Art Review: Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross Dressers, The Photographers’ Gallery ‘A Delight’

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I had been very much looking forward to this exhibition, and it didn’t disappoint. For, here, The Photographers’ Gallery has gathered together a rare selection of found, largely anonymous, photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the apparel and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’.

With its themes of gender non-conformity and challenge to the status quo, there’s obviously much here that remains desperately current and pertinent. Yet these were images often taken in private or in safe spaces, and so there’s a delicate sense of bravery here, and that you are witnessing the delight that these women and men gained from being able to express themselves, if only away from the public eye.

And the images are beautiful, from the men in elaborate frills and long skirts, to the women in army uniform or tuxedos. It’s as if we’ve been given the privilege of being invited into a private space. And, as a result, these images that date as far back as the 1880s offer a candid view into the hidden worlds of individuals and groups that chose to defy gender conventions.

But the show also offers up some rather fascinating snippets of information too, such as the boom in mock weddings on all-female US college campuses in the 1900s. Women weren’t seen as ready for society until they were married so these students took it upon themselves to get the photos ready so they could get on in life without the burden of *actually* being married. Smart kids. But the practice, sadly, was banned in 1910 at Wellesley College as the superiors feared it was encouraging lesbianism.

And though most of the men and women in these images are unidentified, nameless faces the result of the majority of these images having been collected from flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and eBay, there are a few exceptions.

The most notable of which is Marie-Pierre Pruvot the renowned Algerian-born French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name Bambi. And a wonderful collection of photographs of her are included, with the star dressed in her on-stage showgirl outfits and headpieces, the glamorous heydays of her life before she retired out of sight to a life as an anonymous teacher in France.

All the photos, however, are drawn from the extensive personal archives of filmmaker and photography collector Sébastien Lifshitz. It’s a wonder and a rare occurrence to see so many of these here in London so do take the opportunity to see this display that explores the surprisingly widespread practice of cross-dressing, through a century of private images.

The Photographers’ Gallery, London, to June 3, 2018.
Admission £4 (free before 12 noon).

Image Credits
1 Man in makeup wearing ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920. © Sebastian Lifshitz Collection, and Guilda, [one of a triptych]. New York, United States, circa 1950. © Sebastian Lifshitz Collection
2 Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, circa 1960. Courtesy of Sebastian Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery
3 English prisoners of war in the German camp, Frankfurt. Handwritten on verso ‘Artists, Jude “& J. Lewis, second lieutenant, Welsh Regiment, 1st the King’s own”. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900.  Courtesy of Sebastian Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery; and Woman in tuxedo. Albumen print, England, circa 1890. © Sebastian Lifshitz Collection

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