Clothes can be Costumes too (in conversation with Elizabeth Ward)

Micaela Brinsley

Elizabeth Ward is a contemporary artist who creates landscapes, employing costume as a primary visual element. Ward uses multiple performance-based artistic mediums, including installation, concert, opera, aerial ballet, large-scale spectacle, and video performance. Her work explores the convergence of geography, gender, animal/human synthesis, and geoscience by investigating defining relics of material culture.

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How would you describe what it feels like to ride a horse galloping at full speed? So fast nothing is on your mind but fragments. Thoughts and images that blur as soon as they appear.

You are not worried about whether or not you’ll fall off of the horse. You were trained for this. Technical uncertainty is a memory.

There is nothing about this that overwhelms you. That terrifies you. That makes you take anything more than a second to consider if you’re going too fast. If you do, you trust your body will let you know. Maybe the ears of the horse too.

No one can stop you from running where you wish to go. Never away, only to. Somewhere in the distance too far for us to see from here.

How would you describe what it feels like?

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Real historical women have been made fantastical. Myths, gods, projections, pornography; a fetish. Mulan, Semiramis, Zenobia, Athena, Epona, Rhiannon, the list goes on. Amazons. According to the story we’ve been told, women, or groups of women, have never existed as warriors. Hunters too. Our ‘Western’ neutral point of view asserts that.

But whatever is taught as the neutral point of view is a subjective point of view. To sustain their own existence, it falsely perpetuate itself as the only possible option. When its positioning is threatened, so-called neutral points of view become aggressive and brittle, declaring anything different from it ‘progressive,’ 'radical,' 'avante-garde.' Those words become counterpoints, continue to position the neutral as the centre.

Why do we continue to believe in one of our presumed neutral points of view? That all hunters, historically, have been men? We’ve created gendered terms: huntress, warrioress, to point to a few examples as exceptions. The only ones who were born ‘strong enough’ to become a fighter. This is historically inaccurate. It’s amazing that we don’t believe they’ve existed when we’ve inherited so many examples of female hunters and warriors mythologised throughout the world. Women didn’t just collect seeds. We have this astonishing idea that women never served any other role other than taking care of their own children and gathering food.

It’s only in empires where there was a capacity to make half of their population decorative. It’s very important to understand that for most people, it wasn’t possible to exclude half of the human population from contributing to the survival of their community. There were brutal battles for weapons, people, territory. Primarily the young agile people, the most energetic of the population, had to engage in combat. Most people didn’t have the power to waste energy enforcing a value system that would prevent them from confronting the basic needs of their world. So-called historians from empires in later time periods evaluated these facts and created a historical binary that never existed in the way they claim. As stories of the past were passed down through city-states governed by patriarchy, they were embedded into a code, a fallacy.

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You look around. A cutoff T-shirt under a leather jacket, moto pants with double padding on the knees, sitting low on your hips, the rest in black. In high, platform boots, flat. Standing in a train car moving from stop to stop on a night almost too cold. You ride on this line every week around the same time, tracing a perimeter of this city. Looking across at the others in the car, you catch sight of their heads, then what’s below. No one else is standing. Leaning back against a door in all black gives you ease. You are someone who’s done this before. Many times. To the other side of the door, a group of girls gather around a phone.

A woman wearing boots and leather, she’s laced into leather; with armour on top of that going down to her knees. She’s carrying a spear, a dagger, some kind of sword; with a bow and arrow. She’s on a really strong horse. This woman might have dogs with her, she might have falcons with her. This girl, riding through space and time, created control over her sexual autonomy. Granted, we live in a time when men are not just allowed to take you. Whereas she did not live in that time. I’m not saying that life was idyllic. It really was very hard.

Somebody created completely made-up stories about how we have to look to be considered ‘sexy.’ It’s all a code. Feminine aesthetics are just one way of expressing sexuality and to dress a different way is seen as transgressive. But femininity is not the only reality. I don’t know exactly how this evolved over time, it’s different in different places. What I do know is, it’s not real for everyone.

I feel like I only just discovered that it’s not real and that I can step out of it. Femininity is not an access point to sexuality for me.

