We're reporting on each of the events in the RA's free salon series for GSK Contemporary - Aware.
First up: The Artist's Robe: Adornment and Identity.
Participants include Artist Grayson Perry, Professor Reina Lewis (London College of Fashion) and Dr. Emma Tarlo (Goldsmiths)
Are the British chromophobic? Do goths wear pink? The first salon event in our series tackled the subjects of role, dress and identity, and ranged from the clothing of Berbers in the Atlas mountains to trends in glasses-wearing and whether or not it's peculiarly British to wear black.
Eyes and iconography
Grayson Perry's shamanic Artist's Robe (pictured right) dominates the entrance hall of the exhibition, and made an appropriate starting point for the night's conversation.
Modelling a variation on the robe for the audience, Perry – who is arguably as famous for his female alter-ego Claire as he is for his work - explained that dressing up was a way for him to deal with post-exhibition blues as a young artist.
“I didn’t get enough attention. I’d put a year and a half’s work into an exhibition and then the opening would come … and at the opening people might not even know I was the artist because I was just another bloke in a shirt and a jacket. I wanted the emotional feedback from being an artist… so when I had the confidence I started dressing up in dresses. Then it would be ‘oh there’s Grayson Perry, in the dress’.
“I suppose that generated the idea of an official artist’s robe, so that when I’m walking down the street people would say ‘oh, look, there’s an artist’.”
Emma Tarlo raised the topic of eyes, one of the key motifs embroidered on Perry's robe, and their symbolic use in clothing and jewellery. Tarlo said Perry's robe reminded her of a certain type of cloak
worn by Berbers in the Atlas mountains, which features an enormous eye on the back.
“Part of that eye also raises questions of who’s looking at who. On the one hand you’ve got an artist with a voracious eye on the world around them, but lots of different cultural traditions also use eyes prophylactically - things that are beautiful and worthy of protection have an eye on them in order to reflect back the jealous eyes of those around.”
Deflecting the evil eye, Tarlo noted, could come in useful at exhibition openings: “The jealous eyes of people around you in the art world could be reflected back by the eyes in your cloak.”
Reina Lewis picked up on another sort of motif used in Perry’s cloak – the iconography and symbols that are associated with guilds. Perry has spoken of his interest in the tradition of guilds – a sense of belonging to an elite group of fellow artists – and how the cloak reflects this.
Lewis wondered if thinking about guilds was complicated by the workshop practices of contemporary art: “You design in conjunction with other people and then someone makes it. A lot of it is done by technicians and craftspeople who have an entirely different cultural and social status, income-generating opportunity and so on.
“It’s interesting to think about how we can locate those things historically and also, how those things are changing. I think artists are very often aware that it’s not just a process of commissioning, it’s often quite collaborative and interactive - but where do you find the traces of that in the work? What does it mean to think about all the people who are involved? Which goes back to your (Tarlo’s) point about who’s looking.”
21st century mélange
An audience member raised the question of boundaries. Does Perry set boundaries between his art and himself, in his approach to dress?
Perry explained that in the early years of his career, Claire tended not to make an appearance.
“I referenced her (in my work) but I didn’t dress up or anything. And then I did some photographs in the mid-90s of Claire that had an artistic intent, they weren’t just for my own pleasure… as I’ve become more confident and accepting of myself, I’ve allowed it to blend in and so it does get sort of muddled up with the person who is making the art. And as an advertising gimmick, it’s quite handy, I’m not going to deny that.”
Lewis wondered what the female equivalent of Perry’s transvestism would be. Perry mentioned the artist Cindy Sherman: “She’s really the archetypal person who’s put themselves into their art through dressing up. She’s not erotically driven to dress up in funny costumes as far as I know, though she did it from a very young age.”
Lewis also questioned what effect globalization had had on the idea of dress and identity.
“There are interesting questions about cultural ownership for a younger generation that’s grown up with world music and world food and world clothing. If a white girl in London walks down the street in a sari, is her generation reading that in terms of social politics or simply as fashion fusion?
