Grant Watson<We had the idea to develop a photo shoot with some of the dresses we discussed in the last conversation. So where do you want to start, with the pink dress?
Nando Messias<Would you like to see it?
GW< I’d love to see it.
NM< I’m a bit color blind. I see this as lilac, but it might be pink. You tell me. It’s a color in between maybe.
GW< It looks pink to me.
NM< It needs pressing of course, but it has really lovely details.
GW< Is that diamante?
NM< Exactly. The buckles are diamante and let’s see, it’s [John] Galliano.
GW< That’s amazing. It’s a huge amount of fabric.
NM< Yes, it fits quite close to the body, but then the tail kind of opens out. It’s really very beautiful.
GW< It’s silk, is it?
NM< Silk satin, yes, exactly. I wanted you to see it because it’s not like a ball gown or anything— it’s quite a simple dress, in a way.
GW< And does it fit you?
NM< Yes. Like literally, it’s very, very close to the body. I can put it on over my clothes and we can have a look.
GW< Wow. Amazing.
NM< Let me stand up so you can see.
GW< That’s really elegant.
NM< It’s seamless. It’s cut on the bias, which means that the fabric stretches and drapes.
GW< So, the cut happens diagonally.
NM< Yeah, exactly. Very beautiful, isn’t it? And I was just on Instagram today and I saw that there are some photos—it’s amazing how these things happen, the timing of these things—photographs of Madonna in the nineties wearing a very similar dress, by Versace, but it’s very much that same style of dress in the same color.
GW< And what did she do in terms of styling?
NM< This is it [shows image on cellphone]. I wanted to just copy it because it’s so perfect. It’s a smoky eye with red lips and then hair parted in the middle, but with hair slides that have diamante, and curly hair like Jean Harlow.
GW< So, where did you get the dress from?
NM< It’s a really good story. I have another obsession, which is shoes. I collect shoes and I’m very lucky because I have sample size feet. I love Manolo Blahnik shoes. I think they are so gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, but unaffordable. However, when they do sales, they have always a box with sample shoes and those sample shoes are shoes that have been used in photo shoots or that have been given out to the press. So those are the ones that I can afford, and they are always sample size. They send me cards when they have a sale. And I always go all the way there, to Chelsea, and a few doors down there’s a second-hand shop.
GW< I know it, it’s the street that runs down to the river, right?
NM< It’s the British Heart Foundation or something like that, but of course, the area is very affluent. And on one of my journeys there for a sale, I saw this dress and it was in the window, but I think it cost 300 pounds. And I thought it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, I want it, but still, it’s a lot of money. I didn’t buy it, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I just started to obsess about it. It’s my size, it’s a color that I love. I knew that it was my size, because it’s sample size. . . it’s made for me, it was there for me. So, I think maybe a week later I went back because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And it was half price.
GW< Ah, cool.
NM< Exactly. I thought, well, it’s obviously a sign! I would have paid 300 for it because it was a bargain anyway, but it was even cheaper. It was half of that. So that’s where I got it. And I thought one day I’ll use it for performance, but I haven’t yet.
GW< How is it going into those shops and trying on dresses?
NM< It depends—lots of things have happened. For instance, people have said to me, “this is a dress, it’s stating the obvious.” I would just say, “yes, I know” or these people would say, “this is women’s” and I will repeat, “yes, I know.” In those places I will not try the dress on. I just know that it’s my size and I’ll buy it. And I’ll just leave. I have three more of these same style dresses. For the commission we’ve been talking about, you’re thinking of photographing just that one dress?
GW< I thought the idea of trying on a series of different dresses was really nice.
NM< Yeah. I like that. We can do that.
GW< What about the other dresses?
NM< The other dresses, yes. I have one other one here. I have two to show you. And then two are in storage, which I can collect before our shoot. But this one was given to me by the director Theo Adams, who I worked with a lot, because he knows that I like this style. This one’s [Alexander] McQueen.
GW< It just looks like it’s incredibly, ridiculously long.
NM< This goes over the shoulder, then it attaches as a sleeve.
GW< That’s fantastic.
NM< Absolutely gorgeous. It’s very much that same style, but the back is low, it’s really open-back. And it’s also satin. This one I’d say is wine color. It is one or two sizes too big for me.
GW< Where did he get it from?
NM< I don’t know if you’ve seen the book by McQueen, but in it there are lots of photos of his shows. And backstage at one of his last shows—I think it was the one with all the rubbish, as hats—you can see him in the background with a reference board. And one of the images on the board is an image of Theo.
GW< Why was Theo an inspiration? Is he interesting looking?
