DRESS TO EXPRESS Anna Murphy exhorts us to follow the lead of the female artists who have long used clothes to convey a bold sense of self
Be inspired by the women artists who, throughout history, have used their own sartorial identity as an extension of their work
Until very recently, being an artist, like so much else, was a man’s game. No wonder the few women who dared lay claim to the title thought so hard about how they should present themselves to the world; to meet the challenge of being at once Pygmalion and Galatea.
What they wore was a key part of the self-mythology. The different approaches are there in Seeing Ourselves: Women’s SelfPortraits by Frances Borzello (£18.95, Thames & Hudson). In 1785 one Adélaïde Labille-Guiard painted herself as the consummate lady in swagged satin. Forty years later Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot took the opposite route, in an ascetic brown tunic and artist’s cap, every inch the almost-man.
Just over a century on, Frida Kahlo made the subject of identity her entire oeuvre, turning her paintings – and life – into a kind of costume drama. Always determinedly herself, it was in part her inimitable wardrobe – a hybrid of indigenous Mexican items with Chinoiserie and Victoriana – that made her so recognisable.
Kahlo overturned the orthodoxy, insisting that woman could be subject as well as object. Yet this wasn’t appreciated during her lifetime, during which she was known as a personality, a clothes’ horse, as the wife of an artist, rather than as an artist in her own right.
The surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (1894–1954) explored identity by shapeshifting, in one tableau shaven-headed in a man’s suit, in another made up like a porcelain doll with blonde Heidi braids.
In our era, Cindy Sherman has taken things further, splicing documentary-style accuracy in her renderings of clothes and make-up with cartoonish presentational amplifications. She inhabits different ages, genders and epochs, in order to make us think about what it means to be a woman and, for that matter, a man.
Others have absented themselves from their work altogether. Georgia O’Keeffe’s naked form may have been a touchstone in the work of her photographer husband Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920s but she was nowhere to be found in her own canvas abstractions, and grew frustrated by psychosexual interpretations of her oversize blooms.
Yet away from the studio she took care to nurture her image and, by extension, her wardrobe. She would be photographed in simple, slightly masculine clothes – often with an Eastern twist that evoked a certain otherworldliness – her hair severely tied back. Take me seriously, O’Keeffe’s uniform said. And the world did.
Barbara Hepworth also dealt in abstraction. But in the early decades of the last century, she too sculpted her public image with care, adhering strictly to a studio-appropriate wardrobe of dungarees and smocks for portraits, mixed with the duffel coats and windcheaters that she wore when she strode the Cornish coast for inspiration. It was only later, her reputation secured, that she allowed her love of more frivolous fashion to flourish: there were fur coats; a bejewelled white silk tunic; even a blue and gold sari. Hepworth felt she had finally earned the right to dress for herself. There is a lesson in that for us all. Dress your true self, not the woman you think the world expects you to be. And don’t feel you have to earn it. Don’t wait. Claim it as your right. Today.
‘How Not to Wear Black’ by Anna Murphy is published on 4 October (£16.99, Dorling Kindersley).
Clockwise from left: Barbara Heptworth at her studio in St Ives. Nickolas Muray’s ‘Frida on Bench’. ‘Untitled #96’(1981)by Cindy Sherman