Of what does a woman consist? Where does her selfhood reside? In some Platonic form Woman, the theoretical perfection of the breed? If so, we human, embodied women are always compared, found wanting, found always lacking and excessive all at once. Or is she the grotesque creature of bodily function that Aristotle describes? Or is she dangling above the Cartesian mind-body abyss, kicking her little legs like Jane on a vine, or is she Hume’s empty stage upon which perceptions play?
What was difficult for Marilyn – or for Norma Jeane, who lived inside the Marilyn persona – was her need to be regarded as a fully realised being (difficult, although it may not sound like much, for famous women). Her authentic self was not a pale erotic phantom after all, but a New York intellectual: a method actress, and the wife of a playwright, and a wearer of discreet and modest clothes, a poet and a diarist. What frightened her the most was thinking Norma Jeane might, over time, disintegrate, and that she might be left with only Marilyn: a hollowed outline in a woman’s shape, a white dress hanging empty like a shroud; a spooky horror-movie bed-sheet, two holes showing panicked eyes, an animal confusion.
Threva Throneberry pretended for over a decade to be fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen. She presented herself as a fresh-faced, pigtailed runaway in need of shelter and schooling in communities all over the U.S. and was largely successful in her act, even as a twenty-eight-year-old. Charity Johnson found many of her marks, women looking for girls in need of a substitute parent, on Facebook. She used Instagram to post adorably captioned soft-focus selfies (‘honey bee love’), and at age thirty-four she successfully enrolled in the tenth grade. The protean Frédéric Bourdin lived for many years in and out of foster care in Western Europe, speaking multiple languages, hiding his bald spot beneath various forms of teen-appropriate headgear.
Carmen Miranda’s brief life span ended abruptly in 1955. Known as ‘the Brazilian Bombshell’ throughout her life, she was trapped between two cultures which both claimed her, yet did not allow her to determine her own artistic path. In America, although she learned to speak English well, she was not allowed to speak with a less ‘tropical’ accent, lest she get in trouble with studio bosses. She was obliged to keep making use of sexual innuendos and exotic onomatopoeia (‘chq- chqchq- crrrr- ch ch ch’), which famously resulted in her being commodified into a logo for Chiquita Bananas. Her association with bananas blocked her from being taken seriously as an actress, which she sang about: ‘I’d love to play a scene with Clark Gable/ With candle lights and wine upon the table/ But my producer tells me I’m not able/ ‘Cause I make my money with bananas.’
I found different host bodies until he finally settled into one, like locating that rare impossible blood-donor match. I finally had a human Barbie doll to connect the story in varying dimensions. My sister-in-law was an ideal host. She was starting to explore the parameters of gender expressionism for herself. What I was doing in language, she had the capacity and willingness to embody. We achieved the impossible, and JT LeRoy became a real human boy.
Movies about sex are also movies about power; the way women in these films are dressed says something about the power that comes with womanhood, and the fear this power stirs. In simple, stripped-back outfits, innate sexuality (read power) shines through. Often, clothing is referred to as a woman’s ‘armour,’ but the women of erotic thrillers can be so steely they don’t need armour. They look less dressed and more powerful, wearing the bare minimum.
The persona of the architect first emerged in the Renaissance, when the discipline forcibly elevated itself above the building trades, professionalising what was previously a vocational pursuit. This schism created the need for a distinct professional identity, as, like doctors and priests, architects now required a uniform. The all-black clothing of the architect is now ubiquitous within the discipline, and its diverse associations with other social groups such as punks, beatniks and monks are all useful in cultivating the architect’s mystique. No other figure is a better exemplar of this tendency than Le Corbusier.
Can we fathom a framework for underwater fashion? Iconographies of underwater pursuits and their accompanying imaginaries find frequent form in fashion; think of Alexander McQueen’s Atlantis collection which featured his iconic ‘Manta’ dresses, digitally printed to conjure piscatory flesh, like armoured underwater camouflage. But what about the apparel actually worn underwater? If our knowledge of the undersea world is indebted to diving, then it is also indebted to the habitat apparel of deep-sea diving dress. The spheres of activity joined together by the practice of diving are webbed and vast, entangling the ancient art of pearl diving and spearfishing, histories of ornament, and the emergence in the eighteenth century of the discipline of natural history.
And it is the most unsure customers that I remember best: Sarah, who was looking for her perfect denim jacket, the Dutch girl who couldn’t decide between the red heels, or the pink. All of the women who were terrified of trying on clothes that might be too small. For them, in spite of the commodification of human contact, clothes weren’t commodities, they were essential subjects in their lives. They were staking their presentation, their memories on that just-right shade of silk.
In modern hats and dresses the details always have a point – to bring out the color of the eyes, to create the illusion of a bosom, to lengthen, to shorten, to call attention to the waist, to annihilate the hips, etc. The details of old Chinese clothes, however, were astonishingly pointless. They were purely decorative, and sometimes rather obscurely so. No artist could, for instance, have hoped for anyone to notice his intricate designs on the soles of women’s shoes, except indirectly by the imprints left in the dust.
That aural impairment is as old as hearing itself is evidenced by a Neolithic female skull unearthed by archaeologists in 1955. By itself, the skull would not be especially remarkable were it not for a prosthetic seashell ‘ear’ surgically implanted, and still seamlessly intact. Its purpose was not purely ornamental: the shell served as a functional conduit for vibration. This is implant and earring, ornament and augmentation: not yet bionic, but somehow presciently cyborg in its arrangement.
There are two photographs of Amanda Bynes on my desktop titled ‘covers.’ In one she is wearing a combination that had since turned cool but for me will always whisper ‘This is all I could bring myself to pull over my feet’: sliders and socks. Covering her head and face is what the media called a ‘blanket,’ but is actually a grey paisley scarf, the kind you might buy in a train station and use once, then forget about.
I am mesmerized by the image. The scarf is to fashion what silence is to language. It affords Bynes temporary inscrutability, a fleeting space between her body and her covers, where she may momentarily withdraw from our gaze.