NM< He is an amazing performer, and in the early 2000s he did this look with smudged lips, and that look is what goes onstage in McQueen’s catwalk show.
GW< What was the year of the McQueen dress?
NM< 2009, or 2010.
GW< When did he pass away? McQueen.
NM< Well, that’s a good point. Was it 2010? I think it was his last show.
GW< And with the Galliano dress. Do you know the date of that?
NM< I would say mid-1990s.
GW< And the image of Madonna?
NM< It’s Bedtime Stories, when she released that album . It’s all the publicity images from that. Then there is a white dress by Jenny Packham, but it’s in storage. And that one I have created a performance with; I think it’s one of my favorites. It’s one of the most traditional. The dress is bias cut, with spaghetti straps, white satin, very Jean Harlow. I found it in another second-hand shop, which I love very much in Covent Garden, on a street that has lots of ballet shops, ballet shoes, and ballet gear, and all of that. There’s a second-hand shop that has loads and loads and loads of dresses, and I’ve spent so many hours, so many hours there, looking at them one by one by one. And one day I saw this Jenny Packham dress and it was again like, I cannot believe this is here. It’s so perfect. It’s my size, it’s amazing. And it cost me forty pounds. It was really a bargain, so incredible. I did one performance with it. And the thing with these dresses is that they are so precious. They are so beautiful. I buy them for performances and end up thinking, I don’t want to damage them, if I use them for a performance I might get lipstick on them or wine, or something might happen, I might tear them. So, it’s an ideal that is never realized, it’s always a dream.
GW< But these three dresses are the ones that we’ll do the shoot with. So we have to be super careful.
NM< Oh, that’s fine. I think actually it’s a really interesting thing that we are photographing them because it’s immortalizing them in a way. There is an image of them and that’s catalogued almost and archived. So, it’s fine that we use them. We can talk a bit about what the idea and where we’re going to be. There’s a fourth dress, which is black satin bias cut and this is Calvin Klein but designed by Raf Simons.
GW< Quite recent. Right? He was at Calvin Klein a couple of years ago.
NM< Exactly. And this is a more modern take on that, but the fabric, it’s especially nice in this black one. I don’t have it here. It’s in storage with the white one, but I will have it for the shoot. It’s almost like, a leather texture to the satin.
GW< Black satin with a leather texture, very transgressive.
NM< When I saw it, I was like, that’s Rita Hayworth in Gilda. It’s very much that.
GW< When Raf Simons was at Calvin Klein, he was playing with Americana, the semiotics of America. I remember that I saw an image of Melania Trump wearing Raf Simons from Calvin Klein, which I didn’t like. How did you find that dress?
NM< Yes. I got it at a place that is like more contemporary version of the second-hand shops: TK Maxx. TK Maxx has a Gold Label section and there’s a location near me. I imagine what happens is that they buy old stock, either from stores that are closing or from lines that cannot sell their sale items and they resell it to TK Maxx. By that time Raf had left Calvin Klein. And there seemed to be like a flood of Calvin Klein by Raf Simons, lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of it on the racks of TK Maxx, so I got two dresses. One is a pink one that I did a performance with, like a puff ball dress with huge sleeves. And that’s like a bubble gum pink in silk, in taffeta. Really intricate, very structured with a corset inside. So, you can tell it’s high fashion, really proper design in a size zero, which again was my size.
GW< I suspect that this experimental Belgian fashion didn’t really translate into the American context.
NM< Exactly. Because one is very commercial and the other is very conceptual. He is at Prada now, and I suppose with Prada it would work, because Prada’s very conceptual and very intellectual. He was at Dior before Calvin Klein, so the connection with Dior is here too, isn’t it? Galliano and Raf were both at Dior. And McQueen and Galliano were both at Givenchy. . .
GW< That is right. Is there anything else to say about those dresses?
NM< Not at the moment. I suppose we could talk briefly about the Japanese performer, Kazuo Ohno, who I mentioned in our last conversation, because that’s kind of my inspiration. I had heard about this performer from a dance teacher years ago and I remember once going to the V&A to an exhibition. I cannot recall what the exhibition was, but they had the costume, the original costume from Ohno’s famous performance Admiring La Argentina.  And that’s what started my new research interest, which is on archives and showing pieces of costume. Cause it’s a rare thing to see the original. I had an emotional engagement with it because I saw it was high up behind the glass case, but that the performance includes this huge feathered hat, and they had that as well. And I remember that seeing the costume was almost like being in his presence, even though he is deceased, he’s gone. But there’s a sense of realizing his dimensions—the costume, the dress, is tiny. I didn’t realize that he was so small, for instance, but then there’s a sense of seeing the fabric and seeing that it’s opaque, that it doesn’t shine, that it’s quite black, that it’s long sleeved. It looks a bit Victorian. So you get all these other things that you don’t from seeing images or videos of events. Which is why I thought that what I would really like to do in my next performance would be to have all my archive so people could touch it. I would want people to touch it. See it.
