Primitive Streak

Primitive Streak poster

19 June – 12 August 2000

Mon – Fri 10.00 – 16.30
Sat – Sun 13.00 – 16.30

Admission: £2, concessions £1
Children & students FREE

Further information: Tel: 01223 33 66 50
E-mail:  umzc   zoo cam ac uk

A fashion collection chronicling the first 1,000 hours of human life

Professor Helen Storey and Dr Kate Storey

A fashion collection based on a biological process challenges the commonly held belief that science and art are unable to communicate with one another.

Primitive Streak, a joint venture of fashion designer Helen Storey and her sister, developmental biologist Dr. Kate Storey, is a collection of 27 garments elucidating ten key events in the 1,000 hours following fertilisation. The title itself is a scientific term that refers to a productive embryonic structure from which the different major organs of the body eventually emerge.

The works in the exhibition were produced from designs made by Professor Helen Storey working with Dr. Kate Storey, research biologist at Oxford University and graduate of Cambridge University Department of Zoology. The designs were realised between May and September 1997.

Between fertilisation and the appearance of the recognisable human form, a single cell (the fertilised egg) divides many times to produce millions of cells. If unchecked, cell proliferation leads to cancer, but the regulation of cell production and differentiation during embryonic development ensures that the right kind of cells form in the right place at the right time. Exactly how this happens is one of the most important questions in biology today.

For further information on the Helen Storey Foundation (organisers of the Primitive Streak tour), please email  cchstorey   lineone net, write to 19 Shuttleworth Road, London SW11 3DH, or visit

The exhibits

Fertilisation 0 – 1.5 Days: Designs 1 – 5

Using enzymes, a sperm burrows into the egg, and genes from the male and female meet. The entry of a single sperm triggers events that stop the many other sperm that are attempting to penetrate the egg. Development begins.

Design 1: 1,000 Sperm Coat

The coat was made by two students working simultaneously over a period of 105 hours. Dissolvable fabric was first embroidered with nylon threads and then over-embroidered with cream and white threads, leaving the tails free. The coat was then left to soak in a bath of cool water. The backing cloth fell away, leaving the fabric as shown.

Design 2: Sperm Cage

The cage, made by the jewellers Erickson Beamon, represents the fertilised egg. The form is made of knitted nylon thread laced onto plastic heat-shaped tubes. The sperm heads are made of crystal and the sperm tails of silver watch chains.

Design 3: Sperm Internal Structure Dress

The bodice of the dress is made of fibreglass, with the graphic representation of the sperm’s internal structure hand-painted in oils. The nucleus of the sperm is black; the red band represents the enzymes released to open a way into the egg. The silver coil belt symbolises the mitochondria, the powerhouse of this highly motile cell.

Design 4: Double Sperm Dress

The skirt of the dress is made of high-spun viscose jersey; the sperm-shaped breast plates have been vacuum-formed in Plexiglas and sprayed from underneath. The tails are made of silk chiffon.

Design 5: Fertilised Egg

The bodice of the dress is made of foam rubber, printed and over-embroidered with cream, white and black threads. The top halves are mirrored to reflect the image of the woman wearing it. The skirt is made of high-spun viscose jersey. The bodice is held together by the head of a single penetrating sperm.

Cell Division 1.5 – 4 Days: Designs 6 – 11

The first division of the fertilised egg generates two cells, each of which receives identical genetic information. Nuclei from the sperm and egg fuse, and their chromosomes are duplicated. Matching pairs of chromosomes line up along the midline of the cell and are separated as the cell divides.

Design 6: Calendar Dress

Aluminium hoops support three panels of em-broidered silk chiffon to show how cells multiply. The first layer depicts a single cell, the layer beneath illustrates the point of first cell division, the third layer represents the four-cell stage. The underdress is made of high-spun viscose.

Design 7: Chromosome Kimono

The kimono jacket is made of silk and is discharge printed with red chromosomes. The jacket is lined with foam rubber. The skirt is made of silk jersey with a train bound in silver chain mail.

