Contemporary English Artist Grayson Perry takes part in Fantastic Man’s Questionnaire series and tells us why flouncy dresses are his drug of choice.
What garment is key to your personal style?
I suppose in the public imagination I’m wearing a flouncy little girl dress. Once you’ve popped your head over the parapet, the public and the media will glue whatever you’re wearing at that moment onto your body and that will remain fixed. So in the public and the media’s imagination I’m defined conceptually by a flouncy, sticky-outy little girl dress. I call it the crack-cocaine of femininity.
Crack-cocaine? Is there something addictive about flouncy little girl dresses?
There is if you’re a transvestite. Probably not for many other people.
How many little girl dresses do you have in your wardrobe?
I probably have a dozen out of the almost 200 dresses that I have in my wardrobe. They form a relatively small part of my dress collection in which I’ve got everything from relatively modest ones where women go, “ooh I’d like that dress,” right through to looking like a clown from outer space.
So what is it specifically about little girl dresses that you love?
It’s because I’m a transvestite and they turn me on. It’s just the symbolism of it and how it’s the furthest thing away from macho-functional clothing. It’s all about being pretty and silly and frilly and vulnerable and innocent. Rather than the opposite which is the guy in his combat fatigues and his tattoos. A lot of transvestites like to dress up as women from the high street and fit in, and I do that sometimes; it’s kind of interesting but nobody pays you any attention, you’re just another slightly tall woman walking about. That doesn’t really tick many boxes for me. If I’m wearing a dress I want to access a certain sort of attention. There’s something fetishistic about it. It’s like when a guy puts on a leather jacket; somewhere deep in his mind he wants to feel that he’s being regarded as a rufty-tufty biker.
You like to feel confident that people are looking at you as a man in a dress rather than thinking you might be a woman?
Exactly. I’m unmistakably a man in a little girl dress, or whatever dress I’m wearing. I’m not deceiving anyone. That’s an aspect of transvestism that I have sort of struggled with, this idea that I’m pulling the wool over people’s eyes and then they get a surprise when you open your mouth in a shop. I make sure anybody, a passing helicopter, could spot that I am a man in a dress.
What are the defining specifications that make the perfect little girl dress?
It should have puffy sleeves, a sticky-out skirt (like the classic toilet door symbol shape), a high-waist, a PETER PAN collar, probably a bit of frill or lace on it and flowers or hearts or something – all the clichés of little doll dresses. I have all my dresses made for me and I usually ask my students to make them. I’ve been working with students for 13 years, and I know exactly what to ask for in terms of the cut and silhouette that work with my body, which is basically that my chest, waist and hips are exactly the same.
Do you know where your attachment to this garment comes from? Is it something from your youth, or something you picked up from a specific person? When, who?
I was pretty drawn to little girl dresses from the off, when I was about twelve. But I didn’t ever feel brave enough to wear one or couldn’t get one in my size. It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I was A) brave enough to go out in one and B) had the budget to have them made.
“And I have a cross-dressing side. I’d like to wear women’s clothes.”
Who or what do you look at for style inspiration? Do you look at fashion?
I look at fashion a lot. I don’t like high-street fashion because it’s quite dull and watered down but couture I’m quite interested in. I usually read reviews in the papers. I like student fashion shows in particular because that’s when they’re at their most bonkers, before the pressure to be commercial kicks in. There are some more established designers that I enjoy too, like MANISH ARORA and the label VIVETTA, they’re quite girly. I like busy and colourful, you know? I’ve seen enough deconstructed jackets. I call it “fashionstudentitis,” where everything is asymmetric and deconstructed. Yawnarama!
Can you describe the state of your closet? Is it tidy, messy, super organised, folded, boxed, grouped by colour or season, etcetera?
I’ve got my studio, my house in the country and I’ve got a place in London, and I keep dresses at each place and rotate them seasonally. So when the weather changes I’ll bring my thicker clothes back and store my summer clothes. I often do car journeys between the places with my car full of dresses.
Is there a garment that you used to dislike but ended up loving and wearing? When or why did your aversion to it turn to fondness? What changed your mind?
It’s more the other way round actually, there are lots of things I won’t buy now. I won’t buy black. I refuse to buy black. It’s a really tight rule with me. I call it “coward’s black.” It’ll go with everything, you never have to make a decision and you’re never going to stand out. So black I avoid. Denim I also struggle with. The only time I might wear either of those things is when I’m on my motorbike and dressing up as a biker.
What do you wear when you’re dressed in male clothing?
Colour. I like colour. I always buy colourful clothing. I used to go to HACKETT because they’d be good for a colourful trouser but they’ve gone mellow on me. I basically live in a UNIQLO fleece, as brightly coloured a pair of trousers as possible, a coloured T-shirt, and there are some very jazzy trainers around at the moment so I’ve got lots of choice there. That’s the uniform I wear most of the time when I’m not dressed up. It’s important to understand that I’m the same person in both, whether I’m dressing in men’s clothes or...other clothes. I don’t think you could really call them women’s clothes anyway as it’s just my clothing, made for a man, rather than designed with a woman’s body in mind.
What makeup do you buy?
All sorts: CLINIQUE, MAC, I like theatrical makeup because it’s a bit stronger. I’m planning to go and buy some today actually. I’m going to pop down to CHARLES FOX’s and get some of their super strength stuff. It’s a shop in Covent Garden that sells theatrical makeup. You can get better colours and things like strong blushers. When I put on makeup, sometimes I go for the rosy-cheeked look if I feel it’s appropriate and sometimes I tone it down a bit, it depends. I sometimes go for face-jewels. I’ve got a whole drawer full of face-jewels. They look like acne from more than ten yards away, which is a downside, but I still think they look great.
Interview by Eliot Haworth, Assistant Editor, Fantastic Man