It’s half 2 on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in June. Charlie Porter is sat across from me — virtually of course. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and “super super short shorts”. Naturally, as the author of the book “What Artists Wear”, a book all about how clothes can hold identity and meaning, the first thing I ask him is: What does your outfit say about you today?
“You know what? I went and sat in an outdoor cafe this morning to do some writing,” he says confessing that he wanted time to himself and to do that he needed to slip under the radar for just a few hours — to step away from the jazzy shirts he’d been wearing all summer long. “I wanted to be quite anonymous.” But what did the desire for anonymity say about Charlie that day versus on the zany shirt days? He paused. He had put as much of himself into his choice today to be crisp, cotton, and low-key as he had when he wanted to be loud, bright, and seen.
Jean Michel Basquiat modelling at a Comme des Garçons show. Photo: Comme des Garçons.
It’s the 90s; flared, low-rise jeans are all the rage. A teenage Charlie hops on the first of two busses that will eventually get him to London from Northamptonshire. He’s only a teenager, but he’s already forging his identity through fashion. Clothes were an institute and a language — London was the epicenter of it all. “I really was kind of enthralled by fashion from my teenage years. For me was an Institute of Identity; my own identity, queerness. But also a kind of desire to find like-minded people as well. Or to engage in like-minded dialogue”.
Even today on our call, Charlie feels that being in tune with himself on the day, in the morning when he picks what he’s going to put on means that he can never not be dressing for his identity, even if the selection of the garment is based purely around practicality, like the shorts he’s wearing that fit his “ridiculously long legs”. But he concedes his own point, “and yet, it is connected to my mood, how I'm feeling, what I want to communicate or what I don't want to communicate.” When we take time to acknowledge what we need from our wardrobe when we wake up in the morning, we’re engaging with our identity, even if it changes day to day, through clothing.
Richard Hamilton. Photo: Tony Evans slash Getty Images. (Artwork: 'Kent State', 1970 © Richard Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021)
“I think one of the things that I wanted to start thinking about with the book is trying to be more active in that thought process about why I wear what I wear,” Charlie tells me. “Although, that isn’t easy, you can’t pin it down. In the book, I'm very clear that I'm not setting out this grand theory of dressing like it's a mystery. We build an identity through clothing over time, but that’s not to say that the personal styles we cultivate should sheepdog us into an outfit each day - it should be thought about, it should be felt.”
But isn’t he, as an ex-fashion journalist, also concerned with fashion? The short answer is: no. He believes that fashion affects us all in that Devil Wears Prada cerulean blue sweater inspired by Oscar de la Renta kind of way. But “by talking to people about what they wear, rather than talking to people about fashion or style, you break from fashion's anxiety about time. Many of the artists in the book wear the same clothes over years”.
Francis Bacon, 1974. Photo: Michael Holtz slash Alamy. Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2021
Fashion liberates. The fashion industry constricts. They’re two entirely different entities, according to Charlie. By removing the anxiety that comes with being a part of the fashion industry, Charlie hopes the book communicates that it unlocks us from the pressure of the industry. In ‘What Artists Wear’, Charlie talks about a woman who rejected the fashion industry and the patriarchal pressures to wear “the right things”. Her name was Agnes Martin. How did she rebel? She wore functional clothing her entire life. “It's something that comes up again and again in the book, looking at artists who tried to use clothing to try and live a life outside of these restrictions of society”. She was born in 1912. But she lived through the middle to late part of the 20th century. “She was queer, schizophrenic. She wanted to be truly herself in a society that would accept none of those things. And it's like, by wearing functional clothing, she separated herself off from this patriarchal language of tailoring, nice dresses, the things you're meant to wear. It comes up again and again in the book, how artists use clothing to try and break from it”.
Anthea Hamilton, The Squash, Tate Britain Commission, 2018. Photo: ©LOEWE
Tabboo! Photo: Tabboo!
But it’s 2021 now and we’re not oppressed by clothing anymore, right? Wrong. Acts of sartorial rebellion have liberated us, sure. Agnes Martin wore simple black clothing so Gaga could wear meat. However, we have a long way to go towards tolerance, true acceptance of self and others, but the work is happening over time. Take the art form of drag for instance, it has begun to infiltrate the mainstream and dismantle oppressive patriarchal systems through clothing; feather boas, platform size 12 shoes, and 10 pound wigs. Charlie and I talk about how interesting it is that clothing can transform you; even from a man to a woman. And when it’s done performatively, like how you must wear an appropriate outfit in a position of power to communicate that power and class, it’s a costume. “It's fascinating that the suit is redundant for most humans who are now no longer in an office,” says Charlie. “They're not involved in that day to day performance of wearing a suit. And that performance is really happening now just in power and status. Biden was meeting Putin today. They're both wearing a suit. And I do think what Borris Johnson wears is drag”.
Just as much as clothes make a statement about who you are to the world, you also start to have an effect on your clothes too, and they can begin to reflect you over time. Have you ever owned something that somebody told you was “so you”? You make a print on your garment with what you pair it with, how you wear it, and what you wear it for. “So Chantelle Joffrey talked about the Birkenstocks that she wears in a studio, and the Birkenstocks never leave the studio, they're just studio shoes.” She took them and made accidental art. “They're completely encrusted with paint, so much so that you can barely see the difference between the clogs and the floor. And she said how when they finally were out, and she has to get a new pair, how weird it is to have these brand new shoes.”
By the time we’re winding up our chat, we’ve discussed the exclusivity of London Fashion Week, the wonder that is Bimini Bon Boulash, and Charlie’s parallel life that could have led him to owning a newsagency. One thing seems clear to me which is that fashion isn’t one thing or the other; it’s not serious, but it is. It’s about paint splattered clogs that make us happy. It’s about rejecting the oppressors that make us sad. It’s about women wearing suits and looking fucking great. It’s about what we want to wear today. It’s about how what we wear today can change the world.
Today, for Charlie it’s also about something simple:
“I love short shorts”.