Performing the Maternal Body

The maternal body is still a contentious subject. In the 21st century, the British tabloids have continued to eerily rate celebrity bumps. In retaliation, women have taken social media sharing their heart-breaking realities of miscarriages and difficult births. Of course, these discussions are vital for changing the abject tabloid outlook on maternity. But it shouldn’t just be down to women. What power do men have to start the conversation and subvert rigid ideals around the maternal body?

As Francesca Granata discusses in Experimental Fashion, Western systems of thought around the maternal body have been consistently reductive. Since the Enlightenment and the valuation of dualism/the Cartesian model, men have aligned women to nature and purity, thenceforth the birth process has been dematerialised and elevated to mythical status. Neglect and misrepresentation of the female experience is the product of this system of thought which, in turn, has contributed to the success of femininity.

Leigh Bowery, Look 9, July 1989, by Fergus Greer. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/fergus-greer-leigh-bowery-session-ii-look-9

Leigh Bowery, a performance artist and designer notable for his work in the ‘80s, experimented with the subject of the maternal body. Throughout his career, Bowery was fascinated with the leaky and malleable body.

Bowery performed a piece at Wigstock (New York) in 1993 wearing an oversized costume that features a distinctive bump on his stomach. At the end of the performance, Bowery gets up onto a metal table (that uncomfortably resembles a post-mortem bench) and spreads his legs. His assistant (Nicola Bowery) peels through the stretch material between Bowery’s legs and reveals herself, fully naked and covered in red liquid: “The first baby born at Wigstock!” Bowery shouts.

This graphic and violent scene, Granata says, “externalises and renders visible the problematic Western understanding of the maternal body and, by extension, the female body.” The material contrast between Leigh’s oversized costume and Nicola’s naked body inserted into the seams of the costume challenges the idea that the maternal body as a dematerialised object and space, whilst also drawing on the violence of the birth process.

About 30 years on, the ideas around the maternal body and gender performance have inevitably progressed. Bowery’s avant-garde birthing performances relied on nuance and violence whereas now, subtle, more empathetic forms are applied to the exposition of the maternal body.

Drag has become a mainstream form of entertainment in the UK. Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK first aired in 2019, introducing a wider audience to the scene. And drag queens, just like Bowery, have incorporated the pregnant body into their performance.

In Series 1, Episode 7, of Drag Race UK (2019), judge Michelle Visage commented on Divina de Campo’s artificial baby-bump: “There’s nothing more drag than a pregnant drag queen… It’s a big middle finger to society.” The runway task for this episode was to dress up one female family member. Divina’s sister (who was given the name Delisha de Campo) was four months pregnant when she came onto the show. Divina’s empathy for her sister’s maternal condition is palpable and Ru Paul said that the subtle adaptation to the silhouette was “a stroke of genius.”

The reaction to Divina’s bump demonstrates the maternal body in direct opposition to the fashionable silhouette of womenswear, as well as being in opposition to the rigid construction of femininity. As Granata says: “The twentieth-century fashion body remains one of the most articulate attempts at the creation of a ‘perfect’ and perfectly contained body restrained and sealed.”  In the 21st century, the costumed pregnant body defies this entirely.

Divina de Campo with sister Delisha de Campo, episode 7 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, http://thenormcanconform.com/rupauls-drag-race-uk-s1-ep7-the-drag-family-scandal-of-the-century/

The performance of the clothed body is fertile ground for progressive ideas. Men costuming the maternal body encourages the normalisation of women’s lumps and bumps and at the same time disrupts the idea that issues surrounding femininity are purely a woman’s issue to deal with. Performance art and drag are examples of ways to subvert the norms. By way of creative freedom and empathy for female matter, the Modern man can blur gender boundaries and inspire a powerful subversion which at once frees them and their peers.

By Bethan Eleri Carrick

Bibliography

Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body. I.B Tauris, 2017.

The Legend of Leigh Bowery, Documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIS79ZQxYiw

 

 

 

From Subculture to High Fashion: How Drag Queens are Shaping the Fashion Industry

While androgyny in high fashion has been gaining momentum for a few years, a new dynamic between masculine and feminine is now emerging in the fashion world. Dramatic, satirically feminine looks presented by male models are cropping up more and more often. This phenomenon can be connected to the hit reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition featuring the best and brightest of American drag queens. Numerous former Drag Race contestants have gone on to become associated with brands like Prada, Moschino and Jean Paul Gautier and featured in magazines such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Here is a snapshot of a few former Drag Race contestants who are shaking up and shaping female fashion.

Miss Fame: Season 7 Contestant

Fame is represented by international modelling agency IMG Models, as well as the US-based agency Wilhelmina Models, and is actively involved in the New York fashion scene. She has been photographed for a number of fashion magazines including D4 Magazine and Blanc Magazine wearing the likes of Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Moschino, and Gucci. 

In September 2018, Miss Fame walked for Opening Ceremony at New York Fashion Week. In October 2018, Fame launched her own makeup line, which was promptly featured by Allure.

Naomi Smalls: Season 8 Runner-Up

Drag Race season 8 runner-up Naomi Smalls has acted as an Instagram Brand Ambassador for countless designers and brands, including Marc Jacobs and Giorgio Armani. Smalls also hosted an interview with rap artist Cardi B on behalf of Cosmopolitan Magazine in February of 2018.

In May 2018, Smalls was featured modelling Tommy Hilfiger for Prestige Magazine Hong Kong. Smalls is most often photographed representing smaller name designers, but this could indicate the beginning of a segue into mainstream modelling for the 25 year old performer and subculture style icon.

Violet Chatchki: Season 7 Winner

Chatchki in Paris for Paris Fashion Week July, 2018

Chatchki is foremost a high-profile burlesque performer, but she has significant high fashion connections as well.

Chatchki posing in a Miu Miu gown before a party hosted by Vogue Italia during Milan Fashion Week September, 2018

Chatchki regularly attends Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks and caused a stir in September with her avant-guard ensembles representing Prada, Moschino, Jean-Paul Gautier and Vivienne Westwood, amongst others. She has walked the runway twice for Moschino, first in a gender-bent take on a classic tuxedo in January 2018 and again in full femme glamour in June 2018. Furthermore, Chatchki has been featured in Vogue and Vogue Italia numerous times. Perhaps most notably, the model and performer was chosen as the new face of Betty Page Lingerie in November 2017.

Catchki betty page

Chachki in a promotional photograph for Bettie Page Lingerie November, 2017

As evidenced by this abbreviated account of the accomplishments of three former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, the fashion elite are increasingly acknowledging the exaggerated styles so prominent in drag culture.

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/