Clowns and Class

I recently attended the Subverting Fashion conference at St. Mary’s University, and saw a brilliant and entertaining range of papers that will inform my posts for the rest of the summer. I will start with Yvonne Augustin’s discussion of clown costume, with particular emphasis on subversion.

Leo Bassi identifies origins of the clown costume in pauper dress [1]. In times when ready-made garments were not commercially available, and only the wealthy could afford to have their clothing tailored to fit, many found themselves dressing in whatever garments they could find. These garments were inevitably loose-fitting and uncoordinated. Even after they began to have their costumes specifically designed for clowning, many continued to imitate the ‘hobo’ look.

Circus clown, "Bumpsy" Anthony, dressed in clothes that appear to have been appropriated in an act of bricolage, rather than tailored to fit his body.

Circus clown, “Bumpsy” Anthony, dressed in clothes that appear to have been appropriated in an act of bricolage, rather than tailored to fit his body.

Re-coloured 1940s images from the Barnum and Bailey Circus depict clowns with a 'hobo' look.

Re-coloured 1940s images from the Barnum and Bailey Circus depict clowns with a ‘hobo’ look.

The introduction of ready-made clothes transformed the meaning of baggy clothes. During wartime austerity, when the rationing of fabric was presented as patriotic and utilitarian, minority groups in the USA took to wearing over-sized zoot-suits in an act of as a symbol of nonconformity (eventually resulting in the zoot-suit riots of 1943). For the men who wore zoot-suits, excess fabric signified prioritising oneself over the state. Baggy and uncoordinated clothes entered into mainstream fashion at several times during the twentieth century, most notably in 1980s grunge. The grunge look embraced hobo attire, with draping clashing colours, and fabric printed to look like old newspaper. Finally, hip-hop culture embraced baggy t-shirts and low-waisted trousers, which look as though they are about to fall down as they do in clowning skits. It is noteworthy that these fashionable presentations of clown-like attire relate directly to class. They all seek to take signifiers of the lowest social classes and elevate them to the status of fashion (in examples of ‘trickle-up’). In hip-hop culture, baggy shirts are paired with shameless displays of wealth – bulky gold chains and diamond-encrusted pendants.

Patterned harem pants are fashion items that would not look out-of-place in a clown costume.

Patterned harem pants are fashion items that would not look out-of-place in a clown costume.

Despite the fact that these core elements of his look became chic, the clown never became fashionable. He has remained on the margins, and his identity is in part defined by his position as an outsider. Clowns are liminal creatures. It is with this in mind that Augustin presented her analysis of the Joker, a recurring villain of DC’s Batman comics. The Joker is typically presented with green hair, over-sized purple suit, and clown make-up. Like numerous other subversions of the clown (see also, Stephen King’s It), The Joker’s painted smile is used to unsettle the audience. The make-up makes his emotions, and therefore his actions, unreadable and unpredictable.

Augustin’s analysis focuses in particular on class. The Joker’s wardrobe is a hybrid of clown costume and business suit. He subverts clown and businessman identities by combining them both. Like clowns, The Joker is a liminal character. In The Dark Knight (2008), he is presented as a loner, in contrast to Gotham City’s underworld leaders, who are always flanked by henchmen. He has voluntary withdrawn from mainstream society, positioning himself as an outsider via his actions and his costume. This incarnation of the Joker wears a tailored suit (indeed, he makes reference to its cost), tie and waistcoat. In the scene depicted below, he introduces himself to Gotham’s crime lords by removing a playing card from his inner breast pocket as if it were a business card.

Health Ledger as The joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (). The Joker's costume presents a convergence of clown and businessman. His suit is wacky, yet over-priced. Here, he presents a playing card from his inside chest pocket as if it were a business card.

Health Ledger as The joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). The Joker’s costume presents a convergence of clown and businessman. His suit is wacky, yet over-priced. Here, he presents a playing card from his inside chest pocket as if it were a business card.

Following this example, perhaps it is possible to conclude that clowns exist outside of class. They may take wardrobe cues from both ends of the social spectrum, but are themselves classless. Their expression of class is almost always satirical, as they parody and tease their audiences. To that extent, a clown’s identity is almost always a mirror [2]. Like any mask, his costume is ‘known to have no inside’. He is colourful and animated, but ultimately empty, with no personal history or certainty of self. This unsettling emptiness makes clowns ideal monsters and villains.

References:
[1] Bassi, Leo (2014), ‘The History of the Bassi Clown Family’, lecture performance presented at Cultural Genealogy and Theory of the Clown, 25-28 May, Congressi Stefano Franscini, Monte Verità, Ascona, Switzerland. Cited in Augustin, Yvonne (2014), ‘Oversized, colourful, extraordinary – the costume of the clown in movies as a subversion of fashion’, paper presented at Subverting Fashion, St. Mary’s University, London, 11 July 2014.
[2] Peacock, Louise (2009), Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect, p. 89.

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