I feel like I’m inside of a strong-walled bubble and I only just saw this portal that goes somewhere else.

A buzz to your left. On the middle seat on the bench almost directly across from where you are. A woman in pink. Pink plaid backpack, pink puffy coat, pink boots with a small heel. But her pants are black, tight to her shape.

People say, ‘what’s the big deal that women have access to pants.’ It’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal. It’s about what people have access to. In 2013, the French government made it legal for women to wear pants. In 2013. The French government made it ‘legal.’ Because it was ‘illegal’ for women to wear pants. The reason why is that they had just let it go. Nobody bothered to change that law. But what’s important is there was a law. The reason there was a law, that women couldn’t wear pants, is that would have given women access to male power. Power, remember, only means ‘the ability to effect change.’

Everybody’s like, ‘that’s just funny.’ I don’t think it’s funny. They were called ‘Anti-Masquerade Laws.’ As a woman, you had to wear three articles of ‘feminine’ clothing in order to not be arrested. Even if they didn’t specifically use the term ‘cross-dressing,’ they were intended to enforce gender conformity. They were afraid of the access that it would give to different people.

You can argue a lot of these things in a lot of different ways. Because I’m not going to look at heels and say, ‘they’re terrible.’ Having access to femininity, when you want it and you’re not allowed to have it: makeup, hair, accessories that are thought of as ‘decorative’ and stupid, is empowering. Having access to masculinity and pants and muscle structure, those things that are thought of as frivolous… each are access points to power. It’s really critical to not judge the clothes themselves; instead to investigate them. That’s why I went into costume design.

Someone stands quickly, to your right. They moved so quickly their hoodie dropped, revealing a shaved white head. Pants almost falling off their waist, with a navy hoodie on top of a white shirt. You can see the white line of their underwear.

Clothes are so political, so politicised. Every single thing about what we wear is political, because our bodies are. We don’t see it that way, really. But just look at Donald Trump’s tie. He wears tents. He’s basically saying, ‘I have a red tie, I’m an American, I’m a patriot.’ That’s what it means. Or the fact that Biden wears suits that have a European cut as opposed to Trump.

The subway stops and you look back to the woman in pink. Next to her enters a mother-daughter duo wearing the same boots in different sizes.

Oftentimes if you don’t have kids, people say you’re selfish. If you just have sex for sex, people say it’s selfish. If you’re bisexual, you’re selfish. I’m not sure why. Lots of men with kids do really dangerous things. Like, go to the moon, for instance. Or are in the military. Or are a journalist, embedded somewhere. Someone’s taking care of their kids.

When men get married, they start putting pressure on themselves to have kids. My experience is… I know we think women want kids more than men. But I don’t know. In my experience, I think men feel this pressure to ‘pass on their line.’ [But] I have never wanted to have kids. That’s never been something I’ve wanted. So I haven’t had to grapple with that.

A shuffle to your other side. You look down. A hand with rings on three of the fingers. Sturdy, thick hands, slightly rougher than yours. You raise your eyes and it’s connected to an arm hooked around the neck of a much smaller person. You detach yourself from the door, take steps slowly to the other side. Look at a couple, a man and a woman. She’s in a brown coat, fitted to her waist. Him, in a loose coat. Relaxed, at ease, facing forward. She’s curled inward, facing his chest.

It’s one thing to want to be autonomous when you have a strong sense of yourself. If you’ve asked the questions. If you’ve investigated whether you have self-awareness. It’s a totally different thing, when you haven’t had the opportunity to do that. There are women who have access to a certain amount of autonomy that I feel I do too. Just walking around New York City, I’m less vulnerable than some Greek woman walking around, thousands of years ago, barefoot; around a bunch of men, on horses, in armour, with weapons. Like these girls from Berlin who were in this TV program I watched two, three years ago. They said something along the lines of,  ‘unless I fuck fifteen guys in a weekend, it’s been a bad weekend.’ Saying, ‘I don’t ever want to be monogamous. I don’t ever want to have to be protected. I can do that myself.’ One of them, I remember, was really blunt. She said, ‘I’d just rather get laid more than have security.’

