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The adage “clothes make the man” – and by extension, the person – says a great deal about the nature of appearance, identity and disguise. Most of us have had the experience of being in situations where we have been treated differently than expected, due to the way we were dressed. Character is often, even mostly, first judged by one’s clothing.

This theme of dress as expressing something definitive about class, gender, race and era, can be seen throughout history in the visual arts, and no more so than when there is a tension between the message of the dress and the person portrayed. An example is Klimt’s portrait of Sonja Knips, from the year 1898, now housed in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. In it, a young woman sits in a white chair looking outwards. She is clothed in a pink dress that seems to be composed entirely of tulle, creating a cloud-like embrace – with its high neck, ruching, ruffles at the shoulders and cuffs, she is enrobed as if in meringue. She is holding a small red book. Based only on this evidence, we can assume that she is wealthy and privileged – she can afford an expensive and frivolous dress; she is educated; she has time to read. But a close look at the lady’s face and body language tell another story. Her hand is poised on the chair arm as if she is about to rise and flee. Her face is beautiful but wary, and she gazes out with intelligence, curiosity and a little caution. She seems interested in the artist, his gaze and his process. A conflict, or at least a question, is created between the vitality of her gaze and the languorous, fashionable setting in which she finds herself.

What we know about the sitter, Sonja Knips, belies the aristocratic confection of this portrait. She was a Baroness, born into a world of entitlement. She married a rich industrialist. But she was also a primary patroness of the Wiener Werkstaette movement, a strong supporter of modern Viennese art at the turn of the 20th century, and an advocate for women’s emancipation. She spent her entire life championing Josef Hoffman, Klimt and others as they struggled with their new view of Austrian art. And she lived until 1959, suggesting a core of resilience through the violent upheavals that forever altered Europe. It is a measure of Klimt’s skill that we can grasp in this portrait at once the old and the new, and the variance between the woman and her world.

The theatre by nature also uses clothing to create illusion. Cataclysmic discrepancies between clothing and character were starkly manifest in the recent production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and starring Cate Blanchette and Isabelle Huppert. Director Benedict Andrews and designer Alice Babidge created an insular, strikingly fashion-oriented world in which the clothing of the employer, and its use, plays a central role in the lives and minds of the troubled title characters. The two sister/maids have access to a gorgeous rainbow of high fashion garments, in full view of the audience – the entire play seems to take place in a luxurious dressing room, arranged like a timeless museum. Their wealthy employer’s clothes, furs, shoes, accessories, make-up and perfume represent to the maids everything about who they are (and are not), what they want (and do not have), their powerlessness, resentment, anger and pain. They play dress up in a deadly and psychotic game of make believe, re-enacting again and again their dear fantasy of murdering the loathed mistress.

And as in the Klimt portrait, the production provided a startling juxtaposition in the form of live real-time video projections and close-ups of the actresses, as they played out their cruel illusions. Although the actresses were physically different, the maids were anonymous and alike in dull black uniforms. Yet when one donned a stunning red dress and spike heels, she was transformed into a movie star, gliding across the stage with the walk and attitude of an elite, hedonistic and spoiled heiress. At the same time the video screen provided relentless camera close-ups of the maids’ faces, which, despite the exquisite clothing, were exhausted and wild-eyed, aging, ill-groomed, flecked with panic and insanity. In the world of Genet’s play, the pull between clothing and person is not just a variance but a chasm, which eventually pulls these two unfortunates into death and madness.

Image and character, sometimes confined, sometimes created, sometimes transformed by clothing. It would be interesting to know the moment, millennia ago, when our first human-like ancestor donned something for warmth or protection, and discovered possibility.

©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.