LA TOILETTE D’UNE FEMME
Published in Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 1, Number 2,
LA TOILETTE D’UNE FEMME
The series La Toilette d’une Femme consists of fourteen images that I shot in 2010 and exhibited early in 2011 at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne. I chose the women I photographed because for them, dressing is an important ritual, creative process and a statement of their identity. While many of them are interested in contemporary fashions, the latest trends only serve to express their individual style and are joined with other found items to create looks that are entirely original. For these women, dressing is a very conscious process in which they control the way they appear.
The inspiration for the work is paintings from the 18th and 19th century that represented women dressing, looking in mirrors or bathing. I’ve always loved these images and as someone who loves clothing and the process of dressing, it’s not hard to see why. They are amongst few images in historical painting that I can relate to, as a woman.
Boucher’s ‘La Toilette’ of 1742 is a favourite. There’s so much going on. The outfits are excellent. The maid and central figure are talking about a bonnet. There are not only fabulous clothes being worn but also others lying about on chairs. But, it doesn’t take much to realise that this story is not about the morning ritual. In fact all the disarray does not offer a refreshing representation of the realities of 18th Century house keeping. The open hearth, unravelled ball of string and steaming teapot symbolise a post-coital scene. This doesn’t entirely draw away from the painting but it is a clear reminder that these images of women dressing were not made for women. They were made by male painters for male patrons. It was my intention with this series to reinvigorate the genre with actual female experience.
Mirrors in this series are an aspect of the contradictory nature of this body of work. The series is about both truth and artifice. The photos expose a usually unseen aspect of women’s lives but it is not a gritty exposé of motherhood or women at work, which is the more typical realm of feminist documentary photographers. In fact this ‘untold story’ is about dressing and to speak of truth is paradoxical. The images are of women creating a look, after all. They are covering their bodies, embellishing them, wearing heals for height and black for thinness.
That some of the women in my images are in their underwear is not what’s most revealing about this series. My work exposes the private spaces and experiences of these women, not just their bodies. Outfits are seen in ways they would never normally be seen and the spontaneous and practical realities of dressing are revealed, not the fantasies of the male artists and their patrons. For example, Malisha is seen literally in her wardrobe, pulling off jeans. May has one shoe on but has been distracted and is checking the line of a jacket.
Perhaps one of the most revealing aspects of the series is seeing women look at themselves in the mirror. In the historical examples the women were posed for the pleasure of the viewer and the mirrors had nothing to do with female experience. In my pictures we see women genuinely interacting with their own reflection. The images of Lara and May scrutinising their backsides may induce body image terror in some but on the other hand, Larry and Celeste having a last look in the mirror exude confidence and joy. Anne Hollander has made the point that it is in the mirror that we compose the image of ourselves that we carry with us during the day. The image can carry confidence, ease and strength when we leave the sanctuary of our home. We may alternatively take the image of an unresolved outfit with us and feel out of proportion, uncoordinated and ill at ease. My images document the way women use the mirror to establish a sense of self.
The other truth revealed in the mirror is that I am present, behind a camera while these women are dressing. When looking at photographs it is tempting to forget the role of the photographer and the actual dynamic between photographer and model. The viewer might imagine that a model just happened to be lolling about in her underwear or that there is an actual intimacy between photographer (usually male) and model (usually female). La Toilette d’une femme is the first time I have included myself in my images and it goes somewhere to resolving the anxiety I have about the power relations between photographer and model and the assumptions of the audience. I have noticed that photographers often hate to be photographed. They wish to retain a privacy that their models are not allowed. The women I photograph expose a lot of themselves and I wish to honour that with some sort of personal risk as well. While I give up my privacy in a way that few photographers do, I am not only fully clothed, the camera obscures my face like a mask. My presence though, informs the viewer and contains their fantasy about the situation.
There is a ritualistic and social aspect of dressing for many women. Women often dress together before a party, borrow clothes and discuss outfits. Marriage is one of our last great rituals and part of its traditions are the role of the bride’s maids who assist the bride in her grooming and share the experience with her. Taking these photographs involved talking about clothes in the way that women often do. It involved showing-off new purchases, reminiscing about clothes we used to own and considering situations in which certain outfits might be suitable. The photographic shoot was an extension of normal activities and the connection I have with these women. Aspects of the roles of model and photographer are retained but my presence in the images is a reminder that the process of taking photos is a dialogue, involving two people, contributing different points of view.
I’ve had a long interest in the subject of time and it was this interest that brought me to making art about fashion in the first place. I was at art school being told to aspire to the quality of ‘timelessness’. As a first year student experimenting with materials and ideas, this seemed absurd to me. I made work that I knew would date. La Toilette d’une Femme will date, even though most of my subjects have quite independent styles that are outside the fashion system. Their looks are still part of the zeitgeist. I asked my subjects to try on outfits that were current favourites. In this way the images also reflect a personal look of the moment.
This series refers to a sense of daily time. Getting dressed is something that all of us do everyday, even if we just pull on a pair of jeans. It is a ritual that marks the beginning of the day.
Time as history also plays a part in these images. The women in my photographs engage in styles from the 50s through to the 80s with varying degrees of concern for authenticity. Their rooms also reflect retro culture. May’s kitsch wardrobe and dressing table from the 60s match her 80s gold skirt and so various times collide. In this image there is also a sense of history. We see May’s collection of hats from different eras. Part of my interest in this project is a desire to document the anthropological details such as these collections.
The relatively solid facts of history and anthropology contrast with the mutability of the women who are in the process of ‘changing’, as in changing room. These are not the final outfits, seen in Facebook photos at the party; they are the tentative steps, the experiments, the sketches that will lead to that final creation.
IDENTITY AND PORTRAITURE
My images highlight mutability, uncertainty, identity in transition, the look in the process of forming. Unlike the paintings that were usually of anonymous subjects, my works are portraits and I have used full names in the titles of each work. But they do not reassure us with a clear sense of identity or succinct story. They reveal and delight in the conflicts we have with our roles and identities.
Victoria’s struggle with fitting into a 50s dress coincides with the struggles of resolving the expectations of the past with the present. This role doesn’t fit so well any more but we can still squeeze into it when necessary.
In ‘Imogen Van Sebille’s New Skin’, the leopard print dress quivers over Imogen’s head and in a fraction of a second will cover her. The spots of the leopard camouflage the creature while it moves through the jungle, hiding its exact form. Camouflaging with others is an important aspect of clothing for many and to some extent, Imogen will conform to a current trend for animal print, being explored by other women. The leopard print also implies sexuality but actually gives nothing away. When I titled this work ‘Imogen Van Sebille’s new skin’ I was thinking of another creature whose skin is used in fashion, the snake. Because it sheds its skin, the snake is a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation. In this image, Imogen is emerging from her dressing gown, as though it were an old skin or cocoon. Ideas of transition and transformation have great resonance in our culture. The symbolism of Christianity to the jargon of self-help books attests to this. As programs like ‘Trinny and Sussanah’ demonstrate, clothing is a way to transform. While we might question whether the women who appear in ‘Trinny and Sussanah’ are lastingly changed by their makeovers, an aspect of this project was to celebrate the empowering possibilities that dressing offers. For women who are engaged in their own representation, the process of dressing is a daily joy that allows for empowering experimentations with roles and identities.
 Hollander, Anne (1978), Seeing Through Clothing, New York, Viking Press, P.422