Nando Messias is a longtime friend and collaborator of BST. We asked him for his thoughts on ‘political dressing’ and the other facets of queer theory that his work covers. The post is illustrated with pictures of Nando by BST co-editor Darrell Berry.
I have a PhD in queer theory and dance-theatre performance. Queer theory, in a nutshell, is concerned with anything that might be seen to be going against the so-called ‘normal.’ That is clearly a quite wide ranging field of study as it can encompass sexual behaviour, body image, social, ethnic, racial issues and so forth.
My research is concerned specifically with gender behaviour. To be even more specific, I look at the effeminate body or, in other words, male bodies that act, behave, move, walk in ways that might be described as ‘feminine’. It is, of course, incredibly more complex than it sounds as the words ‘male,’ ‘feminine’ and ‘body’ are all nuanced and, in a way, up for grabs, as it were. That is, what we consider feminine in the West in 2012 might be different than other cultures around the world and across history might have seen as feminine.
My work then involves analysing current understandings of male femininity and the social implications that might derive from a man who wears high heels and make up but who still identifies as a man (rather than as a drag queen or as a transwoman or a transvestite or a cross-dresser…). The choreography, especially of my PhD performance piece Sissy!, comes out of observations of the effeminate body and its social interactions with others.
My work as a dancer-actor and choreographer has been hugely influenced by the work of Pina Bausch. I situate what I do within the tradition of dance-theatre and Bausch is the main figure in the world of dance-theatre.
I often work with Biño Sauitzvy, who is someone I admire profoundly artistically speaking. We did Sissy! together and also a stage version of Jean Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers in which I play the transvestite Divine. Our next project is a duet in which we play Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, the creators of Butoh. In terms of my modelling work, I always try to incorporate some of the queer ideology that guides my other work. I have been featured in W magazine as part of the Theo Adams Company. That job was shot by David Sims, styled by Camilla Nickerson and the make up was done by Linda Cantello. It was one of the most amazing fashion jobs I have ever done. Lorna Luft was photographed with Theo as part of that same story. Having her on set was super special for me considering that her mother was Judy Garland, the high-priestess of gay and queer culture. I have also been featured in Candy magazine (the first ever transgender-focused style magazine), Issue One and POP.
Part of my research and my work is this idea that I am unable to disguise my effeminacy. Not only am I unable to do it but, more to the point, I am unwilling to even try so I am only interested in modelling jobs that reflect that philosophy.
I am interested in make up and garments traditionally associated with the feminine universe as an act of subversion of social norms. The term ‘feminine universe’ sounds really strange and hugely generalising to me as I read the previous sentence back. It makes it sound like there is a completely different universe out there that is totally detached from anything else. But I suppose you know what I mean. I am talking about lipstick, high heels, dresses and so on. Generally speaking, I use these not in order to make me look like a woman. I am not interested in ‘passing’ as a woman, although I have occasionally done that as well. Rather than ‘passing,’ I am more interested in reaching for the things (objects, garments, accessories, perfume, nail varnish, etc.) that have conventionally been denied me. I am interested in blurring the lines.
I would not define myself as a drag queen but would not object to being called a drag queen either. I think there is some contempt for the term ‘drag queen,’ especially within gay/queer circles that I actively want to avoid. It is somewhat analogous to what I identify in mainstream society as the contempt for the feminine. My appropriation of these signifiers is, to me, a political act.
Bette Bourne talks about political dressing. I like that term. I like that idea. I use these signifiers of femininity not only in my work but also in my daily life. I have my nails painted, I wear lipstick, I wear heels when I go out. I enjoy dressing up. I am always a lit bit shocked by how much this can push people’s buttons. Most people like clear lines. They like a man to look like a man and a woman to look like a woman, whatever that might mean. Going back to the contempt for femininity I was talking about earlier, I think it is still more easily accepted in today’s society for a woman to dress in what we traditionally associate with elements belonging to the masculine wardrobe. In other words, a woman with a gamine haircut, wearing a suit, tie and brogues is not that outrageous anymore even though, as we very well know, some suffragettes were arrested for the simple act of wearing trousers. But Yves Saint Laurent made it chic for women to wear a tuxedo back in the 70s. A man wearing a dress or heels or make up, however, is still largely ridiculed.
I wonder what that is all about. Something to do with male and masculinity representing power and the idea of a man wanting to relinquish that power being confounding.
I personally think the increased visibility of transgender and transexual models in fashion is progress even though I think there is still much work to be done. There is a lesson to be learned from history. If we think about the reality of a different minority group, namely models of colour, than we can really see how far from acceptance we still are. The first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue was Beverley Johnson in 1974. I think British Vogue got there first even though there were rumours she was covering most of her face in order to hide her (ethnic-looking) nose and mouth… Britain has always been on the forefront of equality in many aspects, I think. But back to the reality of black models in fashion today… Only this last week there was an article on the Sunday Times that talked about Philip Treacy’s all black model cast for his latest show at London Fashion Week. It relates how non-Caucasian faces in fashion are still exceptions, how there are still very few spaces for ethnic minorities despite the likes of Beverley Johnson, Beverley Peele, Iman, Naomi, Alek Wek, Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, etc. having made it somewhat more acceptable. Why is this still an issue 28 years after the first black model made history by appearing on the cover of a mainstream fashion magazine?
Perhaps things haven’t moved that far forward. The reality for transgender and transsexual models is, realistically speaking, even tougher, I should think. We have Andrej Pejic and Lea T, who are, by the way, both amazing!!! but that is it, really, in terms of recognisable faces (and names) in fashion. And even these two examples are very much confined to a specific niche of the fashion market, which is, itself, already very niche and elitist. It is very few designers who are brave enough to use these transgender and transsexual models. From the top of my head, I can only think of Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier. How long will it be before a transgender or transsexual model makes the cover of Vogue? And then after that, what will be the next taboo to be tackled?
Basically, and really generally speaking, ‘normal’ is a made-up concept. Its invention has been traced back to the 1800s and the Victorian obsession with classifying things. It is a term connected to the birth of statistics, where what the majority of us does becomes accepted as the norm. The problem than becomes what is done to those of us who fall outside the parameters of normal. This is when it starts to get complicated and we, as a society, begin to create categories of abnormality such as mental (and physical) disease and criminality, which are then associated with behaviours that prior to the invention of ‘normality’ were not necessarily seen as such.
There is another important question to be asked here: who determines what is normal and what is not normal? It is all very much associated with white male supremacy, where being white, heterosexual, masculine-looking and masculine-acting (if you’re a man), feminine-looking and feminine-acting (if you’re a woman), thin, healthy, financially-solvent, not too tall but not too short and so on and so forth. Normal changes and evolves as we change and evolve as a society. It is not a fixed concept. Queer theory evolved as a way to challenge this way of thinking, it offers an alternative way to think about these categories. In what regards sexology, for instance, why have ninetheen-century scientists decided to categorise the whole of humankind according to whom they have sex with? If with someone of the same sex as you: homosexual. If with someone of a different sex: heterosexual. Why not classify people according to how often they have sex or where they prefer to have sex or whatever other random category? It has clearly to do with Judeo-Christian values of marriage and family but also with how the state controls its subjects.
No human being falls completely within the boundaries of normal.
We all have our idiosyncracies. Human behaviour is more fluid than normal allows room for.