March 2019

Cathy Daley, Little Black Dress, 1997, black knit fabric, wire hanger, 488 cm x 69 cm. Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie. Gift of the Artist, 2018. Photo: Andre Beneteau

Cathy Daley
Little Black Dress, 1997
Black knit fabric, wire hanger
488 cm x 69 cm
Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie
Gift of the Artist, 2018

Cathy Daley’s contemporary art practice investigates how cultural expectations of beauty are defined by popular culture. She is particularly interested in the ideal of the female figure examined through the iconography of dress, culling imagery from fashion, fairytales, cinema and cartoons. Daley is best known for her pastel-on-vellum drawings, which depict opulent ball gowns, pencil thin dresses, ballerina tutus and tight heart bodices as empty vessels devoid of the female body.

Little Black Dress is a soft sculptural work of a gaunt, inky-black dress that hangs by its thin straps from the gallery’s ceiling and drops seventeen feet, ending in a dense pool of fabric on the floor. In Little Black Dress, the wearer has withered her figure out of existence, leaving only an attenuated garment in her absence.

Daley’s work suggests a woman in absentia and evokes through her disappearance the longing for the nihilistic ideal that a woman can never be too thin. Little Black Dress hovers between feminist critique and feminine desire, fantasy and reality, elegance and menace. Daley’s work challenges the quasi-mythological veneration given to the little black dress by the engines of popular culture, particularly the fashion industry, as a universal and enduring icon of the feminine mystique. As remarked by Daley, this ambivalence is an intentional feature of her practice: “As a woman and the producer of these images, I’m caught in a certain push-pull. I look at images of women in fashion magazines and I can’t help but find them seductive, but on another level I am not supposed to like that anymore. It’s the same thing with my dresses.”[1]

Cathy Daley’s work is held in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and Hart House at the University of Toronto. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including those at the National Gallery of Canada, the Power Plant, Toronto; the Koffler Gallery, Toronto; the Saidye Bronfman Centre, Montreal; and the Art Gallery of Kelowna, among numerous others. Since 1988, Daley has served as an Associate Professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design. She holds a BFA from the Ontario College of Art and Design. The artist lives and works in Toronto.

This Art of the Month is in dedication of Women’s History Month, March 1 – 31.


[1] “Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down,” Border Crossings 18, no. 2 (1999): 4.