5 Minutes With… Alexandra Sive

We’ve been busy working on our dissertations, so we’re taking the opportunity to get to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Alexandra discusses bodily taboos, her spooky virtual exhibition and Madeleine Vionnet.

What is your dissertation about? 

My dissertation is about maternity corsets in the 1920s and 30s. I’m drawing on Mary Douglas a lot, specifically her work on the social concept of dirt, which she designates as “matter out of place”, something which does not conform to social boundaries or systems of meaning. Drawing on Durkheim, that which cannot be explained or contained within social ideology must be deemed taboo and thereby removed either into the realm of the sacred or the profane, shut away from society. This is precisely what happens with pregnancy taboos, where the pregnant woman is shut away, both disgusting and holy.

I first encountered Douglas in second year at university, while writing about blood and other body fluids in the work of John Donne and George Herbert, and I came back to her in my finals, writing about Pope and Swift and all the bodily pairings in their poems. I’ve always seen literature and dress as being more connected than people would think – they’re both forms of communication that we use every day. Some clothes are just what we wear; others are poetry.

I’m really interested in corsets more generally, too – the idea that, for such a long time, society has been obsessed with holding in and reshaping the supposed site of reproductive power is fascinating to me. All too often, these conversations are rooted in transphobia, but I think it’s clear that the misogyny that arises, in part, from what wombs can do affects everyone in proximity to it, not just people who can give birth.

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year? 

I’m absolutely loving my dissertation, but I also have a soft spot for my virtual exhibition, which was about the more macabre aspects of Victorian mourning dress. I had never done a piece of academic work which was so visual. I wanted to make it really spooky, so I set it in The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, which is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres, set in the very top of St Thomas’s Church in Southwark. The first room was full of explanatory texts and artefacts about the cult of mourning that developed during this period, including bits on widowhood (more taboos!) and the involvement of children in rituals of death. I wanted to line the staircase up to the operating theatre itself with black velvet so that it would be like being born through the drapery of the mourning bed into the afterlife. This section I called “The Ghosts” – visitors would come onto the floor of the theatre, but up in the viewing gallery, standing over them, would be faceless figures in mourning dress. It was so much fun to plan!

What are you wearing today?

I’m currently wearing a dress called the Vivienne from Réalisation Par in a really pretty blue-violet floral print – my body has changed so much over quarantine, so my mission right now is to find things that fit my new figure and make me feel comfortable. I love this dress because it fits so perfectly and shows the shape of my body, but it’s also really comfy and light, which is a must right now because it’s so hot in London. I’m barefoot, and I’m wearing some really pretty Murano millefiori heart earrings from Etsy. Aside from writing, the only thing I’m doing today is getting my hair dyed – it’s currently a pink bob, but I want to grow it out, so I’m getting it dyed back natural. I think I’m going to have to change because I would be distraught if I got dye on this dress!

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

When I was a child, I loved making things. I was always covered in paint and clay and whatnot. My mother found an incredible sewing class called Little Hands Design, run by a woman who is a force of nature called Astrid. It’s still going, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I remember going into class as a very young child, before I was able to use a needle, let alone a machine, and just draping fabric on the mannequins. I thought it was incredible the way that something flat and square could take on so much shape and movement, depending on how you tied it up and later where you put the pins. I think it’s why I’m now a bit obsessed with Vionnet, whom Rebecca introduced us to this year. Her designs have so much life in them, and all from the way that she cuts. She’s a real poet.

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