Let’s go back even further, way further. Thousands of years back to the Scythians, Sarmatians, Saka and the Sakae, people who were in Russia. Russia wasn’t ‘Russia,’ but… it’s their history. Those women, thousands of years ago, knew, because they bred horses, if you interbred in small groups you created problems. So when they went every year to the horse fair, they had sex with lots of men. Random men. Or they had sex with prisoners of war from many different places. They had a ton of access to power. Hence, the armour, the pants, the weapons, the dogs, the horses. They were powerful. Then the horse moved from pastoral societies of the Eurasian Steppe to the patriarchal empires in the south, east and west. Military cultures in empires were made up of men. So horses, and hence pants, became male.

If you’re a woman, in a dress, wearing sandals; looking up at a man on a horse with weapons and armour…? You’re completely vulnerable. As opposed to being a woman with weapons and armour on a horse, with a pack of dogs.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of aesthetics this week, how so many people during the pandemic have been communicating virtually. By aesthetics, I mean the practice of engaging with the nature of beauty in form. I can imagine, if I really had the urge, I could have completely altered my aesthetic presentation of self.

The aesthetics of self-presentation… I feel that I live in a constant state of playing with that. I always, always have. It is one of my primary interests in my life. How you present yourself, how you want to present yourself, how you want to be perceived. The fact that you can, like you said, control it a bit. I think it’s really, really important. I hate the whole video thing. But I realise I could control it a lot more. I only typically do that in a different way. Not on video. I do it in how I go out in the world.

What I try to do is invisible to a lot of people. I think I would have called it exploring ‘identity’ but you’re actually pointing to something a little bit different. Thrift-store jeans, old T-shirts, combat boots. Lace-up boots, cut-off T-shirts, leather pants. You’re calling it ‘aesthetics.’

I take opportunities to dress the way I want to. To explore what I look like. People [sometimes] do it in a performance setting. For a set audience, as performance art. Whereas I don’t think I ever could. I definitely do it more in a ‘club kids’ style, where you’re simply amidst a group of people. But I’m doing something curated, purposefully created. It’s not a costume. My friend’s daughter, she’ll dress up as Joan of Arc to go somewhere. It is almost identical to that, except it isn’t a costume.

I agree with you that ‘costume’ is not the right word. Intentional aesthetic choices in clothing can be a more truthful representation of a person than an outfit they put on without thinking. When it’s chosen, the few hours within the selected aesthetic are charged. Once put aside it may disintegrate, slightly. It may not be as pointed as those few hours.

Exactly.

You’re not someone who’s going to be wearing your amazing boots at all times. But the way in which you’re living, even when you’re not wearing the boots, is in relation with that aesthetic. One way you could be represented is through that pair of boots. Does that make sense, what I’m saying?

Absolutely, because it’s true. I don’t know why I’m thinking to myself, ‘why isn’t it all the time?’ In some ways it kind of is. It’s just less deliberate. There must be a hiding in it that happens. In the ‘all-the-time’. That I don’t feel is necessary to do in those other times.

Also sometimes you’re thinking more about utility than presentation.

But I really think the aesthetics of self-presentation is at the root of everything. It’s been a sort of overarching interest of mine since I was a teenager. It’s at the heart of fashion. It’s also at the heart of performance. As I more and more experience the freedom that comes with discovering, for instance, [that] women can have muscles, or that people walk differently in sneakers. Discoveries like that, I am leaning into, experiencing gender as a real construct. How I was brought up to be feminine is actually complete nonsense. I don’t have to be that. I’m not ‘innately’ that. It’s all a chosen thing. I can shed the parts of that I don’t want. Keep the ones I do.

I love being able to express myself. It’s a bit different than walking in armour. I’m not in actual armour. Although I do try to get it to feel close. I didn’t know I was doing it. But I’ve always been compelled to do it. I think it is the root of this idea of being a ‘costume designer.’

But I do have to say, in terms of the full shape of the word ‘costume’ and the whole shape of the word ‘designer,’ it is exactly what you’re interested in:

Costume (n.): a person’s ensemble of outer garments; an outfit worn to create an appearance characteristic of a particular person, place or thing.

