In 1908, English-born, Paris-based artist Gwen John took a job as an artist model for the Swiss-German painter Ottilie Roederstein. John had modelled for artists sporadically since 1901 as a means of supporting her own artistic practice. Her most famous client was Auguste Rodin, with whom she had a painful, multi-year love affair, but she preferred to work for women artists, whose eccentricities and appearances she detailed in letters to friends. In Roederstein, John found a woman with a distinct and, to her, unsettling visual identity. Roederstein was, in John’s words, l’homme-femme, the man-woman.1 Gwen John, letter to Ursula Tyrwhitt, 29 May 1908, NLW MS 21468D, ff21–2, published in Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (ed.), Gwen John: Letters and Notebooks, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, pp. 43–4.
Despite her contemporary reputation as a reclusive and ascetic artist, John loved clothes and she was intrigued by Roederstein’s style of dress. The painter paired a dark skirt and a masculine beret with a man’s shirt and jacket adorned with a fob watch. Roederstein lived openly with her partner, Germany’s first female surgeon, Elisabeth Winterhalter, whom she painted numerous times wearing masculine, sombre academic garb. In both her art and her dress, Roederstein fashioned a public identity that subverted normative patterns of gender and sexuality and that signified her inclusion in what was then considered a new social group, defined by sexologist Havelock Ellis as the ‘mannish lesbian’.2 Havelock Ellis, ‘Sexual inversion in women’, Alienist and Neurologist, vol. 16, 1895, p. 134. See also Esther Newton, ‘The mythic mannish lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the new woman’, Signs, vol. 9, no. 4, 1984, pp. 557–75. In her adoption of partial male dress, Roederstein was one of a group of women in early twentieth-century Europe who signified their sexual identity through their appearance, using their choice of fashion as a system of identification and recognition.
Gwen John was fascinated by people’s appearances and the meanings and symbolism attached to clothes, and her interest in Roederstein’s style reflects her own complex and opaque sexual identity and her relationship to fashion and gender. The years between 1900 and 1930 were transformative for women’s involvement in fashion. The emergence of a modern fashion industry in the nineteenth century, enabled by factories, new technologies and department stores, democratised access to clothes, and allowed people other than the wealthy to use dress as a marker of identity.3 Rosy Aindow, Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870–1914, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2010, pp. 1–4. Until relatively recently, however, there has been limited critical attention paid to women artists’ interest in and use of fashion as a self-conscious expression of identity and experimentation. Fashion and dress are typically undervalued in hierarchies of cultural criticism, and ‘feminine’ pursuits such as shopping and dressing up have traditionally been defined as ‘insignificant and uncreative’.4 Alicia Foster, ‘Dressing for art’s sake: Gwen John, the Bon Marché and the spectacle of the woman artist in Paris’, in Amy de la Haye & Elizabeth Wilson (eds), Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning and Identity, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999 p. 114. Over the past two decades, scholars of dress and gender history have shown that dress, like the body, plays a critical role in the social construction of identity.5 See Charlotte Nicklas & Annebella Pollen, ‘Introduction – Dress history now: terms, themes and tools’, in Charlotte Nicklas & Annebella Pollen (eds), Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2015. Dress is a form of symbolic communication with the power to convey information about the wearer’s class, gender, social role, morality and character, and it can be manipulated to be a site of resistance, ambition and debate.6 Diana Crane, ‘Clothing behaviour as non-verbal resistance: marginal women and alternative dress in the nineteenth century’, Fashion Theory, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 242. Gwen John, Madeline Green and Claude Cahun were artists with distinct practices, but in the years between 1895 and 1930, each used costume to experiment with different visual identities. The artists’ performative practices were, and remain, a radical intervention into the relationship between fashion, appearance and gender.
