Dressing up boxes have always played a significant role in my life. As a child, they were where I’d head in search of new characters. My mum’s former days as a drama teacher led to rich pickings: everything from bright fabrics to pirate hats to an especially gorgeous turquoise jacket flecked with beads and mirrors that I adored unreservedly. Witch, princess, orphan, whatever... That box gave room for trying personas on for size, playing around with their possibilities, and then folding them away again.
In my teens the basket under my bed became a repository for ridiculous shiny leggings, broken ball-gowns, lacy things, and a fair number of faded vintage frocks. I still have it now – stuffed with more dazzle and cheap decadence than a girl could ever require. Plenty of things that once lived there have migrated through to my actual wardrobe (and vice versa - there’s an ebb and flow between the two). It houses lots of items erring towards the outrageous, the ridiculous, the highly impractical, and the ripped/ badly dyed/ too-small-for-anything-other-than-posing-in-for-photos. It’s a basket stuffed with potential performances.
In light of the sad news of David Bowie's untimely death, I’ve been thinking lots about dressing up boxes. And performance. And characters. And my early teens. All of those things string together to form a glittery little summary of my relationship with Bowie. At secondary school, he was a shared secret with my friend Caitlin. Well, not really a secret. More a thing we felt we both had some kind of ‘in’ on – this weird, brilliant singer from the seventies who none of our peers gave a shit about. (I should point out here we partly discovered him through watching Life on Mars – hey, every generation finds their own access point).
It was a fertile imaginative time. He perched alongside Kate Bush, The Bell Jar, old Audrey Hepburn films, new fashion magazines, and my recently rescued great-grandma’s hats – another constellation point when it came to forming and navigating an identity of my own away from school.
See what I’m doing here, by the way? I’m building a myth. Easy enough to do – re-spin a story, weighting it in a particular way. In this case? Foregrounding Bowie. If I’m entirely honest, I can’t actually recall how much of an individual impact he had on my life at that exact point. I have no tales of everything changing when I first heard his music, or him suddenly making it “ok” to be different (how glorious that he did that for generations though. How utterly glorious! Reading so many accounts of the various ways he galvanised and validated people has been truly special.)
He was significant, undoubtedly, but rather as part of a collage of books, films and music choices that, then, felt excitingly non-mainstream. They were mine (well, mine and, in his case, Caitlin’s). I know they already belonged to many, many others around the world too, as most great things do, but there’s something so fresh and explosive about being 13/ 14 and discovering these cultural lodestars for yourself.
Bowie would probably have approved of any kind of myth-making though. That was what he was all about: stories. It’s the element I love most, after the gorgeous, brilliant music. Not one I really picked up on at first, either. In fact, keen appreciation for his various characters came later, in line with my developing interest in clothes and dress and the outfits we choose to face the world in; it’s an interest that’s still evolving. Bowie’s magic shape-shifting quality, the ability to form and reform and then reform oneself over and again with a wardrobe change and a new creative project… That’s what gets my heart beating now (and my fingers itching for more glam-rock leotards).
Earlier today, I watched this documentary. It reminded me once more that transformation is such an incredible tool. Present yourself as a rock god, an alien, a visionary, and people will believe it. I love the brio, the conscious artifice of each metamorphosis – often so meticulously designed to provoke effect. That’s the gift I’ve chosen to revel in today. The gift of recognizing that dressing up can be extraordinarily powerful. It allows you to tell stories, remake yourself anew, shift the way you're viewed. Most importantly, it also gives you space to play. It’s not quite the same as being a child running around in a pirate’s hat. But it springs from a similar place of roving imagination. And what a gift that is.
Another form of myth making here in these images – the location being an ancient stone circle that has stood atop a hill since the Bronze Age. Some of the stones are little more than rocks nestled low to the ground. Others stretch upward – odd, lumpy oblongs offering praise to the skies. All of them are dusted with lichen. They’ve attracted their own fair share of myths and folklore over the years. Witches, magic cows, all sorts... It felt only right to add another possible story to them by pulling this dramatic number out of the dressing up box (bought for £3 at a vintage fair in Oxford) to leap around in. I didn’t have a specific ‘character’ in mind, but something alchemic happened with the combination between location and outfit: a sort of just knowing how to pose, where to stand, what to do. An enthralling (if freezing and blustery) half hour of being transformed.