Cecil Beaton’s early studio portraits of debutantes and celebrities helped define the image of the ‘Bright Young Thing’, with elaborate backdrops and dramatic costumery. But it was perhaps through his self-portraits that he most strikingly explored the power of dressing up to transform, liberate and play.
As part of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things, The Royal Society of Literature was due to host an event titled ‘Dressing Up’, with contemporary writers and drag performers Amrou Al-Kadhi and Tom Rasmussen, to consider dressing up, self-portraiture and autobiographical writing, and the shifting grounds for queer expression over the last 100 years.
In place of this event Amrou and Tom have responded to the Cecil Beaton Bright Young Things catalogue, for a written discussion that spans their personal forays into drag the intersection of queer identity and self-expression, and their admiration for Cecil Beaton and his photographic subjects.
Amrou Al-Kadhi (@glamrou)
‘The chapter about Cecil Beaton's years at Cambridge really moved me. You get the impression student life was like a rehearsal environment, a safe space where Beaton could pull out whatever he found from the dressing up box and experiment in front of his peers without worrying about backlash or consequence.
Cambridge for me was like that – it is the most transgressive I ever was with clothing, and I yearn to feel as adventurous and confident as I did back then; each day the streets felt like a new runway where I could test sometimes the most stupid of ensembles (I remember a month where I dressed as a different Pimms fruit each week!). There was something of the NeverNever Land to being a student there, and that gave me agency to express myself, and to try out things even if they didn't work. I would feel too scared to do that now! There were days where I even wore a British Airways suit!
I think this freedom to experiment is why I first started drag at university – there didn't seem to be many social consequences, as I've come to learn later in my life (though of course I've never stopped drag). The outfits you used to wear were also a highlight of my university year – like Cecil, you sometimes took to a nun's costume...’
Tom Rasmussen (@tomglitter)
‘Yes – the nun’s habit and half wig were a highlight, and lest we forget when you wore head to toe red – including dying your hair – for near a whole term? I think it was of course the comfortable, upper-middle-class womb of Cambridge, but to me it’s also something to do with the fearlessness of youth. The naiveté of our then totally unformed, and uninformed, identities. For instance, I never really remember linking the way I dressed to either my gender, my identity or whatever politic I was peddling at the time, and actually it was based totally on a feeling: choosing what I wanted to wear, rather than choosing what I wanted, or rather, needed to say. With hindsight I’m aware they are one and the same, and actually much of the way I dressed then has informed much of the way I see my gender, and even my position in the world, now. Now we’ve both had time away from that phase – with certain violence against our presentation forcing us to hide away some of our more transgressive day-looks for want of safety over subversion – it seems to me that, speaking for myself here – the thing that I had then, that I have less of now, is youth.
I think that’s why I’m so obsessed with Beaton when he’s young. I die for the image of Beaton and his friends at Captain McEachran’s fancy dress party in 1927. They have such a, excuse the cliché, brightness to them. We had that then. Do you think it’s growing up that’s changed your focus? Do you think it changed Beaton’s?’
‘That’s a good point about Cambridge – the environment felt safe very much because of its privilege, and the privilege of experimentation is of course earned by those who are able to acquire the means to do so. Still, for me, university was the first time I was away from my parents, who policed my sexuality and gender to the point of abuse – the fantasy quality of Cambridge meant it felt like dressing up day every day, and it was the first time I felt so free. And you're right – a shift to existing in the real world means we have both experienced very scary violence because of how we dress, and this has sobered our styles. I know what you mean about the nonchalant joy of the 1927 fancy dress party. It makes me ache! Perhaps as our dressing up has literally becoming a career – especially with drag – we’ve potentially professionalised it, and that pointless joy has faded a little? I, for one, do make a distinction between dressing up for an audience, which is very much a job, to dressing up off stage in something more comfortable and casual, and this has perhaps become too demarcated for me. When I was younger, there used to be no distinction.
I agree that there's this feeling like we have to assert our identity quite emphatically these days – you reify your Twitter bio to an essential identity trait, say; and Instagram is a careful curation of self-presentation. It means that the joyous grey area where you just allow yourself to play, fades, and that’s often where the magic happens. Perhaps I need to go back there, to be comfortable with failing sartorially in public, rather than worrying if what I’m wearing is a contradiction to my identity. That’s definitely what you get in the catalogue. This feeling that Beaton is forever experimenting. It’s just amazing how many different styles and genres influenced him, and he didn't limit himself.;
‘Perhaps this is a deeply cringe question, but I wonder if that kind of freedom – that kind of play – would be possible in the age of Instagram, but also in the age of late-stage capitalism. What would Beaton’s Instagram have looked like? If it wasn’t all captured on film and developed later – there would be a lot more self-consciousness (the bad kind), a lot less freedom – a lot less brightness. Perhaps his set would be known as the Blue Tick Young Things, or, bleakly, as influencers. Maybe that’s a pointless anachronism. But it sometimes feels like dressing up for fun – without a product – might be, sadly, a waste of time even though it actually wouldn’t be at all. I agree completely that there are distinctions between dressing up for “work” and also “to work” (yes queen), and it completely feels as though this didn’t exist for Beaton. Like his whole world was based on a sense of play. Maybe, once this is over, we should play together without dress? Our aesthetic? I mean it taught me so much back then, there’s almost certainly something new to learn in those failures (and, of course, successes).
