One early summer evening, I was sat on the top deck of the 67 bus coming down Kingsland High Street, looking out of the window. There were Gilbert & George! The artists were walking up the road, past queer bar Dalston Superstore, presumably on their way to the Turkish restaurant Mangal 2, one of their favourite places to dine.
It was the first wave of summer, but the artists were in their heavy tweed suits It is the clothing they have worn since declaring themselves a collaborative art duo in the late 1960s. Even for men in their seventies, they stood out. No one of any age or gender nearby was dressed like them. Tailoring is generally regarded as regular dress for men. So why do they look so weird?
To understand what artists wear, we must first unlock the hold that tailoring has on our psyche, and the role it plays in society. A law forbidding women in Paris from wearing trousers was repealed in 2013. It had been introduced during the French Revolution to prevent women joining the “sans-culotte” movement. The law was amended in 1909 to allow women to wear trousers if they were holding the handlebar of a bike or the reins of a horse. In any other circumstances, if women wanted to wear trousers, they had to ask permission from the police.
Tailoring is not neutral. We understand its meaning when worn by those in business, those of authority: the suit demarcates power over others – usually male power. Such is its ubiquity and hold on our psyche, its origins are rarely analysed. What do we want to hide?
Let’s briefly glance back. The tailored suit evolved from male riding and military outfits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were the garments worn by the British aristocracy, the ruling class that bolstered its wealth and power through the slave trade. By the late 1700s, the male aristocratic dress of George III’s court had become frilled and frivolous. In London, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, society figure George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell began ordering plain yet elegant bespoke garments from the city’s tailors, cutting away all the excess. Without Brummell, the modern-day suit would not exist.
In 1832, the Reform Act gave male property owners the right to vote. Claims of authority were locked into the tailored suit, the new signifier of power which presumed maleness, whiteness and the West as the imperial centre of the world.
We can say good things about suits, especially their ergonomic design. We can use these value judgements as a way of avoiding or ignoring the symbolism of the suit. But these value judgements do not wipe that symbolism away. Any artist who wears a suit, whatever their gender position, must contend with this encoded meaning of male power. There is no way to escape it. It is up to them how they use, exploit or challenge it.
Tailoring is prime to be subverted by artists willing to place themselves within their own work.
In London, 1969, Gilbert & George wrote their Laws of Sculptors, which have guided their lives and working practice since. Rule one is simple and clear. “Always be smartly dressed, well- groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control.”
From the very beginning, their appearance has been of primary importance in their work, pivotal to their existence as “Living Sculptures”. “We step into the responsibility-suits of our art,” they wrote in their 1971 pamphlet A Day in the Life of George & Gilbert. “We put on our shoes for the coming walk.”
Their rule is one of both sincerity and subversion. Sincerity first: “We are both war babies, we both came out of a wrecked land,” said George in 2013, interviewed by the artist Slava Mogutin. Gilbert was born in the Dolomites, Italy; George in Devon, England. “We felt that we were poor people and if it’s an important occasion, if you try to get a job or if you go to a wedding or funeral, you dress up nicely.” Then subversion: “We realised that a lot of artists dressed in an eccentric way or had eccentric style to show that they were artists,” said George. “We felt that alienated 90 per cent of the world’s population. You can’t get into a restaurant – why be deliberately weird? We wanted to be normal, normal weird…”
Gilbert finished the sentence: “…so normal that we became strange!”
Their suits are not identical. George is taller and has a ticket pocket above the regular outer pocket on the right-hand side, a tailoring trick to visually lessen the length of his trunk. There are four pockets in total. Gilbert’s suits have three outer pockets: two flap, one breast. The difference confirms their self-definition: “two people but one artist” – they are not pretending to be the same person. Gilbert & George are absolute individuals choosing to work together for one goal.
The pair of them delight in the contradiction of their lives. George is said to vote for the right-wing Conservative Party in Britain. They have spoken adoringly of Margaret Thatcher. And yet their photomontage work has involved images of urination and faeces. They have posed in their suits among images of rent boys. They have taken off their suits completely, bent over and shown their assholes.
Their outfits are not made by establishment tailors on Savile Row but by outsiders. They have long lived on Fournier Street, in Spitalfields, East London, an area welcoming to successive waves of immigrants. Gilbert & George get their suits made by their neighbourhood tailors.
These immigrant tailors are found just outside the boundary of the City of London financial district, creating suits for those wanting to fit in. This is tailoring in which to ape normality.
The area where the artists live is one of flux. Rent rises are pushing out most locals. Are there any tailors left? I emailed Gilbert & George. This is their reply, just as they wrote it.
“1st, we had Jewish tailors. then we had a Cyprus tailor. Now we have a TIBETAN.”
Above all, tailoring signals the banality of power. It is a banality found in the single-breasted suit, mass-produced. This banality has been successfully wielded by artists.
In 1988, Jeff Koons named a whole series of sculptures called Banality. It was the series that included a sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles. Koons studied art, then worked as a commodities broker on Wall Street. His day job funded his first art pieces, giving him independence from the art market. Tailoring was his everyday reality, and he played on the absurdity of being a sober-suited artist while making audacious art.
It is a familiar pose. To this day, Koons has a habit of posing in front of his works, mugging for the camera. He usually does so in the banal/expensive/banally expensive tailoring favoured by the blue-chip collectors who buy his work.
It is often at exhibition openings or art fairs that the language of tailoring is depressingly clear. Walk around, and you’ll find most male gallery staff wearing suits. For all its overtures to radicalism, the art industry can be deeply conservative. The same is true of the fashion industry, where catwalk creative freedom is a foil for the compromised mundanity of the mass-produced stuff that actually sells.
This is the context within which we must look at artists, and at clothing, and at those who attempt to find individuality and purpose with both.
Images courtesy of Gilbert & George. Extracted from ‘What Artists Wear’ by Charlie Porter, published by Penguin at £14.99. Copyright © Charlie Porter 2021. Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Men – NEW, DAILY, UNIFORM – out now. Order your copy here.