Some time ago, I wrote about the complexity of burlesque costumes. Some of the ideas in that post were reinforced at my visit to this year’s London Burlesque Festival. As always, the costumes were fabulous, and here are some of the best…
It’s difficult to express in words how Tilda Swinton embodies style. In her fashion shoots, Swinton presents herself as ethereal, androgynous and with a defiant of “the conventional expectations of feminine emotional expressiveness and legibility”, a property that Jackie Stacey describes as the “flat affect” .
For Swinton, departures from the feminine ideal are familiar. Her role in Sally Potter’s Orlando (an adaptation of Virginia Wolf’s novel), for example, required Swinton to don both male and female costumes. Swinton herself (2009) expresses doubt that gender “really exists”, instead preferring to think of her identity as transformable. In an interview with W Magazine, she describes how she admired her father’s wardrobe: “From childhood, I remember more about his black patent, gold livery, scarlet-striped legs, and medal ribbons than I do of my mother’s evening dresses,” she says. “I would rather be handsome, as he is, for an hour than pretty for a week”.
She brought this androgyny to her role as face of the Pringle of Scotland womenswear collection in Spring/Summer 2010, and then their menswear line the following season (A/W 2010), for which she adopted masculine poses.
Swinton is renowned for her chameleonic performances, but her transformations do more than demonstrate her flexibility as an actor. They express a desire to embrace the beauty and mystery of style, art and fashion without being limited by preconceptions about how she, and her body, might fit. I hope to capture a hint of the ethereal versatility that is Tilda in this collection of images:
1.) Stacey, Jackie (2015), “Crossing over with Tilda Swinton—the Mistress of “Flat Affect,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society (2015): 1-29.
2.) Solway, Diane (2011), “Planet Tilda,” W Magazine [online].
Browsing through the White House’s photography archives provides a fascinating insight into President Barack Obama’s use of clothes, both on and off his body. In particular, images depicting Obama in the Oval office show the president in his home territory, comfortable enough to remove his jacket and drape it over a chair.
By placing that coat on a seat or chair, an individual marks his or her temporary occupation of that space. Territorial markers extend the presence of an individual beyond his or her body, and thereby temporarily modify the rules of ownership. For President Obama, the Oval Office is a temporary territory, held in guardianship for the victor of the 2016 presidential election, and the many future leaders who will follow. He has no right of ownership, but rather acts as a custodian of the office. Obama is one of millions of office workers the world over who occupy a designated space for most of their waking hours without having any claim of ownership of that space or the objects within it. In the home, ‘there is no reason for territorial behaviour [as] one has psychological ownership of objects that are not in a social realm’ . In contrast, in a place of work employees may occupy an office indefinitely, using the same desk and chair for years, knowing that those objects are the property of an organisation. In such environments, employees feel the urge to mark territory as their own, by providing physical evidence of their right of occupation .
Individuals and groups can claim space for their personal use by marking it with objects that are not native to the environment – brought from elsewhere. These territorial markers ‘reduce the likelihood of an invasion of personal space’ by others [B]. Clothes are particularly effective territorial markers because they are so often viewed as an extension of the body. The removal and purposeful placement of a garment extends the body into the surrounding area, thereby establishing new boundaries between self and others beyond the outer layer of worn clothing. Typically, an item of clothing may be left on a seat to mark territory in the wearer’s absence, while he or she is temporarily away, signifying his or her intention to return. In Obama’s case, however, territory is extended beyond his own chair to one of those that sit either side of the Resolute Desk.
In photographs of the first years of his presidency, Obama’s jacket is invariably draped not over his own chair, but on one of the smaller chairs that sit either side of his desk. Official Whitehouse photographer Pete Souza has captured Obama’s jacket draped on one of the chairs either side of his desk on a number of occasions, including many within his first 100 days in office, and continuing into his second term, including a infamous image of Obama leaning back in his chair, with his feet on the desk, on 25 February 2013 (see above). As a boundary marker, the jacket serves to prevent others from sitting either side of the desk, asserting his right as its sole user, and prompting colleagues and visitors to keep their distance by standing or sitting elsewhere. Childress’ exploration of teenage territory may provide an explanation for the position of Obama’s draped jacket . If, as Childress observes, those ‘prohibited from property ownership’ are more inclined to mark their temporary residence, then perhaps Obama too feels inclined to mark his territory as compensation for the impermanence of his role. The Oval Office is not his own, and as a mere custodian of the space he may seek means of asserting his right of occupation.
