Conceptual artist Tete de Alencar is planning an artistic happening during London's fashion week this coming September, entitled ‘Fashion Weak’. A selection of prominent women are invited to participate, to make and contribute their own photographsm and thus comment on the state of fashion today, and how it interacts with a womens body and it's impact on her sense of self.
In claustrophobic and scruffy changing rooms Tete de Alencar takes clandestine photographs of herself in dresses she can’t afford. Gaultier - 2800 euros, Donna Karen - 2495 USD, Christian Dior - £10000.
Participants will ‘invade’ London’s fashionable shops to recreate Tetes’ work in their own style. Photos will be immediate developed, printed and exhibited in selected spaces in London alongside Tete De Alencar originals.
All women visiting the exhibition will be encouraged to participate similarly. It is intended to make creative power more accessible, to encourage women to participate in artistic practice, who wouldn’t normally, and to ‘vocalize’ their experience through artistic language.
To make art from what they know
The week will culminate in an event / conference where guests will give talks, show films (including a quick cut of The Fashion Weak Documentary) and perform. An exhibition of the best of the invited work will be judged – and a prize Christian Dior dress awarded.
- above text by Ian Hammond ©
Fashion Weak - by Althea Greenan, The Women's Art Library at Goldsmiths University of London
The big moment in those reality TV shows based on the idea of making over a fashion-depressed participant is the Final Mirror Moment. The camera zooms in and we watch for astonishment, gratitude, and a few tears. “Is that really me?” she gasps. You want to answer: “Of course it is! And you don’t look THAT different, just a bit of slap, a haircut and a wardrobe update. The problem is you can’t see yourself properly. Between you and the mirror lies an advertising world hell-bent on reconfiguring your self-image along with your personal aspirations to the point where you’ve stopped seeing yourself. So, here you are, re-made in the image of the latest advertising campaigns and the big difference is that you can look at your full-length reflection and see a HAPPY creation.” No wonder our eyes well up. But imagine how different that moment would be if you were armed with a camera. Girlfriends, we just don’t play those mirrors enough.
The artist Tete De Alencar goes nowhere without a disposable camera tucked in her bag. It’s her notebook. Not every image she takes will see the light of day; for one project she decided to transform her used cameras into playful conceptual pieces. Saved from the destruction of processing she decorated and exhibited them instead, images locked inside. For her the disposable camera offers an easy intimacy with her surrounds that is not merely visual. Perhaps this was why when she saw a beautiful but impossibly expensive dress in the shop window of a top designer boutique, it was suddenly not enough to just take a picture and walk on. Intimacy with that dress beckoned and following her fashion weakness, she adopted an air of entitlement, entered the shop, secured the dress and retired to the changing room to get into it. Buoyed by the surreal circumstances she now found herself, she retrieved the camera to face the changing room mirror and quickly photograph her body in the garment. She made sure the flash obscured her face. A simple self-portrait this was not.
What we get is a snapshot, badly lit, with a slightly sordid feel about it, someone squeezed into a frock in a small space. But once the artist’s motives and setting are understood, it is striking how wonderful these images are: timely, scratchy antidotes to the über-crafted sleekness of fashion photography. They are acts of subversion.
De Alencar merely wished to indulge her desire to know what such a dress would feel like on her body but, like the majority of us, found real and imaginary obstacles. Enjoying the unexpected ‘high’ of empowerment, she realized that the more she risked the deeper she was delving into universal truths surrounding privilege and women’s bodies. There was no way she could resist repeating this performance again and again.
The artist arranged to work three very different fashion terrains: New York, London and Paris. She built up a fascinating series of encounters – each a performance in itself – that exposes sharp differences in the supposedly international milieu of high fashion. The aim remained simple and consistent – to try on an expensive dress and photograph herself in it – but to accomplish this De Alencar needed to adapt her tactics to negotiate different professional sales styles and attitudes, assuming that is she could bypass security first.
The Changing Room Mirror is held up as a moment of truth, but it’s a slippery one. To pin us down the National Sizing survey, known as SizeUK, transformed the changing room into a darkened booth. Stripped down to your underwear you freeze while a bodyscanner effectively bathes you in white light stripes to create a precise 3D image of your body and take no less than 130 measurements. By 2004 SizeUK had scanned 11,000 volunteers. Not surprisingly clothing retailers were keen sponsors of the project, hoping to use the data to develop clothing ranges and attempt to harmonize sizing charts across Europe, and more. A future scenario does away with the mirror altogether: we will walk into a booth, get our measurements, or rather a kind of unique code, and then just order whatever clothes from racks of samples. We won’t have to try anything on. Oh the relief. Imagine never having to look at yourself again.
SizeUK’s volunteers filled questionnaires that revealed how sadly inaccurate our images of our bodies are: generally men tend to overestimate themselves, women underestimate. So much wishful thinking. Is this where fashion high steps in? To adorn those bodies and fulfill those wishes? Then, why do we expect the woman who sees her freshly made-over self in the mirror to break down and cry? It always seems to risk being a cruel moment too. She might realize that her lifelong wishful thinking had quietly slipped her into the straitjacket of stereotype. Stereotyping is persuasive and shape-shifty; to confront it exposes a fine line between a sense of belonging and self-censorship. When it comes to women and clothes, stereotyping can screw us down to wishful thinking rather than critical thinking, and if we think we don’t fit, we just won’t try.
De Alencar is not the first artist to challenge fashion stereotyping and take performance and photography shopping. Slicing through the apathy and heading to the changing room armed with an array of club wear ranging from leopard skin dresses to pvc leggings, the midlife photographers Rosie Martin and Kay Goodridge staged a mirror shattering moment. As the collaborators called the Outrageous Agers they recorded their Trying It On performance in a series of startling images that flash their fullsome cellulite and show both women reveling in the havoc their undeniable bodies inflict on these gaudy strips of fabric. It’s a celebration.
In contrast De Alencar’s performance in the Changing Room does not create an alternative comfort zone. It is covert. This woman is alone with a garment that is not forbidden by age or social decorum but by lack of money and status and something even more complex: a lack of equivalent worth. Using deceit to reach the Changing Room with a smuggled camera, she wishes to introduce a different moment of truth. Here. Now this is what it really looks like on. It’s just a dress and often it’s stupidly small. Who is it meant for? Or would it be better to ask: Who does it deny? No matter how many times she gained access to these garments they remained ‘not for the likes of her’.
Should we accept that we will always be tourists in the land of fashion, buying clothes, or maybe just accessories, as souvenirs? Perhaps all we need is the quick snapshot, but it’s ‘no picnic’ trying to take the picture on our own terms. So much about fashion reinforces the idea that we can only realise our desires at a painfully big price, especially if we are ‘ordinary’ women. But when ‘ordinary’ is smuggled into the right changing room, De Alencar shows how the power can be shifted. All we need now is the courage to look.
Althea Greenan ©2008