Fashioning Identity with A Lover's Discourse
Around the National Portrait Gallery ground floor galleries, we see Actors, Musicians, Models, Artists, Dancers and Royalty placed in adjoining halls of multicolour and multidisciplinary fame. Some are recognisable instantly - others only from angles and distances, holograms that appear as frequently as their name in the paper and remain just as elusive in our everyday lives. Each is stylised, however, and the most stylised are the ones that make it into the gallery’s watershed feature; the postcard section of The Gift Shop.
Here Lily Cole appears to embrace every fashion shoot she’s featured in - as indeed is right - by appearing in profile, glossy and almost marble like in her complexion, the cut of her dress and its rich embellishment evoking both the pre-Raphaelite Romanticism and the Botticelli Renaissance aesthetics with which she was often associated. The butterflies which, uncanny in their realism, arrange themselves calmly around her head nod to the ethereal quality her facial features conjure, whilst the fact that this is in fact a photograph and not a painting testifies to the very fleeting modernity in which her role as model developed, and thrives. In another frame - and equally a year in, year out feature of the postcard stand - is a portrait of the Helena Bonham Carter. Again, her skin is marble-like; again the image uses the cut of a dress, the camouflage of black velvet on a black background creating an ancient appeal, this time reminiscent of classical theatre rather than Renaissance Neo-platonism. The classicism of the pose is offcut by the loosely flowing hair and introspective, yet alert expression Bonham Carter wears.
Despite this factor, she remains in lineage to the Greek thespians and the drama of the old-world screen, the character of her fame echoing the character of her portrait. Finally, we have Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh, in a Delacroix-esque circular canvas of silks, turbans, and female splendour. The luscious imagery conjures Batmanghelidjh’s Iranian heritage of, re-appropriating the imagery from safer hands than Delacroix himself - as well as, in poignant hindsight, alluding to an overbalance of generosity in the face of financial pressures, the kind of which led to the decline of her charity in 2015.
These undoubtedly display versions of the sitter’s selves - however, why choose such exaggerated and fantasized ones? Surely as celebrated figures, part of their privilege, and perhaps their burden, is to live within an alter ego on an everyday level, our fantasy of them becoming their own particular currency. Why do enjoy, desire and prefer to see them in these states than in those which we could perhaps more adequately relate - Lily Cole, exhausted and deflated after a commute home on a hot tube or Bonham Carter wearily picking up the latest takeaway leaflet to be passed through the door? And just as they enact a role for the artist’s lens, to what extent do we undertake a similar role-play ourselves on everyday basis with those around us?
In his ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ (1977), Roland Barthes explores the relationship between the loving and the loved, and the role of fantasy therein. In Barthes eyes, this fantasy is a key ingredient in one finding the other desirable, and in forging attachment, at least at first.
It is now, and perhaps always has been a well-known and acknowledged, if little understood, psychological process of many attractions. The loving create a glittering collage of the loved, a cauldron of us, them and something other (a ideal location, a miraculous turn of events, a heavy-handed helping of dramatic exclamations), and though most likely we are aware of its high percentage of falsity. Like the occupants of the white hallowed National Portrait Gallery walls, the clothes and costumes we don - be they fierce heels, trainers which allude to dreams of somehow making others gasp at our speed, or luxurious summer clothing - become symbolic of an experience rarely felt. Like the creation of Barthes’ lovers, these illuminate aspirational fragments of our character. The heels are variously Jessica Rabbit, Rosa Clebb and Beyonce Six Inch murderess. The trainers in turn suggest Usain Bolt, Chariots of Fire and David Gandy. The summer wear (linen or pastel colours, perhaps) often impractical, yet nevertheless providing an opportunity for the ever-candied glow advertisement from Brideshead Revisited, The Talented Mr. Ripley and the more arid locations of Graham Greene.
All of these characters and places are complete creations. Even Beyoncé and Bolt exist as a ‘public image’, and the continuity of this public self into their private selves and actual personalities is something we may only guess at. Furthermore, our own connection to this - a pair of trouser, a skirt or suit, perhaps cut in a similar style or by a similar brand - is barely as linked as the strength our own fantasy purports and needs it to be. But the fantasy and characterisation helps. Just like with the lovers: if we really didn’t over think about them, at least a little, at the beginning, are we excited? Or even very into them? Furthermore, like the lovers, do we need this taste of unbelievable and improbable - yet thoroughly affordable and enjoyable - fantasy to render ourselves and our ratio in it (usually the next, or foremost largest ratio), more lovable and acceptable in their shabby and comforting normality. The evocation of different characters in everyday dress is often about ingredients, rather than pastiche. We wear one aspect of the character- a pair of embroidered loafers, indicative of an almost Charles II style opulence, yet , when worn under our workday suit or even tracksuit bottoms becoming a carefree curated look - an amalgamation and representation of different aspects of ourselves, through different signifiers of history and culture. These aspects of otherness can provide excitement, conjuring a hotbed of muses and influences to accompany us daily, in more mundane moments. They can also lend us their characteristics. When feeling less confident, uncertain, a little sad or just tired, and we plod to some evening commitment deliberating whether to even turn up whilst already en route, necessary reinforcement can be found in an accessory that lends colour and vivacity - perhaps a soft scarf, a source of comfort which few others may register but which is close enough to use as a bank of familiarity, a piece of wearable homeliness.
Of course, how we dress does not have the power to change who we are, or to totally alter the way we feel. It does, however, provide a forum for different interests and changing aspects of self to be playfully explored. Like the stage history seen in Bonham Carter’s portrait, the evocation of different characters through our dress, articulating the relationship between who we are and who we would like to be, creates a dialogue as rich as Barthes' lovers. When operated with an appropriate attitude of self-awareness and self-satire sartorially, it avoids the necessary heartbreak of the latter. In these light touches of costume and accessory, the fantasy of the Other has only the power to cast a glowing and empowering light on the fundamentally realistic, rather than removing it from grounded roots and leaving it suspended in parody. The characters we take influence from in our everyday dress are those which have in some way affected our lives positively; they have the expression we seek, the confidence, the glamour, the eccentricity, the order, and by affiliation with this our own latent stores of these attributes can be realised.