GW< Would you let people touch the dresses?
NM< I come from a performance background. So, I really understand, because I’ve spoken to archivists about that. And I know that for instance, before an object enters the archive—I visited the V&A Theatre and Performance Archives and saw some amazing costumes—they have to wash it at very high temperatures to kill off any bugs that might be there. Because if they don’t do that, the bugs might contaminate the other pieces, which are rare and unique, and destroy them.
But I would come from a different place. I would not want any pieces to be washed because what archive means to me is a queer engagement with archive. I want people to be able to smell the perfume. I wear a different perfume for each performance. So, I would want them to touch the dress and smell that perfume. And if there’s a makeup stain on it, I think I would like that to stay in place. I don’t want that deleted, because I think all that is the archive. Those things, the smell of the perfume, the lipsticks stains, the tiny tears, all of those, or the mends, the way that I’ve hand-stitched something, that’s the archive. So I think it would be fine if people touch them.
GW< And the archive consists of all the costumes that you’ve worn to date?
NM< So, yes, all the costumes that I have worn to date, and the ones that I’ve bought to perform in, but never managed to do, all the shoes that I’ve got, all the perfumes that I have, makeup, lipstick notebooks, creative journals, drawings, all of those things. And they would be organized by type. I can see almost like a second-hand shop where the dresses are all together, the shoes are all together, like a pop-up shop in a gallery. I imagine a gallery space rather than a theater. And I don’t know, in my mind you’d book a visit, and you could choose to see a dress or a shoe or something, and I would bring them out and alternatively, I could wear them. You could kind of dress me and style me and I could do a performance. Why not?
GW< So you’d have to be present.
NM< That’s what I would think. And then when I’m not, it’s still an installation that other people can come and see, but with invigilators, maybe? Like in an art gallery? They are still there, the dresses are almost like ghosts, which they are for me when I buy them, and they just stay in the wardrobe. It seems a shame that I never realized the potential of that performance that I bought them for.
GW< Do you think about the people that wore these dresses before? Talking about ghosts. . .
NM< Absolutely. A hundred percent. The Jenny Packham dress. Who is it that got married in this? It does have a stain in the train. What is the stain? I imagined the bride walking down a gravely path, cause it’s kind of brown, the color of earth. So that’s what I imagined that the train was dragging, perhaps down a muddy path. Then this dress, by Galliano, I think someone in Chelsea bought it in the nineties, wore it once, or probably never wore it. It gets to a point where they just get rid of parts of their wardrobe and that’s where it goes.
GW< It’s quite interesting to think about the journey of the white dress from a marriage to being worn by a queer performer.
NM< Yes, exactly. And there’s a queer approach to the way I wear the dresses as well. So, I often will wear them either back to front or in the case of this wedding dress, I wear it inside out. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s a very deliberate decision in this case, the way you’re meant to wear it, there is see-through fabric on top. And I liked the satin shiny bit. So I wear that, inside out, so that I can see the satin, and it doesn’t hide it. And that the see-through fabric goes underneath. But you know, these dresses are cut to fit the female figure, and they have those bits for the bust. And I’m flat-chested, of course. So, I will wear it back to front sometimes. And that will mean that my chest is showing because it’s a low-cut dress in the back. And I like those things, that it doesn’t fit properly.
GW< Is it a bit like the Medea dress that you mentioned in the first interview.
NM< Medea, yes, yes, exactly. It’s too small. It doesn’t fit. But I like that this shows the fact it’s ill fitting, precisely that.
GW< Misfits. I was also thinking about the way that for those designers, like McQueen or Galliano, their inspiration came from club culture, from drag. There’s always this criticism of those designers that they see women as drag performers. It’s interesting that here there’s another journey the dress takes, which is from the queer imagination of those designers into the world of fashion, where it becomes about female glamour, and then it moves on into queer performance. It’s almost like you rehome the concept of the dress.
NM< Very true, that’s really interesting. And at the time when Galliano designed for Dior, all the makeup was by Pat McGrath, and it was very much drag like, wasn’t it? It was really extreme, like erasing the eyebrows, creating high arch type brows and drag makeup. Literally drag make up. And McQueen had a fairly punk approach to fashion. I’m thinking about when he was at Givenchy, designing haute couture dresses, just chopping off these pieces that were hand-stitched and had been worked on for hours, hours, twenty hours. And he just cut them off.