Design 8: Double DNA Dress

This double dress is made of high-spun viscose and lined in silk chiffon. The lining has been bias-cut diagonally across the grain of the fabric and printed with a DNA sequence. The sequence spirals within the outer dress, a reminder of the helix formation of DNA. The embroidery on silk organza is stretched across a hoop and inserted between the two dresses. The thread work captures the nature of cells pulling apart.

Design 9: Eight-Cell Stage

Inserted into this high-spun viscose dress are two circular panels of bias-cut silk chiffon. The embroidered panel shows the eight-cell stage. Each of the eight cells is still capable of forming a complete embryo.

Design 10: Chromosome Patterning Dress

This dress is made of black silk that has been splash-sprayed with acid to bleach out the colour and overprinted with red flock to exemplify chromosome patterning. The dress is bias-cut and suspended from an aluminium hooped frame.

Design 11: Anaphase Dress

The breastplate of this dress shows pairs of chromosomes pulling apart. It has been suspended to float in front of the dress and is deliberately meant to quiver when worn, mimicking the shudder of cells as they divide. The back of the breastplate is bonded with a plastic mirror to reflect light onto the wearer. The red fringe across the front is a reminder of the spindles along which the chromosomes are drawn. The bottom of the dress is made of tea-coloured high-spun viscose.

Implantation 5 – 11 Days: Design 12

The egg divides many times to produce a ball of cells. Cells on the outside will form the placenta, while the inner cell mass will make the body. At five days, the embryo implants in the womb.

Design 12: Implantation Dress

The implantation dress is made of red silk jersey and silk chiffon. The red part of the dress has been embroidered to show the embryo implanting into the uterus wall, represented in black.

Mesoderm Formation 12 – 14 Days: Design 13

Within the implanted embryo, the inner cells form a two-layered disk. The top layer of cells moves toward the future tail end of the embryo where it forms a unique structure known as the Primitive Streak, a narrow groove that extends toward the future head of the embryo. The movement of cells through the Primitive Streak generates an important new layer called the mesoderm that will give rise to major structures of the body such as muscle, bone, the kidneys and the heart.

Design 13: Primitive Streak Dress (“African” Streak)

The Primitive Streak is represented by two sheets of metallic silver cloth that fold back upon themselves along the length of the dress. The new layer of cells, the mesoderm, is indicated by a sheet of gold metallic fabric emerging from beneath the silver folds of the Primitive Streak. The top part of the Primitive Streak is represented by two layers of black plastic. The dress supporting this structure is made of a hand-printed fabric from central Africa.

Neural Induction 15 – 18 Days: Designs 14 – 15

Cells at the top of the Streak produce chemical signals (represented by the fibre optics) that induce the fan-shaped neural plate. This is the beginning of the nervous system.

Design 14: Neural Induction Dress (“Indian” Streak)

Eight thousand fibre optic endings have been sealed into a light source one inch in circumference. These fibres have been divided and cut randomly along their length to suggest the spread of signals from the top of the Primitive Streak. The fibre optic work is by Sarah Taylor. The dress itself is made of an Indian sari, with the Primitive Streak and the node at the back of the dress represented in black plastic.

Design 15: Emergence of Prechordal Plate Dress (“Afghan” Streak)

The underdress is made of silk chiffon and has been splashed with acid to suggest cell movement. The black plastic Primitive Streak has shifted downward, and the tissues that have emerged include the prechordal plate (seen here as a collar). The emergence of the first segmented structures in the embryo is evoked using the tassels of an ancient Afghan wedding tent.

Neuralation 22 – 25 Days: Segmentation Designs 16-17

The flat neural plate rolls up to form the neural tube destined to become the brain and spinal cord. The developing spinal cord is flanked by regular structures called somites, the first segmented structures to appear in the embryo. These structures will contribute to the muscles and vertebrae of the backbone.

Design 16: Neural Fold Dress

This dress is made of white fake fur. The shaping of the front is abstract, but the formations on the back depict the rolling up of the neural plate to form the neural tube. The developing somites are shaved into the fur flanking the neural tube.

