It might be worth arguing that more than any form of artistic expression, fashion can be indicative of the societal state of mind. In particular we can witness changing attitudes towards gender norms within different social spheres – this is one of the premises that the exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery ‘When You’re a Boy: Men’s Fashion Styled by Simon Foxton’ grounds itself in, and indeed one that Foxton has worked with throughout his whole career.
The fact that it’s rare to for a stylist’s work to be put on show like this denotes that it’s a role that’s underrated by many, but here’s a retrospective that vindicates the work of a stylist as a real agent of social commentary, working with ideas as well as clothes. Foxton in particular has admitted to “using clothes as a tool” to make a statement, paradoxically suggesting that while these are examples of photographs that might appear in fashion magazines, they are not necessarily about the clothes themselves.
Taking its title from the David Bowie song, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ the tight selection of images span Foxton’s collaborations with photographers Nick Knight, Alasdair McLellan and Jason Evans. Addressing issues of gender, race and class amongst others, we see our attitudes mirrored often by sartorial contradiction, through a process of revealing and concealing.
Take the images from i-D magazine (shot by Nick Knight) under the title ‘English Heritage’, with one showing an image of the traditional English couple ‘Mr & Mrs Andrews’ with the husband standing dutifully behind his wife perched in an armchair. Yet in their place two muscular black male models, wearing leather bondage gear and a gimp suit respectively, subverting our preconceptions of hegemonic masculinity and femininity that are implicitly nothing more than societal constructs.
Elsewhere, by continually addressing issues of butchness and effeminateness through the references to gay subcultures, we see the capacity of visual media to reconstruct and recreate by using fantasy (potentially) as a weapon.
Foxton seems to share with Oscar Wilde a wry amusement about the way masculinity has been appropriated historically, by juxtaposing strange images and affronting us with a sense of disorder and fantasy to ask us questions about what we understand as normal. Race is also explored, with Jason Evans’ ‘Strictly’ series, uncannily presenting black models wearing plus fours and hunting jackets against urban backdrops, posing questions about ethnicity and Englishness, as well as masculinity at the start of the 1990s.
The extensive and indiscriminate cultural references evident in Foxton’s scrapbooks are striking, with torn out images of tribal warriors wrestling in the dust sharing page space with flyers for gay leather club nights. Foxton is definitely a visionary, and one of fashion’s black sheep as somebody who has never followed trends, instead preferring to choose garments with a cultural reference. Styling here proves itself as an intellectual platform, a means of capitalising on what a readership attaches to a particular fashion – questioning our subscription to their ideals by playing on discrepancies. Fashion has been said to be about fiction and fantasy – but Foxton has proven that a far more interesting arena to be explored is, in fact, reality.
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