Wearing his heart on his sleeve – ‘Grayson Perry’s Dresses’ at the Walker

‘Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry’s Dresses’ opened at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool on Saturday and features many of the dresses worn by the artist when dressing up as his female persona Claire.

Perry describes himself as a transvestite and has been cross-dressing as ‘Claire’ since he was a teenager. Perry has stated how he desires “impact” when he dresses up, wanting people to look at his clothes rather than at himself when he enters a room. Although he started off by wearing more conservative women’s clothes, he began wearing more outrageous outfits – such as his 2000 ‘Coming Out Dress’ which he wore on Have I Got News for You – in order to provoke further public response.

The exhibition provides a sort of retrospective through clothes for Perry, exhibiting outfits worn at various points in his life such as the dress he wore when he accepted his Turner Prize in 2003. An important moment within his artistic career, Perry accepted the award as Claire, exclaiming “Well, it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize” to the Tate Britain audience. In many ways, costume is just another medium for Perry, enabling him to express his own unique perspective of the world, his own thoughts and emotions, within wearable pieces of art. The exhibition features 12 of Claire’s outfits, many of which were designed by Perry himself as well as some designed by the fashion students of Central St Martin’s, with Perry staging yearly competitions for students to design garments for him. The outfits are widely varied, but can be grouped by their colourfulness and flamboyance, with Perry expressing how he “hate[s] people that only wear black”. Most are dresses made in a variety of fabrics are heavily detailed, largely via the use of embroidery which is a medium exploited by Perry in his tapestry works.

Grayson Perry, as seen in his recent book The Descent of Man, is interested in challenging and deconstructing the current notions of masculinity, many of which are extremely harmful to men and men’s mental health. Indeed, his dressing as Claire very much defies traditional ideas about how a man ‘should’ act or what he ‘should’ look like. Perry himself stated: “I’ve been dressing up since I was maybe about 12-years-old, so I guess I was forced to question what masculinity was”. Although he has described Claire as an ‘alter ego’ in the past, in recent years Perry has insisted that he is now “fully integrated” with this female persona, that he and Claire are “merged”, and he has also described how transvestitism forms an important part of his own sexuality. Thus, these outfits that essentially make up Claire play a key role in Perry’s exploration of his own identity, with the choice of the Walker Art Gallery to exhibit these dresses in their own right allowing this sense of importance to be wholly stressed and displayed before the public.

Hannah Stokes

(Image courtesy of Design Curial)