Dress-up, Artists


Sometimes, creatively, what you do on the outside is more important than what's on the inside.

Over the past few weeks I've been trying a little experiment. Well... (ahem)... I've been pretending to be Don Draper. The experiment was supposed to last a week, just for fun, but it had such a great impact, I extended it to two and now three weeks to see just how far this rabbit hole really goes.

In addition to secretly acting and dressing like Don Draper, I've been listening to PJ Harvey's "Dress" on repeat.

(This is another 'radio show on paper'—listen along if you want.)

Put on that dress, I'm going out dancing
Starting off red, clean and sparkling
He'll see me, music playing
Make it dreamy for dancing

I love PJ's music—her look, her style, her aesthetic. I know all those words mean the same thing, but 'I Heart PJ!' is what I'm trying to say. She makes me wish I'd been braver in my music-making—been more independent in all senses of the word.

Must be a way that I can dress to please him
It's hard to walk in the dress, it's not easy
I'm spilling over like a heavy loaded fruit tree

After writing the essay about my favourite guitarists, I remembered how when I started learning the instrument at 16, I spent two important years not really playing the guitar at all. I didn't learn any chords or riffs during that period. (Ahem.) I spent nearly two years dancing around in front of the mirror to my favourtie songs, being a guitar god, striking poses, and pulling young-turk-with-a-wunder-wand lead-break sex faces.

If you put it on, if you put it on
If you put it on, if you put it on

I'm not ashamed to admit it here. If you think of the all antics dress-up artists like Prince, David Bowie, Eddie Izzard, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Katty Perry, Eartha Kit and Freddie Mercury, to name a handful—and all the fantastic things they've done onstage and onscreen—imagine what they got up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms, being themselves, dreaming of being free, imagining themselves in front of audiences of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands?

I'm sure as kids they were dress-up artists like we all were; they just didn't stop when they grew up.

(Actually, Eddie Izzard, in how he's constantly trans-forming himself as an artist—in the way he's always dressed how he wanted and needed to—is pretty inspiring.)

It's sad to see, lonely, all this lonely
Close up my eyes
Dreamy dreamy music make it be alright

Music play make it good for romancing
Must be a way I can dress to please him

Swing and sway everything'll be alright
But it's feeling so damn tight tonight

So a few weeks ago, for work, I dressed like Don Draper and acted the part of a self-assured 60s advertising exec (without the sexism and sexual harassing). The effect was that my co-workers—without realising what I was up to—responded positively. They seemed happy for me to take control. They allowed me space to play the part, and laughed when I self-depreciating made fun of my need to be in charge. In fact, when I was doing some voice-over work with a colleague, she said unprompted, "I feel like we're in an episode of Mad Men.

Weird, right?!

It was the same as when I was learning to play guitar once I actually knew enough to play it. If I imagined I was Prince or Hendrix, without knowing exactly how to play like them, I could instantly transform my playing by putting on their personas.

If you put it on, if you put it on
If you put it on, if you put it on

Being Don for a couple of weeks made a big impact outside of work too, and people started asking if the change was because I started seeing someone. I can understand why they thought that. But it did make me wonder—do we really need other people in this way? Can we only realise ourselves, be more than ourselves, only if we're in a relationship?

"You purdy thang," my man says
"But I bought you beautiful dresses"
"You purdy thang," my man says
"But I bought you beautiful dresses"

What about the woman who's excited to stay at home on a Saturday night to enjoy her own company? Who dances around the house with next to nothing on, and tries on all the clothes in her closet she loves but never gets to wear.

What about the guy who patiently smiles through the inevitable barrage of 'you should get a girlfriend,' or 'you'll meet someone soon,' from hitched friends while he mentally drifts off thinking about the brimming world of gorgeous people he'd like to meet before settling down, having dinner parties and, inadvertently, with all the best intentions, boring the pants off his single friends with the sometimes often empty promise of transformative, compulsory couple-ship.

Filthy tight, the dress is filthy
I'm falling flat and my arms are empty
Clear the way, better get it out of this room
A falling woman in dancing costume

Cinderella lives happily-never-ever-after

For me, PJ Harvey's 'Falling woman' is a sprawled-out-on-the-pavement, upside-down Cinderella.

In the fairytale, Cinderella dresses up too, but it doesn't transform her as much as it would if she'd allowed herself to be a real 'dress-up artist.'

The thing with Cinderella is she's dependent on others to define who she is. Life at home sucks for her, being treated so poorly her family. But instead of spitting in their food, getting a drunken tattoo and dying her hair black, she dutifully continues with her chores while wistfully wishing things were different.

Cinderella's fairy godmother does come, but it's all still wrong. Her godmother gives her a beautiful gown—effectively, in my mind, making Cinderella's choices for her by picking stuff based on some predefined ideal that every woman secretly wants to be some sort of prim princess. (Well, they might do unconsciously, but... shit! must... not... paint... corner. Hey, we're all princesses deep down.)

So Cinderella finally gets a night off, has one glass of champers, doesn't pash someone inappropriate, or even put out, and the worse thing that happens is she loses a shoe, which she then passively waits to be returned to her in some patriarchal rite of womanhood that only a man can bestow upon her through some bizarre, fake psycho-symbolic act of masculine servitude that you just know isn't gonna last past the first year of their marriage.

We all know how it turns out for her—and maybe we've been in this situation too. It's not her fault, or his—it's just something's missing from the picture. I'm not sure what it is, but I think it's probably something to do with being disconnected from our own desire and sense of playfulness.

In Cinderella's future, it's Friday night and Mr and Mrs Charming sit in stony silence in front of the telly. From outside their window as we pass, we might catch a glimpse of the flicker of light from the TV across their faces, giving them the illusion of activity. But deep down Cinderella wonders why he so resents spending time with her, doing things for her like he used to. Inside him, he wishes she'd be more sexy and carefree, spontaneous, strong and self-reliant like she used to be. Both sit watching program after program wishing the other was different so they could be different, and will sit there frozen like that until their bodies sag and they feel the inertia of it 'all being too late.'

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but my feeling is that, for Ms or Mr Fallen Woman, even though 'her arms are empty,' in her inner-life, her soul, she's always 'spilling over like a heavy loaded fruit tree.' It's a pretty sure bet that Cinderella lives happily-never-after, but PJ's Fallen Woman takes risks and sometimes gets exactly what she wants, and sometimes doesn't, and is free to be herself regardless. Like Anaïs Nin said,

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."

What Cinderella missed out on was cranking up PJ's "Dress" so loud it makes the neighbor's windows rattle; picking out something obscene to wear; and living up to the name 'Cinders' by setting the house on fire and hitting the town with her 'ugly' sisters.

If you put it on, if you put it on
If you put it on, if you put it on

If you put it on, if you put it on
If you put it on, if you put it on