Monday, 20 December 2010

I, Me, My Clothes

Red Lace Dress Covering Head, from 'Joan,' by Alexander McQueen

Check out my new article in Radia magazine, a cool new fashion and art magazine that - as it will tell you - combines beauty and brains.,-me,-my-clothes.html

"I, Me, My Clothes"
I don’t know if we have Foucault or Ugly Betty to thank for this, but the idea that clothes reveal our personal and social identities seems kind of obvious. What, then, would this exhibition have to say that was so original, I cogitated, as I walked through Burlington Arcade to the back entrance of the Royal Academy, past the quaint cashmere shops and the even more archaic city gentleman getting his shoes polished (Was I back in Victorian times? Would a ten-year-old chimney sweep try to steal my muff next?) Admittedly, some of the exhibits in this contemporary showcase of thirty artists are very forgettable, while others are more interesting to read about than look at. But a few striking images linger in your imagination.
Helen Storey’s Say Goodbye is a dress made of what look like slivers of black and white plastic, and trails of sea weed around the hem (think Corpse Bride…), suspended over a large glass bowl. Made of an enzyme-based material that dissolves over time in water, the dress is about creating eco-kind fashion, and a sustainable future. Of course, what could be a better excuse to go clothes shopping than a disappearing wardrobe? Then there is Susie MacMurray’s Widow that tells a story of overwhelming grief. It looks like a gothic-Christmas tree, with black, ticklish tinsel that cascades all the way from the waist to the hem, but appearances are deceptive. As you move closer, you see that what appear to be fluttery little spindles are actually pins stuck savagely in leather to create a rather morbid wedding-like gown. Wilkie Collins would have bundled his female protagonists into it before you could blink and say moonstone.
The exhibition has four themes: Storytelling, Building, Belonging and Confrontation, and Performance. It is a mix of exhibits that actually look like clothes (if you must be fashion-backward enough to want clothes that are wearable, well, then, there isn’t a lot of that), odd bits and pieces that look like meat hanging from a butcher’s block, people walking around in kaleidoscopic bubbles, and videos of performance art created around the world. Several of the pieces speak of national belonging, migration, travel, fragmentation, and unsettling. Like Sharif Waked’s Chic Point, which is a catwalk inspired by Palestinian men being body-searched at Israeli check-points. Damaged-looking men strut down the catwalk with holes cut in their clothing, and shirt collars embracing their navels, one of them ironically in a I Heart New York t-shirt, with the heart cut out.
A striking image is Hussein Chalayan’s ‘Son’ of Sonzai Suru. A mannequin in a flowing, flowery, filmy white dress stands surrounded by three sinister figures, dressed all in black, faces and heads covered in black hoods as they lift pieces of the mannequin’s clothing and leave her helpless. Inspired by Bunraku theatre, the exhibit is about the fashion industry as a manipulative and all-engulfing beast.
Keeping with the theme of body invasion, there is Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece, first performed in Japan in 1964, where she invited the audience to cut up her clothing. This piece is a Happening, started by the 1960’s avant garde, and is instigated by Ono’s one instructional verb: Cut. Audience members cut off her clothing until Ono is naked. In the video, Ono gradually takes on a look of existential sadness as her clothes are stripped from her body. The inspiration of the piece is the suffering experienced by artists. I admit I find a slight contradiction in it. Ono has, at other times in her life, spoken of the naked body as natural, instead of puerile or taboo, so, it is interesting that in this piece she uses the gradual stripping away of her outer layers to signify suffering.
The exhibition, more or less successfully, explores the expression of personal and social identity through clothes. But it is speaking more about what clothes reveal rather than what they hide and often misses the complexity of clothing, and therefore, of identity. While the exhibition explores what it would be like to wear our inner life on our shirtsleeves, it speaks less of the idea that often clothes can be used to blend in rather than stand out. Clothes have multiple significations. People use them to be anonymous, to hide behind, just as much as they use them to express their personality. Ah, wait a minute, getting your shoes polished in the market, wait, that wasn’t just about clean shoes, it was performative! Now I understand…

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