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Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

An Interview with Grayson Perry

In his column, Donatien Grau speaks to prominent thinkers and creatives about fashion and its connections to contemporary creativity

Grayson Perry, Jane Austen in E17, 2009
Grayson Perry, Jane Austen in E17, 2009 Courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro, London © Grayson Perry. Photography Stephen White

Grayson Perry on art, fashion and being a maximalist

Grayson Perry CBE is one of the leading contemporary British artists. A laureate of the Turner Prize in 2003, he has exhibited all across the world, in numerous venues, most recently the British Museum in 2012. His work bridges the gap between art and culture, and encompasses formats such as books (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, co-written with Wendy Jones) and film (he was awarded a BAFTA in 2012). In 2013, he delivered the Reith Lectures at the BBC. Grayson Perry is represented internationally by Victoria Miro.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
I’m a maximalist, so I’m probably not very elegant. My art is not a coup de grâce. It’s a war of attrition. But I do like the phrase that somebody once said: elegance is denial. It sums up an ethos that threads through fashion. The most elegant things are often not there, and the minute something becomes strongly visible, it becomes a cliché: for instance, a classic little black dress. The minute we’re going “oh, that’s a little black dress, that must be elegant”, it isn’t. Like many traits, like “cool”, or “profound”, the minute they’re stated, they’re dying already. Elegance is a moveable feast.

"I’m a maximalist...My art is not a coup de grâce. It’s a war of attrition"

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
There are obvious parallels, all the time, between what is going on in art and what is going on in fashion. They’ve always been interlinked: you can look back to an interest in classicism in the late 18th century and the Empire look of fashion. Or you can look at art nouveau and the fashion that was around at the time; you can look at the 60s coming out of pop art, in fashion as well. The other thing is that fashion designers came from art schools and that they hung out with artists. Nowadays, of course, the situation has shifted considerably, because we have the high street, something totally different. When people talk about “fashion” today, they often still talk about couture and top-end designers, whereas I think the most current form of fashion is tenuously related to that model. That’s high street.

Would you describe fashion as Barthes did, as a language and a discourse?
Totally. It’s visual language, and it’s the way we signal our status, our cultural standing to people, all the time. The amount of attention you pay to it depends on how much you care about it. Most of the time people are unaware of what they are saying. If they knew what they are saying, they would change it. I’m personally very aware, as I age, that I care less and less about how I look – unless I put a frock on. So when I’m dressed in men’s clothes, I’m becoming scruffier and scruffier. But when I put my dresses on, I’m becoming more and more elaborate, and taking more and more pains.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Fashion is a language, and therefore says something about politics, and certain fashion styles get associated with certain political standpoints. Sometimes I think that fashion, like art, gives a lot of lip service to political concerns. I sometimes want to say: “if you want to do something about it, just do something about it, don’t simply wear a t-shirt”.

How would you relate the concept of 'fashion' to the one of 'style'?
Fashion is a way to orchestrate the spectacle of ideas. You can get someone who is fashionable but not terribly stylish, and the other way round. I can poo-poo fashion, but it actually plays out in the same way as art: we need the freshness, we need the novelty. As human beings, we are addicted to novelty. Part of being stylish is surprisingness. Part of being an artist is surprisingness. If there are ingredients of beauty, it certainly is one of them. Surprise is like a spice on the meal, it makes you say: “woo”.

"I can poo-poo fashion, but it actually plays out in the same way as art: we need the freshness, we need the novelty"

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
There are some pretty vapid people involved in the fashion industry, who I wouldn’t think of as cutting-edge intellectuals. The thing that is often distasteful to many intellectuals about the fashion world is its vast wastage and economic exploitation related to the fashion industry. When people talk about “ethical fashion”, my oxymoron alert goes off: there is no such thing! Pretty much everybody in the West has got enough clothes to last for a lifetime. I’ve got enough clothes to last for five lifetimes! And that might be something that turns off intellectuals.

Fashion is often seen as a way to express your gender identity, challenge it, shift it, stage it, play with  it. How do you stand towards that?
The nature of clothes makes it one of our primary plumage to express our gender and sexuality in the social world. They’re often very unconscious, because they’re guided by group taste. I like to show people how manly I am. I am a man in a dress, and in a way it almost emphasises my masculinity.

The conception of clothing is often to related to the idea of craftsmanship, which is very important in your art. Do you feel there is a specificity to the issue of craftsmanship in fashion?
It’s absolutely crucial. When I work with St Martins students, the dresses that I love are not only good ideas, but they will have to be well-made. We have culturally cultivated the idea of effort. There is an internal logic to craftsmanship: it has to be good enough. And then there is “sensationally more than good enough”. One of the worst insults of the pattern-making tutor at St Martins is: “oh, that’s very high street”, meaning “that’s done on the cheap”. There isn’t that extra effort that makes it wonderful. It may be lining in a certain way, or putting in an extra pattern, or detailing something nicely, all those craftsmanship details of which not everybody is aware. But you can tell when someone is wearing an expensive garment.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the editorial director of Modern Weekly Shaway Yeh.

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