Harry Styles’s photoshoot for the December issue of US Vogue is noteworthy for two reasons. It is the first time the magazine has featured a solo male on its cover, and Styles is adorned in androgynous garments. The images have gained global attention, sparking an inevitable surge in social media reposting, and triggering a fairly predictable backlash as commentators claim they are unoriginal: men and male celebrities have been gender-bending for years.
The debate around Styles’s Vogue cover shoot has included people who are not typically involved in fashion frays – US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez considers the portraits ‘wonderful’, by contrast conservative commentator Candace Owens thinks they are harmful to western society. For all of the talk, Daniel Rodgers is one of the few commentators to reflect on the implications of the shoot, in an article for Dazed Digital.
The history of men exploring their gender and sexual identities is certainly age-old, and far older than most reports on the Vogue shoot suggest. Before the androgynous appearances of Prince, David Bowie and the ‘Peacocks’ of the 1970s, there was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel of 1928 in which the title character lives for several centuries and changes sex mid-way through the narrative. From the eighteenth century, and showing how art imitates life, there are the real-life stories, salacious and shocking, of the Chevalier d’Eon, a French captain and courtier whose biological sex and gender identity was the subject of speculation and law suits. D’Eon apparently spent half of his life dressed as a man, half dressed as a woman. If this cross-dressing initially helped the French King Louis XV, who used d’Eon’s ability to pose convincingly as a woman to a spy in the courts of England and Russia, the transformation became permanent. In 1775, d’Eon signed an affidavit to the effect that he was, in fact, Mademoiselle d’Eon. Whether to show support for d’Eon, or merely because she was intrigued on meeting this much-talked-about-figure in 1777, Queen Marie Antoinette ordered her dressmaker to make a new suite of clothes for the Chevalière.
Earlier still, there are the commissioned portraits of sixteenth-century banker Matthäus Schwarz in his ‘First Book of Fashion’. The book’s images, often described as precursors to Instagram selfies, show him showing off in bold and bright multi-layered outfits. Schwarz also had his naked body painted. Next to one of these images, completed when he was twenty-nine, Schwarz writes that he ‘had become fat and round’. His book, which preserves a critical reflection of a life and body in and out of clothes, emphasizes how men have long pursued various modes of self-presentation to understand their gendered identities.
Then as now, white men preponderate in these personal experiments. Many exceptions decisively establish that a preoccupation with gender and sexual identities unites races and cultures, but the white – typically cis-gendered – male body has always been the norm from which other bodies have been judged.
For example, in a recent lecture Dr Siddhartha Shah, curator of Indian and South Asian Art at Peabody Essex Museum, has spoken about the deep cultural meaning of Indian men’s historic and contemporary jewellery. Pearls, in particular, were widely worn by India’s Mughal emperors and Maharajas as symbols of their singular authority and virility. This practice differed to Western norms, where pearls were chiefly worn by fashionable women. Shah quotes a publication of 1907 that asserts European men had a ‘virile distaste for effeminate display’, which the pearl was thought to symbolise. He suggests the linkage between Indian male jewel-wearing and effeminacy in the British imagination created both cause and catalyst for their prolonged intervention in the sub-continent.
Western concerns about the instability of men’s gender and sexual identities, and the dominant idea of the white cis-gendered male body, are pursued further in Matt Smith’s current exhibition, Losing Venus, at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Highlighting the queerness of some of the Museum’s collections, Smith shows that cross-dressing and male-male sexual relationships were accepted in many regions before the assertion of European imperial rule. He cites the example of young boys in Tahiti who were raised to act and dress as women and likely engaged in male-male sex acts. The establishment of British rule curtailed these practices as new law codes criminalised male-male sexual relationships and asserted the pre-eminence of the white male body and heteronormative behaviours.
The implications of this history for the Harry Styles Vogue shoot is both positive and negative. On the one hand, Ocasio-Cortez is surely right. These photographs force viewers to “examine, explore, engage and grow with it”. They help to challenge the rigid view of what male bodies should, and can, be.
On the other hand, to assert that Styles’s shoot is revolutionary, as Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele has done, is misinformed; considerably so. The magazine images and the long history of men experimenting with their gender and sexuality identities exposes an uglier side to the pretty magazine stills.
The extensive conversations about Harry Styles’s Vogue cover shoot reveal that men’s engagement with their appearance is never solely about ‘play’ – a term used by Styles to describe his relationship with dress – but about deeply ingrained and freighted issues of politics and power that are centred around white cis-gendered male bodies, like Styles’ own. Ominously, the images of his androgynously-dressed body, and the debate they have sparked, indicate that these issues remain entrenched, even at the end of a year that has exposed many socialised assumptions as ignorant and injurious.
The following is an extended version of an article that was commissioned for The Conversation.
Before a bruise-coloured backdrop, Lady Gaga and Arianna Grande performed a medley of Chromatica II and Rain on Me at MTV’s recent VMAs. Gyrating in purple and black, the singers’ costumes were distinctive for including face masks. Gaga’s mouth covering, possibly inspired by the breathing apparatus of Darth Vader or Batman villain Bane, featured an animated wavelength. The mask’s pixelated oscillations seemed appropriately dystopian for a performance that included a piano housed in a puce-coloured, brain-like carapace. By contrast, Grande’s prop appeared to be more of an afterthought, consisting of a small rectangle of elasticated black cloth.
Face coverings on stage may seem obvious, even uninspired, in the midst of a global pandemic. Most of the world’s governments have now made mask wearing mandatory in public. And yet, the causality for this costume decision probably wasn’t straightforward. The prevalence of mask wearing in live performances is age-old, making Covid-19 more of a catalyst than a cause in Gaga and Grande’s clothing choice. Pre-pandemic, and across both sides of the Atlantic, The Masked Singer has challenged television audiences to identify performers of famous songs. Artists’ bodies are completely concealed within brightly-coloured and slightly unnerving costumes. The series debuted in the United States in 2019, and in the UK in 2020. The concept was adapted from the South Korean television show, King of Mask Singer, which has been on air since 2015.
This global, trans-cultural fascination with masks in contemporary singing performances, which is to say nothing of their ubiquity on fashion catwalks, offers a more convincing frame for Gaga and Grande’s VMA dress. It also provides an interesting way to explore the prevalence of face coverings in traditions of live performance and to explain the paradox that masking, where an artist’s conventional identity is concealed, is often more expressive and engaging than performances where artists can be clearly recognised.