In much more recent photographs, a significant change appears to have taken place. Now that Obama’s time is office is coming to an end, his jacket is photographed more regularly on the back of his own chair. More recent photographs of Obama in his office show his territorial claim receding, suggesting that towards the end of his term in office he is accepting of his inevitable exit from this contested territory. As he graciously makes way for the next president, he expects to take his jacket with him.
 Brown, G., Lawrence, T. B. and Robinson, S. L. (2005), ‘Territoriality in Organizations’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 30, no. 3, p. 579.
 Ley, D. and Cybriwsky, R. (1974), ‘Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 64, no. 4, p. 357.
 Cassidy, T. (1997), Environmental Psychology: Behaviour and experience in context, New York: Psychology Press, p. 135.
 Childress, H. (2004), ‘Teenagers, Territory and the Appropriation of Space’, Childhood, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 196.
Note: This blog post is in no way intended to comment on aspects of Obama’s presidency, rather to illustrate the claiming of territory in temporarily occupied office spaces. Further discussion of this topic is available in my forthcoming book, Acts of Undressing (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Images of the ideal female figure were once voluptuous, but static. The recumbent nude lays her flesh out as if she will linger there indefinitely. Images of past century, however, have been defined by motion. A brief remark in Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes notes that this curvy ideal was replaced by the now-fashionable slimline figure at about the same time as the introduction of cinema.
With the introduction of film, the female body was depicted in motion. At about the same time, photographs by Edweard Muybridge depicted the motion of the body, allowing photographers and audiences to understand photographs as depictions of static moments within a dynamic sequence. Photographers of the twentieth century, influenced by kinetic images, started to depict the female form as if it were in constant motion. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the fashionable body started to become slimmer and more expressive. The feminine ideal was no longer passive and static, but rather, active.
In twentieth and twenty-first century fashion photography, the body is extended. Limbs reach outwards, and the body is ‘made apparently larger by its movements. Hollander notes that, even if the body appears to be slim, the fact that it is in motion suggests that it has the potential to occupy a larger space. There is, she writes, ‘the possibility of enlargement’. This, she proposes, is what led to the preference for slim figures – a new feminine ideal with a slight frame that could be enlarged through motion.
A review of twentieth-century fashion shoots shows slim bodies extended in all directions. Christian Dior’s New Look, renowned for its narrow waists, is also remembered for the ‘Dior slouch’, with a hunched back which adds additional volume at the top of the body. Dior’s models also extended their limbs outwards, expanding themselves and demonstrating the potential to occupy larger spaces through movement. In the 1960s, notoriously slight Twiggy was photographed with limbs outstretched, as if in motion, throwing her light frame enthusiastically into surrounding spaces.
Contemporary fashion photography continues to depict the body as potentially able to occupy larger spaces. Elbows and knees jut out away from the body, and limbs extend in all directions. The body is depicted as a dynamic form which occupies ‘possible space’ as well as actual space. The slim feminine ideal continues to be reinforced by images which exaggerate and extend the silhouette of a body, and with these dynamic poses only the slimmest models can squeeze into a photographer’s frame.
S. Hollander (1988), Seeing Through Clothes, New York: Penguin, pp. 153-155.
A 1937 domestic advice feature published in Life Magazine (15 February, pp. 41-43) contrasts descriptions of how a woman might dress unobserved with how she ought to dress in front of her husband. The article stresses the importance of rolling down stockings instead of pulling them off from the toes, in order to avoid ‘unesthetic wrinkles’ [sic] and so that a husband may be pleased by ‘his wife’s graceful method of displaying her legs’. The advice is accompanied by photographs by Peter Stackpole, depicting a careless undressing, followed by an ‘artful’ alternative.
This advice requires that a woman always considers dressing and undressing as performances. Erving Goffman’s (1959) explorations of the ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ identifies ‘back stage’ events and locations, in which individuals engage in private activities in preparation for everyday performance of self. Undressing might commonly be considered a ‘back stage’ activity, but Life infers that it should instead be considered as part of the performance of self – a ‘front stage’ activity – with the expectation that the act will be observed by others. It transforms the domestic space of the bedroom into a performance venue, and the wife into a striptease artist (incidentally, the models used for the photoshoot were burlesque dancers).
Responding to popular demand from ‘amused’ readers, Life’s 15 March edition included a follow-up featuring ‘various methods, some good, some bad, of male disrobing’ (Life, 15 March 1937, pp. 68-69). The advice for men focuses on the contrast between slovenliness and neatness in the removal of clothes.
The article inspired this short film which contrasts the undressing of one glamorous and one not-so-glamorous starlet:
The film transforms the voyeur from a husband into a peeping tom. It proposes that even a single a woman must be constantly aware of her gestures and behaviour, performing at all times as if observed. The advice is perhaps even more relevant now, with the threat of hidden webcams and compromised cloud storage.
Clothes on stage and screen for the visually impaired
Some cultural experiences are inaccessible to the blind or partially sighted, and although steps have been taken to improve the accessibility of various visual media, the fashion industry is only just beginning to come to terms with the fact that they may have to market their products to people who cannot see them.
Clothes are not primarily visual artefacts. We experience our own clothes as much, if not more, by touch than by sight. Despite this, fashion tends to be promoted, perceived and described primarily through its aesthetic features. When viewing clothes on a catwalk, audiences are deprived of any experience other than the visual. Audiences may not touch the fabric, and the sound of the garment as a model’s body moves inside it tends to be drowned out by music and distance.
However, as any partially-sighted person will attest, clothes can provide an aural experience. The difference between the sounds of various fabrics has inspired sonic compositions by SHOWstudio, whose video and sound works are constructed from recordings of leather, silk, tulle, taffeta and beads. Fastenings in particular – zips, velcro, poppers – have distinctive sounds, and different fabrics produce very different acoustic effects when they rub against skin. In film, the sound of clothes is so vital in contributing the ‘texture’ of a soundtrack, that a ‘cloth pass’ is recorded and laid over the soundtrack. The cloth pass contains only the sound of clothing, amplified to enhance the audience’s sense of immersion.
It’s worth noting that clothes do not produce sounds independently, rather, sound is produced through interaction with the body. The cloth pass is not, therefore, a sonic experience of fashion, but rather of the body. The sound of fastenings in particular, suggests the donning or removal of clothes. In films that choose to deny the audience a direct depiction of a body becoming nude, we may instead experience an unzipping sound accompanied by a shot of a dress falling on the floor. In Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974), seductress Lili Von Stupp (Madeline Kahn) makes an effort to ensnare local sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little). Lili blows out the lamps in her boudoir, plunging the room into darkness, and leaving the screen entirely black apart from jug silhouetted against the window. We hear Lili as she enquires, ‘Is it true what they say about the way you people are… gifted?’ A zzzzzip noise penetrates the darkness, which presumably originates from the zipper of Bart’s trousers. Lili remarks, ‘Oh, it’s true!’
This experience is accessible to sighted and visually impaired viewers, but most other experiences of clothes on screen are denied to the partially sighted viewer. Audio description provides a solution. Ofcom provides guidelines that stress the importance of descriptions of clothing, noting that many viewers who have experienced progressive degeneration of their sight have visual memory, and are therefore accustomed to assessing characters in response to their choice of wardrobe . Indeed, audio description often introduces characters through their costumes. The audio caption for Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall, 1990) introduces Vivian by describing her clothes as she dresses, ‘glimpsed as if in a peep show’:
‘A shapely thigh stirs and turns to reveal black lacy panties and a red T-shirt on the upper half of this female body. An arm stretches out from the bed silencing the alarm at five to nine… The girl eases on a stretchy cream top, attached by a metal ring to a short blue skirt.’
These audio descriptions in film serve the purpose of helping partially sighted viewers to understand the clothed character. They rarely exist to provide an experience of the garment itself. In the fashion industry, the garment itself takes priority, and perhaps this difference is the reason that audio described fashion shows have not been a logical next-step for the industry. Audio description has only recently found its way to the presentation of high fashion.
Ryerson University’s School of Fashion staged its first audio described fashion show in 2010. The description was performed live, by a fashion student with drama experience, who wrote the descriptions herself after discussing the collections with the designers and viewing the garments in advance. Attendees who requested audio description were seated away from the music speakers, and given headphones through which the live audio description could be heard. The commentary contained about 60% scripted description, and 40% improvisation.
The describer’s commentary did not simply describe the garments. It also introduced information that she had gathered while speaking to the designers, including references to the concepts which underpinned their collections. In this way, the description offered access to unseen content that was not available to the sighted audience, and so arguably offered a richer experience with greater insight into the garments on display.
Improvised description related to the way that the models moved on the catwalk to showcase the clothes’ details. It also included some brief descriptions of audience reactions (for example, when a model waved to the audience, and they waved back).
In contrast to audio description for pre-recorded film and television, this description granted access to much more than just an aural image of the performers and their clothes. It offered insights into the motives of the designers, and the experience beyond the events contained within the performance space. Arguably, this experience left the partially-sighted viewers more informed than those who had actually seen the garments with their own eyes.
 ITC (2000), ‘ITC Guidance On Standards for Audio Description’, Ofcom [online]. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/static/archive/itc/uploads/ITC_Guidance_On_Standards_for_Audio_Description.doc (accessed 24 November 2014)
 Udo, J. P. and Fels, D. I. (2010), ‘Re-fashioning Fashion: An exploratory study of a live audio-describes fashion show’, Universal Access in the Information Society, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 63-75.
Piety, P. J. (2004), ‘The Language System of Audio Description: An investigation as a discursive process’, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, vol. 98, no. 8, pp. 453-469.
Woolaston, V. (2013), ‘That shirt’s a bit loud! The fabric that turns clothes into a walking sound system – using tape cassettes and a converted Walkman‘.
Costume & Culture (costumeandculture.com) is extending its remit to include the work or other scholars and commentators. I invite contributions that explore clothes, costumes and wardrobes from interdisciplinary perspectives. These submissions can take the form of short summaries of ongoing research (500-1000 words), outlines of research that is published in more detail elsewhere, or extracts from larger texts. It is intended as a shapshot of ongoing research in this field. Key themes for exploration include (but are not limited to):
- The relationship between clothes and the body
- Technological developments in clothing and fashion
- Masks and disguises
- Transvestism and gender construction
- Dressing up, masquerade and cosplay
- Costume for film, TV and stage performance
- Fan fashion and cultural capital
- Clothes sharing
- Wardrobes, changing rooms and domestic dressing spaces
Contributions should be no more than 1000 words, and should include at least 2 images. Numbered references are preferable, and all images must be captioned. Include a short biography of 3-5 sentences. Contributions should be emailed to email@example.com
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece has been variously described as a generous act of giving, a feminist critique, and an invitation to violence. Ono first performed the piece in Kyoto in 1964, following her ‘score’ (an set of instructions for performing an art piece):
Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him.
It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage-one at a time-to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them.
Performer remains motionless throughout the piece.
Piece ends at the performer’s option.
Cut Piece has since been performed by Ono herself in Tokyo, London, New York, and finally Paris in 2003. Numerous other performers have also presented their own interpretations. In 1968 John Hendricks, Ono’s exhibition manager, carried out the first male performance Hendricks performed the piece in his capacity as guest instructor at the “Semester In New York”, as part of the students’ induction to the course. He invited his audience of students to cut fragments from his suit, “as a kind of leveling of the student-teacher relationship” . The performance acknowledges that, by being denuded, the instructor is stripped of some of his power, and that students, in their capacity as cutters, gained their own power and authority. Male performances such as this render obsolete the feminist readings of Ono’s own performances, instead expressing messages about the depowerment.
Ono’s own interpretation of the piece also did not initially feature feminist ideals. Ono has herself confessed to having no notion of feminism at the time of her first performance  and Concannon observes that feminist readings did not begin to emerge until Haskell and Hanhardt’s 1991 book Yoko Ono: Objects and Arias. Ono herself began to explore feminist interpretations in her later discussions, prompted by critics and interviewers.
Yoko’s own interpretation of the piece was as a Buddhist act of “giving”. “I felt that I was willingly sacrificing myself”, recounts Ono . The artist’s use of the term “sacrifice” seems to equally reference giving and taking, acknowledging that giving necessarily deprives the giver of something precious. Ono wore her best suit for the performance, conscious that it would be a more generous gift, and a greater sacrifice, than if she had worn a more disposable garment.
Ono’s gift to her audience was the fragment of cloth that each member removed from her body. In the 1965 performances, audience members were invited to keep the fragments that they removed. In the 1966 performances, participants fixed their fragments to a canvas at the side of the stage, producing a secondary collaborative output . In 2003, in an effort to reignite peace movement in the in the wake of 9/11, Ono requested that participants give their fragments to loved ones in gestures of reconciliation . In each case, the piece is extended beyond the initial performance as the fragments are distributed and redistributed, and so Ono’s act of giving is extended beyond the confines of the performance space.
