Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Queering the Image 4: The Mollycoddle



Mollycoddle n.- a pampered darling; an effeminate man

Here is a (queer) fragment from the visual culture of the early twentieth century, a postcard circa 1910 depicting the Mollycoddle,  a mere 40 years after the homosexual became a species in the words of Foucault and not just a sexual act. 

The caption of the postcard reads, “Mollycoddle- Male person who marselles (sic) his hair.  Note absence of suspenders.  Considered vulgar by Mollycoddles.”  Seated before a mirror like Narcissus and armed with his hot curling iron, the Mollycoddle fashions his hair into stylish waves known as a marcelle.   The hair style was invented by a French hairdresser named Francois Marcel in 1872 and it apparently remained popular for the next 50 years.  The act of hairdressing obviously expresses the effeminacy and (sexual) difference of the figure.  This difference is underlined by the rouge, powder and eau de cologne on his dressing table.  Not only will his hair be coiffed, but also his face will be adorned with makeup and his body will be scented.


The figure is also defined as somatically distinct.  In contrast to the (masculine, heterosexual) body, the figure wears a corset in order to create and display a feminine hourglass shape.  Curves instead of straight lines.   This reshaping of the body into a feminine display is also achieved by the fitted jacket with its large padded shoulders and the narrowness of the trousers that end in cuffs a bit too short, revealing polka dot socks and  high heeled shoes.  A masculine suit is redeployed into a feminine and queer spectacle.  This reforming of the body suggests the constructed nature of  gender itself.  Gender is achieved by a series of accessories, poses and gestures which are themselves relational.  Something is feminine because it is not masculine.

The caption signals this corporeal change as well.  The Mollycoddle does not wear suspenders, an item of (masculine) attire, but favors a corset to engender a feminine shape.  Suspenders according to the Mollycoddle are “vulgar” which suggests that he and his fellow Mollycoddles possess a level of taste, fashion and style in spite  of a  flagrant flaunting of  the rules of gender.  Rather the figure in the postcard displays a joy in his difference and revels in his gender performance.

And this in a sense is the point.  As I have argued in other Queering the Image posts, this postcard was intended to be a source of ridicule and amusement for it’s imagined heterosexual audience.  Yet, while this image in its small way attempted (and still attempts)  to define and privilege the center through the margin, it simultaneously becomes a reverse discourse in the words of Foucault.  A 1910 (homosexual) viewer of this postcard could perhaps see beyond the agency of control, beyond the gender regime and feel recognition, expression and identity just as the Mollycoddle sees himself in the postcard mirror.  And for myself as a 2009 homo/queer/gay/vext viewer, I see a continuity, a history and a past.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Notes on a Film: The September Issue

The September Issue is a wonderful and engaging documentary which details the creation of the all important September edition of Vogue.  While the publicity for the movie has focused on Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, the real emotional and artistic center of the film belongs to Vogue Creative Director, Grace Coddington.  The contrast between the 2 women who have been working together at Vogue for more than 2o years is, at least for me, the predominant and most stimulating theme of the film.

Wintour comes across as I expected.  I don’t think any viewer of The September Issue will be surprised by her demeanor.  It is hard to get behind those dark sunglasses and see the real person.  She is definitive, authoritative, a bit cold and inaccessible.  Her hair is trimmed into a perfect bob with never a hair out of place.  Her makeup is just right.  She wears clothes which are due in part to her status and influential position.  She is trim and elegant.  She remains an enigma and ultimately, not one which is very intriguing.

In contrast, Grace Coddington is the complete opposite of Wintour both physically and in terms of temperament.  In contrast to the perfect bob, Grace’s hair is long and wild looking.  Her age is visible on her face.  She is not a trim woman in the Vogue sense.  She wears black clothes which seem to appeal to her individuality rather than to what is fashionable at the moment.  She is passionate and creative.  She excels at her work in styling the photo shoots for Vogue.  She is a visual genius.  One gets the sense that she knows the game here.  She herself was a model in late 50’s and early 60’s.

In my favorite scene in the film, a photo shoot of French couture at Versailles that Grace is styling, she takes a break and walks out into the palace gardens.  Looking out on them, she says, “It is amazing.  It’s sort of strange to think how old it is…it’s beautiful.”  Then, in voiceover, she says, “I think I got left behind somewhere because I’m still a romantic…you have to go charging ahead you can’t stay behind…”

This scene is extremely beautiful.  I was near tears.  (I too am a romantic, although if you ask me I’ll deny it.)  In the Versailles scene, Grace expresses a vulnerability and a sense of self that the viewer does not see and will never see with Wintour.  In this profound moment, there is the juxtaposition of this beautiful and creative woman of experience and wisdom against the ephemeral nature of the fashion industry itself and particularly how this industry has become an integral part of our celebrity obsessed and driven culture.  Wintour to her credit recognized this need for celebrity early on at Vogue and used it to increase the success of the magazine.  Grace could do without these celebrities (she is looking for the something that endures like Versailles and celebrities are certainly not romantic), but she has continued to forge ahead creating her vision for the photo shoots in the magazine.  In the end, the all important September issue of Vogue is filled mostly with her work.

Call me Grace, I think you’re swell…