In Polish, podszerstek [undercoat] does not remind us of the wardrobe, though in animal coats this thick, soft, and trim layer of fur just beneath the outer fur plays an important thermal role. Undercoat, lining, bristle, hair… The English “underfur,” and certainly “undercoat,” has a different range of associations, more closely related to the world of fashion and clothes. It is literally what is concealed underneath the outer layer, filling the gap between the skin and the fabric, while remaining unseen from the outside.
A good craftsman is said to know his trade “inside-out,” but not because what is inside distinguishes the work of a tailor from the mass production of the global South. He need not even look there to detect a masterful style, the faultless seams between fabrics, the unerring cut of cloth or stitch of the buttons. The eye of the connoisseur will know if the lining is satin, muslin, or modal from the style of the coat. You know the cut from the lining, one might say, and a solid cotton lining serves a range of functions.
In the language of ne’er-do-wells, a person who swiped things while pretending to shop for clothes was a szopenfeldziarz, a “clothesman.” In Łódź, you could find a szpringowiec, a shoplifter. Szmates meant clothing or a dress, szarywary was a peasant’s pocket. These pockets were filled with all sorts of goods to sell on the street and booming geszeft; literally anything could be bought from a guy in an overcoat. A shady character would approach you and open up his coat, which would be hung with all kinds of small things. There were watches, jewelry, tobacco, fake IDs, and in Warsaw’s Kercelak district, even revolvers. Street smugglers stitched meat hooks inside their coats, their linings were fixed with special bags. Clothing served as a means of transport and short-term storage of goods in quasi-legal circumstances. Rustling and murmuring… Monogrammed initials, scraps of information, and confessions from loved ones were stitched in linings and inside pockets. Information and data was smuggled this way; untouched for years, it overslept its moment, never reaching its addressee.
The titular “undercoat” is present in the exhibition narrative through associations between the world of nature and humans, pointing to the cracks that exist between how we normally see things, between skimming the surface of contemporary events and technology’s consequences upon society and civilization, and meticulous observation of the state of objects, fleeting details which escape the proverbial “first glance.”
Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland