by Claudia Ware
Woman Holding a Mask, or The Allegory of Simulation/Deception - Lorenzo Lippi. Oil on Canvas, 1650.
The exhibition space in Room 40 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, is a large room, dimly lit, with flowing corridors of glass cages. Housed behind the glass are faceless mannequins decked in five centuries of fashion. Shoes from 1500 BC Egypt, tiny corsets gripping a waist the size of a spread hand. Mantua gowns with hips the length of a great white shark. Feathered hats, art-deco jewellery and floor-length nightgowns garnished with lace. It’s my favourite place to get lost in London. And as I stroll these corridors it’s not the original owners that I imagine filling out these artefacts – it’s me.
Clothing and costume [one and the same] have always had a hold on me. They’re likely one of the hooks that reeled me into a life in the arts. The spell of costume was, and is, intoxicating. In high school, I squandered hours in the drama department’s ‘Costume Room’ and the local ‘Wardrobe’. I preferred borrowing clothes from friends rather than wearing my own. It was a form of experiential authenticity. Clothes had little to do with affirming the specific nature of my ‘one true self’, and instead, expressed a desire to explore the boundaries of ‘self’ – IS THIS A ME? – for there were many ‘mes’, all of them true in some way.
A few weeks ago, while competitively sharing teen photos with my housemate Kate, I stumbled across evidence of, what I now fondly refer to as, the ‘fashion episodes’ of my teens. For my twenty-first birthday, my mother made me a photo book of my life up until that point. There, in glossy pages, was proof of the way I’d costumed myself through these years [I was anything but consistent].
There was ‘Army Girl/Dirt Bike Claudia’ circa 2005 – cargo pants with camo splotches, truckie hats and oversized jumpers [if memory serves me, I was channelling the essence of Hilary Duff in Cadet Kelly and Lindsey Lohan in Herbie].
In late primary school, I dabbled in 'Crafty Claudia'. I printed my own fashion label at Lincraft, 'Buttons n' Bows', and, as the name suggests, sewed buttons and bows (and fabric and lace and ribbons) onto Bonds singlets. These shirts were worn proudly for a year and gifted to close friends for their 12th birthday.
By thirteen, I was ‘Jane Austen Claudia’. She optimised her long, tightly coiled hair, piling it atop her head ala Elizabeth Bennet, and wore frilled blouses buttoned to the neck.
There was also an apparent attempt [god help us all] at ‘Goth Claudia’ – hues of black and grey, a cardigan that fell to the floor and rippled in the wind like bat wings, thick eyeliner, straight hair, fake piercings [always put on after leaving the house], ripped stockings underneath short-shorts and heavy combat boots. Through the buds of my iPod Nano, I listened to heavy rock music and strutted like bad-girl Jenny Humphrey in Gossip Girl.
By my late teens, I mellowed into ‘Vintage/Retro Claudia’ – second-hand everything – [it’s better to use your imagination here].
And once I left school, there was ‘Hippy Claudia’ – long skirts, harem pants, bralettes and jewellery with iconography I couldn’t name the origin of.
[I leave naming rights of ‘Current Me’ to Retrospect.]
The photo that stuck out most of all was taken during a trip to New York in 2011. Leaning happily against a statue in Central Park, seventeen-year-old me appeared to have combined elements of every ‘fashion episode’ up until that point. Vintage laced boots, fishnet stockings underneath denim shorts, band t-shirt, retro plaid blazer, bracelets made of beaded saints [prophetic of later years], and Jane Austen hair [clearly making an unnecessary comeback].
[why did no one tell me this look was not doing me any favours?!]
The changeability evidenced in these photos did not evoke feelings of inauthenticity. I remembered how I felt in each of these ‘episodes’ and how the clothes served to compress the distance between an inner and outer self. I saw outfits and thought: THAT IS A ME. I was, and am still, something of a Chimera – that hybrid creature from Homer’s Iliad; “a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.” My sartorial experiments were simultaneously theatre and reality, bridging the gaps between inner life, an aspirational self and an outward appearance.
Siri Hustvedt’s essay ‘Eight Days in a Corset’ is a brilliant reflection on sartorial matters. While working as an extra in Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square, Hustvedt was fastened into a 19th-century whalebone corset that “catapulted her into a different time and aesthetic”. She goes on to describe the time she dressed as a man for Halloween; her suit and make-up-less face unleashing the “maleness’ within her. Finally, she reflects:
“Clothes give us insight into culture and its wishes, and into individuals and their desires. More than who you are, clothes articulate what you want to be...wearing clothes is an act of the imagination, an invention of self, a fiction.”
How does this “fiction" interact with ideas about authenticity (a buzz word of our time)? Is there such thing, or are we merely engaging with representations of authenticity? French philosopher Jean Baudrillard thought as much. In his 1981 book ‘Simulacra and Simulations’ he leads with a quote from the Tanakh:
“The simulacrum is never what hides the truth - it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Ecclesiastes
The ancient Greeks and Romans were onto this line of inquiry much earlier. Their theatrical culture explored the idea that human beings merely were playing a role on the world’s stage, controlled by a powerful spiritual director. Theatrum Mundi — the idea that “All the world’s a stage” and we are “merely players” who play “many parts” (as soliloquised by Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It) — is a genesis for simulacrum. We make use of various masks, not to hide an essential self, but to offer parts of us means of expression. The simulacrum is a mask, and the mask is true.
Masks* - there are more than one.
Ancient Theatre Masks
What masks am I currently making use of? I have some suspicions:
I cut off my hair a few years ago; my long, brown, curly “princess” locks substituted for a short (now blonde) bob. I was tired of feeling like a ‘girly girl’ – I wanted to moult my late teens/early twenties and find a new mask that represented a more evolved version of myself. I don't wear heels, and I don't like dresses. I’ve often felt a tug to counterbalance my ultra-feminine features — big blue eyes, pale skin, high cheekbones — with heavy shoes, baggy pants and dark colours.
But I’m still inconsistent. I own a long, purple frock that I’ll dish out on certain days when the Dame in me wants to let loose. Amidst my rack of black garments hangs a vintage, lace blouse (a head-nod to the Jane Austen years) and while visiting my sister in London over Christmas, I bought myself a pair of ochre-coloured heels (yet to be worn, but they spoke to me at the time). I predict that I'll continue to experiment with clothing and eschew the idea that as an adult, I need to settle into some sort of consistency. Because, as I see it, authenticity is not stagnant. Instead, to be authentic is to meet each identity crisis with open arms and ask the questions: How can I help you? What do you need?
Flipping through my mother’s photo-book, I sensed the joy with which teenage-me had expressed herself through clothing. Pre-dating the watchful eye of the iPhone or the immediacy of social media, I playfully, clumsily and joyfully shed one skin for another, like deciduous trees in autumn. My heart goes out to the 2020 teenager, who perhaps, stuck in the judgy panopticon of modern media, will be less inclined to express, experiment, and fail gloriously, in the act of dressing oneself.