Here’s the artist Grayson Perry – self-proclaimed “trannie potter from Essex who won the Turner Prize” – on the red carpet for the BAFTA TV Awards earlier this year. He’s wearing a black and off-white duchesse satin A-line hooded opera cape. With a huge ejaculating penis embroidered on the front.
The dress was designed by Central Saint Martins fashion student Morgan Levy, as part of an annual project at the school where twenty-five students compete to design a dress for Perry’s female alter-ego, Claire. Perry, who hates shopping and only wears bespoke, buys a selection of his favourite dresses from the students for £500 a pop every year.
Planning to wear Levy’s ‘Sex At Tiffany’s’ dress to a gala event at the British Museum in 2011, Perry described it as “very Audrey Hepburn. I feel very red carpet in it, very perfume advert.” Then when he wore it on stage at the BAFTAs and someone asked about it, he replied, “it’s basically a big jizz.”
While depictions of sex acts can be found across a vast array of cultural and historical contexts, pictures of sexual climax are rare. One of the most famous orgasmic images is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. It shows the sixteenth century theologian, mystic and nun Teresa of Ávila swooning with spiritual rapture on a floating cloud, but as Jacques Lacan pointed out, “you only have to go and look at Bernini’s statue in Rome to understand immediately that she’s coming, there is no doubt about it.”
The real shock of Bernini’s masterpiece isn’t the conflation of sexual and religious ecstasy – it’s the improbable rendering of weightlessness and dynamism in solid, immutable marble.
The ‘pearl necklace’ dress also pictures arrested flight. The white droplets hovering around Perry’s face are part of a perpetual culmination, frozen in transition. The image gives form to the oxymoron of an endless climax (a temporal impossibility because climax is by definition an end). It’s a suspension of that most fleeting, gravity-defying human experience: orgasm.
Perry, who doesn’t believe in God, has often said that all his favourite art is religious art, and that the level of craftsmanship in Renaissance altarpieces has on occasion made him weep.
Levy politely rendered her decontextualised, oversized cock in white on white, so it isn’t immediately visible. Even less apparent are the repeated black-on-black versions of the same penis running up the sides and back of the dress, ejaculating streams of black beads. After the BAFTAs, the Guardian was quick to point out that the Daily Mail tabloid had apparently not even noticed what was pictured on the dress – the latter’s poker faced commentary of the red carpet pictures said that Perry had “paid homage to the nude coloured trend in a long dress with a nude panel running right down the middle.”
When he wrote the captions for an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue in 2003, Slavoj Žižek claimed, “we are truly naked only under our clothes. If we are simply without dress, we are not really naked – there is nothing less erotic than nudism.”
Clothing may have been invented when Eve and Adam learnt shame and left Eden, but it has often functioned only to emphasise the naked flesh it ostensibly conceals. The necktie, for example – an entirely gratuitous adornment that is internationally standardised as part of the corporate male uniform – is nothing more than an arrow pointing to the penis. And this is what’s so funny about Perry’s BAFTA gown; it both screens off his male genitalia, and acts as a screen for a ridiculous, exaggerated version of the same genitalia.
Clothing has never been purely utilitarian, and getting dressed is always a ritualised and codifying activity that depends on social consensus. For example, there’s no logical or practical reason, besides arbitrary convention, for men to only wear bifurcated garments, and not gowns, to red carpet events.
Perry, who has been dressing in women’s clothes since he was a kid, has described his female alter-ego Claire variously as “a forty-something woman living in a Barratt home, the kind of woman who eats ready meals and can just about sew on a button,” “a 19th century reforming matriarch, a middle-England protester for No More Art, an aero-model-maker, or an Eastern European Freedom Fighter,” and “a sexy little-girl version of Mrs Thatcher.”
But he has also said in recent years that, having gained greater self-confidence through age, success and psychotherapy (he’s married to a female psychotherapist), he doesn’t really need Claire anymore. Rather than impersonating femininity or becoming an imagined woman, he’s “just a man in a dress.”
A man in a dress (the word is defined in the dictionary as “a one-piece garment for a woman or girl that covers the body and extends down over the legs”) is a man with his phallus subsumed. But if that dress only makes visible, in a gloriously theatricalised way, the same phallus that it covers up, then it’s a pretty good reminder of the basic dysfunctionality of all dressing.
Published in DoingBird magazine #17 September 2013