“What happens if she’s wearing it in Southall - or in the Royal Academy?”
Perry thought the internet was key to changing ideas of dress: “I think the aesthetic of the 21st century is almost a kind of mélange. If I look at a young person walking down the street now there’s a bit of punk, a bit of hippy, a bit of rock and roll, there are references to everything. It results in something like a collage aesthetic.”
Salon participants (L-R): Grayson Perry, Dr. Emma Tarlo, Professor Reina Lewis and Dr Alison Bracker
Fitting in, standing out
Globalisation and the internet might arguably be creating a homogenised approach to fashion, but Lewis pointed out that individual subcultures have very specific criteria about dress.
“There are still different style and fashion and taste communities in which participants in that community can look at someone walking down the road and think ‘oh, yeah, that’s totally this year’s black polo neck jumper’ as opposed to last year’s black polo neck jumper. How did people get to know that, how do you recognise each other? Does it matter? In which contexts does it matter?”
There was the specific problem of what to buy for her neighbour’s son, a 13-year-old goth:
“I wouldn’t dream of buying him a black T-shirt for his birthday because I am so likely to get the wrong kind of black T-shirt which would be, you know, social death.”
On to the question of extremes. Another audience member asked the enduring question - why it is that we are torn between the need to fit in and the desire to stand out?
For Tarlo, this was tied in with ideas about public space.
“I quite often juxtapose the naked rambler who’s walking through Britain completely naked and keeps getting arrested with all the controversies surrounding completely veiled women. These are people pushing at the borders of what is considered acceptable.
“Fitting in or not fitting in - to what extent do you actually want to attract attention? “
Grayson Perry demonstrates his Artist's Robe Office rules and spectacle trends
The discussion moved on to dress in the workplace. Sometimes there are very closely policed instructions on what to wear, but sometimes the rules are implicit. Who notices, and who polices?
Lewis described a cartoon she had recently seen from a 1940s issue of the New Yorker:
“A man and woman are walking down the road and some people walk past them and the man says ‘did you notice that woman who just walked past?’ And she says ‘oh, you mean the one in the two-tone blue suit with the hat with the orange feather in it and the seamed stockings and the brown pumps, one heel slightly worn down?’ And he says ‘yes’ and she says ‘no, not particularly’.
“I think that’s so true - it’s about who notices what.”
An interesting aside about glasses. Perry noted that if he'd seen Lewis wearing her (angular, black-framed) glasses ten years ago he would have assumed she was a German tourist, because that particular style of eyewear was unusual in Britain at the time.
“But most people wear roughly that shape of glasses now… it’s very hard to buy something alternative to that it, it’s actually become a sort of a default position.”
Lewis said she thought glasses dated people more than anything else.
“When you look at old photographs, you might think - that person’s wearing a 1960s hair cut or whatever, but it's actually the glasses you’re looking at. When I look at pictures of myself as a teenager in my aviator-shaped glasses, which now are a bit retro cool… well, for years I couldn’t bear to look at those pictures because of the glasses. The terrible 70s hair I could live with, but the glasses..!”
An audience member commented that her own glasses were eight years old. Perry thought that the fashion in glasses changed very slowly, and Lewis pointed out that it might be because they’re so expensive: “But then it’s only in the last 15 years or so that glasses became a fashion item, it used to be that the choice was incredibly limited. Then you started to get not only designer glasses, but a whole range of glasses that were more related to fashion and trend. “
On the subject of limited choices, Perry thought that contemporary youth culture was less creative then it had been when he was a teen. Then the New Romantics and punk movements had both embraced a ‘make do and mend’ approach to dress, whereas now most people operated within the “pretty narrow bandwidth” of commercial high street fashion.
If anything was likely to be a saviour of creativity, Perry felt it would be the internet, and the way it opened up niche markets. The designer who creates his specialist ‘Claire’ shoes sells online, for example. "It's just about whether you care enough about looking different to put the effort in."
