David Turner

Form or Function? Prosthesis past and present

by David Turner .

Artificial limb makers were sometimes likened to fashionable hairdressers and wigmakers (perhaps reflecting the origins of both in barber-surgery), recasting the body in fantastic and fashionable forms, using artificial means to supplement natural deficiencies.

In Defects, Annelie Gross uses prosthetic technologies to blur the boundaries between beauty and deformity. Her work demonstrates ways in which designers are challenging conventional understandings of the body and its capabilities. From Aimee Mullins’ sculptural legs exhibited in SHOWstudio’s Prosthetics SHOWcabinet, to the ‘proaesthetics’ of Francesca Lanzavecchia, prostheses offer not just a replacement for missing parts, but serve as a fashionable extension of the body. Prosthetics become devices for enhancing, remoulding the body and reshaping identity in ways that force a rethinking of associations between disability and devaluation.

Prosthetics have a rich and varied history that tells us much about attitudes towards the body at different moments in time. Evidence for devices to replace body parts or assist the maimed survives from the Ancient and Medieval periods. By the sixteenth century they were becoming increasingly widespread and technologically sophisticated. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré, for example, described a variety of devices available in late sixteenth-century Paris, including facial prostheses such as counterfeit noses, eyes and lips, iron breastplates for ‘amending the deformity of such as are crook-backed’, various ‘engines and instruments’ to replace missing arms and legs, and even an artificial penis intended to allow damaged men to continue to pass urine standing up ‘so that they are not constrained to sit down like women’. Although crutches and artificial legs were intended to help the mobility of people with functional impairments, many of the prostheses described by Paré were also intended to restore the appearance of the body. Finely crafted artificial arms and legs were, he wrote, ‘not only profitable for the necessity of the body, but also for the decency and comeliness thereof’. The prostheses he described were art forms in their own right, objects of admiration for their skilled craftsmanship and luxurious materials. He described ways in which an artificial eye made of gold and silver could be ‘counterfeited and enamelled, so that it may seem to have the brightness or gemmy decency of the natural Eye’. Those whose missing eyes that could not be replaced should have their empty sockets covered with a thin strip of leather or silk. Prostheses did not so much divide the disabled from the non-disabled, but served as symbols of status and taste as more realistic prostheses were contrasted with the cruder devices doled out to the poor.

The idea of prosthetics as objects of desire and beauty in their own right flourished during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain as the domestic market for artificial eyes and limbs developed. London at the end of the eighteenth century had a conspicuous population of amputees – the product of warfare in North America and continental Europe, disease, and possibly an over-willingness of hospital surgeons to amputate wounded or fractured limbs rather than attempting to cure them. In this period various specialist practitioners emerged who advertised prostheses in ways that emphasised their aesthetic as well as their functional superiority. A medical marketplace was emerging that reflected an increasing faith in technology not just to repair broken bodies, but also to improve them, to create the perfect form. Alongside advertisements for replacement arms and legs aimed marketed primarily at military or naval veterans - ‘a consolation to our brave, but unfortunate defenders’ as an advert of 1794 described them – were products aimed at improving the posture of young women. The London manufacturer Timothy Sheldrake, for example, advertised alongside artificial limbs and trusses for men steel stays and ‘ladies collars’ designed to improve the female form ‘at the time of Life that a fine shape is of the utmost consequence to the fair sex’.

Advertisements for prosthetic limbs that flourished in the press during the prolonged period of warfare with France (1793-1815) emphasised their superior functionality, life-like designs and qualities that enhanced the status of their wearers. The artificial limb was often described as an enhancer of manliness – a visible symbol of heroic sacrifice in the national cause. Typically, a prosthetic limb was marketed not just as the ‘means of an inestimable blessing’ to its user, but as an ‘object of admiration’. In the 1790s the Edinburgh artisan Gavin Wilson pioneered the production of arms and hands from ‘firm, hardened leather’, covered with ‘white lambskin, so tinged as very nearly to resemble the human skin’. Wilson’s inventions were concerned with sensation as well as usefulness and shape, making palms and fingers from chamois leather and ‘baked hair’ to give them a softness of touch. Though Wilson was concerned about the efficacy of his inventions and their ease for the user (choosing materials that would be both durable and light), his work seems to have gone beyond merely substituting missing parts to refashioning the body to meet otherwise unattainable standards of perfection. The white lambskin, for instance, reflected an eighteenth-century pallid ideal that reflected ideas of social as well as racial superiority. Artificial limb makers were sometimes likened to fashionable hairdressers and wigmakers (perhaps reflecting the origins of both in barber-surgery), recasting the body in fantastic and fashionable forms, using artificial means to supplement natural deficiencies.

The association between prosthesis and fashion therefore is nothing new. The re-modelling of prosthetics as desirable is not simply a product of the postmodern challenges to the body beautiful found in the work of recent artists and designers, it was central to the marketing of prosthetics as they begun to evolve in terms of technological sophistication during the eighteenth century. In this period, manufacturers appealed to wearers of artificial limbs – or at least those with the financial capabilities to purchase their high-end wares - not simply as medicalised patients, but as consumers capable of making informed choices about products on the basis of their appearance as well as their functionality, on how they would enhance the body rather than just repair it.