Designer (n.): one who creates and executes plans for a project or structure.

But what I’m interested in is not at all what people call ‘costume design.’ It’s definitely an exploration of how clothes feel. But the two words separated means something different than the two words together.

The hardest thing for me, when I started was I didn’t see myself as fitting the image of the costume designer. Or the fashion designer. I even had someone describe it to me once: stiletto heels, with stockings, and a pencil skirt, and your hair with bangs, straightened; a push-up bra. So you had to fit into this glamorous, super feminine thing. I remember being told, ‘why aren’t your nails done?’ As in, not painted. I usually had dirt under my nails, or dye, from making something. But again, that was because I was entering a different world. I came from a more activist world where you just make stuff… I felt like I came from the art world. When I came into this other world, where being a designer meant having fabulous nails, I really felt, ‘I’m not a costume designer, I don’t fit this.’

You like to design costumes based on peoples’ forms, right? Not character?

Form is the aesthetic of self. It’s amazing to see the transformation even in other people. When they realise, ‘I can be muscular.’ This whole idea of the feminine or ‘female’ as the ideal body-type is just a story. That we live out! It’s an aesthetic that was popular and isn’t any more real than any other form. What is real is that we’re so much stronger if we have muscles. We’ve just trained ourselves to think that it’s not possible, it’s not natural. But we need to know it. As I lean into some of this stuff, I realise it’s nourishing. It gives me a whole other place to stand on.

To design costumes you don’t have to show up with your mood board and your drawing… It’s not about that. It’s about a discussion and asking questions. Trying out ideas with a performer and then the performer getting back to you. The performer making choices. I can’t tell you the number of actresses that I’ve worked with… You put them in some article of clothing where they can move, [seeing] it is very powerful. The feeling [that comes from] wearing combat boots, or holding a sword the right way. When you give somebody power they’re not used to, they go, ‘wait, what?’ It’s really cool! It has to do with form. It has to do with content. It has to do with what you were saying about aesthetic representations of self. It’s not just clothes, it is about the body in space and time. That is essentially form: how you explore a body in space and time and what you give to it.

For instance, our bras are based on a fifties model, morphed from the corset. There are versions of the corset that I don’t particularly appreciate. Like Wonder Woman. That’s not armour. You’d never wear armour like that, you’d die. You want armour that points out from the breasts. So the sternum points out, not in. So it would de-emphasise the breasts, not emphasise them.

Most twentieth century’s women’s clothing used to be based on this one model. You had to wear this fifties style corset to wear the clothing. It was based on that idea, of breasts that are picked up and put forward. Supported. The corset would shape your waist and give you hips. It would give you a pinched-in waist and hips. The fifties corset was often built into dresses. You almost always wore a dress. Or it was even built into the shirt design. That’s also where you get the high-waisted pants design from. The pants form a girdle-corset, the dresses have a built-in form. When they took the corset away, people wore the bra that was just the corset top. That’s still the bra that we wear.

I was out last night and I saw this guy wearing a leather jacket, a white leather jacket with nothing underneath it. He had these necklaces on. It was so cool. But I have kind of big breats, so I can’t just wear no bra. I don’t want to wear this fifties bra. I don’t like it. I hate it, actually, I only wear sports bras. I don’t like this lift-and-stick-out thing. So I asked my friend, ‘Chris, can we make a bra that actually lifts big breasts and moves them to the side and pulls them toward your back?’ Not around or under your armpit, just up and toward your arm instead of up and in. Then you would have at least a four inch band from the bottom of your neck to your belly button. The void of cleavage, right? So you’d pull your breasts to the side. It would give you the same kind of thing this guy had, where he could just wear a trio of necklaces, no shirt and wear this leather jacket. It looked really cool. He [Chris] was just like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’

These [kinds of] ideas have always been exciting for me. The idea of pointe shoes being boots. It’s such a fantastical way to walk, was so outlawed for men. For so long. It explores form as opposed to character. For Pina Bausch, that is the conversation she’s having. It doesn’t have to do with character. It could have something to do with text. It could be a response to music. Or a place or a feeling. But it’s really not much about character. It’s much more about form. Using design to have a conversation with form. An artistic conversation, not a descriptive one.