GW< A kind of violence. I mean, you think about the women that sat there for twenty hours doing that embroidery.
NM< Can you imagine? Exactly. I think they would have been tearing their hair out.
GW< Do you think about the charges of misogyny often levelled at those designers?
NM< Yes, I think a lot about that. I think there’s a lot of criticism of McQueen, especially the collections with. . . what was it called? Highland rape?
NM< Where he sent models out onto runway looking like they’d been raped. They had bruises and all of that as well. So yes, it’s violent. And then there was the earlier “Jack the Ripper” collection, which was again very violent. I am always mindful of that in my work. My work speaks about the violence that I’ve suffered for embodying femininity. I don’t identify as a woman. I don’t identify as female. But there is that element of having suffered violence for looking feminine, for wearing makeup or high heels or dresses. And I’ve analyzed that and it’s very much what I call “sissyphobia” or femmephobia. And I suppose the root of that is that society is telling me, why would you want to look like a woman if you are a man or if you are assigned male at birth? Why would you want to give up your privilege? Why would you want to look like something that is less than what you could be? And what I do in my work is the opposite, is to own that, is to say that I think that it is beautiful to be feminine and to be in a male body and looking feminine, there is a misfit or a tension in that that I’d like to keep. And I honor and glorify femininity. I think it’s something that I look up to, all the Rita Hayworths, the Jean Harlows, the Madonnas, the Joan Crawfords are ideals that I look up to.
GW< I was thinking of a continuum of violence maybe, I’m thinking about violence against femininity that women experience and that effeminate men experience, it’s a risk and a vulnerability that obviously can become more extreme within certain subjectivities and certain positions.
NM< Yes, there is a commonality in that. I agree with that. It’s not the same thing. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s not the same thing, but there is a commonality. What’s being attacked is femininity, or the vulnerability of that position.
GW< But maybe to go back to the performance, the photo shoot. To think about how that emerges out of what we’ve just been talking about in terms of the archive.
NM< So yes, I imagined the four dresses, we can shoot all four. Are we thinking of using the surrounding streets here around Whitechapel? That’s going to elicit some attention, so we just need to be prepared for that. And maybe that is the performance itself, that people are going to look, people are going to throw some challenging words my way as well. And that is going to happen.
GW< Does it help having the camera there?
NM< Sure. Yeah. I imagine it’d be me, you, the photographer, and hopefully the makeup artist who will be with us. And so there’ll be a group of us, there is certain protection in that. That’s good. I’m wondering if we can think together of elements that we can incorporate or situations, settings, where do we want to be? What do we want to achieve? What kind of image are we looking for?
GW< I think it would be powerful to have you in the costumes, dressed in the way that you wish with the makeup and the hair you want, and then to juxtapose that with the area that you live in.
Even though it’s one of the most desirable neighborhoods in London, and it’s right by the city, Tower Hamlets is still one of the most deprived areas; these contrasts are characteristic of London.
NM< I think that’s great. If we can pick out some locations. We can already know that it’s going to be here, or my street. I don’t know if I told you, there was a Jack the Ripper murder on the street. And I was also attacked on this street so it’s charged with all of those references. There’s a spirit to the street itself, that could be really interesting. There was some homophobic graffiti that’s been removed on my doorstep, but that’s the kind of thing that we’re going to find. There’s Gunthorpe Street, and maybe that square in front of Toynbee Hall. And then Brick Lane is really interesting. Then the final one that I would suggest is Artillery Lane, which is very Victorian and there was a nineties fashion shoot that happened there, one that’s quite iconic by Isabella Blow. With Stella Tennant and other nineties British supermodels. So that would be cool as well.
GW< I wonder how it is if you go across Whitechapel High Road?
NM< There’s a park there, which is Altab Ali Park, that could be interesting.
GW< I mean, it might be quite nice. It would be afternoon, I think people will be sitting in the park in groups, office workers (maybe not there now), people from the Bangladeshi community, local kids, that kind of thing.
NM< Yeah, exactly. We can try for sure.
GW< And then the other thought I had was to go West.
NM< That would be very cool because there’s lots of high-rise buildings.
GW< Yes, corporate buildings and squares.
NM< Spitalfields Market would be good as well. I think it’ll be good to have someone to do the makeup, so it makes it really professional and high quality.
GW< Definitely. And it would be good to have another person to come and accompany us just in terms of numbers.
NM< That’s really exciting. Looking forward.
GW< Me too.