It seems appropriate that contemporary forms of masked musical performance draw inspiration from Asian models. Some of the oldest traditions of live performance that involve face and head coverings can be traced to China and Japan. China’s Bian Lian, ‘face changing’, is a highly skilled, secretive form of acting within Sichuan Opera that uses face coverings to guide narrative. Characters’ masks are quickly changed with deft movements of the hand to signal fluctuations in mood. In a similar way, Japanese Noh performances make use of over 400 types of wooden face mask to indicate a character’s social position and shifting emotional state. Noh can be translated as ‘skill’. The term expresses the highly disciplined nature of this deeply expressive medium.
Asian traditions of masked musical performance have gradually become known in the West, through routines in America’s Got Talent and Tian-Ming Wu’s film, The King of Masks. Continental Europe also has its own costumed customs. Italy’s Commedia dell’ Arte and its French derivation, the Commedie Française, were essentially improvised skits that combined music, mask wearing and stock characters, the most popular being Harlequin and Pierrot. This masked duelling duo became widely popular across Europe in the twentieth century. Contemporary artists, including Paul Cèzanne and Pablo Picasso, became these characters in self-portraits or used their dress and props to create portraits of family members. Earlier still, during the seventeenth century, the royal court masque, which reached its apogee in England under the tense partnership of poet Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones, used masking and music to valorise the institution of Stuart monarchy.
As Europe’s political and cultural authority spread globally, particularly during the nineteenth century, so too did its traditions of masked musical performance. Since 1957, to mark its independence of British rule, Ghana has staged the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival. Amalgamating Ghanaian forms of live performance and the costume traditions of the Dutch and British, artist Hakeem Adam suggests the festival, staged each year on 1 January and involving masked dance contests, “is a living museum—it reminds us of the past as well as catalyzing conversation on the conditions of the present.”
If these past and present examples show that masked singing performances entertain – chiefly because of their skill and surprise – they also explain their ubiquity and deep cultural resonance. Anonymised performers make use of multiple senses – sight, sound, touch – to create a ‘total artwork’ (gesamtkunstwerk) that blurs the divide between reality and recreation. This unique, liminal form of performance enables an audience to project their thoughts – individual and collective – onto the artists, who essentially become avatars and act as a psychological salve. They facilitate the simultaneous exploration of spectators’ hopes and fears – about a global pandemic (à la Lady Gaga and Arianna Grande), national identity (à la Ghana) or social roles (à la Bian Lian and twentieth century portraits). Reflecting on her VMA collaboration with Arianna Grande, Lady Gaga explained, “We create things that make us feel comfortable. We put them all around. I do it all the time. We all do things to make ourselves feel safe. And I always challenge artists when I work with them. I go, ‘Make it unsafe, make it super fucking unsafe and then do it again’.” In identifying the provocation caused by face coverings, Gaga connects – however inadvertently – with a long and global performance tradition that recognises the potential of masks to excite and to explore contemporary social issues.
Parallels, problems and the possibilities of mask-wearing in pandemics
An edited version of this post originally appeared on 24 July 2020 as an op-ed for Manchester Metropolitan University, here.
On 24 October 1918, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors ordered the city’s inhabitants to wear a face mask in public. Violators of this instruction would be punished with fines of between $5 and $100, ten days’ imprisonment, ‘or both’. The Board’s ordinance was to be ‘immediately effective’. These measures were an attempt to curb a different pandemic but they – along with the date – are eerily similar to the British government’s injunction, which comes into force today – 24 July – and threatens fines of up to £100 if people do not wear a face mask in public.
The ‘Spanish Influenza’ was deadlier than the Coronavirus, at least as things stand. Between 1918 and 1919, it claimed the lives of 50 million people, more than double the number of fatalities from the First World War. So far, the Coronavirus has infected over 15 million people around the world, and killed 620,000. The contagions, their scale, and the world they ravaged may differ, but their impact on people’s behaviours is remarkably consistent. This similitude is symbolised by the face mask.
Today, as in the past, the pandemic was feared because it was invisible. What is unseen, and largely unknown, is hard to fight. In these circumstances, the face mask plays an important role. Wearing one enables people to see and feel that they are doing something purposeful to combat a phantom menace. This is clothing as psychological salve. Anthropologist David Kertzer has written about the importance of ritual actions that reduce people’s anxiety by allowing them to believe they can control a moment within an episode over which they are otherwise powerless. The compulsion to make the pandemic tangible, and more easily resistible, also helps to explain why many people are making their own masks, or buying them from local independents.
To purchase a mask from a local company, or an individual new to needlework who has been forced to make ends meet after being furloughed or made redundant, strengthens a sense of collective action. This is especially the case when money raised through the sale of face masks is donated to charity. Taking comfort in group solidarity, which some commentators have compared to the experiences of the Blitz during World War Two, has become only more important now it is known that the Coronavirus spares no-one, not even the very young as was initially hoped. Making a face mask, or having one customised, is also fun.
A century ago, newspapers and newsletters printed stories about the absurd and comic face masks that people wore, or wished they could, during the pandemic. One American university newspaper, in January 1919, included drawings of six imagined masks, including the ‘Professors’ Special’, a nose and mouth covering in the shape of a question mark made from purple velvet and trimmed with gold. Playful and equally impractical face masks are popular – certainly prevalent – today. Artist Ýrúrarí, knits masks with exaggerated lips, wonky teeth and protruding tongues. Anne-Sophie Cochevelou customises conventionally-shaped face masks with lace butterflies, Hello Kitty figures and dolls’ limbs. The protection these masks offer is psychological rather than physical. They are examples of what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin would call the disarming power of laughter. The ability to challenge someone or something by making it risible helps to make it resistible. The galvanising qualities of a shared giggle are no less important in establishing compliance among a large group of people. This surely explains the comedic headwear contraptions, complete with one-metre-long foam prongs, that have been used in continental Europe to ensure people maintain social distancing.
Levity also creates opportunities for personal expression. This is no minor consideration when a face mask conceals the mouth, possibly obscures the eyes, and so renders the most prominent and communicative parts of the human body mute. If face masks decorated with doll’s limbs are too much, myriad opportunities remain for people to express their sartorial flair. There are couture masks that sell for several hundred pounds, masks from Savile Row tailors to pair with tweed three-piece suits, and packs of masks to ensure a different colour or pattern can be modelled each day, or in sequential Zoom meetings to ensure participants are truly paying attention.
