Unraveling the Threads of Agnes Richter’s Straitjacket

Handmade linen jacket embroidered with autobiographical text
Handmade linen jacket embroidered with autobiographical text
Agnes Richter (1844–1918) – Handmade linen jacket embroidered with autobiographical text

German seamstress Agnes Emma Richter was 51 years old when she was admitted in 1895 to the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution near Dresden, Germany. Richter was initially transferred to a mental institution near her home after her neighbors lodged several complaints about her “erratic behavior.”

Agnes Richter was convinced that her neighbors were planning to steal her money and ultimately hurt or kill her. She became obsessed with this perceived danger and was diagnosed with extreme paranoia.

Upon her admission at the Hubertusberg asylum, Richter would have been dressed in the institutional uniform and subjected to the processes and rituals of institution life. In an effort to maintain some of her identity, Richter used her straitjacket as a “diary,” sewing words directly into the fabric.

While much of the sewn text has deteriorated over time, some of the still-readable lines say things like “I am not big” and “I am in Hubertusberg.” Richter also added her patient number to the jacket in multiple places, perhaps as an effort to preserve her place there.

She also sewed snippets of text about her wants and needs, including “no cherries” and “I wish to read,” as well as comments like “I plunge headlong into disaster.” It is evident that Richter wore the jacket on a daily basis from the sweat and dirt marks that still remain on it.

Sadly, Richter spent the rest of her life in the asylum. She died at Hubertusberg in July of 1918. Her unusual jacket, “a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity,” was rediscovered in 1980 and lives on in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg. Over a century later, the world is still fascinated by the memories of one woman’s creative fight to preserve her own identity in an environment meant to strip her of it.