Madeline Green, Gwen John’s contemporary, was born in London in 1884 and educated at the Royal Academy schools. In the early 1910s she set up a studio in Ealing, and from 1912 she exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, including the Paris Salon. Green never married, and with her sister Gladys managing her home and financial affairs, she had time and energy to focus on her work: paintings of herself, her sister and other women dressed in different costumes and posed in empty, light-filled interiors. Her figures look directly out to the viewer, meeting their gaze but giving nothing of their selves away. There is a tension between the intimacy of Green’s compositions and the ambiguity of the sitters’ identities. Each painting suggests an inner life that is all the more intense for what is hidden.
Green’s enigmatic and little-studied practice was progressive and inventive in its use of dress and disguise. She was working at a time, during and after the First World War, when changes in women’s fashion were triggering cultural anxieties about shifting gender roles. Women’s adoption of trousers, loose dresses and short hairstyles tapped into generalised fears about the decline of traditional masculinity, the emasculation of the ‘modern man’ and the growing autonomy of ‘new women’, who challenged male authority by eschewing marriage and pursuing education and financial independence. The maintenance of distinct and normative gender roles for men and women regulated and under-pinned European societal norms at this time. Challenges to those gender roles – including through dress – was viewed as a threat to the stability of the broader social order.
Within this context, Green’s painting The step-dancer, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1918, was a daring foray into the politics of fashion and representation. Green depicts herself in a large back-lit room wearing a ruffled, low-cut blouse tucked into pantaloons rendered in shimmering green taffeta. The style of trouser is similar to those shown in Paris by couturier Paul Poiret in 1911. Like Poiret’s infamous jupe culotte, Green’s outfit liberated its wearer from constricting undergarments and flouted contemporary social convention. The painting was parodied in a Punch magazine cartoon, which likened the pantalooned figure to a ‘shrewish’ and ‘ungainly’ clown.7 ‘Royal Academy – second depressions’, Punch, 22 May 1918, p. 327; Nina Edwards, Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings, 1914 to 1928, I. B. Tauris, London, 2015, p. 11. But, in a country emerging from the devastation and privations of the First World War, The step-dancer’s iridescent pantaloons and defiant gaze were radical symbols of optimism, redolent of the hard-won progress women had achieved during the war, including the broadening in February 1918 of voting rights to women over the age of thirty.
The step-dancer’s pantaloons were a gateway for Green’s further experimentation with dress. Over the next three decades, Green developed several characters for herself and her sister inspired by different gender and class identities, including a farmhand, a dancer, a newlywed and a costermonger (vegetable seller). In Coster with dogs, c. 1925, Green disguises herself in the rumpled, oversized clothes of a working-class boy, her long hair hidden in a brown cap, and poses in a barn alongside a horse and cart. The costermonger costume was one of Green’s favourites; she wore a similar guise in Self portrait as a costermonger, in which she stares open-mouthed at the viewer, and in a similar painting shown at the Paris Salon in 1925. In the double self-portrait The girls, 1932, Green is dressed in a man’s white shirt, sleeves rolled above the elbow, and a voluminous skirt. One figure wears a coquettish feather hat, the other a mannish red scarf and a wedding ring. With their skirts and arms touching, the two Madeline Greens seem to represent two futures, two identities, two competing versions of Green’s inner self in dialogue. Green’s Glasgow, c. 1930, features an almost identical composition to The girls: two figures sitting side by side in front of a large window. However, in this work, Green is dressed in a boy’s jacket, trousers and cap while her companion, modelled by her sister, wears a simple skirt and blouse. Green holds a defiant posture, her sister a more hesitant one.