The urge to customize, to maintain our unique appearances, is all the more irresistible because the prolonged lockdown has fundamentally changed how we live and conceive of our self- and group-identities. The pandemic of 1918 and 1919 sparked initiatives that promoted people’s health and wellbeing. Fitness and fit bodies were valorised in the popular media and in Hollywood. In America, plans to rebuild after the War included public works programmes for the construction of holiday resorts and swimming pools. President Roosevelt thereby provided a solution to a demand he helped to stoke. Combined, the pursuit of health, economic prosperity, and the prospect of adventure promised by Hollywood, created new demand for sun and sea in the first half of the twentieth century, and clothing styles to match. Similar shifts in identity and dress are discernible after earlier pandemics. The Black Death, which recurred throughout the first half of the fourteenth century, and may have killed up to 50 million people, sixty per cent of Europe’s population, had what Richard Goldthwaite has termed an ‘inheritance effect’. Focusing on Italy, he argues that a smaller group of people inheriting wealth were emboldened to spend their inflated legacies with less caution than their predecessors. This created an increased demand for luxury goods and new opportunities for distinction in dress.
Today’s pandemic may be too close at hand to make any decisive statement about its sartorial legacy. Informed guesses are possible. Masks and the ubiquity of online meetings have emphasized people’s heads and faces and appear to have catalysed interest in ‘ugly makeup’, a coinage of 2018 that describes the creative and non-conventional use of cosmetics, and other materials, to challenge normative concepts of beauty. Lockdown life has also promoted athleisure, as people prioritise practicality over panache. If early signs are diagnostic, the demand that our clothing should do more – in the first instance, by providing physical and psychological comfort – seems to be heralding calls for a radical shake-up in the way that fashions are conceived, created and consumed. If these calls are heeded, it would be one of the more visible and lasting impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic. In the short term, the likelihood of seismic change within the fashion industry will be informed by how committed people are to put life before looks and follow today’s injunction.
A book review published originally in The Journal of Dress History, 4:2 (summer 2020), pp.218-220.
Monica L. Wright, Robin Netherton, and Gale R. Owen–Crocker, Editors, Medieval Clothing and Textiles 15, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, 2019, Illustrations, Tables, Contributors, Preface, Recent Books of Interest, Contents of Previous Volumes, 4 Colour Illustrations, 34 Black–and–White Illustrations, 215 pages, Hardback, £40.00.
In 2011, Stephen Greenblatt caused controversy when his book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, revived an idea many academics had long since refuted: that the Middle Ages were dark and illuminated only with the dawning of the Renaissance. This stubbornly persistent orthodoxy is the cause of many muddles about the medieval period. One of the most trenchant is the claim that a discernible fashion system becomes apparent only when the gloom of medievalism recedes in the fourteenth century. Since 2005, the Medieval Clothing and Textiles series has done much to demonstrate that the medieval period, viewed through its clothing, fabrics and dress accessories, is every bit as colourful, creative, individual, shocking, and subversive as periods earlier and later. It is fitting that one of the series’ founding editors, Gale Owen–Crocker, begins this volume (her last as lead editor) with a historiographical survey of how the study of medieval dress has evolved over the past fifteen years (pp. 1–31). She shows how new technologies, typologies, and thematic studies have expanded the scope of this field. Convincingly, she argues that fashions are discernible in Anglo–Saxon women’s dress of the fifth and sixth centuries and cites research showing how “the social importance of clothing” is evident within eleventh century formal wedding gifts (p. 17).
The importance of clothing in bridging cultures and defining people’s roles runs like a thread throughout the volume. The point is most apparent in Tina Anderlini’s chapter, which examines the prevalence and popularity of medallion silks in western Europe, stemming from their association with an “Other World” of Old Testament figures and anointed terrestrial rulers (pp. 101–136). Hugh Thomas’ study of clothing at the court of King John (pp. 79–100) shows how one of England’s most mercurial monarchs was adept at dressing his body, his bedding—which included a cover lined with otter skins and a quilt embroidered with parrots (p. 83)—and his band of followers, whose horses were chosen “because their colouring set off the vividly dyed cloth” of their saddles (pp. 81–82)—magnificently to make him distinct.
The legitimation that King John sought through luxury cloths and furs has parallels to the beguines—an ill–defined group within the category of mulieres religiosae (note 10, p. 139)—who form the focus of Alejandra Concha Sahli’s chapter (pp. 137–156). Concha Sali describes how European women who wore versions of monastic habits attracted papal opprobrium because they were thought to be feigning membership of a religious community. However, Concha Sahli suggests many of these women may have genuinely sought acceptance and wore the habit to signal their readiness to “start a new way of life” (p. 138). She explains how the habit was a powerfully symbolic garment. Wearing it was “equivalent to entering a religious order” (p. 138). It could even provide a means of distinguishing oneself from other monks and nuns, for to wear a coarser version was to claim a deeper holiness by implication. Not surprisingly, this sartorial strategy was often decried as hypocritical (p. 142).
The recognition that medieval clothing and textiles could be simultaneously legitimating and transformative is underscored in Joanne Anderson’s chapter, which analyses the curious visual cues in a series of paintings that decorates the walls of a Dominican church in Bozen, South Tyrol (pp. 157–182). Focusing on the detail of a vertical loom belonging to the Virgin that is being used to make a heraldic fabric, Anderson connects the figurative act of weaving to the “weaving of new family bonds” through marriage (p. 179). The dynastically informed mural was a means by which Margaret von Brandis could harness weaving, “a ‘respectable’ craft for a woman,” and proclaim that “a new identity [was] in the making” through her second marriage (p. 181).
These complex clothing strategies, sometimes subtle, other times overt, negate Greenblatt’s assumptions of medieval darkness. They also challenge a linked and long–held assumption that visual cues were more relied upon at a time of widespread illiteracy than in future years. The second and third chapters of the volume, by Maren Clegg Hyer and Elizabeth Swedo, respectively, demonstrate that authors in Old Norse and Middle High German—and, presumably, their readership and listenership, too—enjoyed the “overlapping, metaphorical relationship between text and textile” (p. 33). In the Nibelungenlied and Völsunga saga, Swedo asserts that the different usages of dress and fabrics can enhance “understanding of medieval perceptions and projections of wealth, class, and social status as well as the construction, performance, and regulation of gender roles” (p. 63).