The thing I love most about all of the images is the deep sense of camp they all have. I mean he’s of course an early progenitor of camp, I mean that picture of Edith Olivier – I absolutely die. I live and I die. If I can look like that when I’m older, I will have made it. But I think, speaking of the politics of dress/image/non-conformity – these images look so idealised in so many ways. It makes me want to go back a hundred years and live then, even though my identity was illegal then (and until 1969). I love it. What’s your favourite image? Why?’
‘Yeah, it's amazing to think how willing we were back then to put on something objectively hideous whilst iconic and not worrying about whether it would get any likes or comments etc. … Don't want this to sound like we're from the pre-historic age, but even a decade ago felt freer – hope the youth of today are able to experiment as unboundedly as we were!
The idealism of the images is a great point and speaks to queer aspiration a lot. As queer people, we are so often taught to feel relegated from the higher echelons of culture (and all societal structure to be honest!), and you get the sense of Beaton creating the fantasies he may have felt exempt from and starring in them a lot of the time. It’s a precursor to Warhol in that way, who certainly created his own reality and sphere of fame, and succeeded within the world he curated, rather than waiting to be accepted into anyone else's. I think the image that left me gagged was the one of Dorothy Wilde in the silver shawl, 1927. There’s a camp re-imagining of a Biblical icon here, and I adore that. As if Beaton is creating his own queer idols and icons to aspire to, rather than the ones preordained for him mass-culturally. I think you see this throughout the whole exhibition – the way gay people often see themselves more in female histories, and deify female icons and iconography, often recapitulating female narratives through a queer lens.
Definitely, when I think about my own childhood in the Middle East, in my drag today I dress up as the women and pop stars I saw myself in growing up, often reimagining them to align with my queer politics in a way they would not have been advocating! It's a way to re-write often difficult narratives. Certainly, for Beaton, when being gay was illegal, you get the feeling that celebrating the female icon is his subtle way of expressing his queerness without actually saying it. It’s what makes the images so camp, because there are so many winks and nudges without overt declaration, There’s so much about the gay relationship to female icons in this catalogue, don't you think?’
‘Completely. I think it’s also a sort of drag, without necessarily getting into full drag (although he did certainly play with the feminine himself). So much of drag is about longing for the feminine, about deifying and exploring and living for and finding power in the feminine. Which is why these images – even the really iconic, over the top ones – have such a sensitivity to them. Unlike, say, images of women taken by heterosexual men (a generalisation I know) but these women are clearly his idols, his fascination. I think it’s wonderful, honouring the parts of yourself that you can’t by honouring other people who can. One could argue that these women are his reflections, a sort of series of self-portraits. That certainly what I feel when I look at the women who gave me my femininity: my mum, my grandma, Bette Lynch, the one-eyed dinner lady at school who was so brusque. I feel like they are a part of me, like they’ve informed who I am deeply. That’s what this whole body of work feels like to me, an exploration of this part of Beaton that there were very few, if any, representations of for him to see. So, he created them in these women; much like we did/do/are doing in our drag.’
Amrou Al-Kadhi is a writer for TV and film and in 2019 published their first book, UNICORN: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen (4th Estate), which reflects on queer intersectionality. Tom Rasmussen performs as Crystal Rasmussen, and their 2019 memoir, Diary of a Drag Queen (Ebury), is a unique portrayal of the queer experience, presenting a world of possibility through drag. Shahidha Bari, Professor of Fashion Cultures at the London College of Fashion, was due to chair their discussion. Her book, Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes (Jonathan Cape), was published in 2019. The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) is the UK’s charity for the advancement of literature, and celebrates its bicentenary in 2020.
The Bright Young Things at Wilsford (L to R: Stephen Tennant, Georgia Sitwell, William Walton, Teresa Jungman, Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton) by Cecil Beaton, 1927 The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
Edith Olivier in costume as Elizabeth I at a pageant, Wilton by Cecil Beaton, 1935 The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
Dorothy 'Dolly' Wilde in a silver shawl by Cecil Beaton, 1927 The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive