Clothing out of the closet

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"Clothes, fashionable or otherwise, and whether we realise it or not, almost always have a message", says Senior Curator of Art Galleries, Pauline Rushton. "They ‘speak’ to others of what sort of people we are – what tastes in music we have, what our political views and social aspirations are, what values we hold. Through the Pride and Prejudice: Bringing stories out of the closet project, some of the clothing held in National Museums Liverpool's Decorative Arts collections has been researched, and their LGBT-related meanings explored and interpreted as never before. I look after the Western European costume collection, which covers the last 300 years of fashion history and includes about 10,000 examples of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing.  Working with this collection, I have always been conscious of particular dress styles adopted by members of Liverpool’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans - LGBT - community. Over the past twenty or more years I’ve been able to acquire and represent some of them in the collection. For example, during the 1980s, McMillan’s Club, located just off Bold Street in Liverpool, ran  a one-off gay night on a Sunday, at a time when there were very few openly gay venues in the city. I used to go regularly with friends, and remember seeing older gay men there wearing safari suits with pastel-coloured shirts and matching scarves. In the 1990s, I was able to acquire a couple of such safari suits for the collection. One of them, made by Yves Saint Laurent for his Rive Gauche line, is currently on display in the temporary exhibition Fashion Icons: Celebrating Gay Designers in the Craft & Design Gallery at the Walker Art Gallery. Similarly, as well as collecting, I’ve tried to integrate LGBT-related clothing into displays and exhibitions with more general themes. A good example of this was featured in the exhibition Hitched: Wedding Clothes and Customs, held at Sudley House in 2010-11. As well as the traditional and more modern wedding dresses, I included two suits worn for a civil partnership ceremony in 2008, before same-sex marriage was introduced in the UK.  These two fabulous, glittering suits, made by London tailor Sir Tom Baker, were worn by Michael Atter and his partner Christopher McDermott, from Rock Ferry on the Wirral.

Suit worn by Paul O'Grady's Lily Savage character.

I have always been interested in the subject of cross-dressing. For a costume curator, it holds great fascination, partly because of its historical antecedents, ranging from men dressed as women in the Elizabethan theatre, to modern pantomime dames and principal boys who are always played by girls. This is cross-dressing as performance, and I explored the theme in the exhibition Savage Style, Clothes from Lily’s Wardrobe, which ran at the Walker Art Gallery and the Museum of Liverpool in 2011-12. These displays featured some of the amazing outfits worn by actor, comedian and television Paul O’Grady as his cross-dressing character, Lily Savage, including one of Lily’s favourite leopard print suits. Pride and Prejudice has provided another forum in which to highlight LGBT-related fashion items in our collection. In particular, they draw attention to our collaborations with the LGBT Queer arts organisation, Homotopia over the last ten years, including our acquisition of the amazing hair dress, made for 2011’s Alternative Miss Liverpool contest, part of that year’s Homotopia Festival. I was able – with some difficulty due to its enormous size and weight – to display the dress at both the Walker Art Gallery and the Museum of Liverpool.

Punk bondage suit

The project also allows us to present fashion clothing to our visitors in a different light to how they may originally have been seen. For example, one of our punk-related outfits, a bondage shirt and trousers, was originally seen in a musical context as part of the exhibition The Beat Goes On: From the Beatles to the Zutons, staged at the World Museum in 2008-09. As part of Pride and Prejudice, the LGBT-related aspects of the punk movement, including a large gay following, can also be explored and revealed. Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent’s famous evening tuxedo suit for women, known as ‘Le Smoking’, which is featured in the current Fashion Icons display at the Walker, can be read as gender-bending and not just as a fashionable outfit."