The volume’s seven chapters provide eloquent and compelling testimony to the existence of a deeply embedded and vibrant fashion system throughout the Middle Ages. The human concerns raised through these investigations, of status, belonging and memory, can be compared with contemporary preoccupations. If the volume refutes claims of medieval separation through darkness, nonetheless it hints at why this view remains so trenchant. Accessing medieval dress and textiles is difficult. It requires a knowledge of unfamiliar languages, iconography, and the rubric of bureaucracy. It requires, as Gale Owen–Crocker asserts at the end of her chapter, people “with the vision and the will” to practice these skills and to collaborate with others who possess them in different disciplines (p. 31). That this volume exists is evidence of such cooperation, but the simplifying narratives of Greenblatt and others reveal that more remains to be done. Remedies require a cultural shift, which no single academic series can tackle alone, but the breadth and precision of scholarship contained in this volume underscores the importance of the Medieval Clothing and Textiles project to all people working and interested in dress, irrespective of chronology. Here’s to the next 15 years of the series, under its new lead editor, Monica Wright.
On 9 May, I spoke at Sherborne’s inaugural TEDx event on the subject of marginality. I focused on the life of mathematician Alan Turing, who attended Sherborne School and whose personal experiences have some connection to my own. The link to my talk, and the full transcript, is below. Please have listen!
I want to start by asking you to do a bit of imagining. Inevitably, as we’re in Britain and this is an ice-breaker, I’m going to focus on the weather. So, it’s a wet morning. Transportation has ground to a halt because of a strike.
So far, you don’t have to imagine too hard. But into this predictable scenario, I want you to place yourself in the mindset of a thirteen-year-old who is starting who is due to start at first day at a new school, sixty miles away today. And I want to ask, what do you do: Do you set out for school or do you not? I should add – and this will probably make your decision-making a whole lot easier – your parents are not with you; so no cajoling, no guilt (at least initially).
In 1926, when, when thirteen-year-old Alan Turing faced this exact dilemma on his first day at Sherborne School, he chose to cycle the 60 miles from Southampton to here. And this was after he had travelled for at least eleven hours from St Malo. I wonder how this feat compares to what action you decided upon?
As a teacher, I believe that defining character traits become evident in people at a young age, even if they later need honing and nurturing. For me, then, this episode does much to demonstrate Turing’s determination and focus. And I really don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that this vignette enables us to glimpse those qualities and skills that would lead to the two great professional achievements of his life.
First, his code-breaking work during World War Two at Bletchley Park, which cracked Germany’s Enigma machine and, according to some estimates, brought the conflict to a swifter conclusion, saving the lives of thousands. Second, his pioneering work in computer science that today enables us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time. For this feat, Turing is hailed as the ‘father of modern computing’ and artificial intelligence.
However, we should also acknowledge what was probably our first reaction to Turing’s trek; namely, that it’s really, really odd. The snap decision of a boy on the precipice of the ‘terrible teens’ to cycle sixty miles through a largely unfamiliar region, alone; for him to possess the foresight to organise for his luggage to be sent on in advance to school – to do any one of these things, let alone all, would surely be every parents’ dream, but it is also, frankly, unusual. And, I’m guessing it’s not what the majority of us would have done.
And so, Turing’s cycling ride reveals another defining trait of his character. It reveals his uniqueness, or what many of his Sherborne contemporaries, even close family, would regard, less favourably, as his marginality.
Marginality and its consequences are at the core of what I want to ponder over the next few minutes. By marginality, I am not primarily thinking about people’s beliefs, ethnicity, gender or sexuality, although, of course, these are all reasons that can lead to people to be ostracised and forced to live at the periphery of their communities. Here, I’m concerned with the marginality precipitated by an individual’s personality and character; the things they think, say and do that are innate, but often misunderstood, criticised and rejected by those around them.
Turing – our solo cyclist – was certainly marginal: he was intellectually confident, even precocious; socially awkward, sometimes to the point of brusqueness, and, as his cycling feat demonstrates, he was single-minded. He was also homosexual at a time when it was illegal to be so. Now, although I’ve said I won’t dwell on this, but I think Turing’s sexuality really was an inherent part of who we was. It helps to explain why, throughout much of his life, he was misunderstood and why even his older brother could described his as ‘an eccentric of outsize proportion’.
A key moment that reveals Turing’s uniqueness and the cause of his marginality occurred in 1952. He was living in Manchester, a respected academic working in the university’s mathematics department on what would become the earliest computers. At least, that was until he was arrested for ‘Gross Indecency’, for having sex within another man in the privacy of his home. Found guilty, Turing was presented with two outcomes – I cannot bring myself to call them choices – to prison, or to be chemically castrated.
Had I been alive in 1952, it is conceivable that I, as a gay man, would have faced the same decision. I’ve thought – a lot– about what I would have done. Probably, I think, I would have chosen prison, believing this to be the safer, easier option. Turing did not. He chose chemical castration. The repeated injection of female hormones would ostensibly ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. What it certainly did do was to destabilise his physical health and destroy his psychological well-being. Two years after his sentencing, two weeks before his forty-second birthday, Turing killed himself by biting into a poison-laced apple.
But times change. In 2009, the British governmentissued a posthumous apology for the appalling treatment Turing had endured because of his homosexuality. In February of this year, Turing he was named the BBC’s ‘Icon of the Twentieth Century’, chiefly because of his work in computer science. We have long benefitted from what Turing did, but only now, over fifty years after he took his life, are we finally we seem able to acknowledge Turing him for who he was. I think it has taken this long – too long– for us to acknowledge Turing because he was marginalised. Contemporaries saw the oddities before the opportunities; the unusual over the unique; and, perhaps more tragically, recoiled from him rather than reassuring him; hesitated instead of offering to help.
Turing’s teenage cycle ride, if we go back to that, demonstrates that the wizard and the weird are not separable aspects of his character. The very cause of his marginality was also the source of his magnificence. The more I thought about the tragedy, even cynicism, of his posthumous appreciation, the more I became aware of just how many marginalised people have ended up making a social impact that is positively disproportionate to their status among their contemporaries. The pernicious paradox whereby the cause of a person’s marginality is simultaneously the source of their magnificence is all too easy to evidence. Let me share another example.