Like almost all of Green’s paintings, the composition of Glasgow is simple, the tones muted and silvery, and the scene intimate. Each of the empty, backlit rooms Green painted – eerily similar but never exactly alike – are backdrops for her characters’ internal conflict and exploration of identity. What was a woman meant to be at this time of dynamic social change? A newlywed? A mother? A young and nubile dancer? A uniformed mature matron? Or perhaps a version of womanhood entirely outside of these conventional roles, an identity that was more flexible, a gender more neutral? Through her performative self-portraits and introspective conversation pieces, Green used the artifice of dress to resist any of these definitions and to claim a position at the outskirts of heteronormativity. In her portraits, she is free from the burden of a fixed identity. Critics have alluded to questions about Green’s sexuality, but the dress codes left behind in her paintings leave room for ambiguity; dress semantically implies rather than declares meaning.8 Zoi Arvanitidou & Maria Gasouka, ‘Fashion, Gender and Social Identity’, paper presented at the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Colloquia, 2011. In the absence of any definitive evidence, perhaps the best way to understand Green’s sexual identity and manipulation of dress is through the words of Monique Wittig: it reflects a desire for something that is not connoted, desire for ‘resistance to the norm’. 9 Monique Wittig, ‘Paradigm’, in George Stambolian & Elaine Marks (eds), Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, and London, 1979, p. 114.
As with Green’s work, Gwen John’s portraits of women constructed and reflected a specific relationship between fashion, gender and femininity. 10 Alicia Foster, ‘Self-Representation and Constructions of Femininity in the Work of Gwen John c. 1895–1912’, PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 1996, p. 178. Her approach to fashion was significantly influenced by Paris, where she first lived in 1898. She and her friends Ida Nettleship and Gwen Salmond studied together at James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Académie Carmen and lived in an apartment at 12 rue Froidevaux in Montparnasse. Inspired by their bohemian setting and heady with independence, Ida and the two Gwens joyfully reinvented themselves during their year in Paris, discovering, as Gwen would later write in her diary, that ‘your life can still be a work of art’.11 Quoted in Sue Roe, Gwen John, Random House, London, 2010, p. 127. Dress was key to their transformation. Soon after their arrival in Paris they purchased a book of fashion plates, Un siècle de modes féminines, which featured illustrations of fashion dating from 1794 to 1894.12 Ida Nettleship, letter to Ada Nettleship, 1898, in Rebecca John & Michael Holroyd (eds), The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John, Bloomsbury, London, 2017. John created sketches based on several of the plates, and designed and made dresses based on its illustrations, including one inspired by Édouard Manet’s melancholy meditation on modern urban life, A bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882 (The Courtauld Gallery, London).
John wore the dress, which presumably mimicked the low, square-cut neckline of Manet’s bartender, to a dinner with her father, Edwin, who travelled to Paris in late 1898 to discuss her allowance. He declared that the dress made her look like a prostitute. John ‘could never accept anything from someone capable of thinking so’,13 Susan Chitty, Gwen John, 1876–1939, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 49. and, from that point onwards, she embraced self-reliance – a decision that would lead to her beginning to model when she returned to Paris in 1904. At the age of twenty-two, John was literally self-fashioning her identity, using fashion and dressing up to create a new life and persona free from patriarchal authority. Her conscientious choice of clothes is modelled in the self-portrait Gwen John, which John painted in 1900, two years after she broke from her father and a year on from living in Paris. In this work, John wears a practical skirt, a stylish blouse with full, romantic sleeves, and a black neck ribbon tied in a bow – an essential part of the ‘feminist uniform’ of the 1900s.14 Madeleine Ginsburg, Victorian Dress in Photographs, Batsford, London, 1988, p. 114. This costume represented the artist as a ‘new woman’, keen to present herself as a working artist while also conscious of her appearance and knowledgeable about fashion’.15 Alicia Foster, ‘Gwen John’s Self-portrait: art, identity and women students at the Slade School’, in David Peters Corbett & Lara Perry (eds), English Art 1860–1914: Modern Artists and Identity, Manchester University Press, Manchester, p. 179. The painting’s composition, subdued colours and tonality reference Whistler’s reworkings of Old Master self-portraits.16 ibid. In adopting the same conventions, John inserts herself into a tradition of masculine artistic authority and identity, while using the masquerade of acceptably feminine, fashionable dress to maintain the social privileges of gender conformity.
