Photo by Debra DiPaolo
What do you wear to a special highfalutin event? How about something completely irreverent? Ive 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 Ive succumbed to this tastefully boring period weve been in: I more often wear a very plain black Agnes B. suit. Well, its quite slick, really. But I cant always wear whats right, even if it means that I occasionally look like a hyena. Its 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 whats 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 grinders monkey to the great African beauty. You are constantly looking at her and wondering if shes beautiful or grotesque, or both, and how can she be one if shes the other?
In Goudes analysis of Grace Jones, its not a revelation that he recognized her appeal lay in the tension between looking gorgeous and acting vulgar. Its 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.
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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 Harrys Bar. I dressed in colors from Luciens palette gray-brown trousers and jumper, and a mans short mouse-colored wig. I was hoping hed ask me to sit for a picture, and I wanted to please him. What Id forgotten was that a jacket, shirt and tie are required at Harrys Bar. Rather than turf out a favorite customer [Freud], the maitre d suggested I borrow a waiters 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. Its 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 Freuds imagination, Harrys dress code had not entered the equation. But the compromise, the group effort to shape up Bowerys 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 didnt 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 were suffering through arent 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. Thats dressed to thrill.