Let’s think about the first photographer to have their work included in the Venice Biennale, a photographer whose 1972 retrospective at MOMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is stillone of their highest attended exhibitions, nearly five decades later: a short, wild-eyed woman called Diane Arbus. Arbus’ pioneering photography was rooted in her own sense of displacement and marginality. Throughout her life she suffered depression and appears to have used portraiture, which challenged preconceived notions of what photography was, to make sense of her world. Arbus famously worked to normalise the marginalised; the ‘freaks’, as she called them – the amputees, dwarves, transgender – who would not, conventionally, be deemed beautiful. To Arbus they were. The experience of engaging with these unusual subjects was what she was looking for. But even this was not enough. Aged forty-eight, Arbus committed suicide, taking barbiturates and slashing her wrists in the bath. Her tale is a tough one to hear, but it should make us realise that the woman and her work are not separable; her trauma, which ended up being too much to bear, made her triumph possible.
In their respective fields, Turing and Arbus are heavyweights. They are responsible for conceiving of, and creating, transformational shifts in the way that we feel and think; in the way that we live. They are also two people who, for a time – sadly, too short a time – showed resilience in the face of their marginalisation to achieve magnificence.
Unfortunately, as a teacher I have encountered too many pupils and students whose brilliance was blunted, if not entirely blocked, by their marginality. A lack of empathy, sympathy, support did not galvanise them. It weakened them. It made it too hard for them to be themselves, to see that they had something to offer. The disproportionately positive impact that marginalised people are often able to make on society only heightens the tragedy.
Marginality is a subject of personal interest because it’s part of my experience. According to a personality profile devised by Myers and Briggs, based on the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, there are sixteen -character types. Alan Turing’s personality type is shared by just 13% of the world’s population; Arbus’ by 8%. It was with a sense of equal concern and confirmation when I learned that my profile is the rarest. Shared by fewer than 1% of the world’s population, it is characterised by a parity between sense and sensibility. Almost certainly, this explains why I am standing here talking to you about marginality.
Unlike Turing and Arbus, I am still awaiting my magnificence, but like them, my marginality and the character traits that have shaped my life were already evident when I was younger. At thirteen – the same age as Turing when he cycled to Sherborne – I moved to a new school in the south of England because of my father’s work. I remember – painfully – how long it took me to develop friendships, which was not helped by the fact that my form teacher had me stand before my classmates and make a Dragon’s Den style pitch for their interest. You don’t need to imagine how badly that went!
A sense of not belonging exacerbated my inclination to analyse and to dwell on my feelings. And so I did what came naturally, and studied. In turn, this developed my sense of empathy and acute sensitivity to the feelings of people around me. Naturally, these traits made me stand out at school, and so my marginalisation started at a young age, as a result of just being me.
However, I now recognise that these characteristics are at the core of what I do as a teacher and cultural historian. My marginality, as I perceive it, and any potential I have for magnificence share the same source.
So, what do we do to ensure the margin and middle are not irreparably separated?
Well, we need to acknowledge that it’s simply too easy to dismiss people as oddities and thereby absolve ourselves of any responsibility for trying to understand and to support them. Whilst we may regret the early deaths of Turing and Arbus, we need to acknowledge that the marginalised who continue to live among us, unsupported and unheralded and with their enormous potential unrealised, constitute a wicked waste of life.
We need to re-engage with each other as personalities individuals, and not rely on the distorting oculus of social media, through which everyone seems an infallible icon. We know of the very important work done by charities – including Mind and The Samaritans – and the socially-minded lessons that take place in schools that that can help here, too. But I’m thinking about us, and I want usto talk.
I guarantee that we all know somebody in our lives right now whom we tend to avoid; whom we have marginalised to some degree. Maybe we have a reason for this, probably we only think we do. Within the next twenty-four hours, I’d like you to challenge yourself to speak to that person. To understand them and try to appreciate their value, and to embrace their ’otherness’. And who knows, they might one day make as big a difference to the world as Turing and Arbus did, and you’ll have played your own small part in their story.
Whilst the thirteen-year-old you may have responded to torrential rain and transport delays by staying in bed, praise the pluck and seek to understand the audacity of those thirteen-year olds who choose to cycle.
And if you are one of those people who would – like 13-year-old Turing – have cycled alongside the thirteen-year-old Turing, never let that difference make you feel unworthy; for you, like him, are navigating your own path, however challenging, and it’s here that marginality can truly become magnificent. Thank you.
Jeff Koons’ Balloon Venus seems at once dominant and diminutive in the space it occupies within the Ashmolean Museum.
This is a large, attention-seeking bulbous structure, fashioned from polished magenta-coloured stainless steel. It stands 2.5 metres tall. It weighs nearly 1.5 tons. It possesses all of the awesomeness of the, admittedly much smaller, age-old fertility statues that Koons claims as its inspiration. And yet, as soon as you see it, the ancient goddess vanishes. She is replaced – literally covered over – by distorted puce-coloured reflections of you. The goddess offers up her shiny skin for her supposed devotee to worship themselves. As the subject becomes object, you are amused, intrigued and, perhaps inevitably – or at least as I did – you succumb to temptation and take a single snap of multiple selfies, later to upload on Instagram. As if to complete some irrefutable process, the new subject thereby transforms itself into an object to be adored.
Balloon Venus is not the first Koons’ sculpture visitors encounter on entering Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean, but it is emblematic of much of the work on display: objects that are simultaneously grand and quotidian, assertive and accommodating, shaped by history and spurning of it. More fundamentally, Venus, and virtually all of the other sculptures that surround it in the three-room space, are objects that pose a question about the role, and importance, of the viewer and the viewed in art.
As I meandered around Koons’ shiny statues, and saw more distorted reflections of myself, I began to doubt this criticality was intentional.
In a conventional exhibition scenario, wall-mounted labels situate the object by describing its provenance. Here, the labels were opened ended, sometimes to point of opacity. The label for ‘Ushering in Banality’, a pastel-hued sculpture from 1988 that depicts three cherubic-like children walking alongside a pig, begins as follows:
I wanted to make works that just embraced everyone’s own cultural history and made everybody feel that their history was perfect just the way it was.
Another label, for ‘Antiquity 2 (dots)’, a painting made between 2009 and 2012, opens thus:
At some point I realised that this monkey was really Eros and that [actress] Gretchen Mol was Aphrodite or Galatea. I actually found images of Aphrodite positioned on top of a dolphin with her son Eros, and I realised that this was the exact image that I had created.