Design 17: Closing Neural Tube Dress

Made of red fake fur, this dress shows (on the back) the progression of somite formation and the continued closure of the neural tube.

Heart Development 20 – 21 Days: Designs 18 – 21

The heart forms from two primitive blood vessels that arise above the developing brain. The primitive blood vessels fuse to form a single heart tube as they descend into the future chest cavity.

Design 18: Heart Tube Hat

Milliner Philip Treacy designed this hat to explain the development of the heart. It shows the two blood vessels coming together with the developing diaphragm beneath them.

Design 19: Heart Tubes and Descending Diaphragm Dress

This dress is made in two parts: the underdress of high-spun viscose jersey and an overlayer made of black silk chiffon. The black gauze stretched across the front of the chiffon overdress represents the descending diaphragm upon which the fusing blood vessels will eventually rest.

Design 20: Heart Tubes Fusing Bodice and Skirt

The bodice of this outfit has been made, like the hat, by pulling fabric over a wooden block shaped to the contours of the developing heart. In this outfit, the diaphragm has descended further, and the heart tubes have begun to fuse. The skirt is made of red silk chiffon.

Design 21: Heart Bird

The heart bird was created to illustrate the fully folded heart tube. It is balanced by a feather tail. The heart itself has been made with a wooden block as in Design 20, and it is held in shape from the inside by fine nylon wires.

Limb Formation 26 – 29 Days: Design 22

Limb buds, which will form the arms and legs, arise at two distinct levels along the flanks of the embryo. Arm buds appear first, and developing digits are visible from day 37.

Design 22: Limb Bud Dress

This dress, made of artist’s primed canvas, was painted in oils by Chloe Sendall.

Cell Specialisation 30 – 40 Days: Designs 23 – 27

Nerve cells put out long filaments that contact and signal to distant cells. By day 32, spinal nerves begin to sprout.

By day 35, regional subdivisions of the nervous system, such as the cerebellum, arise, and by day 42, the skeleton is laid down, as ossification of developing bones begins.

Design 23: Nerve Net Dress

This double dress in silk and viscose jersey has been printed with acid to burn out the natural fibre, leaving the pattern of a retinal neuron. The twig incorporated into the dress is symbolic of the many aborisations characteristic of nerve cells. The hem of this dress has been blasted with high-frequency ultra-sound, which has simultaneously cut and sealed the fibres. This technique is the work of Janet Stoyel.

Design 24: Fibre Optic Nerve Net Dress

This dress is made of black high-spun viscose. The nerve net cell structure has been hand-embroidered and woven with 200 fibre optic ends to symbolise signals passing along the nerve cell.

Design 25: White Nerve Net Dress

This dress is made using a cloth of viscose and silk. The viscose has been burned away with acid to leave the shape of a neuron. Two hundred fibre optic ends evoke the passing of electrical impulses through networks of nerves.

Design 26: Spinal Column Dress

The fabric used here is silk printed by Coats Viyella Plc using a DNA sequence run from a laboratory gel. The patterning recalls the molecular basis of embryonic development. This female spine has been cast in resin and hand-plated with aluminium foil. Eight thousand fibre optic endings have been sealed into a one-inch light source and fed through the spine at irregular intervals. These fibres represent the nerve processes that extend throughout the body.

Design 27: Rib Cage Dress

The rib cage has been cast in resin and hand-plated in aluminium. The fabric has been printed by Coats Viyella Plc using an enlarged DNA sequence as in Design 26. Both the spine and ribs are the work of Post.

Glossary of selected terms

Anaphase: the third of four stages in cell division when the duplicated chromosomes pull apart to opposite sides of the cell in preparation for it to split into two cells.

Blastocyst: a sphere of cells with a central cavity that constitutes the embryo about seven days after fertilisation; later some of these cells will form the embryonic disk, while others will become the placenta.

Chromosomes: thread-like condensations of DNA molecules that encode genetic information.

DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid): a self-replicating constituency of chromosomes that carries an organism’s genetic information.

Ectoderm: the upper layer of cells in the embryonic disk, which will develop into the skin and nervous system.

