Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ossie Clark

This time’s sort-of-historical blog post is another bisexual I never met – fashion designer Ossie Clark. He’s also my second Elegantly Dressed Wednesday subject, because not only could he look pretty smart himself, he made lots of rich and lucky women look good, and had an influence on the style of plenty of poorer women too – including the teenage me.

Born in 1942 and murdered in 1996, Ossie Clark was a terrific designer who made some of his best clothes in the late 60s and early 70s.

The clothes he made tended to the flowing, like the pictures I’ve posted here.

A kind of 40s meets 70s crepe or chiffon. And very sexy, in my opinion.

I can’t find many pictures that will allow me to post them here, but the site for the London Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2003-04 exhibition has quite a few to look at.

A fashion historian said to me that she thought he really liked women, because his clothes made female bodies look good. They didn’t require you to have a particular body shape – certainly not the rake-thin type usually associated with fashion.
Of course, nowadays his clothes are characterised as “vintage” so you can buy them in auction houses and upmarket clothing emporia. Unsurprisingly, they are really expensive – this one (below) was sold in 2004 for £3592.

Still, it’s the sort of thing I’d love to wear if I had the money/ thought that spending that sort of money on clothes was morally defensible!

Many of the clothes he designed were done in collaboration with his fabric designer wife, Celia Birtwell, who nowadays has a rather pretty collection for Top Shop. There are some more of their 70s clothes on that site too.

This really famous picture of them was painted by David Hockney and now hangs in Tate Britain, in London.

So what about his bi-ness? He’s written about on this blog, entitled Gay for Today, but I think the writer is a wee bit snide by saying:

In 1969 he married Celia Birtwell. Although Ossie was openly bisexual and carried on many affairs with men, he and Birtwell had two sons together.

And your point is, Mr Gay for Today?

What can I easily find out about him? Well, he lived the Swinging Sixties life, with the sex, drugs and rock and roll that that implied – particularly the drug part, which apparently set his marriage and career, and subsequently his whole life, on the skids.

In 1996 he was murdered by his (male) ex-lover, very violently indeed. A sad and sorry end really to such a creative life.

For more on him, go here, and his posthumously published diaries are available here. I feel there’s a lot more I could write, but - boo-hoo – no time for the research.

He’s also been in the news recently, as his sons tried to stop his name being used as a new Ossie Clark brand, which they considered exploitation.

Speaking of fashion designers, I have a feeling that Calvin Klein was bi too. Can anyone advise?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bisexual history

So what is bisexual history then and why – apart from the fact that it is LGBT history month (see my last post) – am I blogging about it?

Well, the quick answer to that is that bi people are essentially “hidden from history” as Sheila Rowbotham wrote in the 1970s about women in the past. And I would dearly love to see it, them and us out in the open.

I am doing my microbit. As well as writing about how men who had sex with men before WW2 often seemed to act, or feel about their experiences, somewhat differently than they do now, and how some young women in the 1920s seemed to be having relationships with each other, I wrote a few blog posts about a year ago about bisexuality in the 70s, 80s and 90s – what I remember, in a nutshell. Bizarrely that is now history too. You can see them all in the history link to the right of the page.

But what about before that?

The gay liberation movements of the 1970s set about finding, recording and reclaiming the lives of gay people across the ages – we are talking pretty much exclusively north America and Europe here. They found people across all time – mainly men, mainly rich, but not all - who had same sex relationships.

It used to be, and probably still is, argued that it is simply inappropriate to label people gay, lesbian or bisexual when those terms were not used at the time, and people would not have considered themselves in that way. Sexuality before the end of the 19th century was perceived in terms of the act, not the identity, and whether or not you married was what was important. So partly as a result of that – and also for political reasons – pretty much anyone gay historians could find who had other than other-sex relationships was treated as gay for reclamation purposes.

It’s certainly true that many or most people earlier than say the 1970s (and even now almost everywhere in the world) who would like to have same-sex relationships were compelled to at least appear to be having straight ones.

Nevertheless, it is also true that many people have been claimed as gay/lesbian (three being Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde and indeed Sappho – pictured above, although how can anyone really be sure it is her?) who seemed to have authentic romantic or sexual attachments with men and women. So while it might have been a good idea to claim them as lesbian or gay in the 1970s, now I think it’s time to take a more nuanced view of their sexual complexities.

Other than that there are, of course, reports of men who put it about with all and sundry… the 17th century poet and satirist the Earl of Rochester, for instance, pictured left. A fictionalised version of his life featured in the film The Libertine. Very little of his sex with men was apparently included.

As usual in matters historical, written records are overwhelmingly about men, specifically rich and/or aristocratic men, so we know much more about what they said, did and wrote. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing at all written about women, just that it is harder to tease out. Anne Lister, for instance, a wealthy 19th century Yorkshirewoman, lived as a lesbian and had many affairs with women before marrying the wealthy heiress Ann Walker. But what about her other girlfriends? Mightn’t some of them have loved men as well as her?

One shining example of bisexual history is Eva Cantarella’s book, Bisexuality in the Ancient World - an academic look at ancient Greece and Rome, the (mainly) male bisexuality that went on there, and the constraints – of which there were many – that applied. I do have this book but as it is currently in storage, I can’t enlighten you any further.

So have there been any other history books from a specifically bi perspective? I can’t find any, but if anyone knows of one I’d be mighty glad to read it.

In the meantime, there are some bi-themed history features here.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

B-free LGBT history month

Another month, another theme, and February in the British Isles is LGBT History month. Or, to be more accurate, gay history with a few lesbian events, some trans stuff if you’re lucky, and nothing bisexual whatsoever… month.

Still, as the only bisexual blogger with a strong interest in and a reasonable knowledge of history (probably) I can add my two groats’ worth.
So, to start us off, a bisexual novel of the 1920s: Dusty Answer.

Judith is a lonely child (and later woman) whose (rich, by normal standards of our time and hers) parents don’t take much notice of her. She does, however, live next to a house where a group of cousins come to spend summers. In the years leading up to the first world war, she falls in love with this family - Charlie, Mariella, Julian, Roddy and Martin - finding them entrancing. Charlie and Mariella marry very young during the war, but Charlie is killed, leaving Mariella - a widow at the age of 19 - to bring up their son alone.

Judith – and Roddy and Martin – goes to Oxford, where she falls in love with Jennifer. Their relationship is described in very romantic and sensual terms:
“She roused herself at last as Judith bent to kiss her good night.
‘Good night my-darling-darling,’ she said.
They stared at each other with tragic faces. It was too much, this happiness, this beauty.”
And much in similar vein. Jennifer runs off with another woman, however.

Roddy, who Judith falls in love with later, has a constant companion in the shape of Tony. Tony is an artist who spends much time in Paris…

It all ends sadly, this melancholy tale, but not because they have chosen the wrong gender love objects. Everyone is fated to be unhappy in love, and in life for that matter. Absolutely everyone in this novel is miserable.

But while no one actually has sex with anyone – this was published in 1927 after all – I would certainly argue that this is a bisexual novel. The characters seem to moon after individuals and no character cares or indeed seems to notice whether they are men or women. Of course, they all intend to marry. That’s what people did then. But love existed outside that too.

When I was a student in the late 70s, I read and loved this book. It was recommended to me by Kate Millett (not personally, of course, but in her autobiography Flying where she talks about reading it.) Now that I am back at the university I came from, I got the self-same copy out – now rather more tatty than it was 20 whatever years ago – to read again.
Dusty Answer is a rites of passage novel, something that would have appealed to the young woman I was when I first read it. Now I am more struck by how old-fashioned it seems, how snobbish and privileged the characters are. And how sad – the melancholy seeps from every page. All Rosamond Lehmann’s books (that I have read anyway) have this melancholy.

I think it’s almost certain that Rosamond Lehmann knew that parts of her characters’ lives could be construed as homosexual (she was living in bohemian London, where there was rather a lot of it going on at the time!). But, as I have written quite a lot on this blog, the “dichotomous view of sexuality” – you’re either straight or gay – didn’t have a hold over society in quite the way it does now. She wrote some interesting things about the reactions to her writings here.

A fascinating period piece, but a lot harder to "relate to" than I remembered.