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Dress-up 

Ron Athey on Making a fashion statement

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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

What do you wear to a special highfalutin event? How about something completely irreverent? I’ve been known to wear tiger-striped nylon panties just to take the piss out, but it takes a lot of attitude to get right with. I have moments of freedom, but lately I’ve succumbed to this tastefully boring period we’ve been in: I more often wear a very plain black Agnes B. suit. Well, it’s quite slick, really. But I can’t always wear what’s right, even if it means that I occasionally look like a hyena. It’s one thing to show off and dare to expose a breast or leave a little ass hanging out, but constructing a look is more of a social science. Image has to be taken into the realm of a belief system, even if it means nothing. It takes drive, obsession and an outside eye to see what’s really there, what kind of tensions to play off of.

The collaboration of Grace Jones and Jean-Paul Goude has these elements. Goude, from his 1982 “black girlfriend” memoir/art book, Jungle Fever, on his first Jones sighting:

She was performing wearing just a prom skirt and nothing else. Her tits were bare. The strength of her image, then as now, is that it swings constantly from the near grotesque — from the organ grinder’s monkey — to the great African beauty. You are constantly looking at her and wondering if she’s beautiful or grotesque, or both, and how can she be one if she’s the other?

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In Goude’s analysis of Grace Jones, it’s not a revelation that he recognized her appeal lay in the tension between looking gorgeous and acting vulgar. It’s that he realized she was so feminine that she could afford to be masculine. The Marine haircut, glistening muscles and boxing gear only amped up her sexual charge. Goude asserted that Jones, who had previously been modeling, took the radical fashion of Paris and brought it to a more vital music scene. He took on her career as an art project, creating stage shows and album-cover art, thereby mythologizing her image. He stylized her, making her skin color blue-black in print. Some of the looks were a reaction to her audience: One Halloween gig at a gay venue, not bothering to compete with the drag queens’ flamboyance, they came up with Jones’ boxer look, even staging a series of boxing matches as a warm-up act. Though Jones is now fairly inactive, the image of her still resonates.

The late Leigh Bowery was a real dichotomy of glamour and repulsion. I met him in the early ’90s when I was setting up a performance at the ICA, a year before his death: We had lunch. He was wearing his “Benny Hill” day look, what Boy George (who currently plays him on Broadway) describes as “a shop-dummy wig and child-molester clothes.” By that point his huge cheek piercings had healed into exaggerated dimples, which made him seem perky, in a sick way. I enjoyed that unglamorous and artificial look. Bowery was well-known for taking the idea of living art and cross-dressing technique into a higher realm — his costume-body art crossed over many genres, starting with the success of his mid-’80s club, Taboo. He manipulated his large body into phenomenal shapes that defied the history of fashion, covering absolutely everything except his round belly, or taking on cartoon shapes such as a padded silver star suit. He wore plastic lips that pierced into his face, merkins and bustles — in one look his face was a burst of tulle pompom. No manufactured image there.

But outlandish style has its place, as Bowery, who became known as a model of painter Lucien Freud, understood. He recalls their first lunch, in a surprisingly tender essay, “On Lucien Freud 1993” (reprinted in the posthumous art book Leigh Bowery):

Our first meeting took place over lunch at Harry’s Bar. I dressed in colors from Lucien’s palette — gray-brown trousers and jumper, and a man’s short mouse-colored wig. I was hoping he’d ask me to sit for a picture, and I wanted to please him. What I’d forgotten was that a jacket, shirt and tie are required at Harry’s Bar. Rather than turf out a favorite customer [Freud], the maitre d’ suggested I borrow a waiter’s jacket. Lucien gave me his gray silk scarf which the maitre d’ fashioned into a cravat. 

I find it endearing that instead of showboating, Bowery tried dressing down to impress Freud. It’s outrageous to imagine that this historic meeting could have been derailed because of a little glitch like Bowery not thinking to wear a dinner jacket to lunch. After careful consideration of how to capture Freud’s imagination, Harry’s dress code had not entered the equation. But the compromise, the group effort to shape up Bowery’s attire, had some element of humor to it.

Recently, at Disney Concert Hall, I saw a sexy 40-plus woman in athletic socks, spike heels and a micro-mini pleated skirt. The idea of dressing skimpy when everyone else is dressed conservatively is necessary, but unfortunately, in this case, it didn’t come off as punk as she most likely thought it would. It was too obvious she was still locked into an earlier memory of what she looked outrageous wearing. I think if she wants to turn out, her next getup should be knee-high boots and crotchless panties with a matching cape-ette. These stodgy ’00s we’re suffering through aren’t as artificial or flamboyant as the ’80s, or as deluded as the ’90s, but there is a little hope of individuality based on posing and boundary pushing. The glamorous Heather Cassils, bodybuilder and member of the Toxic Titties art collective, can regularly be seen about town making a statement that very much conjures Grace Jones’ masculine/feminine dynamic, in a pair of red boxing gloves with matching high heels. That’s dressed to thrill.

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