Neither statement reassured me that Koons knew what he was seeking to create and convey: to distil ‘everyone’s own cultural history’ into one object, and to assert parallels with Greek mythology when they had been wholly absent during the conception and creation of a piece of work, seems at once arrogant and naïve.
Or am I – was I– being too critical –– Was my problem less to do with Koons’ work and more to do with my expectations as a viewer?
In an interview with Ashmolean Director Xa Sturgis that is printed at the start of the exhibition’s appropriately shiny catalogue, Koons relates how art commentary and criticism erects barriers around objects for demanding an expertise and connoisseurship that a majority of people very understandably lack. Fretting about this … snobbery… which he repudiated during his education and early career, Koons asserts that he wants his work to be accessible for all.[i]The mirrored Venus should consequently be seen as an artwork that incorporates and welcomes her viewer; the open-ended wall labels should be regarded as prompts that ask people to develop, and to trust, their own interpretations.
The problem that remains in my mind is that Koons’ pieces seem initially too brash, too redolent of their creator’s ego, to be wholly responsive to the viewer’s point of view. The result, for me, is a curious – and presently unresolvable – tension between the democratic and demagogic. As Emma Park muses in her review of the exhibition for Apollo magazine, the rifts in Koons’ seventeen shiny structures aptly reflect the insecurities of our present, where a desire to belong is challenged by the drive to stand apart.[ii]
Of course, wonderment with the self and self-presentation are not unique characteristics of the twenty-first century. Jerry Brotton has recently suggested that sixteenth-century Tudor miniatures were meticulous antecedents of the selfie.[iii] Three floors below Koons’ Venus in the Ashmolean, and poetically serving as foundation, Antinous: Boy Made God, demonstrates how individuals – or one in particular; the supposed teenage love of Emperor Hadrian – were lauded in antiquity. Many of the surviving impressions of ‘boy-favourite’ or ‘fuck boi’ – depending on how salacious you like your historical writing – are much smaller than Koons’ statues, chiefly because all that survives is a bust or a broken-nosed face.[iv] Nevertheless, there is a gravitas and strength, a power, that these casts and carved marbles possess that Koons’ work does not. One of the more striking depictions of the teenager, which frames him with a draped cloak and fruit-filled garland, is the bust of the Braschi Antinous, dating from c.AD 130-138.[v] Here, as in other representations of the pubescent deity, the object to be viewed is confidently defined. To recall (appropriately) Professor Perlman’s monologue in Call Me By Your Name, the Antinoi “dare you to desire them”). Quite unlike the situation three floors above, the role of subject and object, viewer and viewed is not equivocal.
Obviously, it would be trite to tease out too many parallels between the Ashmolean’s current exhibitions and the artwork therein, but viewing both in succession – first, Koons, then Antinous – it was nonetheless interesting to reflect that in making gods of ourselves, it has become difficult to identify what we truly value and regard as important. At a minimum, notions of self and an appreciation of self-presentation have become moribund.
[i]Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean(Ashmolean Museum: Oxford, 2019), 9-22.
Journalists from around the world stood in a semi-circle before her, their arms and voices raised as they jostled to ask questions. Among the impatient crowd, all of whom were men, television cameras rolled and flash bulbs flared. Behind her, standing on the street outside, members of the public pressed themselves against a wall of glass to spectate on the event unfolding within. It was Monday, 16 July 1956 and Marilyn Monroe was in London. The Hollywood Star was attending a press conference at the Savoy to talk about her new film, a musical comedy that was soon to commence shooting at Pinewood studios, The Prince and The Showgirl. Wearing a black knee-length dress, matching heels and white opera gloves, Monroe was sitting beside her husband, Arthur Miller, who appeared agitated and crumpled, and her director and co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was poised and quite perfect. Playing with a recently lit cigarette in her right hand, Monroe seemed confident, but her smiles were hard rather than happy; she was bracing herself for the cross-examination.
One of the more impertinent journalists asked about her nocturnal dress: “Do you still sleep in Chanel no. 5?” An impossibly large grin stretched across Monroe’s face. “Considering I’m in England”, she began coquettishly, “let’s say I am sleeping in Yardley’s Lavender”. Monroe’s interrogators delighted in her wickedly smart retort and she looked justifiably jubilant.
The Savoy press conference is depicted in Simon Curtis’ film My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Yardley continue to clarify the connection between Monroe and one of their best-selling fragrances. Of course, whether Marilyn Monroe actually wore Yardley’s Lavender perfume was never really the point (and she may not have worn Chanel, either: records from perfumer Floris show that an order for six bottles of ‘Rose Geranium’ were placed by Monroe’s personal assistant Dorothy Blass in December 1959). Her quick-witted response did much to demonstrate her guile, which contemporaries doubted. The comment also added to Monroe’s libidinous allure, which was, and remains, central to her critical and commercial appeal. The significance that Yardley beauty products assumed for Monroe during the 1950s was momentary, but it is possible – and certainly interesting to ponder – that her riposte, delivered at a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, provided inspiration for Soviet spies. Far from the public eye, hollowed tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder were being used by members of the Portland spy ring to send British nuclear secrets to Moscow.
The activities of the Portland spy ring were exposed on 7 January 1961 by Polish-born triple agent Michael Goleniewski (codenamed ‘Sniper’ by the CIA and ‘Lavinia’ by MI5), who had defected to the United States. Goleniewski alerted law enforcement agencies to a mole at the Royal Navy’s Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Apparently, details of Britain’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, had been leaked to the Soviets. Names were not disclosed, but suspicion quickly focused on former sailor, likely alcoholic and suspected security risk, Harry Houghton, who worked at the facility. Minimal surveillance soon revealed the other members of the spy ring: Houghton’s mistress, naval clerk Ethel Gee and Konon Trofimovich Molody, who masqueraded as Canadian Gordon Lonsdale, an apparently successful entrepreneur who sold jukeboxes and bubble-gum machines. Completing the sextet were quinquagenarian vintage bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen, whom Molody frequently visited.
The Krogers appeared to live a frugal life at 45 Cranley Drive, an unassuming bungalow in Ruislip, Middlesex. The impression of banality was purposefully deceptive. The couple were actually Morris and Lona Cohen, KGB agents. They had met in America, where they were born. Lona’s parents were Polish; Morris had a Ukrainian father and a Lithuanian mother. A graduate of Columbia University, in the 1930s Morris had fought in a volunteer division during the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. Whilst in Spain, he met Amadeo Sabatini, a long-serving Soviet spy, and gained his entrée into the world of espionage. Morris Cohen appears to have stayed loyal to the Americans during the Second World War, but on his return to the States, and as the Cold War began, he resumed his work for the Russians. At some point before 1954, he and Lona relocated to London, and to Cranley Drive.
