Naomi Purvis explores the artist Grayson Perry and his female alter ego, Claire, questioning whether or not there is a deeper artistic meaning behind his act of crossdressing.

While tapestries and ceramics are what you would find at a Grayson Perry exhibition, it is perhaps the artist himself that’s the real showstopper – or, in fact, his fashionable alter ego Claire. Grayson Perry is an English contemporary artist whose love of cross dressing is perhaps just as important to his career in the art world as his artwork itself. His work often seeks inspiration from topics such as identity, gender, social status, sexuality, religion or from political issues within society. Alongside this, auto-biographical references are also a common theme, with references to the artist’s childhood, his family life, and his female persona Claire, who he brings to life through cross-dressing.

Crossdressing is the act of wearing clothes commonly associated with the opposite sex within our society. It may be done for a number of reasons including comfort, disguise, or as a way of self-expression.

As Perry’s work uses traditional media, the juxtaposition of the artist reinventing himself as Claire almost makes her more endearing. He chooses to express himself through cross-dressing, which may be seen as an untraditional or unconventional act by society. While his artwork follows the norm, his love for cross-dressing is a refreshing example of someone not conforming to society’s ideas of what we should be and how we should act. It reflects a sense of freedom and personal acceptance that is entirely fascinating to witness.

By linking his work to his own life, it gives it a more personal connection, allowing the public to feel closer to the subject matter of the piece they’re looking at. Claire also brings an element of this, encouraging others to feel comfortable in themselves in whatever way they choose. It also provides the opportunity to create a persona so far removed from one’s self the appeal is somewhat alluring.

On the one side, Grayson Perry looks the same as any other artist, messy haired and well dressed.  While in contrast, Claire is much more flamboyant and extravagant. Equipped with a bushy blonde bob and brightly patterned princessesque dresses, she couldn’t be further from the artist’s everyday appearance. Some outfits are almost childlike, accompanied with rosy pink cheeks and over the top hair bows. The slight extremeness of Claire’s wardrobe choice begs the question of what exactly is Perry trying to express through his avant-garde alter ego? Is it a lost childhood love of dressing up? Or perhaps a reflection of his own thoughts of society and women?

Ultimately, the act of cross-dressing only exists because of society dictating the way a man and women should dress. Who decided women should wear dresses and men trousers? Why is it that our clothing preferences are dictated by an unspoken rule created within the society we live in?

While cross-dressing may have been brought into the public eye by the likes of Grayson Perry or other well-known figures such as Eddie Izzard, the act itself has played its part throughout history.  Within society there is the misconception that all those who cross-dress are also gay. Although some men who choose to wear woman’s clothes my not consider themselves to be transgender, cross-dressing has accumulated similar judgement and disapproval from society. Although we can imagine that cross-dressing has been done for many decades, the little evidence available suggests a sense of secrecy. While this may have been a way of avoiding hatred or judgement, the need to act in secret brings an allure to the practice which may draw people in with curiosity. Cross-dressing is still a talked-about topic today. For example, there are many conversations around whether children should be dressed in pink and blue depending on their gender. Along with that comes discussions revolving around whether children should be allowed to play with toys that have somehow been predetermined for use by the opposite sex. Some parents wouldn’t dream of letting their little boy dress up as a princess, whereas others would merely see it as harmless fun. In theory, perhaps that’s all crossdressing really is, an act of harmless fun. Should we be looking less at the deeper meanings that may lie behind the act and instead focus on the way in which cross-dressing is the perfect form of self-expression?

It allows someone to portray themselves in a way in which other means may not have let them. It has no rules or boundaries, whether it’s as flamboyant and Grayson Perry’s Claire, or perhaps much subtler, however you choose it offers a great deal of experimentation and freedom. The connotation that cross-dressing is practiced only by those within the trans community is something that should also be erased. Although many transgender men and women can openly crossdress, the practice shouldn’t be reserved solely for that label and everyone should feel like they can dress in whatever way they choose.

Regardless of whether there is a deeper meaning behind the persona, what both Grayson Perry and Claire have given society is an example of someone being who they want to be and not conforming to predefined social norms. Through clothing, the artist has been able to express himself in ways in which his artwork alone never could. So, what can we take from this? While we should continue to encourage self-acceptance, let’s also consider how our clothing can dramatically impact our emotions and continue to promote it as a tool of self-expression.  After all, there’s a lot of fun to be had in dressing up.

Find Naomi’s work on her blog:

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