Very little has been written about what happened to these fragments of cloth. Though Ono’s suit was her most valued item of clothing at the time of each performance, that value is lost as the suits are destroyed. The fragments instead adopt a new kind of value as mementos of the event. Johnson speculates that the fragments may have been “cherished as souvenirs or discarded as scrap” . Some participants in the Parisian performance have preserved and displayed their souvenirs as evidence of their proximity to the notorious artist and widow of John Lennon (see, for example, Ian Ayres’ proud display of his fragment on his blog, alongside the sough-after ticket that allowed him access to the private event, pictured below).
One fragment from the 1966 performance found its way to the Tate gallery’s archive, and went on display in the exhibition Art Under Attack (2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014), a collection documenting 500 years of “assaults on art”. The exhibition firmly positions the fragment as the relic of a destructive act: it is exhibited alongside the remains of destructive art performances and the subjects of religious desecration . The Tate’s setting equates Ono’s actions, or those of her audience, to vandalism. The attacks on each of the artifacts displayed in the exhibition sought to destroy its value and reduce its power over audiences. In this respect, Cut Piece could be presented as a violent protest against the superficiality of dress, or to undermine the powerful influence of the fashion system.
 Hendricks, cited in Concannon, K. (2008), “Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’: From text to performance and back again”, The Journal of Performance Art 30(3), p. 91.
 Rhee, J. (2005), “Performing the Other: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece”, Art History 28 (1), p. 90.
 Ono, 1974, as cited in Concannon, Op. Cit., p. 89.
 Rhee, Op. Cit.
 Concannon, Op. Cit., p. 82.
 Johnson, C. (2014), “Performance Photographs and the (Un)clothed Body: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece”, Clothing Cultures 1(2):
 Cumming, L. (2013), “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm – review”, The Observer [online]
Visitors to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are faced with a collection of shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz after their former owners’ were sent to their deaths (pictured above). The collection functions in part like permanent cemeteries “where prolonged spatial and material relations to the deceased are allowed to exist”, and in part like mass graves “where the dead are meant to disappear . Shoes and other clothing are the only tangible evidence that remains of Nazi attempts to erase individuals from history, and the preservation and display of those artefacts has become a means of resisting disappearance. They attempt to recover the individual identity that was denied the victims at the time of their mass execution, if not by name then at least through a sense of continued presence.
These memorials must be considered not just collections of “memory objects” – shoes – but also as “memory landscapes”  – the spaces that the shoes occupy. As everyday objects, shoes do not commonly express the absence that is so powerfully felt in these memorial spaces. There is a relationship between these shoes, their arrangement in relation to one another, and their location in a particular space, that combines to create significant emotional impact.
Can Togay and Gyula Pauer’s Shoes on the Danube (2005, pictured below) is a memorial to the lives lost when members of the Arrow Cross party rounded up Jewish civilians in 1945 and shot them into the river. The shoes transform this otherwise peaceful river bank into a “traumascape” . They force locals and tourists to contemplate the violent history of this location. Even to visitors who are unfamiliar with the precise details of the victim’s death, the location of these empty shoes next to the river provokes an uneasy assumption that their wearers must be lost beneath the water of the river.
Erica Doss observes a recent “memorial mania”, particularly in Europe and the United States, fuelled by a faith “ in material culture to mediate… histories and memories”. In particular, there has been a rise in DIY and spontaneous monuments, constructed by mourners themselves, rather than appointed councils. The race to urgently memorialize the victims of tragedy is very different to the lengthy process of agreement, planning and manufacture that precedes the construction of permanent monuments. With the understanding that “memory itself is predictable and unstable”, and in consumer cultures that thrive on disposability, communities seek instant gratification and personal involvement in the visible expression of their community’s grief. 
Temporary shoe memorials transform a landscape into a memory space, as if to suggest a ghostly audience or crowd. Much like a crowd can disperse, these memorials also vanish. They are gathered and cleared, leaving the space empty again, and so the space returns to its usual function of park or street. The diversity of shoes presented in vernacular memorials such as the Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial (see below) reflects the diversity of the lives lost. There are adults, children, women and men represented in this absent crowd. Just as the crowd of people in a city park may include individuals from every age, race or gender, the 9/11 killings were indiscriminate.