The Krogers’ bungalow was no ordinary suburban residence. Upon entering the property in 1961, Special Branch officers discovered the bathroom had been converted into a dark room. The attic space contained a 74-foot radio aerial and a transmitter capable of reaching Moscow. Bank notes totalling $6,000 were also seized. Most surprising of all was the array of unassuming household bric-a-brac the couple possessed: a cigarette lighter with a false bottom, a torch with hollowed batteries, drinking flasks with secret compartments and metal tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder that contained microfilm with radio contact times. Details of the haul were disclosed at the spies’ trials. Molody, as go-between and mastermind, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison; the Krogers to twenty. In each case, the sentences were commuted and the spies were exchanged for British subjects who had been incarcerated by the Soviets. Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee served the full length of their fifteen-year sentences. In a sort-of happy ending, they married a year after their release, in 1971.
The exposure of the Portland spy ring came at a time of acute anxiety in the Cold War. In October 1957, the USSR had launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit around the Earth. The Americans were unable to match this feat until 1958. Understandably, they were deeply concerned at how quickly the Soviets had progressed in the Space Race; espionage was suspected. Three months after the Krogers’ home was raided, Fidel Castro declared his revolution in Cuba to be Socialist. This act humiliated America’s new president, John FitzGerald Kennedy, who received a drubbing from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, when the pair first met in Vienna in June 1961. Recalling the incident at a later date, JFK admitted, ‘He beat the hell out of me’. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the threat of Nuclear Armageddon threatened, there was good reason to believe the Communists were gaining the upper hand in the Cold War.
Simultaneously stoking and sating people’s paranoia about Mutually Assured Destruction, a new genre of spy fiction provided fantastic stories about the enemies in people’s midst. The villains thwarted by Ian Fleming’s James Bond were invariably larger than life caricatures with melodramatic schemes for world domination. The foe that surfaced in John le Carré’s novels, the first of which, Call For The Dead, was published in 1961, seemed all the scarier for their apparent normality and ability to hide in plain sight.
Two weeks after the police raided Cranley Drive, Marilyn Monroe divorced Arthur Miller. She spent much of the next six months recovering from physical illness and depression. News of the Portland spy ring’s discovery may never have reached her. If it did, it’s anyone’s guess whether the spies’ use of Yardley products recalled to her mind the comment she had made in the Savoy five years’ earlier. It is tempting to think the Krogers and their spy masters were attentive in 1956 and that they had been influenced by Monroe’s remarks. How better – and cruelly ironic – to disguise confidential secrets heading into Communist Russia than in containers depicting a popular brand associated with one of the Capitalist West’s best loved Stars.
Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) carefully controlled her image and the depictions of it. Many of the portraits that immortalise England’s Good Queen Bess, from Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘Pelican Portrait’ of c.1574 to the ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of c.1602, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, depict the ruler with an almost androgynous, whitened face that is ageless, and virtually identical. This was the point. Elizabeth sought to defy time and the effects of aging in much the same way that she defied contemporary expectations of her sex to rule without major political opposition for almost forty-five years. Painters seem to have adhered to what amounted to a ‘stock’ representation of the Queen.
The perfect, poised and poisoning mask that proclaimed Elizabeth’s determination and physical capability to rule was enhanced by allegorical symbols that were embroidered on her costly garments or held in her hand, from snakes that symbolised wisdom to sieves that represented innocence. The recent discovery by Philip Mould of a three-quarter length portrait that appears to depict Elizabeth as physically awkward and psychologically hesitant monarch is therefore big news. Here, potentially, is an image of the Queen that did not conform to the now-familar archetype and yet managed to escape detection, and destruction, during her lifetime.
The newly discovered portrait of ?Elizabeth I, c.1559
The Awkward Elizabeth that confronts us in Mould’s portrait is said to date from 1559, when she was twenty-six years old, and in the first full year of her reign. The evidence that has been used to establish this date has not been shared widely, but my initial response is that this is almost certainly too late, chiefly because of the style of the Queen’s clothing. The Awkward Elizabeth may be arrayed in gold and fur, but her garments would have been unfashionable in the second half of the sixteenth century when she started to rule.
Awkward Elizabeth appears to be wearing a full-length gown of a gold cloth beneath a black fur mantle. The golden gown is decorated with floriate patterns contained within horizontal bands. These bands continue unbroken beneath the Queen’s left hand, which is positioned over her waist, and suggest there is no separate bodice and skirt. The glimpse of a slim black belt, hanging around the waist from left to right, enhances this impression. This is odd. By the middle of the sixteenth century the kirtle (or skirt) tended to be a separate garment; a bodice was worn above it, over the torso. Moreover, from the c.1540s the proportions of this skirt had increased, due to the farthingale worn underneath. These developments in women’s dress are shown in a portrait of a highly fashionable Princess Elizabeth of c.1546 that is attributed to William Scrots (below). Whilst there is some indication of Awkward Elizabeth’s hips, her skirt seems to have no form of stiffening or shaping structure beneath it. This scenario would be highly unlikely for a lady of status and fashion in the sixteenth century, and not least for Queen Elizabeth whose accounts indicate she was wearing farthingales during the early sixteenth century.
Princess Elizabeth, c.1546, atr. William Scrots (Royal Collection)
If the length of the gown and the silhouette of the skirt raises questions about the date of this portrait, the neckline does, too. By the middle of the sixteenth century it was fashionable for women of status to emphasise their décolletage. The neck of Awkward Elizabeth is entirely hidden. The Queen’s neck that is not covered by the golden gown is concealed beneath a smock with black work. The ruff, which is secured by a chin strap, covers more of the Queen’s face and neck; it is also dissimilar to fashionable styles at the commencement of Elizabeth’s reign.
This all noted, there are some nods to contemporary vogues: the whitened skin and black work on the linen smock – a style of embroidery largely attributed to Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon – does suggest the artist was cognisant of at least some sixteenth-century status-defining fashions.
What are the implications of all of this?