Sometimes the conversation is with themselves. Sometimes with other artists. Sometimes with art made in the past. Anyone can be the person on the other end of a conversation. Any object. Any feeling. Any person. There just has to be a direction to something.

I don’t know if I told you about a project I did once. I approached [costume design with] scene drawings. It was a big risk. Because it was a bit like I was suggesting what it should all look like. Not the staging but the colour. In the end, the director loved it. Because it shifted the mood, the whole feeling of the stage. Without ever having to change the set. It let the poetry of the piece be there.

The way I approach costume, or gender, or the body, or how clothes are worn… It all was originally informed by [looking at] different art forms in performance. How my work could interact with somebody else’s. But I began to feel so pushed out of it, by the decorative emphasis on it all. So I embraced the history part.

What are some ways history shaped your thinking about form?

You can sexualise lots of things. A person, fully armed with weapons and armour, on a horse with big muscles, no matter whether they’re male or female, they have a sort of sexuality to them that was very much appreciated by the [Ancient] Greeks. I say the Greeks because they wrote about it and made an overwhelming amount of art about it. So you can see it. The Amazons, Scythians were a whole sexual thing for them. It was porn.

But at the same time you can sexualise heels and a short skirt, it doesn’t matter if it’s on a man or a woman. I want to extend that, because when you start talking about clothes it becomes very gender-fluid. In other cultures other than ours [American], it was much more common to have a sense of being fluid. There were just more roles available to people. The Greeks and the Persians and the Chinese wrote about that. But it was very much misunderstood by later generations as being ‘fantasy.’ Like Pegasus.

Would you mind quickly stating what the myth of Pegasus is inspired by?

The basic history of it is that the horse was initially domesticated in a super remote place in the Eurasian Steppe. We don’t exactly know where, but we do know that it was almost certainly domesticated somewhere in a remote place, likely between Ukraine and Korea. That’s a big space. At that time, it was remote. The horse didn’t become a major part of city-states until much, much later, thousands of years later. Both women and men would ride out to the edges of these empires; whether it was China, Persia, Greece. These riders were seen from a distance. At that point the horse was not ridden in these kingdoms. So they saw people on horseback and thought they were a composite animal. They’d never seen somebody on horseback! They thought they were half-human, half-horse. In Greece, they called them centaurs. The Chinese have the myth of the flying dragon. Another type of composite animal. China is a place where they have a lot of T-Rex-type dinosaur finds. So through myth-making, you can see how the horse touched these empires.

Riding a horse was the fastest a human being had ever gone. Once the horse was ridden in these large city-states, maybe that’s when the myth of the Pegasus was born. That experience… it was as though you were flying.  

These readings, your interests, inform so much about how you choose to live. You’re not studying for the sake of studying and then putting it away. You’re studying it so it influences how you are. All these things are in conversation, not isolation.

Which is also a certain experience of gender, as well. It’s not at all in isolation. My relationship to pants. My relationship to all kinds of shoes. It’s an ongoing exploration. My relationship to the bra. Or even to breasts, to hips. To exploring how these things touch the body and then how the body is interpreted. It’s a playing with it. But playing with it in terms of masculinity and femininity.

For me, the gender issues are the primary conversation. With regards to clothes. It doesn’t have to be that. It can be with lots of other things. For instance, how can you use clothes to create a landscape? To use clothes to create a mood. To create a composition, juxtaposition through repetition. In my mind I can think of a French production I saw. They were wearing just jeans. That was some of the best costume design I’ve ever seen.

I’m compelled to say one more thing about gender.

I’m excited.

The gender binary really pisses me off. It always has. But I also grew up in a time when it was a bit more fluid. Not necessarily than it is now. It was just definitely one of the more fluid moments in history. So gender fluidity is something that I’ve taken as a starting point. I think it’s easy to make assessments of things in terms of gender that aren’t always accurate. Even within myself.

Gender fluidity has been a much more real thing throughout history than we realise. People actually had to [fight to] survive. In order to survive you had to be super capable. That makes for much more fluidity. And flexibility.