John also paid careful attention to dress and costume in her paintings of other women. Interior with figures, c. 1898–99, was directly inspired by the fashion plates John, Nettleship and Salmond pored over in their Parisian apartment. The painting depicts Salmond and Nettleship standing together in the high-ceilinged interior of their Montparnasse home. Both look down at a book – perhaps Un siècle de modes féminines – and more books and papers are stacked on a side table. Neither woman’s dress matches mainstream 1890s fashion. Salmond is dressed in a Georgian-style white dress with an empire waist, Whisterlian in tone. It is an example of ‘aesthetic dress’, a style of fashion that emerged from the Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite art movements and that embraced flowing, soft lines, unrestrictive sleeves and bodices, and natural dyes. Nettleship wears a ruffled grey skirt, mid nineteenth century in style, and long salmon pink shawl. It may be the evening dress Nettleship requested her mother, Ada, a costume designer, send her from England to wear to a dance at Whistler’s studio. The painting’s composition is clearly influenced by fashion illustrations, which often featured women standing side by side in interiors. But rather than depicting up-to-date, saleable fashion and a luxurious interior, as a fashion plate illustrator would, John shows a space empty of domestic comforts, its only decoration books and a small painting above the fireplace. This is a space of burgeoning female modernity, a room for a new type of woman more interested in creativity than domesticity.
Fashion plates commodified gender and fashion to create a marketable version of femininity. The illustrated female figures were hyperfeminine objects that represented cultural gender ideals. Books of French fashion illustrations perpetuated conventional ‘separate sphere’ gender ideology in a country that lagged behind England and the United States in passing legal and social reforms for women.17 Ruth E. Iskin, ‘Material women: the department-store fashion poster in Paris, 1880–1900’, in Maureen Daly Goggin & Beth Fowkes Tobin (eds), Material Women, 1750–1950: Consuming Desires and Collecting Practices, Routledge, Oxford & New York, 2009, p. 40. The first moves for women’s legal and educational reforms in France only began in the 1890s. French women were not granted the vote until 1944. There was an implication that, in dressing according to the fashion trend, women could signal their conformity to broader middle- and upper-class ‘feminine’ norms: respectability, passivity, sweetness. They could literally dress the part.
John’s Interior with figures, c. 1898–99, is a radical reinterpretation of fashion plate iconography. She knew that conforming to cultural ideals of femininity in both her dress and her art was the safest route to professional success. Her only ongoing patron, the American collector John Quinn, appreciated John’s work because he saw it as quintessentially ‘feminine’. Writing to John about herself and French artist Marie Laurencin, Quinn stated, ‘you are the only two women artists that I know in whose work I am interested and … [the only two] who paint like women … most women artists try to paint like men and so they paint badly’.18 Quoted in Lisa Tickner, ‘“Augustus’s sister”: Gwen John: wholeness, harmony and radiance’, in David Fraser Jenkins & Chris Stephens (eds), Gwen John and Augustus John, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, p. 34. Laurencin achieved greater commercial and critical success than John in part because of her strategic embrace and mobilisation of her ‘marketable femininity’, something John always resisted.19 ibid. See also Bridget Elliott, ‘The “strength of the weak” as portrayed by Marie Laurencin’, in Ann Kibbey et al. (eds), On Your Left: Historical Materialism in the 1990s, New York University Press, New York, 1996, pp. 69–109. In Interior with figures, John uses her appreciation of dressing up – a conventionally ‘feminine’ interest – to resist uniform ideas of what constitutes a ‘feminine’ identity. The painting represents a moment in time when three women artists lived a year-long masquerade, trying on different visual identities and ‘dressing up for art’s sake’.20 Foster, ‘Dressing for art’s sake’, p. 183. The painting’s empty domestic room, out-of-date romantic clothes and piles of books and magazines are all a back-drop for a display of female intimacy and independence. John experienced intense romantic feelings for women throughout her life. In documenting the psychological and physical freedom of homosocial spaces – including the freedom to wear imaginative, unfashionable dress – Interior with figures subtly explores John’s own complex and nuanced sexuality, and her approach to intimacy.
