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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By ANNA MUR­PHY

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

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