Exploring the connection between institutionalisation and women’s needlework, textile historian Isabella Rosner reflects on a unique nineteenth-century object: a jacket made, stitched upon and worn by seamstress Agnes Richter during her 26-year incarceration at Hubertusburg asylum.
What can we learn if we move away from traditional objects of study when researching the medical humanities and instead look towards material objects and clothing? Can we unearth more about the lived experience of patients by adopting methods from different disciplines? Sewn around 125 years ago, a seemingly nondescript jacket demonstrates the value of an interdisciplinary approach, stitching together approaches from textile and costume history, and the medical humanities.
In 1893, 49-year-old Dresden resident Agnes Richter was arrested. Richter – a small, hunchbacked seamstress – had returned to Germany from an eight-year stint in the United States, where she had amassed a small fortune. Once back in Dresden, Richter grew afraid that she would be robbed and contacted the police often, until they arrested her for disturbing the peace and trespassing. Her arrest led to a diagnosis of paranoia, which in turn led to her admission to the Dresden City Lunatic Asylum in 1893 and the Hubertusburg Asylum in 1895, where she remained for the last 26 years of her life.
Richter’s initial psychiatric admission may have been at the behest of her father and brothers, or even her neighbours, though the two main sources of information on Richter – one being the digitised, narrativized object file in the Prinzhorn Collection, the other Gail A. Hornstein’s book Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness – disagree. Though various blog posts about Richter, such as that from UK Disability History Month, claim it was her father and brothers who had her admitted, the object file supports the notion that she was admitted after being charged for trespassing. Hornstein asserts it was Richter’s neighbours who encouraged her admission. It is also not clear why Richter was moved from Dresden to Hubertusburg, more than 40 miles away, in 1895.
During the first year of her stay at Hubertusburg, Richter began embroidering upon a tiny jacket, one that she clearly made herself to fit her petite frame. The jacket is entirely different from typical clothing worn in asylums at the time, which raises questions about how and why this unique sartorial choice was allowed. As a textile historian, I first came across Richter’s jacket many years ago, but only became more familiar with the object in 2020, when I spoke about it in an episode of my podcast, Sew What?, which is about historic needlework and those who stitched it. My knowledge of and fondness for Richter’s jacket flourished further when I was invited to speak with Dr Anna Jamieson for her podcast, Coping in Confinement. Episode one of the podcast explored the relationship between women, stitching and confinement; our conversation revolved around the ways that Richter’s stitching served as a symbol of both protest of and control over her dismal situation.
Housed at the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg since the early twentieth century, the jacket only became well known after being exhibited in 1980, during the first post-1945 itinerant exhibition of the Prinzhorn Collection in Germany. It is made of brown wool and coarse linen with embroidery stitched in red, yellow, blue, orange, and white threads on both its inside and outside. According to the Prinzhorn Collection, the jacket’s “seams are facing outwards, and the sleeves themselves are attached the wrong way around, so that they face the back […] Due to the fact that sweat stains on the lining and shoulder seams don’t match up with each other, one can assume that Richter turned the torso of the jacket inside out at a later date. Thus, the embroidered text would no longer be legible from the outside, and she could begin stitching again – a work in progress” (Prinzhorn Collection).
A note attached to the jacket, likely written by one of the asylum’s doctors or nurses, translates to, “Agnes Richter, 1895. Dem[entia] praec[ox]. Sewed reminiscences from her life into all of her undergarments and clothing.” The term “dementia praecox” is no longer used, having been replaced by “schizophrenia” (Adityanjee, Theodoridis, and Vieweg 1999). The rest of the label indicates that Richter stitched upon all of her clothing, but this jacket is the only piece that has survived. Richter embroidered her jacket with deutsche Schrift, also known as Kurrent, an antiquated form of German cursive.
Given that much of the jacket has layer upon layer of embroidered text, some of which has been worn away completely, most of the script is illegible. Some phrases, however, can be deciphered, and range from simple facts, such as “my jacket” and “I am in Hubertusburg” to poignant reflections, such as “I wish to read” and “I plunge headlong into disaster.” Other snippets of text act as tiny glimpses into longer trains of thoughts, suggestive of what went through Richter’s mind during her institutionalisation, and indeed the making of this jacket: “my white stockings,” “no cherries,” “brother freedom.”