First, we have to acknowledge the limitations of our artist. We are presented with a two-dimensional figure – a Tudor cardboard cut-out – whose clothing, though clearly expensive and of high status, appears similarly flat and devoid of texture. The drape of fabric over the shoulders and elbows has clearly caused problems and looks particularly clumsy. The implication of this is that the artist was working several tiers below that of the artists typically commissioned to immortalise England’s royalty at this time. This would suggest the painter was operating under aristocratic patronage, rather than royal. This may account for the painting’s survival: Elizabeth simply did not know of its existence.
Second, the painter appears to have had limited knowledge of the clothes worn by Queen Elizabeth and her court. The extent of the painter’s isolation from court appears to have forced them to dress their monarch in styles of clothing that were passing out of fashion in the sixteenth century. It is possible the painter used the clothing of another (older) portrait for inspiration. This scenario would also go some way to explain the general lifelessness of the entire portrait.
Third, if our painter were physically distant from the royal court (London), it is reasonable to suppose that this was also true of their patron.
Fourth, and finally, (and assuming we’re happy to accept that the sitter in this portrait is Elizabeth) if the painter’s patron were distant from London and only able to employ a painter with limited skills (compared with the artistic luminaries working within the Tudor court), it may be that he/she was in a weak/fragile position and commissioned Awkward Elizabeth to demonstrate their loyalty to the new monarch in a bid to assert regional authority, especially if the work does date from the very beginning of her reign in 1559. This was a tumultuous period when the monarch was working to establish her Protestant-leaning religious settlement – and breaking with Rome afresh – after the Catholic revival and reunion with Rome that had occurred under her half-sister Mary.
I have just finished a chapter for an edited book that examines how monarchs are remembered (for good and ill) after their reigns. My contribution focuses on nineteenth-century interest in Britain’s Stuart dynasty (1603-1714) through the medium of fancy dress costume. I suggest that the tumultuous lives of these rulers – particularly that of Mary Queen of Scots (r. 1542-1567) and her grandson Charles I (r. 1625-1649) – when re-enacted through costume, enabled people (and especially women) to construct new public identities at a time of social instability, chiefly the result of industrialisation. This is not the place to re-write the chapter, but I thought it could be the place where I include images of the various people who dressed as Mary Queen of Scots (MQS), and people associated with her, during the nineteenth century (that I know of!).
Lady Londonderry’s Ball, 1844
Mary Lowther Ferguson as MQS
The Waverley Ball, 6 July 1871
Alexandra, Princess of Wales as MQS
Watercolour of Alexandra as MQS, by Princess Louise (Royal Collection)
A satire on the prevalence of MQS costumes at nineteenth-century fancy dress entertainments.
The Earl of Dufferin’s Grand Fancy Dress Ball, Ottawa, 23 February 1896
See: Cynthia Cooper, Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General 1876-1898 (New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions, 1997), 44-46.
The Countess of Dufferin as Mary of Guise, MQS’s Mother
The Earl of Dufferin as James V of Scotland, MQS’s father
The children of the Earl & Countess of Dufferin dressed as Mary Queen of Scots and her eventual husband, Lord Darnley.
The Devonshire House Ball, July 1897
Dowager Duchess of Hamilton, née Lady Mary Forster as Mary of Hamilton, Lady-in-Waiting to Mary Queen of Scots
Lady Katherine Scott as MQS
Lady Lister Kaye as Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchesse de Guise, maternal grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots.
In Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), a philosophical musing about the creation and maintenance of an ideal community, fetters of gold were worn by criminals, for this shiny, inert metal was considered worthless; to wear it, was to signify that you had become a social pariah. Ironically, the views of More, a steadfast Catholic who died for his faith, were shared by the indigenous peoples of America – uncivilised pagans in the eyes of their Western conquerors – whose lands were prized and systematically pillaged by Spanish conquistadores during the sixteenth century, as they searched for ‘yellow metal’ and the fabled city of El Dorado.
Of course, More’s thundering denunciation of gold reflects how much the metal was valued by his contemporaries. For centuries, Christian rulers had wrapped themselves in cloth of gold to signify their singular status and their steadfast devotion to God; More thought gold was corrupting, but many of his peers considered the reflective quality of this delicate material to represent inner purity. In 1235, for example, it is likely that Isabella, sister of Henry III of England, married Emperor Frederick II in a garment of cloth of gold in serico, that is, cloth woven from silk threads wrapped with fine strands of gold. The Empress-in-waiting also wore garments of arest, another cloth of gold with a distinctive ribbed weave.
Able to signify sinfulness and soulfulness, the wearing gold has long been problematic.
Roland Barthes thought gold stubborn and cruel because it is ‘nothing but itself’. He actually thought gold to be ‘mediocre’, ‘a dull, yellowy metal’. He acknowledged its power, but insisted that this derived from the fact that it was not ‘convertible or useful’ and, consequently, of no ‘practical application’. As a result, ‘pure gold, whose usefulness was almost entirely self-referential, became superlative gold, absolute richness’. Whilst Barthes emphasises the inanimate nature of gold, he nonetheless implies that it has bewitched us: we extract the ore and mould it to suit our fancies, chiefly to demarcate hierarchies within social and political relationships, but the essential composition of gold remains unaltered. Ultimately, it is gold that changes us.
I can imagine that Barthes would have enjoyed Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which encapsulates the mysterious and malevolent force of gold by describing a quest to destroy the One Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
Over time, Roland Barthes has suggested that gold (and gemstones) have lost their appeal through a process of democratisation. First, the magical quality of gold (and gems) was lost as the women who typically wore them acquired a more active role within society, making the wearing of expensive jewellery impractical. Second, and consequently, jewellery was increasingly made in a variety of non-precious materials, from glass to wood. Third, the range and moderate price of jewellery meant that it became a ‘next to nothing’. Jewellery was no longer worn in its own right, but as accompaniment to an outfit. Barthes’ assessment is simply constructed, but it well reflects (Western) society’s general repulsion of excessive personal adornment and the prevailing suspicion that people who devote too much time or money to their appearance are idle, shallow, or both.
The problem of gold is amply reflected in the fact that golden togs are rarely seen today. Anne Hathaway wore a Ralph Lauren liquid-gold hooded gown for the Met. Ball of May 2015 and brocading has made an appearance in recent catwalk collections – think contemporary Gucci – but there is a prevailing sense that More and Barthes were right, that gold is an oddly mercurial metal, and the master of us all.