Do you think people now have a hard time understanding the concept of gender fluidity because it means accepting that gender isn’t fixed? That anyone can play with it at any time?

People have their own perceptions of the world they apply to lots of things. Not just to gender. I’ll speak about me, because I think that’s the best thing to do. Sometimes I feel way more masculine, but I don’t know how to access that. I didn’t know how to access it until recently. For instance. So I presented [as] much more feminine. Because that’s what I knew how to do. Or I simply presented as much more fluid. That’s why I think ‘gender fluid’ is actually a great term.

When speaking about history as well, like you were pointing out, there are all kinds of things we either don’t know or have been made invisible to us. So when we apply our vision to it, it’s not always accurate.

Investigations of it are really interesting. Like the fact that these warriors were just pornography. Warriors were sexy. It didn’t really matter what their ‘sex’ was. It wasn’t ‘women’ being ‘masculine.’ It was more of an ownership of what masculinity is presented as offering. It wasn’t even masculinity. It was just a certain access to bodily autonomy. If you know how to use weapons and you’re in that outfit, is it masculine or is it just… agile? Do you see what I mean?

Yes.

I’m trying to describe something that gets put into this binary. That isn’t to do with your sex at birth. It can be defined by lots of other factors. For instance, the people I liked when I was a teenager were people who crossed over. Were people who were gender fluid. Because I saw myself in them. So I’d have posters of Boy George, or Grace Jones. People who were really gender fluid.

But our contemporary ‘Western’ culture is so wedded to the ideal of the Ancient Greek woman. Who’s vulnerable and fragile and accessible. We don’t like the idea of a woman who’s something else. We don’t like the idea of a man who’s not fulfilling the fiction of the military hero. Because it completely fucks with the fact that we are living in one of the most binary times in history.

It’s sticky for me to describe. A lot of contemporary historians have looked at, say, Amazons, and thought they were [created as a] fantasy. They’re still having trouble admitting that they were probably [mythologisations of] Scythian women.

These warriors had an astonishing impact on the Bronze Age Collapse in what is now called Europe. Across the vast Steppe, they regularly interacted with ancient early empires of China, Persia, and Greece, among others. They wore pants and armour, developed muscles, were skilled with deadly weapons, and their extraordinary skill on horseback gave them access to more physical power and more control over self and sexuality than many people in the history of humankind. The history of these women was rendered largely invisible specifically because they did not conform to the extreme gender binary that has characterized our so-called ‘modern’ era. They are transgressive in our society, our world, they were also especially so in the very extreme gender binary world of Ancient Athens, when mythologising about ‘Amazons’ began. The loss of this history has impacted the development of gender identities and binary gender conformity. They were a remarkable part of the ancient world, yet they do not fit into the extreme gender binaries of the modern world. They most definitely do not fit modern ideas about who is, who was, who can be a valuable warrior or human being.

Reading books about warriors or how gender existed in the past can help us understand the rules of the world we’re living in. It’s a reflexive experience, don’t you think?

That’s exactly the whole reason! That’s it. People wonder what this has to do with now. But history falls more prey to us than we do to it. Warriors are being judged by our version of what we want them to be. So many historians found powerful women distasteful. So they disappeared them. Purposefully. Clothes can be a touching point. It touches the experiences of then and now. That’s why. It’s not about just the past. It’s not just about when people wore armour. It really is about us. How their invisibility impacts us. Where would they be in us? Where are they? It’s about form.

                                                           ***

How would you describe what it feels like to wear your favourite article of clothing? So right as soon as it’s on your body it releases tension. Thoughts and images of songs float through your mind and you walk differently, talk openly, smile more easily.

You are not worried about what people think of you. You do not need to justify the worth of this piece of clothing to anyone. Comfort is no longer a distant memory.

There is nothing about it that overwhelms you. That makes you hide, inside. That makes you take anything more than a second to consider if you’re going in the right direction. If you don’t, you trust this piece of clothing will let you know by getting stuck in an unnatural position.

No one can stop you from transforming into how you wish to become. Someone in the distance too far for us to see in you, for now.

How would you describe what it feels like?


Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley can direct plays but wishes she could direct pigeons.

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