Transformation: One Man’s Cross Dressing Wardrobe
at The Walker Art Gallery. Saturday 24 October 2015 – End Date to be confirmed
Words and photographs by Patrick Kirk-Smith
Transformation is a wonderfully revealing exhibition into the story of dedicated life-long cross dresser, Peter Farrer. On the face of it, that’s that, but there is much more to Peter Farrer than we seem to be getting told here. One article even compares Farrer to Grayson Perry, a sentiment I can’t help thinking was made for recognition, above truth.
Grayson Perry is an experimenter, he takes personalities and tries them out. He explores what it means to be seen as one thing, or another, within a clear and stated identity agenda. Peter Farrer just likes Taffeta. And that is the spectacularly simple success of this exhibition. It’s not about masculinity, or femininity, it’s about wearing a dress because you want to wear a dress. It’s not an identity issue, or a gender exploration, it’s about experiencing a fabric he just wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
This exhibition is a brilliant display of an archive of his experience, with some of the cleverest made-to-measure stitch work you’ll ever see. It tells the story of his experience trying to purchase these clothes, and how his tastes led him on parallel paths to transgender rights prejudices. It’s an archive as an archive should be; impartial; referential. And I can only hope Farrer enjoys the finished display as much as I did. The story is told cleanly and neatly, and is perhaps a much more crucial part of Homotopia than it was advertised as, in its relationships to transgender culture, wider gender politics, and simple curiosity.
It is just that too. The cabinet of curiosity, the collection of curios that envelopes our senses as a viewer and draws us into a joined fascination with the original collector. Something which is rare to come by as strongly as this in terms of an archive. It presents a story to us of one man’s life, but also draws us into that question he asked himself in the first place – why am I not wearing that? This is presented to us as though it is a museum collection, and in a sense, it is.
But in many ways, this collection is about as far from a museum collection as it could be. An archive yes, but a museological one, no. This is not a collection that has been hidden and is certainly not being publicly rediscovered, it’s one that’s been on display a life time, and continues to be worn day in day out by a man who loves to celebrate his love of fashion. And that comes through in his stories. Stories of how he acquired his love of the fabrics, how he developed his own style, and how he struggled with anonymity and judgement in the earlier years of his collection. Right through to modern day, having the ability to order certain items online with more comfort, and finding shops that would create bespoke pieces just for him.
What stands out though, when you take a closer look at some of the stories is the dates of production on the dresses. They all have specific period styles, some are simply accented in unusual ways, but these are all dresses and fabrics which break the monotony of every day high street fashion, produced for a man with a very individual sense of style.
Transformation: One Man’s Cross Dressing Wardrobe, along with Pug Virus, also at The Walker, is that last work standing from Homotopia, and rightly so. If you’ve not made it to see any of the other exhibitions or events, this one will be enough. It is sensitive to its subject, and tells a wonderful story of fascination, fabric and fashion.