The Body Modified

Tattoo artists Deafy and Stella Grassman, early 1930s

I am a woman with tattooed arms and a face full of piercings. My ‘body modifications’ receive many compliments, but they also attract criticism. Most often, this criticism takes the form of unsolicited ‘advice’ from men, who tell me how attractive I would look if only I had fewer body modifications. Once, while I was at work, a man even asked me why I had ‘ruined a pretty face’ with piercings.

My experiences are anecdotal, but the opinions of the men I encounter are not dissimilar to those found in many academic works on body modification. In dress histories, tattoos, piercings and associated body modifications are frequently described as forms of ‘mutilation’ – that is, the infliction of a violent and disfiguring injury. This definition has filtered into common parlance, with legal and social consequences. For instance, a number of practitioners of more extreme body modifications – such as tongue splitting – have recently faced charges of grievous bodily harm, despite the consent of their clients. Tattoos and piercings might not be deemed harmful in quite the same way, but they are often viewed as indistinct from more extreme procedures, because Westerners have been taught to consider all modifications as (‘primitive’ and lower class) mutilations. Consequently, the perception that they ‘ruin’ one’s appearance is pervasive.

Medical studies which question whether there is a connection between body modification and mental illness have also had an insidious effect on public opinion, especially in regards to female body modification. Perhaps arising from the historical association of women with both adornment and hysteria, there now exists a stereotype of the modified woman as mentally unstable. If not certifiable, she is at least aberrant in some way (although the extent to which modified women with an appearance such as mine – white, skinny, and blonde – can actually be considered aberrant is debatable).

As such, I often feel frustrated when people ask, ‘But what do your tattoos mean?’ This question might seem innocuous, but it is effectively asking one to justify their modifications. In other words, ‘Why do that to your body?’ Taken to its extreme, this line of questioning then leads to the kind of intrusive, gendered comments that I have experienced. In turn, the notion that body modifications must be meaningful to be acceptable results in the societal dismissal of any modification which does not have some significance to render it ‘refined’.

Such negative perceptions of body modifications have contributed to the argument that modified people should not be surprised if employers refuse to hire them based on appearance, especially since modifications are a choice. Yet, most forms of bodily adornment are a choice. In this way, getting a tattoo or a piercing is really not so different to dyeing one’s hair, putting on deodorant or using shape wear. In other words, as dressed bodies, every alteration or addition to our anatomies is a body modification in one way or another.

Fashioning Femininity (and Making Masculinity) in the Post-War Era

When we think about the twenty years immediately following the Second World War in Britain, what images instantly spring to mind? Smiling women in glamorous dresses, feather duster in hand, happily making home for hardworking husbands and clean, grinning children. This construct of woman as a glamorous housewife in the 1950s is one of the most well-known images in the modern consciousness. Whatever our opinions of it, it is all-pervasive; on posters, cards and throughout the media. But how did clothing, and its depiction in advertising, feed into these constructs of femininity? And how was masculinity constructed alongside and in relation to this?

Advert for Wolsey, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 19th March 1960, p.20

Domesticity was expressed in advertising as being a woman’s ‘job’. A Wolsey advert constructs the role of ‘man’ as breadwinner and ‘woman’ as homemaker and domestic purchaser as being objective facts. The advert is aimed at presumably female ‘fiancées’, stating: ‘Sooner or later… you will find yourself buying his socks. This is the job that will probably be yours from “I will” onwards’. Through this single garment of the sock the assumed roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are expressed. ‘Woman’ here is constructed as residing within the domestic sphere, with mundane, everyday garments such as the sock being part of her everyday concerns. Furthermore, ‘man’ is presented here as being domestically incapable, unable to purchase even his own socks. His sharp suit, the uniform of the masculine breadwinner, further constructs him as residing in the public, rather than domestic, sphere.

Advert for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 3rd September 1960

While a woman’s concerns may have been mundane and domestic, her appearance certainly wasn’t. Countless advertisements show women in glamorous, flattering garments even while in the home. One advert for Kellogg’s depicts the idealised couple at the breakfast table. While the man is dressed in a suit for a day of work in the economic sphere, the woman is dressed in a house coat for her day of work in the domestic sphere. Her beautifully patterned house coat and perfectly styled hair and make-up suggest that being attractive is also an integral part of her role as housewife. Similarly, in an advert for Batchelors Peas, the mother is dressed very glamorously for a casual dinner-time. She is fully made up with red lipstick, ornate earrings and colourful clothing. Her garments are soft and flowing, following the idealised lines of the hourglass figure. She cuts a very bright figure against the father, who again wears the masculine staple of the suit.

Advert for Batchelors Peas, Woman, Week Ending 17th July 1955

By analysing adverts from this period, we observe a strictly traditional representation of ‘woman’; as beauty, housewife and mother. Meanwhile ‘man’ is constructed, equally traditionally, as breadwinner. These images show us a snapshot in history at a time in which advertisements were both constructing and reinforcing real-life ideals. We see domestic ‘woman’ and working ‘man’ idealised as safe, predictable constants in a world that was rapidly changing. These images depict the moment before the liberation movements of the 1960s changed the world, and particularly the female experience, beyond all recognition.

Women and Fashion on the Red Carpet

It is awards season in the film industry, which means a proliferation of red carpet fashion reports over the coming weeks. Female actors’ ensembles tend to receive the most attention, with certain garments attracting as much (or more) coverage as their wearer’s nominations. Consequently, red carpet fashion reportage has sometimes been criticised for its apparent focus on style over substance, and in recent years activists have attempted to shift the emphasis from what female actors are wearing to what they are achieving. For example, the #AskHerMore campaign was established in 2014 to encourage red carpet reporters to question female actors about more than their fashion choices.

Ginger Rogers, pictured next to James Stewart, wearing an Irene dress at the 13th Academy Awards, 27 February 1941. Unknown photographer.

It can certainly feel frustrating when female actors are asked solely about their appearance, especially when their male peers receive a wider variety of questions. Red carpet fashion coverage is further problematised because it is connected to the objectification of women as dressed bodies. Close-up, panning footage of a red carpet dress focuses as much on the wearer’s body as it does on the construction of the garment, and fashion-related questions and headlines can quickly become inappropriate or offensive with regards to female actors’ bodies. Feminist criticism of such reporting practices is thus highly relevant in Hollywood’s current climate.

However, not all criticism levelled at red carpet fashion coverage is concerned with the treatment of female actors; sometimes it is based on a notion that fashion is not newsworthy. If coverage of awards ceremonies and nominations is news, coverage of red carpet fashion is still viewed as unimportant by some. Yet, while ‘worst dressed’ listicles or questions about underwear can make the topic of red carpet fashion appear ridiculous, serious coverage of actors’ fashion choices is as relevant as ever. Linked as closely as it is with identity politics, for instance, fashion has an enduring relationship with red carpet protests connected to wider movements. From Ginger Rogers’ donning an economically-cut, American-made dress in an act of wartime solidarity at the 1941 Academy Awards, to the all-black ensembles worn on red carpets in support of the Time’s Up campaign, actors have always known the significance of fashion in the film industry and beyond.

Actors and activists wearing black in support of the Time’s Up campaign at the 75th Golden Globe Awards, 7 January 2018. Photograph by Joe Scarnici.

Moreover, the dismissal of red carpet fashion reports as irrelevant has the same undertones of sexism as inappropriate questions about female actors’ appearances. The historical association of women with fashion is long and unrelenting, with the fashion industry (including fashion journalism) still largely focused on women’s wear and catering to female consumers. Red carpet fashion reports can thus all too easily be undervalued as ‘women’s interest’ pieces, especially when they are published alongside coverage of nominations and awards in the male-dominated film industry.

In light of recent criticism of red carpet fashion coverage, some have suggested that it is no longer appropriate to discuss fashion on the red carpet. This sentiment is understandable, but it is also somewhat facile. Outdated approaches to reporting can only change if red carpet fashion continues to be a topic of conversation.

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one stereotype that the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance contrasts her with that of Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Favouring ill-fitting suits and anoraks, Eve is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Yet Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless, but it can become unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is confident and assertive, independent and liberated; her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these dangerous characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, for example, and that the femme fatale wears shoulder pads and red lipstick. Her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different if, for instance, Eve were the fashionable one?

Barbette

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Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions.  In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality  – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.

His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year.  In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis.  I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images.  These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.

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He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.

He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’

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His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.

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Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).

Sources:

http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/06/02/the-surreal-sex-of-beauty-jean-cocteau-and-man-ray%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cle-numero-barbette%E2%80%9D/