Grayson Perry, Britain’s Dress-up Doll

Sidonie Wilson, a fashion journalism post-graduate at Central Saint Martins, reports on the process of designing a dress for Grayson Perry, a British national treasure both for his art and for his fashion sense

What do former British Prime Minister Theresa May, Grayson Perry and Barbie have in common? They are all fifty-plus role models who like to play dress-up. The most extravagant of the three by far is artist Grayson Perry, known for his provocatively delightful art and, particularly within the fashion milieu, for his playful dress sense, ranging from clown suits to Little Bo Peep dresses.

“The little girl look is like the crack cocaine of femininity,” laughs Grayson as he clumps through the doors of Central Saint Martins in his size 10 Mary-Janes. It’s his way of breaking the ice in a room full of nervous students. The transvestite artist fans out in his petticoat and clears his throat, “I wore my school uniform today.” That’s entirely appropriate as Grayson has come to college for the first of many meetings with the BA Fashion students. Their next project: to make his new season’s wardrobe.

Grayson, the Chancellor of University of the Arts London (which includes Central Saint Martins), stands before the students with a wide smile, tips his boater and taps his ‘Naughty Boys’ school badge. Now he has the whole room laughing along with him. Welcome to the Grayson Perry show.

Photo: Sidonie Wilson

This is my second encounter with Grayson. I first met him at last year’s Royal Academy Summer Party on the red carpet, when he asked me to hold his handbag while he unhitched his dress from his Y-fronts. He comes across as bolshy, likeable and consistently entertaining. He knows exactly what he wants. Grayson lays out confident specifics for the students, who have six weeks to create an outfit for him. It must be practical and lightweight, but of course fun and a bit slapdash. He is very particular about the quality and finish; he won’t wear any old tat.

Is the transvestite look an alter-ego? Grayson quickly quashes this as a common misconception. “I’m just a man who likes to wear a really nice frock,” he emphasises to the fashion students. The students have been known to go off-kilter in previous years: while Grayson likes to dress up as a woman, he does require the practicalities of a man; no lacey thongs here. The outfits must be cool and loose. They need a zip or opening to allow access. And the students shouldn’t be too outrageous. “I don’t want to be the person with cocks all over him,” he titters. “I’m fifty-nine!”

Can this human dress-up doll act sustain such energy when he’s not in front of an audience? Tea time with Grayson – who takes steaming Nescafe as he claims he’s not a snob, despite winning the ultra-prestigious Turner Art Prize in 2003 – will leave you a little woozy, but completely charmed. I find Grayson rakish and good-natured, a quintessentially British bloke with mop-like hair who can pop up anywhere in London within a five-mile radius of the Royal Academy, bobbing around on two wheels sporting a flamboyant frock and rosy cheeks. You might also remember him as that funny guy in the feather boa from the British Airways advert.

Photo: Sidonie Wilson

As one of the leading contemporary British artists and an esteemed Royal Academician, he is an unexpected style icon. Fashion is typically gender-orientated and for Grayson, gender is like a whole wardrobe of behaviour. His art explores the complexities of gender and masculinity. Critics have hinted Grayson’s cross-dressing has a self-promotional element, but he began to dress like a woman when he was just 12. His fashion sense has evolved from a conventional ‘housewife’ look to the much more frivolous ensembles of recent years.

Grayson is boyishly open and matter of fact about his troubled childhood, “I’ve got a lot of baggage, you see. If you’ve given a lot of your internal landscape away like I have, you need to reclaim it.” I sense the possible influence of his wife here. Philippa Perry, a respected and published psychotherapist, often shares his limelight at fancy events, looking like her husband’s doppelgänger.

Grayson certainly enjoys that limelight. He is quite the socialite and has now taken to performing at the London Palladium. Why is a Turner prize winner, author and TV presenter hanging around with a bunch of undergrads? Well, he says, not only does the connection keep his wardrobe updated, but it is from these ‘lectures’ that he has discovered a new passion for hosting theatrical shows. “Although it’s really just a hobby”, he says with a short wicked laugh.

Photo: Sidonie Wilson

Six weeks on, and Grayson is back tottering through the turnstiles of CSM for his final fittings. He has to try on each of the students’ looks and decide which, if any, he will choose. Previously he has been known to buy the whole rail, as he admits decisiveness is not his forte (which seems absurd as this is the man who had to whittle down 40,000 artwork entries for the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition).

The artist opens Act Two to a room full of eager spectators. “I shall be modelling all 20 marvellous outfits over the course of the next ‘blah blah blah.’” He turns and retires to his makeshift changing cubicle. We all know it’s going to be a long day.

Photo: Sidonie Wilson

The dressing-room curtain parts and a teasing muscly calf pokes out in tangerine stockings, followed by the rest of Grayson in an embroidered baby doll dress and matching custard yellow wig. This big burly guy, now in bright pink, curtsies to the audience. A succession of carefully curated songs plays out to match the correspondingly bizarre outfits. Perry tirelessly turns, twists and even trips up down a fantasy runway. The looks range from a Sunny-D glittery ballgown to a bubble-gum floaty dress with allover knickers motif as well as tiers of ruffles and excess frills. The best look like they should be hung in the Royal Academy, together with their matching straw hats, poodle handbags, granny headscarves and oversized pantaloons. The finale is a mass of pink shiny organza that mimics an Angel Delight trifle, with matching cosmic bow atop his head. It’s the Little Bo Peep look he was talking about, but a crack cocaine version. The details meet Grayson’s specifics down to a T. And they’re all absolutely bonkers.

This is the dress rehearsal for Grayson’s crammed red-carpet calendar. He keeps the whole room entertained for hours. It’s all great fun, even when one of the students forgets to include a zip on a design. The show ends and Grayson is impressed with the end result, but he’s got a big decision to make. After a long break (buckets of Nescafe needed), most of this year’s crop are deemed successes, but he can only choose one outfit to wear to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition party. It’s no surprise that he selects student Chao Li’s pink organza dress. The winner is a fabulous, fetishy, red carpet triumph.

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