We were on our first cocktail of the night. Many (too many) more were to follow. My friend made reference to the music playing. “This is Christine and the Queens. You'd love her.” As we drank and chatted, he occasionally broke in to comment on the songs. I did that thing each time of nodding, intrigued but dimly aware that I’d more than likely forget and berate myself later when I couldn't recall the name. I do this all the time: with books, with music, with films. Recently I’ve started putting them in my phone straightaway, my notes full of the flotsam of suggested reads, things to listen to, shopping lists, reminders and to-do’s and should-have-been-done’s, scraps of ideas. Sometimes I fish them out again, working up a line of poetry into something more substantial, or just actually bloody remembering to buy milk the next day.
Two weeks later I encountered Héloïsse Letissier’s stage name again in an article. This time I properly paid attention, immediately listening to her music. Then I listened and listened and listened some more. There’s a kind of magic in that moment of falling hard for an album. You impulsively tell people about it. You watch all the music videos you can lay your hands (or scrolling fingers) on. You don’t want to play anything else for a good week because it’s all a bit pale compared to this new, exciting set of sounds providing ideal company on the bus, in the shower, during cooking, while lying on a bed doing nothing but listening and thinking and relishing lyrics not previously noticed.
In the case of Christine and the Queens, a particular snippet kept rattling around my head from ‘Tilted’: “I’m doing my face with magic marker/ I’m in my right place, don’t be a downer.” You need to hear it to get the effect, the jaunty euphoria of (to my mind) looking as you want, doing what you want, being where you want. Those two lines have floated into my head again and again. Others too – not least her description of dancing as something “safe and holy” – but I keep on returning to this image. It pinpoints that superb moment of everything aligning, of all being bright, costumed, painted. To me, it’s the exact moment of feeling capable of facing down the world, whether in a minute grabbed in front of the mirror before a train journey, or an hour of twirling around getting ready in the evening, choosing clothes, daubing lips with red, assembling appearances.
Really, it’s in this suggestion of play, and dressing up, that my love for her work tips head over heels. Like many of my favourite singers (Kate Bush, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Björk), it’s not just about the music here – but also the performance, and the personas shimmied on and off in music videos, or on stage. All that potential for toying with costume, the chance to embellish, enlarge or downsize posture and personality. In the case of Christine and the Queens, there’s something so totally enthralling in her suit-wearing, sharp-dancing, assertively physicalized act. She swaggers and swoops, a perfect pattern of limbs with her backing dancers.
It’s an act wrapped up in a deft negotiation of sexuality, identity, and spectacle: assembling a space for the audience in which anything goes, and all is accepted. It is deliciously queer and deliciously gorgeous; a graceful, hip-shaking suggestion of the way music should be felt from head to toe (Letissier won’t use songs if they don’t make her want to dance). It’s an exploration of gender at once joyous, subversive, and thoughtful, played out through some thumpingly good songs.
All of this is also played out in clothing choices. Here they’re decisive: blazers and trousers cut with room for movement (or, in the case of Paradis Perdu, with a gradual, gargantuan, parodic spread of fabric). They are agile clothes, practical clothes, clothes that fit the lyrics, full as they are with discussion of desire, bodies, appearance, and, in the case of iT, what it might mean to be a man.
I’m fascinated by the power found in suits. It’s part physical, part cultural. A suit weights you with a particular set of motions, a decisive way of walking and holding your hips. Suits also come with a weight of associations: of business and commerce and long hours in the office, of dressing for dinner, heading out on the town, straightening a bowtie before boogying the night away, of everyone from Don Draper to Marlene Dietrich. Many of these images are gendered. To be female and to shrug on a suit can still hold a subversive thrall, despite it now being a well-worn (in both senses of the meaning) path.
In fact, I set out here planning to write something about the history of the suit and the intrigue that comes with donning a garment we still deem ‘mannish’ (or, in the heteronorm-babble of fashion mags, as ‘boyfriend style’). But the relationships built up between fabric and the skin beneath – well, the more I thought about them, the more I realized just how interesting and complicated they are. It’d require an awful lot more words for them to be done any kind of justice.
So for now, I’ll stick with saluting the suit, and the singer who inspired me to spend a little more time thinking about crisp shirts and good trousers (among other things). After that first, feverish week of listening to/ watching/ reading many, many interviews with Christine and the Queens, I spent plenty of time eyeing up blazers in charity shops and vintage markets, nosing around in search of good tailoring.
What I guess I love most is possibility: the strength and potential found in different types of garments. When I slipped on the outfit pictured, I immediately felt my posture change. I wanted to stride around, to move, to dance away through the heather and across the hills, slithering across the rocks in my brogues. I stood differently. I stood assertively, in my right place, keenly aware in the breeze of how good it felt - this small act of magic conjured up in black velvet.
The suit is second-hand - blazer and trousers bought separately. The brogues were also from a charity shop.