From Masquerade to Lady Gaga: Music, Fashion and Fantasy

Bessie Bonehill (J. Willis Sayre Photographs)

Bessie Bonehill ( J. Willis Sayre Photographs)

Lorraine Smith

Shaun Cole said in his introduction to this year’s study day that “performers create an identity – a fantasy – through their use of clothing and costume”, and each speaker who followed expanded on this point beautifully.

The morning began with theatre designer Joanna Jarvis and dance specialist Mary Collins taking us back to 18th Century France. With a perfect combination of both performance costume and dance histories, Jarvis and Collins delighted us with information on clothing and the way it affected and inspired the mobility of performers. Senem Yazan followed with a wonderful look at male impersonators in British music hall, including references to Ella Wesner, Bessie Bonehill and Vesta Tilley. It was astonishing just how long performers have been playing with the concept of gender roles.

David Bowie and Kansai Yamamoto

David Bowie and Kansai Yamamoto

This led in perfectly to Victoria Broackes’ presentation about the V&A’s exhibitions “The House of Annie Lennox” and “David Bowie Is”. I would imagine that many of the day’s attendees are now planning to visit the Bowie exhibition when it opens in March 2013. The final session of the morning was a talk by Laura McLaws Helms on the iconic style of Stevie Nicks. She has inspired so many people that there are now designers producing Nicks-inspired dresses, fan sites where women share outfit photos, and even an annual event called Night of a Thousand Stevies.

After a much needed lunch break, we returned for a presentation entitled “Masquerade in Clubland: A Safe Space for Glamour” by Dr Kevin Almond. Clubbing outfits and costumes are a way of balancing different identities, and the clubs Dr Almond discussed provided a safe place for people who felt alienated by society to express themselves visually. Helene Thian followed with a beautifully evocative talk on Kansai Yamamoto and David Bowie in London in the 1970s. Entitled “Moss Garden”, Thian’s presentation told us how the designer and performer planted the seeds of Japonism and androgyny in the Western fashion world.

Photo of Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles from the film Cabaret

Photo of Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles from the film Cabaret

We had already learnt that the costume Bowie wore on Saturday Night Live in 1979 would be featured in the V&A’s exhibition, so it was appropriate that this talk was followed by one Klaus Nomi, who performed with him on that show. Dawn Hoskin told us how the created character of Klaus Nomi became New York’s leading New Wave performer. A quintessential post-modern performative persona who wore striking Thierry Mugler costumes, Klaus saw himself as a piece of living art. The final speaker of the day was Matteo Augello tackling the subject of the diva. Divas often perform a fictional character first, with their music a secondary concern, and so they were an ideal subject matter for a study day focusing on costume. With mentions of Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Madonna and Beyoncé, this was a true diva history lesson.

The day was engaging and enlightening, covering a diverse range of related topics and providing something that would be of interest to everyone there.

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