Sunday, 4 February 2018

Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry's Dresses

"When I walk into a room, I want people to look at the dress and not me"
Grayson Perry

Leaving Manchester I took a hop, skip, and jump down the M62 to Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery to examine these wonderful, outrageous garments sported by artist Grayson Perry's transvestite alter-ego - Claire. The dresses were fabulous, and it was a fantastic opportunity to see the design/thought processes behind them, and details missed when you see the dresses from afar in the press, or on television. Perry designed many of them himself, but also has an annual competition for Central St Martin's fashion students to design and create outfits for him, some of which are seen below. The Walker website explains -  

"Grayson Perry has been cross-dressing since he was a child, using it to step into a fantasy world where he felt safer. He describes himself as a transvestite and for him cross-dressing has an exciting, sexual aspect but he has no desire to become a female, nor to dress as a woman full-time.
After many years of experimenting with cross-dressing and wearing conventional female clothes, Grayson became dissatisfied with the lack of reaction he provoked. In response, he developed the persona known as Claire. Claire appears in public and in Grayson’s art in a number of different guises, ranging from a little girl in a frilly dress to an adult woman. As Claire, he can dress in an outrageously flamboyant way and enjoy the reaction she causes".

Turner Prize Dress - Grayson Perry

This is the dress which propelled Perry to (inter)national fame, which he wore when he collected the Turner Prize in 2003, and set him on the road to bona-fide national treasure status. It's such a shame they didn't include any of his dresses in his Serpentine show earlier this year (here). The little embroidered details are fantastic. I love those little, evil-looking flowers and scowling love hearts.

Artist's Robe - Grayson Perry

I particularly wanted to see this outfit in the flesh, as it is one I used to show my students as inspiration for the fashion/textile units that they had to complete. It is almost like something a shaman or high priest would wear in a ritualistic ceremony, and very much reminds me of the smocks and robes that Gustav Klimt would wear for painting and roaming around the grounds of his home. It was fabulous in every detail, from the handmade ceramic buttons to those large embroidered evil eye talismans with sunburst pupils and cloud forms set in the whites of the eyes.

I didn't get the title of this dress, but it is another classic piece of Perry subversion - on the surface all girly, feminine satin and lace. Closer inspection though reveals a profusion of embroidered penises, a butterfly-winged hermaphrodite/transexual, and a rampantly erect Alan Measles, (Perry's beloved childhood teddy bear). Wonderful stuff.

This outfit was very interesting, and a dark contrast to the playful girlishness of the other dresses with its heavy, S+M fetish theme. The exaggerated black leather breasts and protruded stomach resemble a pregnant woman. I eavesdropped on the conversations of some visitors who found it to be too challenging, and therefore didn't like it. The construction of the piece is amazing in itself. The dress pattern must have been very complex to design and put together.

High Priestess Cape - Grayson Perry

A lovely piece of playful mischief this from Mr Perry. The shape and execution was very reminiscent to my eyes of the work of highly influential Art-Deco period designer - Mr Paul Poiret. It also reminds me of the famous Chinese costume Picasso designed for the Ballets Russes. Perry's design has been taken a stage further though with the controversial addition of these embroidered, winged phalluses (above). I don't want to think about what that is dripping from their petaled orifices!

This dress was restrained, tasteful, and classical in comparison to the brashness of the others. It was like an early piece of classic couture from one of the great French fashion houses. The intricate bead-work on the dress and accompanying cape were amazing.

Dress Designed by Sara Mahdian, Central St Martin's

Dress designed by Stephanie Imma Cristofaro, Central St Martin's

A dress designed by a student based on Perry's own body-map etchings.

Early Housewife Outfit, two-piece wool suit, Long Tall Sally

This outfit above, seems really plain, and pedestrian in comparison with the other OTT frocks in this small exhibition. It is an early outfit used by Perry when he was initially exploring his transvestism. I think it was a really prescient move to ditch these dull, off-the-peg, high street outfits and create his own fabulous attention-grabbing garments. 

Dress designed by Sarah Hall, Central St Martin's

This doggy-themed outfit by student Sarah Hall is surprisingly sophisticated, fun and immaculately executed with a mixture of print, embroidery and crochet work. Obviously a great future in fashion ahead of her.

Dress and matching bonnet by Grayson Perry

This Little Bo Peep-style outfit is full of colour and pattern. The over-size ceramic buttons also bear closer scrutiny as artworks in themselves as they actually depict the crucifixion of Christ. This exhibition shows how Perry is able to give free rein to his imagination, and how easily his work translates across all artistic disciplines. I love the way he has created his own world in his ceramics, and an individual artistic language which is indulged in his alter-ego - Claire. This is a small but wonderful show packed with small, interesting details, and will no-doubt be an inspiration for fashion students based in Liverpool and further afield.

Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry's Dresses
until 4th February 2018
Walker Art Gallery
William Brown Street