Ellie Dyson discusses Grayson Perry and the link between fashion and identity with designers and artists…
Grayson Perry is a British artist known for his tapestries and ceramic vases. These perceptually traditional mediums contrast with his contemporary concepts which are portrayed within the art, and his expressive style when cross-dressing. Perry first borrowed a dress from his sister when he was ten years old, at a time when he was beginning to explore his sexuality. When his stepsister read his diary, he was forced to tell his family, receiving a negative response. At a time when he needed the most support, he had to instead promise to stop, and so was left with many unanswered questions until he went to university and was able to express himself. He knew that he wasn’t gay, and he didn’t want to be a woman – the experience itself of wearing women’s clothes was a psycho-sexual one. As soon as he started to pass as a woman on the street without getting any second glances, he began to dress more garishly. He realised his aim was not to be perceived as a woman, but to instead be just a man in a dress. In his channel 4 documentary, ‘Born Risky’, he said “For me, it’s more important that I look interesting rather than feminine”. It was at that time when he developed his alter-ego, ‘Claire’, inspired by Little Bo Peep. Claire gives Perry the chance to explore different styles of femininity. Perry’s wardrobe seems to be split in half, with one part showcasing bright, over the top costumestyle dresses (Grayson often collaborates with fashion and textiles students from CSM, who create dresses for the artist), and the other half comprising of t-shirts and trousers held up by braces. You could say that this split-style fashion reflects his identity in his own work, which often humorously explores contemporary societal issues by using traditional ceramic craft methods.
So where else does identity driven dressing appear in the creative industry?
At age 18, Frida Kahlo was involved in a bus accident leaving her impaled on a railing. She spent the next months in a full body cast and went on to have almost 40 operations. The resulting trauma, added to the complications from the Polio she had as a child, was often portrayed in her work, but they also contributed to her fashion identity.
Her Mexican folk-inspired corset style tops and blouses and long embroidered skirts were used as instruments to hide her numerous surgical scars. Seemingly delicate corsets were in fact reinforced with steel, and one of her highly decorated boots was a prosthetic for the leg she lost due to gangrene. She challenged society’s definition of femininity by dressing herself in an armour of statement jewellery pieces, bright lipstick and flowers woven into her hair, which complimented her ‘out of the norm’ eyebrows. Her accessories were said to be a way for her to uphold her ‘national identity’ (Tate).
Andy Warhol, known for his pop art, worked with themes such as iconography and commercialism. His well-known works featuring brand names and Hollywood stars desensitize the audience to the sensationalism of the subject by repeating prints of the image. Warhol’s own style of dress reflected this, with black turtlenecks or striped t-shirts and nondescript suits being his armour of choice. His eccentric hairstyle was carefully planned so he himself could be considered an icon, and his Levi 501 jeans were an ode to the commercialism so regularly appearing in his art.
Occasionally fashion identity can be demonstrated in the opposite way. Some creatives are more conservative dressers who wear a ‘uniform’. Artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are more commercially active, so they appear to dress in a way that could be more accepted by society and investors – Jeff Koons often being shown in a white shirt and dark suit, and Hirst in black suits, leather jackets or flannel shirts layered over tees.
Karl Lagerfeld mostly appears dressed in a uniform of a white shirt, black blazer and trousers, topped off with fingerless gloves. His shirts usually have an exaggerated stiff collar, accompanied with a decorative statement tie in black or white. This style makes Lagerfeld instantly recognisable and creates a consistency in the midst of fashion’s fast-moving pace.
There are many other creatives, designers especially, who don similar clothes on a regular basis – Carolina Herrera in white shirts and A-line skirts, Michael Kors in black blazers, jeans and t-shirts, Yohji Yamamoto in all black layers, and Lanvin’s former creative director Alber Elbaz in his signature suit and cheeky bow tie – the list goes on and on.
So, what is the advantage of wearing a similar outfit every day?
Former President Barack Obama might have the answer, revealing his reason for doing so as “trying to pare down decisions”, he told Vanity Fair in 2012. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
For a designer or artist, their personal style is an extension of their brand. For some, that means dressing in a way that reflects their work, but it might also mean they choose to wear the same thing every day to allow all their creativity to instead be channelled into their work.
Perhaps, as creatives already have an agency which allows selfexpression, they don’t feel the need to express themselves through their own wardrobe.
Is there a difference between how artists and designers dress themselves?
Perhaps artists see and use clothes as an opportunity for performance, whereas designers don’t see the clothes on themselves as a priority because they want to drive all the media’s attention to their collection.
For an artist, consumers are interested in the personality of the individual and who they are as a brand, so it benefits the artist to have the attention fixed on who they are as a person. Owning a unique style can enable this.
By purchasing art, the consumer buys into the artist’s personality, something external to themselves that they are potentially bringing into their home. The artist must persuade them that they are worth investing in. Clothes are the opposite, the consumer thinks about them with themselves in mind, and what the garment will look like on them. The designer is essentially providing a service which ends as soon as the clothes are put on the consumer’s body. It makes sense then, that many designers are seen sporting ‘basic’ garments such as a suit or an all-black outfit as it, just like Karl Lagerfeld above, creates a consistency which reassures the customer that the designer in question has a strong, authentic identity which promises potential for collections to come. Although Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are artists, they seem to dress in the same template as designers. Being more commercial, they also need to dress in a neutral style which doesn’t detract any attention from their work and is seen as appropriate by potential consumers and investors.
Grayson Perry’s open nature towards being a transvestite allows him to be seen as authentic amongst his peers and the general public, as well as creating another dimension and context to his work. From his exploration into his own identity from a young age, he has developed an interest in the many characteristics society can offer, and his work stems from this, having created documentaries and exhibitions detailing class, sexuality and prejudice which would have never come to fruition had he not been true to himself. It makes an interesting contrast to the designers who keep their own personal dress code neutral so that the focus is on their latest collections, and their clothes, not personality, is what is for sale.
You can see more of Ellie’s work on Instagram by following @elliejdyson or checking out her website at https://bit.ly/2MNxE8T