Endoderm: the lower layer of cells in the embryonic disk, which will form the gastrointestinal tract.

Fertilisation: the process whereby the genetic material of a sperm cell is fused with that of an egg.

Gastrulation: a movement of cells though the primitive streak that leads to the generation of the three germ layers of the embryo.; the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm; this occurs three weeks after fertilisation.

Implantation: the process whereby the blastocyst becomes imbedded in the uterine wall.

Limb buds: paddle-shaped protrusions that appear on the embryo during the second month after fertilisation, and which will develop into arms and legs.

Mesoderm: the middle layer of cells within an early embryo from which muscle, bone, connective tissue, the circulatory system and some other body structures are derived.

Mitochondria: subcellular structures that are important for metabolism, the converting of nutrients into energy.

Neural Induction: a process whereby the ectoderm, or outer layer of cells in the early embryo, begins to develop into the nervous system; the first structure, the neural plate, will later fold itself into the neural tube – the future brain and spinal cord.

Primitive Streak: a finger-like condensation of cells with a central groove through which cells migrate to form new germ layers, the mesoderm and endoderm; it appears 12 to 14 days after fertilisation and is one of the earliest indications of the head to tail axis of the embryo.

Somites: paired groups of mesoderm cells that are the first segmented structures to appear in the embryo; they will develop into the vertebrae of the spine, muscles and connective tissue.

Responses to Primitive Streak

“Primitive Streak is an adventurous and highly successful fusion of art and science, and a fine example of British innovtion and creativity” – Prime Minister, Tony Blair 1998

“The designs have a magical quality that makes you want to know more about science” – Daily Telegraph, April 1998

“No woman will ever see herself in the same light” – Deidre McShary, Bath, Feb 1999

“Amazing how something so physical and inventive can come from something not many really understand” – Visitor, Tel Aviv, 1998

“I told my mum everything SHE didn’t know. SHE was amazed.” – Eleanor (11), Kent, 1998


Craft and textiles


Implantation Dress: Becky Jones

1,000 Sperm Coat: Maki Yamashita, Juwairyah Saeed

Dividing Cells: Maki Yamashita

Fibre Optics

Sarah Taylor/Scottish College of Textiles

Fibres: Mitsubishi UK Ltd

Light source design: Matt Miles/Playlight Ltd

Heart Sculptures

Barry Flanaghan

Heart Hat

Philip Treacy

Textile origination/print

Belford Print Ltd

DNA sequence prints

Coats Viyella Plc

Spines, ribs and rings


Limb bud painting

Chloe Sendall/Brighton University

Ultra-sound & laser work

Janet Stoyel

Jewelled sperm cage

Erikson Beamon Ltd

Special thanks to Helen Bailey and the staff and students at the London College of Fashion in particular Carmel Kelly, Perminder Khali, Hillary Harriet and Vivienne Underwood.

Financial sponsors

This exhibition has been supported by the South Eastern Museums Service and Cambridge City Council.

The Primitive Streak tour was made possible with the kind patronage of Pfizer Central Research. It was initiated in 1997 by the Wellcome Trust sciart prize, and was supported by The Royal Society/COPUS – Office of Science & Technology, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, The Crafts Council, The Design Council, Marks & Spencer Plc, The Mercers Company, Proportion London Ltd and the London College of Fashion.

Science credits

We are grateful to Dr. Jennifer Brown, Professor Gillian Morriss-Kay and Dr. Ian Thompson for scientific images and to Dr. Marco Lee for FSH DNA sequence. We wish to give special thanks to the Storey Laboratory for their patience, support and encouragement throughout the project.

Banners and visuals

Photographer – Justine @ Rockit, Assisted by – James Mountford; Visual Director – Andreas Laeufer; Styling – Claire Todd @ Public; Makeup -Peter Schnell @ Rockit; Hair – John Chapman @ Stuart Watts; Model – Korinna @ Models 1.

Educational packs

Reproduced with kind permission from Museum of Costume in Bath, written by Rhian James, with financial assistance from the Committee for Public Understanding of Science.

Last updated: 18 April 2009