A collection of frocks belonging to the Turner Prize-winning transvestite artist Grayson Perry has been unveiled at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. In the first display of its kind to be held in the UK, Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry’s Dresses runs from 4 November 2017 to 4 February 2018. The exhibition showcases 12 dresses, including the Bo Peep dress worn by Perry when he won the Turner Prize in 2003.
“I encourage them to make the dresses as bizarre and exciting as they can.”
The free display explores Perry’s interest in cross-dressing, which has been part of his life since childhood. For the artist, the experience and its underlying eroticism are bound up with the formation of his psycho-sexual identity and his creative drive. Perry has said: “I think of my dressing up as the heraldry of my subconscious.”
Since 2004, Perry has primarily worn dresses designed by the fashion students at London’s Central St Martins. They take part in an annual competition to create new designs. He then judges their work, awards prizes and purchases up to 20 of their creations every year. Perry says: “I encourage them to make the dresses as bizarre and exciting as they can.”
Essex-born Perry calls his transvestite alter ego Claire and considers 5 November 1975 to be Claire’s birthday. While he didn’t adopt the name until later, when he began to visit transvestite clubs, it was on this date that, aged fifteen, he first walked around his local village wearing a chiffon headscarf over an auburn wig, a brown polyester blouse and a dog-tooth checked skirt, black court shoes and a beige mac.
Perry has described Claire’s earliest manifestations as a conventional ‘Essex housewife’ or ‘newsreader’ type. Later, finding being able to ‘pass’ as a woman no longer rewarding, he developed more flamboyant outward expressions for Claire, tapping into aspects of femininity that he had reached out for since childhood.
Pauline Rushton, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at National Museums Liverpool, said: “Visitors who enjoyed Grayson Parry’s touring exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences at the Walker in 2014 will be familiar with the artist’s ability to explore complex social issues in a relatable, witty and engaging way.
“It is fascinating to see how themes of identity, social status, sexuality and religion are represented in a variety of symbols across Claire’s dresses, along with Perry’s own personal iconography. We’re sure that visitors will love seeing the dresses up-close and examining the detail represented.”
In his own work, Perry works with traditional media such as ceramics, cast iron, bronze, printmaking and tapestry. He uses their seductive qualities to make stealthy comments about society, including its pleasure, injustices and flaws, and to explore a variety of historical and contemporary themes.