The sheer size of the space that is covered by cloth shoes at the Najing memorial (pictured below) helps to give visitors a sense of the scale of the trauma that took place during the Japanese invasion of Jiangsu Province. These shoes are more sparsely spaced than the American memorials pictured above, spreading almost to the horizon, and so reinforcing the sense that the deaths were innumerable and inescapable.
The victims of sexual violence are memorialized in red shoes lining the streets of Milan (pictured below). Here, the traumascape is the everyday space of a street. Pedestrians pass by and turn their heads in curiosity, but are not there specifically to mourn. The familiar location and the everyday behaviour of the pedestrians in this image are reminders that these acts of violence occur are themselves commonplace. They occur around us, in familiar locations, and are so frequent that they seem to warrant no special attention. The memorial provokes people to view their environment as one that is tainted by violence, and to consider crimes that take place right under our noses but are too often ignored.
Unusually for shoe memorials, Doris Salcedo’s Atrabiliarios (1992-1997) places empty shoes in indoor spaces in memory of disappeared individuals in Colombia. These shoes are sealed inside semi-opaque boxes, embedded into gallery walls, making implicit reference to bodies bricked up inside a wall. Salcedo only reveals hints of the details of each pair of shoes, as they are partially obscured by a cow-bladder curtain. Clarity evades the audience, just as it evades the victims’ families. Each pair is displayed separately, expressing that each disappearance was a separate act, and yet over the exhibition space the number of separate boxes contributes to the sense that each disappearance was part of a much larger picture of Colombian political and social unease. The shoes are spaced apart in the gallery, as if Salcedo is imaging the loneliness that each victim must have felt in his or her final moments.
In this spaces, shoes become part of our material culture that expresses identity through the ownership of objects. When those objects are located away from their owners, there is an uneasy sense of loss. Clothes are intended to be worn, and when they appear anywhere other than on the body, that body becomes noteworthy in its absence. Inside a dressing space, such as a wardrobe, the absence of a body to wear the clothes is expected. But in a public space, as in the memorials pictured in this blog post, the presence of unworn clothes speaks of loss. Viewers are forced to consider the events that forced the shoes and their wearer apart, transforming an otherwise ordinary object into a signifier of trauma.
 Sørensen, T. F. (2010), “A Saturated Void: Anticipating and Preparing Presence in Contemporary Danish Cemetery Culture”, in M. Bille et al. (eds), An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of transcendence and loss, London: Springer, p. 115.
 Saunders, Nicholas J. (2002) “Memory and Conflict”, in V. Buchli (ed.) The Material Culture Reader, Oxford: Berg, p. 177.
 Trenzise, B. (2009), “Ambivalent Bereavements: Embodying loss in the twenty-first century”, Performance Paradigms 5(2), p. 18.
 Doss, E. (2008), The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a theory of temporarym, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, p. 5.
Guest post by Enrica Picarelli
Last January, Guinness released an advertisement and a short film featuring a group of Congolese dandies called sapeurs. The campaign was shot in an unspecified South African location to document a day in the life of a community of unskilled/manual labourers who devote themselves to collecting and wearing old-school European menswear. This obsession makes for an iconic spectacle, where fashion and self-styling reconfigure identities across histories and continents.
Parading through the streets of Brazzaville, Kinshasa and Paris, the sapeurs are “all about defying your circumstances through inner conviction,” states the creator of Guinness’ features. And the campaign inspects just how these everymen make the best of modest means to be reborn as modern-day Brummels-es.
The sapeurs profess a narcissistic cult of style, where the tailored masculine body takes centre stage in an identitary play that builds upon gender and class issues. Also known as “Parisiens”, “cracks” and “playboys,” their use of fashion and sophisticated self-styling defines who they are and how people should perceive them. Although sapologie has many incarnations, the iconic sapeur never wears more than three colours at once, favours three-piece suits by renowned designers, bowler hats or fedoras, leather shoes and a cane, which he coordinates always to harmonious and lively effects.
These items are worn elegantly in the course of elaborate performances, organised at designated social spots. A number of accessories enhance the attire, including eyewear, pocket squares and watches. But the most daring outfits can go as far as including alligator shoes, or a kilt and tam-o-shanter, as seen in Guinness’ videos.
