Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry’s Dresses displays a selection of dresses worn by the well known contemporary artist. The exhibition explores the development of his alter ego, Claire, and how the creation has affected his style, as well as his identity as an artist. The show features dresses detailing his first explorations into transvestism, right up to the development of more flamboyant creations, including items created by Central St Martin’s students, acting as a timeline of the artist’s career, with well-recognised dresses representing pivotal moments.
Perry’s practice explores contemporary life and often comments on; identity, gender, sexuality, religion and social status. Needless to say, his wardrobe reflects these observations, linking to his artwork through decorative imagery and motifs. In the beginning, Perry’s main aim was to pass as a woman, and he would dress in a sobering skirt suit (shown in the exhibition). The creation of his alter ego Claire changed things, giving him a way to explore aspects of femininity rather than becing feminine, and she appears as a number of guises; from the innocent portrayal of femininity in the Bo Peep dress, to the powerful high priestess in the ceremonial cape, featured in The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition at the British Museum (2011-12). It is the exploration of identity and its bind to gender that the dresses communicate so effectively, using Perry’s own experiences to explore constructions of gender, often incorporated into the designs .
The exhibition showcases Claire’s Coming Out Dress that Grayson wore in 2000; an iconic emblem of Perry and his work. The dress was designed by Perry and features imagery of Alan Measles, his 50 year old teddy, in addition to traditionally masculine objects that have been feminised; planes in pastel colours and a penis wrapped in bows. It raises questions of the traditionally macho-masculine against the softness of femininity, and perhaps explores the artists own sexual identity as a heterosexual transvestite male, and so translates as a piece of artwork rather than an item of clothing. This is also reflected in the matching bonnet dress 2004 which incorporates ceramic buttons in the style of his pottery. The buttons are placed in the shape if a cross, a subtle reference to the crucifixion. This constant and deliberate consideration communicates a narrative, making the dresses more than just clothes.
The exhibition also includes five dresses designed by St Martin’s fashion students for Perry, however, there is a marked difference in the craftsmanship compared to Perry’s own designs. Although the pieces are in the style of Perry and interesting in their own right, they do not feel like an artwork in the way his originals do. This may be due to the fact that Perry incorporates techniques from his artistic practice into his designs, using them as a means to comment on social issues, thus elevating his creations. One piece by student Stephanie Imma Cristoford communicates Grayson’s work more effectively than the others, as the dress features some of Perry’s words maps to create a body map, echoing the same wit and social commentary as the artist himself.
Presented as an exhibition, the viewer gains a clear understanding into the thought process behind each creation, and can appreciate the level of craftsmanship. The collection provides an intriguing insight into Perry’s exploration of identity, and acts as documentation of his career to date. In contemporary society, dresses are worn to represent the self, however, for Perry they represent his alter ego and creative self, acting as a medium through which the artist communicates his message.
Making Himself Claire is on display at Walker Art Gallery until 4 February 2018.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.