Tarlo mentioned a fascinating piece of recent research by anthropologists, which apparently found that at any given time, 50% of the world’s population was in jeans: “I think that’s extraordinary in terms of levelling”.
In contrast, Tarlo pointed out that people can create ‘multiplex identities’ through dress, which can result in some unexpected juxtapositions.
“In terms of some of the work I’ve done with Muslims in this country, an extreme example of that is a couple of young women who are black rappers, and one’s from what she calls a afro-centric background and one’s from a Pentecostal background and they converted to Islam.
“They’re still performing as rappers in the public space but they want to be covered in conformity with what they see as Islamic ideals of modesty. They also want to be controversial, and they want to reference their black heritage and they want to reference the fact that they’re British. It’s incredibly difficult actually finding clothes that correspond to that kind of identity.”
An audience member asked about personal identity in relation to male clothing. How can men express themselves this way?
There was general agreement that it's more difficult for men.
Perry: "It's such a delicate dance. If you want to look hetero but high fashion, as a man, you have to over-compensate in some other way."
The lone male in the audience commented that, while he was hesitant to use the phrase; "you have to have balls to dress differently".
An audience member raised the issue of climate. What impact does the British climate, in particular, have on dress and self-representation? The speaker had come to the UK from Texas, where wearing bright colours was de rigueur, and noticed that people in Britain tended more towards black and grey.
"British people have chromophobia," Perry declared, adding that too many people fell back on black along with "the horrible trap of matching everything". This brought a spirited defence from one audience member, who claimed "We don't hate colour! It's about light - we don't paint our buildings bright colours either."
There was general discussion on the quality of light and whether cooler, darker countries tended to avoid colour because it made a more obvious statement.
Lewis pointed out that climate made a big difference, and Perry agreed, especially on the temperature front - "as Boy George says, 'heat is the enemy of drag'".
An audience member agreed climate was a key arbiter of fashion choices: "I’m a goth, but I don’t wear black that much in the summer, I wear bright hippie style dresses, they could be bright pink."
Lewis pointed out that this shows the diversity possible within subcultures: "there are different trends or cultures within the umbrella of Goth."
The RA's events and lectures manager, Dr Alison Bracker, asked about colour and protection. Was there something comforting about particular colours?
With that, the ubiquity of black was back on the table. Perry felt restraint had become confused with morality, in an echo of the old puritan associations of black - "If you're chicly minimal in your black, you're somehow more spiritual."
But a fashion designer in the audience disagreed that black was a philosophical choice. "I wear black all the time, because it's a practical colour when you have young children. It's not a fashion thing. Also, women like a black dress, because it's all about the silhouette."
Lewis summed up the recent history of black in fashion:
"Black has had a long fashion moment which may come to an end, or it may continue for another ten years. It has historical precedence with clerical dress and religious dress, it's no longer just a mourning colour - people will wear black to a wedding now, which even 20 years ago would have been a peculiar thing to do.
"Black works for a number of reasons. It’s able to have different sorts of undertones - it can be cosmopolitan and cool, it can be utilitarian workwear, sort of like denim. But I think it’s also part of a wider picture - a whole generation of people who grew up wearing black."
An audience member agreed on this, pointing out that black's fashion moment really began when Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto came onto the scene in the 1980s.
"Suddenly colours went out and everyone wore black. I came from that era, it was like a uniform, even in art college, everyone wore black."
Lewis agreed that this had been innovative at the time.
But Perry stuck to his guns. "A large amount of dressing for me is like maintaining your front garden. If you go to a party, you don’t dress up for yourself - you dress up for everybody else to show that you're making an effort.
"It's like doing your front garden. You don’t necessarily sit in your front garden yourself, but you do it for the people going by, to make the street look nice. That’s what depresses me a bit about black, it’s like everyone’s paved over their front garden."
The debate rages on but the salon must draw to a close. What do you think? Is Britain a nation of chromophobes? Will black's fashion moment ever pass? Have your say in the comments box below: