Tilda Swinton: Performing Fashion

By de Perthuis, Karen | About Performance, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Tilda Swinton: Performing Fashion


de Perthuis, Karen, About Performance


Introduction

Tilda Swinton is a performer whose work traverses avant-garde, independent and Hollywood cinema, performance art, theatre, music video, and fashion.1 In the seven or so films she made with Derek Jarman in the first decade of her career, and as the eternally fashionable aristocrat in Sally Potter's Orlando (1992), she forged a reputation as a unique actress with a performance style that was difficult to pin down. This quality of eluding classification as a performer has only intensified in the decades since, as Swinton has moved effortlessly between genres and art forms. Across her film and fashion work, her repertoire is a catalogue of endless self-inventions, metamorphoses, and transformations. It is hard to imagine another actor with as wide a range of roles: from angel to witch to vampire; from criminal alcoholic to grieving mother to corporate lawyer; from aristocrat to scientist to corpse.2

In an attempt to analyse her particular performance style, critics and scholars of her early films drew on theories of Brechtian alienation, the concept of camp (via both Sontag and Butler), the portmanteau notion of Brechtian camp, psychoanalytical film theory and the masquerade, semiotics, and queer theory (Brabazon 1994, O'Pray 1996, and Richardson 2003). More recently, Jackie Stacey has written with depth and insight on Swinton's capacity to "cross over" and her signature qualities of "flux and mutability" through extensive use of Lauren Berlant's concept of flat affect (Stacey 2015). Less analytic, but perhaps equally insightful, is the description of Swinton by Olivier Saillard, curator and co-creator with Swinton of Impossible Wardrobes, a series of three performances staged for the Festival d'Automne, Paris, in which Swinton was both performer and exhibit.3 Attempting to sum up the dual nature of her cluster of qualities, he describes her as:

both male and female. She can look eighteen or seventy. She's intriguing. There's a pansexual, Bowie aspect to her. You can put her in nineteenth century clothes and she'll look almost like a young man [...]. She has a presence-absence that enables you to see the clothes. (Swinton and Saillard 2013, 12)

When writing about Swinton's performance style, no one fails to mention her body; her physicality is key. She has a "famously androgynous body" that is "curiously amorphous" (Richardson 2003, 432); it is a "porous" or "textual surface" (Brabazon 1994, 18), a "female body", wrapped in "the paleness of her whiteness" (Stacey 2015, 253 and 263). Famous for embodying gender ambiguity, the distinction between the body of Swinton-the-actor and the role or character she is playing is regularly held in tension, with the distance between this dual presence almost universally theorised as exposing gender as a construct and femininity as a performative effect or masquerade. In the body of films she made with Jarman and in Potter's Orlando, for instance, stable borders and boundaries are disrupted and the categories of sex, gender, gay, straight, queer, camp, feminine, and masculine are put under question.4 In this process of destabilisation, Richardson argues, Swinton was not (as some suggested) an "abject sponge" for Jarman's (presumed) "gay, male misogyny," but rather a pivotal agent who, from the start, deliberately chose roles that subverted femininity and offered "an iconoclastic deconstruction of the feminine" (Richardson 2003, 428 and 434). This is an important point. Often involved from a project's inception, Swinton is renowned for taking an active role in the creation of character, script, and performance. This is more than character preparation. As she has said, "I don't get parts, I grow parts" (Hirschberg 2011); and more than once it has been said of her that a given project would be unthinkable or unworkable without her (Lane 2010, Sarratia 2013, Cohen 2013).

Swinton's costuming is also a consistent point of reference. In his analysis of Edward II (Jarman 1991), Richardson draws on the way Swinton-as-Isabella is spectacularly attired in flamboyant, theatrically excessive costumes to argue that there is "a distance between the film character of Isabella-who is represented in terms of glamour, artifice and feminine stylization-and the actor Swinton beneath the masquerade" (Richardson 2003, 434). …

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