Gwen John and Madeline Green used fashion and costume to experiment with their visual, public identities and to interrogate unitary ideas of femininity. Neither artist left behind written records of their thoughts on sexuality or gender, but their paintings confront the viewer with investigations of those subjects, and they were created at a slippery time for traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity. In the aftermath of the bruising Second Boer War and the physical and mechanised carnage of the First World War, Western masculinity underwent ‘intense pressure’.21 Amy Lyford, Surrealist Masculinities: Gender Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Post–World War One Reconstruction in France, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007, p. 2. The concurrent liberation of some aspects of women’s lives – made possible by legal reforms, educational and occupational expansion, and women’s own agitation for advancement and inclusion – saw the aesthetics of womanhood begin to change. There were fears that the ‘masculinisation’ of women’s appearance would lead men to ‘find other men sexually desirable’, a logic that allowed the rise of ‘new women’ and flappers (in French, la garçonne) to be blamed for a perceived rise of homosexual culture, a ‘degenerative’ force in society.22 ibid. p. 144. It was in this context that multidisciplinary artist Claude Cahun developed a practice aimed at destabilising her own gendered self.
Born Lucie Schwob in 1894, Cahun adopted her gender-neutral pseudonym in 1917. Alongside her lifelong collaborator, partner and stepsister, artist Suzanne Malherbe, who went by the pseudonym Marcel Moore, Cahun experimented with poetry, sculpture and photography within the Surrealist milieu of 1920s and 1930s Paris. In her performative photographic self-portraits, Cahun used her own body and costumes to challenge the boundaries of feminine and masculine identity. Her work is at once declarative and ambiguous, shocking and dream-like. Cahun’s strongest treatise on gender came in her 1930 artist book Aveux non avenus, translated into English as Disavowals. The non-narrative chapters of this Surrealist ‘anti-memoir’ are demarcated by elaborate photomontages that depict Cahun in a range of mysterious guises. Her body is repeated, cropped, obscured and distorted into graphic combinations, sometimes paired with enigmatic images of Classical sculptures, animals and other objects.
At a time when male Surrealists were exploring the fragile nature of post–First World War masculinity, often by using the dismembered or broken image of the female body, Cahun appropriated corporal symbolism as a site of resistance to gender normativity, and a means to deconstruct her identity. The photomontages present bodies that are anonymous, androgynous, vulnerable and ambiguous. The body is everything, but the body is an absence.
In the accompanying text, Cahun articulates her approach to gender: ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me’. Sixty years before Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity made the concept of gender performativity mainstream, Cahun’s practice put performativity into action. The history of theatre and the masquerade are clear influences on her photographs, some of which are elaborately staged and feature sets and costumes. Using the artifice of dress and make-up, she fashioned hyper-feminine guises as well as masculine and genderless personas in a way that speaks to Madeline Green’s oeuvre, which is more artistically conventional but just as performative and complex. The theatricality of both of these artists’ work is a precursor to the feminist performance art and photography of the 1970s and continues to have deep resonances in a twenty-first-century world still grappling with ‘gender trouble’.
In his 1838 novel A Daughter of Eve (Une fille d’Eve), Honoré de Balzac wrote, ‘A woman’s dress is a permanent revelation of her most secret thoughts, a language, and a symbol’. Dress is a rich site for the communication of identity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a basic purpose of dress was to distinguish men from women, and convey social class, standing and status. As the rules and norms surrounding both dress and gender roles began to shift in the first years of the twentieth century, Gwen John, Madeline Green and Claude Cahun used costume to explore the boundaries of their sexualities and genders, and to experiment with new visual identities. The traditionally childish and unserious act of ‘dressing up’ took on new power in these artists’ work as a non-verbal means of self-expression, and site of creativity and autonomy. In their performative portraits, and with the use of costume, the possibilities of the self were endless. As Cahun wrote on a photomontage in Disavowals, ‘Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces’.
