up Bodmin’ probably resonates strongly for many of us who were brought up down here, I would be interested to know what indeed that did/does still mean to people.

    With regard to the comment above about historic representations of the ill treatment of the mentally ill, I think it important to consider the context in which the asylums were built in the 1800’s. Prior to this time the mentally ill are likely to have been accomodated (if at all) within the workhouses or the poorly regulated ‘madhouses’ and the asylums were thought to provide a more humane and caring environment. So perhaps we shouldn’t be suprised by the fact that restraint clothing considered the dignity and comfort of the patient. I look forward to seeing Jane’s work in Plymouth.

    • Thank you so much for your contribution Cathy, very much appreciated.You are exactly right with your observation about the conditions for those who were mentally ill prior to the County Asylums. We will run several posts highlighting these conditions, illustrating why the legislation was introduced for the construction of the County Asylums. Cornwall did not have any private or charitable institutions dedicated to either the care or the confinement of those who were mentally ill, meaning that establishing a County Asylum was desperately needed to provide appropriate and more humane treatment.

      Please let us know what you think of the exhibition.

  2. I did manage to get to the Jane Fradgley exhibition in Plymouth and was really glad I made the effort to do so. I understand that the images in this exhibition are part of a wider project that focuses on protection and restraint and that by exploring this subject, the artist’s intention is to open new dialogue and debate around restraint and protection. She is hoping to provide a historical perspective alongside today’s treatments of chemical intervention and sedation.

    Jane is quoted as saying
    “I was fascinated by the seemingly comforting strong dresses, and related this form of protective care to my own experiences in hospital and encounters with modern day psychiatric care.

    “For me, the purpose of the strong clothing was not to invoke or exacerbate fear or anxiety in the patient; rather, the attention to detail in creating such well-constructed garments was to bring some dignity, serenity, peace and tranquillity to the wearer as an antidote to their anguish.”

    The images in the exhibition are very powerful and some of them really did convey a sense of being ‘held’ in a way that did feel containing rather than punitive. The clothing are archived objects but Jane has photographed them beautifully and I found it hard not to start thinking about the people who would have worn them and what their stories would have been. There were 3 photographs from the Bethlem archive included in the exhibition as examples of people in strong clothing and these offered something of a narrative to accompany the images.

    The exhibition ends this weekend but the debate will continue as on the evening of 31 July, the MRC SGDP Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry and the Damaging the Body seminar series will co-host a public symposium on the topic of restraint and strong clothing in mental health care.Tickets are free, but places are limited and must be booked in advance at: Doors will open at 5pm, with a reception and chance to view the exhibition, ‘held’. The symposium will begin at 6pm, ending by 8pm.

    When looking for a bit of background to ‘Strong clothing’ I found the following on the Bethlem Blog:
    Strong clothing’ was a rather euphemistic term used to describe certain forms of restraint used in late nineteenth century asylums. While chains, strait-jackets and similar garments were outlawed during the ‘non-restraint’ movement of the 1840s and ’50s, other methods of ‘mechanical restraint’ were permitted by the Commissioners in Lunacy (the government body who inspected and licensed asylums for much of the nineteenth century). “Strong dresses,” as described by Bethlem Superintendent George Savage in 1888, were “made of stout linen or woollen material, and lined throughout with flannel. The limbs are all free to move, but the hands are enclosed in the extremities of the dress, which are padded. … There are no straitwaistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint in Bethlem.” Savage claimed that, by avoiding recourse to the use of sedatives or padded cells for violent or destructive patients, many “were thus really granted liberty by means of the slight restraint put upon them,” such as strong dresses and padded gloves. Others, however, did not agree, and the “principle of non-restraint” remained an ongoing matter of debate.

    • Cathy this is fantastic, thank you! There is now a link on the right hand side to the Bethlem blog, which is an extremely useful resource (the page discussing Held can be found here:

      The restraint/non-restraint debate is certainly one we will be returning to in future posts!

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