Creativity and an eye to composition are indeed the main requirement of would-be sapeurs. The right arrangement of textures, materials and chromatic tones beautifies the masculine body, infusing the cult of style with gendered meaning. At the same time, the possession of clothes by famous brands creates a material display of acquired social capital that sets the sapeur apart from his peers.
Scholars of sapologie, like Didier Gondola, point out that the use of fashion items as means of social distinction dates back to the colonial “politics of costume” of the mid-19th century, when the trade of European military uniforms and hats in the Congo region was instrumental to the colonizing mission. The French handed second-hand clothes to local chiefs to win their favours and the latter, in turn, wore them to exercise power on their subjects. In the first half of the 20th century, this practice extended to the civil society and the SAPE informal association was established in Brazzaville. This Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, whose acronym refers to the French verb saper (“to dress with style”), involved urbanised colonials that worked as houseboys in French and Belgian mansions, where they developed an appetite for European fashion. The exotic clothes of the masters marked the sapeurs’ status of “évolués”: individuals who “could not become whites and no longer looked like other blacks,” Gondola reports. These men never simply reproduced the European style, but experimented, and at time subverted, the designated use of the clothes in a creative gesture that defined aesthetic and cultural standards.
To this day, sapeurs continue to use fashion to boost their social condition, all the more so in the context of transnational migration fed by the growing disenfranchisement of former colonial subjects. Sapologie has become one of Europe’s many urban subcultures. In this contexts, ownership of expensive or unique items puts a distance between the dappers and other, supposedly ‘uncouth,’ African migrants. Testimony of the sapeurs’ maniac obsession with fashion is found in Alain Mabanckou’s novels, where it becomes a cypher of alienation. Here, designer clothes are the tangible traces of a compulsory self-transformation, but also of a delusion. Miserable migrants living on the outskirts of Paris wish to appropriate them and sacrifice anything to turn themselves into men of the world – a desire that is imbued with political implications, even if they are not always acknowledged by the sapeurs themselves. Arguably, as Dominc Thomas observes, the “adoption of alternative aesthetic codes presents itself as a symbolic gesture aimed at reclaiming power.” But awaiting the well-dressed gentleman in the métropole is not a happy ending. Rather, the change is so radical that he becomes “a man without identity,” and the clothes a mortifying reminder of alienation.
Today’s spectacular rise of the sapeur in Western media does not address this richer and more tragic history. On the contrary, while giving visibility to this community, the Western discourse on sapologie overwrites a cruder, less glamorous reality. These men may make for excellent performative characters, suited to appear on the front page of lifestyle magazines and in dazzling advertisements, but beyond sartorial mastery and savoir faire trite processes of disenfranchisement and social paralysis stop the sapeurs at the gates of the metropolitan universe they wish to enter. For even though Guinness endorses a message of self-affirmation that in life “you can always choose who you are,” the campaign fails to address the ambiguities of self-styling a living while moving between two worlds, never fully belonging to any of them.
The dandified body of the fictional and real-life sapeur is, then, not just a lay figure for the display of beautiful clothes, or a universal symbol of perseverance to be appropriated by anybody. Rather, it is a living archive that makes present the contradictions of neo-colonialism. Furthermore, it betrays the West’s biased interest in “Africanness” that smacks of appropriation. In fact, the unprecedented currency the sapeurs have been enjoying since the release of Guinness’ campaign seems to confirm the growth of the “demand for more authentic, virgin, black culture to consume” noted by Emma Dabiri. In this sense, the fashion discourse seems to contribute to the othering of the sapeurs, silencing the ambiguities inherent in this lifestyle behind a hollow, or at best paternalistic, stereotyping.
Watch a short documentary about the sapeurs here.
Dabiri, Emma, “Why I’m not an Afropolitan”. Africa as Country. 21 January 2014. http://africasacountry.com/why-im-not-an-afropolitan/
“The Sapeurs: A New GUINNESS Campaign for 2014”, Guinness.com, http://www.guinness.com/en-gb/sapeurs/
Gondola, Didier, “La Sape Exposed! High fashion among Lower-Class Congolese Youth” in Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran (eds.), Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Mabanckou, Alain, Blue, White, Red: A Novel. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Thomas, Dominic, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration and Transnationalism. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Enrica Picarelli has a Ph.D in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Anglophone World from the University of Naples, “L’Orientale”. Her research interests bring together cultural theory, media theory, postcolonial studies and gender studies, touching upon questions of representation and affect transmission.