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31 Jul

This exhibition delves into the wardrobes of mythologised women

Yeats once wrote that the poet we meet on the page is “never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits all the way down to breakfast”, but how a lot better off would a reader be in knowing the poet sat all the way down to their eggy bread wearing a fetching kimono, or sporting a plain towelling robe? Poets in Vogue is an exhibition currently running on the National Poetry Library within the Southbank Centre, and specializing in seven female poets, or quite more specifically on their relationship with, and attitude towards, clothing. 

In a slight plot twist, only certainly one of the seven exhibits on display – a plaid skirt once owned and worn by Sylvia Plath – is ‘authentic’; the remaining, from a caftan representing Audre Lorde to a stunning red frock based on one worn by Anne Sexton at readings, are given a considered twist, telling us not a lot the prose of the matter, as offering a bit of poetic symbolism of their very own.

“We wanted each installation to reflect the actual aesthetic – sartorial and poetic – of every individual poet,” co-curator Sarah Parker tells Dazed, and the best way through which this has been caused is by playing up certain points of the poets’ work in bespoke exhibits. They’re, as Parker notes, “deliberately creative responses” to the poets’ writing. Equally creative is the choice of poets, from relatively mainstream figures akin to Plath and Sexton to the more avant-garde, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and the political poet and thinker, Lorde. 

Sophie Oliver, co-curator, noted that within the case of a Black lesbian poet like Lorde “clothes were also a “type of motion”, “making a space – for herself and for ladies like her”. The exhibition’s response to her was, subsequently, necessarily different to its way of framing a poet like Stevie Smith, the suburbanite Londoner whose faux-naïve work is paired here with a set of virtually taxidermy-style stiff collars. “Smith’s life has also sometimes been viewed as a lifetime of repetition, even stagnation. But quite than considering of her as tragic and ‘eccentric’, I desired to take into consideration repetition as a deliberate strategy of defamiliarisation and as liberating, in a way”, reflects Parker, and the not-quite equivalent collars act to make stranger the already haunting words of Smith’s poem Pretty, displayed alongside.

But what of the drive behind the exhibition as an entire, and the possibly undermining concept of presenting these canonical women writers on the premise of their wardrobes? This was something Parker had – after all – considered deeply: “We anticipated that individuals might say we were ‘trivialising’ or fetishising the poets by specializing in dress or fashion”, she tells us. “We were highly conscious of the undeniable fact that specializing in women poets and dress raises vexed issues, including a really long history of girls poets being judged through their appearance, and dismissed attributable to the best way they dress. Clothing will not be a superficial or trivial focus; it seems to us that attitude is basically attributable to old-fashioned and misogynistic assumptions about fashion’s ‘feminine’ associations.” 

Oliver added that the poets’ work was all the time, equally, in focus, and the exhibition was about “attempting to reshape the narrative across the query of girls artists’ lives, particularly clothes and image: to ask: ‘How does what they wore relate to what they made?’

“An actual person wrote those poems; an actual person wore that skirt” – Sophie Oliver, co-curator

This isn’t any tabloid-style gawp at who wore it best; the art continues to be centre stage, the poets’ words every bit as much an element of the show because the striking, occasionally pantomimic, reflections on the ways they presented themselves to the world. Writing is a performance in itself, just because the poets’ self-presentation at readings or in creator photographs, and Oliver is keen to indicate that poetry is all the time “an embodied practice”. 

In some ways Plath, that the majority cultish and worrisomely mythologised of poets, is rendered all of the more poignant by the understatedness of her skirt being displayed soberly, behind glass, a “provocation” as Parker notes, against the fetish-like voyeurism that has built up round her since her early death. While the exhibition is keen to avoid trivialising its poets, it’s equally keen to avoid denying the flesh and blood reality of the bodies that were once behind the clothing, and poems, as Oliver is quick to indicate. “An actual person wrote those poems; an actual person wore that skirt.”

Poets in Vogue is running on the National Poetry Library on the Southbank Centre, London, until September 10 2023.

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