Gwen John, letter to Ursula Tyrwhitt, 29 May 1908, NLW MS 21468D, ff21–2, published in Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (ed.), Gwen John: Letters and Notebooks, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, pp. 43–4.
Havelock Ellis, ‘Sexual inversion in women’, Alienist and Neurologist, vol. 16, 1895, p. 134. See also Esther Newton, ‘The mythic mannish lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the new woman’, Signs, vol. 9, no. 4, 1984, pp. 557–75.
Rosy Aindow, Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870–1914, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2010, pp. 1–4.
Alicia Foster, ‘Dressing for art’s sake: Gwen John, the Bon Marché and the spectacle of the woman artist in Paris’, in Amy de la Haye & Elizabeth Wilson (eds), Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning and Identity, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999 p. 114.
See Charlotte Nicklas & Annebella Pollen, ‘Introduction – Dress history now: terms, themes and tools’, in Charlotte Nicklas & Annebella Pollen (eds), Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2015.
Diana Crane, ‘Clothing behaviour as non-verbal resistance: marginal women and alternative dress in the nineteenth century’, Fashion Theory, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 242.
‘Royal Academy – second depressions’, Punch, 22 May 1918, p. 327; Nina Edwards, Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings, 1914 to 1928, I. B. Tauris, London, 2015, p. 11.
Zoi Arvanitidou & Maria Gasouka, ‘Fashion, Gender and Social Identity’, paper presented at the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Colloquia, 2011.
Monique Wittig, ‘Paradigm’, in George Stambolian & Elaine Marks (eds), Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, and London, 1979, p. 114.
Alicia Foster, ‘Self-Representation and Constructions of Femininity in the Work of Gwen John c. 1895–1912’, PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 1996, p. 178.
Quoted in Sue Roe, Gwen John, Random House, London, 2010, p. 127.
Ida Nettleship, letter to Ada Nettleship, 1898, in Rebecca John & Michael Holroyd (eds), The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John, Bloomsbury, London, 2017.
Susan Chitty, Gwen John, 1876–1939,
Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 49.
Madeleine Ginsburg, Victorian Dress in Photographs, Batsford, London, 1988, p. 114.
Alicia Foster, ‘Gwen John’s Self-portrait: art, identity and women students at the Slade School’, in David Peters Corbett & Lara Perry (eds), English Art 1860–1914: Modern Artists and Identity, Manchester University Press, Manchester, p. 179.
Ruth E. Iskin, ‘Material women: the department-store fashion poster in Paris, 1880–1900’, in Maureen Daly Goggin & Beth Fowkes Tobin (eds), Material Women, 1750–1950: Consuming Desires and Collecting Practices, Routledge, Oxford & New York, 2009, p. 40. The first moves for women’s legal and educational reforms in France only began in the 1890s. French women were not granted the vote until 1944.
Quoted in Lisa Tickner, ‘“Augustus’s sister”: Gwen John: wholeness, harmony and radiance’, in David Fraser Jenkins & Chris Stephens (eds), Gwen John and Augustus John, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, p. 34.
ibid. See also Bridget Elliott, ‘The “strength of the weak” as portrayed by Marie Laurencin’, in Ann Kibbey et al. (eds), On Your Left: Historical Materialism in the 1990s, New York University Press, New York, 1996, pp. 69–109.
Foster, ‘Dressing for art’s sake’, p. 183.
Amy Lyford, Surrealist Masculinities: Gender Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Post–World War One Reconstruction in France, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007, p. 2.
ibid. p. 144.