Home Truths: Costume

Feature in Issue 23-3 | Autumn 2011

The Canny Granny Gets Her Kit On.

Just because I’m older than you, doesn’t mean I spend all day in a dressing-gown. In fact, I seem to spend a lot of time twirling in a tutu wishing I had a performance up my sleeve. I’ve got some fabulous unworn costumes and nowhere to show.

Costume brings a whole world with it. A hat, for example: Wendy Houstoun’s quivering red feather showgirl thing in Keep Dancing is an actor in itself. In my attic there are 30 of the headpieces that women wear to church in Peckham. I should have left them outside during the recent riots; looters would have looked marvellous in them. There is also the sombrero I brought back from honeymoon – the biggest and gaudiest I could find – that Grandpa was shamed by on the plane. I lent it to my friend for her show, thus vindicating my hoarding. (Also, Grandpa has a neoprene sharksuit in a drawer in the bedroom, so he really has no leg to stand on.)

We keep costumes because they promise a future piece of theatre might be made to measure for them. Costume first, theatre follows. Surely Laurie Anderson started off with her touch-sensitive drum-pad suit, and then fashioned Home of the Brave from that? At a workshop in Leeds in 1998, Terry O’Connor from Forced Entertainment said they were looking for a use for their gorilla suit. It appeared in A Bloody Mess in 2004, so I imagine someone came to rehearsals in it for six years, only to be sent home to change.

Which reminds me: there’s a mangy old bear suit out there that has been doing the rounds for a good few years – first seen in Shunt’s Dance Bear Dance, then in Peepolykus’ Mindbender, and most recently in Michael Pinchbeck’s The End. Exeunt pursued by a bear indeed. What happens to it in-between? Does it just sit in a cupboard waiting for the next contemporary theatre company needing a bear suit to stroll by?

Talking of cupboards, I have also hoarded two identical bridesmaid dresses – the tutus I spake of. I yearn to dress the same as someone else – why is that? I love ‘his and hers’, the shellsuit era, and Gilbert & George. Natural Theatre Company offer walkabout performances by groups of people in uniform outfits (coneheads, flowerpotheads, royalty).

And there’s a Warholesque compulsion to the repetition of the identical dress present in Clod Ensemble’s Red Ladies. The sense of theatre created by vintage devotees jiving together at this summer’s Vintage festival on the South Bank was like another world entirely. Really truly out-of-this-world are the groups who gather to dress in nappies with giant nappy-pins outside Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. After Grandpa’s recent accident with the real ale I’m inclined to think the latter costume choice would be really quite practical for him.

Talking of nappies, stage undress deserves a mention as it has its own style. Dancers used oft to be seen in big gym-knickers. Gotta admit that pants make compelling watching. A bloke playing electric guitar in his Y-fronts upstages all others in Electric Hotel, Fuel’s touring mega-installation in which there are dancers in different glass-fronted rooms. Bryony Kimmings of Sex Idiot fame got down to her pants, the Two Wrongies have eschewed theirs (other than when they need their g-strings to twang in ‘Duelling Banjos’), and New Art Club have ditched the turquoise leotards for dishcloth-grey boxers in their new show, A Quiet Act of Destruction. Talking of acts of (self) destruction: I tried doing a butoh performance in a gallery in a pair of giant pants I got in Peacocks once. The performance is best forgotten. The pants a duster at best.

In fact, best to do away with pants altogether. Among the many wonderful naked performance art pieces out there, Brazilian troupe Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas’s Incarnat at Aurora Nova in 2007 is sticky in my mind, as it used tomato ketchup as their only costume. Ultra dark and frightening Russian company BlackSkyWhite were unfortunate enough to have the late-night slot after them, so they did their whole run with a sugary floor and the smell of vinegar in the air. Shudder to think of the revenge they plotted.

I know, I’ll start a service like a personals ad. ‘Costumes seeking performance.’

It will be two tutu wonderful.

Laura Eades is the Canny Granny. Her show Holiday, featuring aforementioned sombrero, was presented at Camden People’s Theatre July–August 2011 www.fastercraftswomen.com

Wendy Houstoun www.artsadmin.co.uk/artists/wendyhoustoun

Clod Ensemble’s Red Ladies www.clodensemble.com/performance/ redladies.htm

Laurie Anderson www.laurieanderson.com

Bryony Kimmings www.bryonykimmings.com

Electric Hotel www.fueltheatre.com

New Art Club www.newartclub.org

The Two Wrongies www.thetwowrongies.co.uk

Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas www.liarodrigues.com/eng/

Natural Theatre Company’s menu of performances, including people in naked suits www.naturaltheatre.co.uk/walkabout.php

Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess www.forcedentertainment.com/page/144/ Bloody+Mess/85

Peepolykus www.peepolykus.co.uk/mindbender

Shunt www.shunt.co.uk

Michael Pinchbeck www.michaelpinchbeck.co.uk

Any other sightings of that bear suit should be reported to Bearline 0845 600 600.