There are a number of extant needleworked objects stitched by institutionalised women in nineteenth-century Europe (also discussed in episode one of Coping in Confinement) but Richter’s jacket is the only known example that is a piece of clothing. Its corporeality adds a layer of meaning to an already significant and emotional object. Richter stitched her words upon a canvas of her own making, a jacket fit to her own dimensions and replete with her stains and smells. The written record of her suffering is stitched onto a symbol of her institutionalisation – thanks to her skills as a seamstress, Richter’s jacket is well stitched, but the sleeves are backwards and the jacket inside out. The world she knew as a working woman was turned upside down during her 26-years of non-consensual institutionalisation. This loss of agency, in turn, made Richter’s deutsche Schrift, and even her corporeal form, unreadable and unrecognisable.
The connection between agency and women’s needlework has been explored across time periods in textile and costume history texts such as Susan Frye’s 2010 Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England and Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin’s 2009 Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. In the case of Richter, the creation of this item suggests that not all of her agency was lost. On the one hand, the indecipherability of Richter’s words – the only personal record of her time at Hubertusburg – means that although we have her name, some details of her life, and even her clothing, we will never fully understand the complete narrative of Richter’s time in the asylum. But on the other, the stitching of this jacket served as an important form of self-expression for Richter, a manifestation of her agency that allowed her to harness and broadcast private retrospections, transforming introspection into exteriority. In this way, Richter’s jacket provides us with a unique opportunity to hear a patient’s voice in her own words and hand, a boon to scholars of both dress and the medical humanities.
That said, the illegibility of her prose still guards her plight like her jacket guarded her small, hunchbacked form, one that was possibly the victim of gaslighting and gendered prejudice in the nineteenth-century asylum at large (Jan Connett 2020). In the jacket’s darts and stains are Agnes Richter’s body and in the embroidery are her words. Richter’s jacket allows her thoughts and ruminations to reach beyond Hubertusburg asylum’s walls, but its illegibility keeps Richter locked inside, confined and restrained. Ultimately, we struggle to completely unstitch Richter’s stratified text.
You can listen to all episodes of the Sew What? and Coping in Confinement podcasts on your favourite podcast app.
Isabella Rosner is a PhD student at King’s College London researching Quaker women’s needle, wax, and shell work before 1800, as well as a podcaster hosting “Sew What?” about historical needlework and those who stitched it. You can find her on Twitter at @IsabellaRosner and on Instagram at @historicembroidery.
Adityanjee, Aderibigbe Y.A., D. Theodoridis, and V.R. Vieweg. “Dementia praecox to schizophrenia: the first 100 years.” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 53, no. 4 (August 1999): 437-48.
“Agnes Richter, 1844-1918.” UK Disability History Month. 1 September 2017. https://ukdhm.org/agnes-richter-1844-1918/.
Connett, Jan. “Agnes Richter’s jacket.” Bristow Institutte and STITCHING – Obsession – Wellness. 25 June 2020. https://stitching.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2020/06/25/agnes-richters-jacket/.
“The Little Jacket (1895) by Agnes Richter.” Die Sammlung Prinzhorn ist eine Einrichtung des Universitatsklinikums Heidelberg (Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital). https://prinzhorn.ukl-hd.de/exhibitions/aktuell/precious-item-of-the-week/jacket/?L=1.
Hornstein, Gail A. Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness. Monmouth, England: PCCS Books, 2012.
Röske, Thomas. “Agnes Richter’s jacket.” Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences (2014): 227–229.
One thought on ““I plunge headlong into disaster”: Unstitching Agnes Richter’s Jacket”
Dear Isabella, thank you for your post about Agnes Richter’s jacket that is more than fascinating! I also worked on it, focusing daily practices of female patients in mental asylums around 1900. I wanted to ask if you know the “needleworks” of Lisette H.? She was a patient in a Swiss mental asylum at the beginning of the 20th century and art historian Katrin Luchsinger wrote about the objects (handbag, hat, stockings…) that she knitted and crocheted from seaweed, using only a match. The article is published open access in a book that I edited together with Benoît Majerus on “Material Cultures of Psychiatry”: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-4788-4/material-cultures-of-psychiatry/?number=978-3-8394-4788-8
I thought this might be of interest for your work!
All the best, Monika