A playful exploration of gender identity
Play with yourself. Go on…do it, Lou did.
The garments Lou Ashford produced for her graduate collection PLAY WITH YOURSELF, explore gender representation and its embodiment through apparel and play. She confronts the traditional approach of defining gender through sexuality, creating instead a platform for the exploration of these themes through physical and tactile experience. The palpable nature of her garments is designed to encourage discovery of one’s own body underneath the cloth. Ashford furthers this approach by removing the visual hindrance created by traditional representations of gender in fashion.
Ashford’s refined understanding of colour and balance softens the otherwise unfamiliar nature of many of her garments. Deep red juxtaposes soft greys, blues and greens creating a delicate and deceptively simple collection. The voluminous detail on her garments, when compressed inwards, form basic and wearable clothing, but all these pockets and folds do cause a sensory stir.
Lou, why did you choose to address gender in such an unusual way?
PLAY WITH YOURSELF was about play and the embodiment and fluidity of gendered expression. The viewer/wearer possibly wouldn’t see gender as the key purpose of these garments, but it is manifested through the exploration of form that happens naturally. I wanted to create clothing that was abstract and interactive. The idea was to design garments that would be tools to change from one personality, mood or even gender to another. Imagine a garment covered in crater-like pockets the wearer can inverse to form soft padded balls. The balls become part of the wearer and the new form of the clothing morphs the body.
Essentially, I was trying to explore how you can use playing with your clothing as a metaphor for playing with your gender. It was a discussion of gender fluidity.
When presenting my work for my critiques, instead of bringing out models, I would make my tutors put on the garments so that they could have a first-hand experience of play. This would create a buzzing kind of environment where they felt directly involved and excited. When you put garments like these on, I think you become something else, you have the desire to move your body in a different way. Either consciously or subconsciously, you explore Play.
Did you focus on gender from the very beginning of your project? When did you discover that it was possible to look at gender this way, as a tactile experience?
To be honest, in the first concept stage I watched a lot of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I had this idea that I would create something with sass, something cheeky that would leave you “gagging.”
The first half of my workbook was full of glitter, giant sequins and temporary tattoos. My biggest inspiration was drag queen padding, well, padding and tucking. I was inspired by the layering of genders, but more interested in the temporality of it rather than the finished look. I really loved this quick transition, this performance if you will, from one gender identity to another – and then so quickly reversed. I started by making “conventional” ass and hip padding for myself, but I needed to take it beyond conventional drag. I had to take it somewhere else, somewhere new.
So you made a conscious decision to explore in a new way. How did you transition from Drag Queen to your final outcome?
I procrastinated by making still-lives, painting on real fruit. I ended up with multi-coloured bananas, blue oranges and a hot pink bunch of grapes. Eventually, this morphed into my padding exploration and I developed a very “fruity” collection of ideas. The grapes worked the best. I became heavily focused on creating giant balls that hung off the body; I called it experimental padding or 3D polka dots.. It was about placement and size, and how that influenced one gender identity more than another. I found that challenging these stereotypes was fun and I focused on keeping it playful.
Although undeniably creative, how did you fit this into a fashion school framework? For example, how does the collection fit a specific market?
I had so many moments of doubt; we were constantly asked throughout the project “Who is your market? What is the purpose of your collection?” I struggled answering these questions because I couldn’t figure out where my collection sat.
I was paranoid it would become too wearable art so I was constantly refining and toning it down. My colour palate needed to be fun and playful, but I didn’t want it to be child-like.
I think the most important moment was at the photo-shoot. I wanted my models to have strong personalities and show some sass. After a few shots however, I realised that wasn’t working. We completely changed the look of the models to create a more “serious but beautiful” look. It was subtle and androgynous and gave the collection depth. I had this realisation that play can be serious and the garments will always be a unique experience for the individual wearing them.
The collection is market-less but the project turned into an endless discussion. So I guess PLAY WITH YOURSELF is for anyone comfortable wearing conversational garments!
Within this complex development process, could you tell us about the development of one specific element?
One specific element that was really important to me was creating the balls so that they would be padded but also pushed inward to create pockets. I used CAD to design them. There is no way I could have flat pattern-made some of those garments. Annotating pieces and notching every seam is a lesson well learned. Especially in the asymmetrical red ball-y dress, it was like putting together a 3D puzzle that made no sense. The CAD pattern-making process was really important to the final design because without it I wouldn’t have been able to make the balls grow proportionally throughout garments. On the boys I needed the balls to be a bit bigger to look proportionally the same as when the girls wore a similar garment. Grading was frustrating yet rewarding!