Erdem: Victorian cross-dressing for today

One can only ever admire British eccentricity, and certain people’s proud determination to be as different as they so desire. A dream that underpinned a fashion moment at Erdem on Monday morning in London’s National Portrait Gallery, one of those shows that reminds everyone why the UK will always be a great well of fashion creativity.



 
This season, Erdem Moralioglu, a Turkish-Canadian designer was inspired by two of London’s most celebrated Victorian cross-dressers, Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, who were arrested in 1870 for “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence,” while dressed up as their female alter egos, Fanny and Stella.
 
A timely reminder to millennials, a generation that prides itself on gender bending and overthrowing the limiting moral codes of their parents, that the fight for sexual freedom has been going on for a very, very long time.
 
The result was a tremendous show, fusing Victorian fabrics and silhouettes into some beautiful new clothes: from the big-shouldered bold bright paisley dresses, jackets and pants suits, the latter cut with impeccable blazers and pants wide enough to cover a redwood trunk.
 
Many looks referenced women dressing like men; notably a superb Prince of Wales wool suit, where the jacket was elongated with six buttons; and pencil pants were delicately flared. Most looks were topped with grand dame straw hats wrapped in black chiffon and lace, rendering the exact sex of the model difficult to ascertain.
 
Crossing back and forth – including a pair of hairy calves sticking out from under an icicle print black and white dress, or a marvelously mannish Florence Nightingale in a pastel blue ruffle governess gown. 
 
“My partner and I moved to a house in a square in Bloomsbury recently and right across the street there was the plaque to Park and Boulton, and the whole thing led from there. The pair of them dabbled in theatre and London nightlife. And, I spent the summer studying them in all their glory and darkness,” explained Erdem.


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Ironically, aided by powerful friends, Park and Boulton were quickly acquitted of their “crimes.”  And subsequently continued to live their lives performing as female impersonators, part of a diverse crowd of artists, entertainers and bohemians who loved dressing up to celebrate their self-expression.
 
“I was obsessed by this idea of people in a very conservative time dressing to be who they thought they were. Fundamentally that was the theme. That’s why there was a big moral question, do we ask the boys in the show to shave their legs,” laughed Erdem before being showered with praise by Amanda Harlech and Kristin Scott Thomas.
 
“Once I found out about them, I was fascinated by women who dressed up as men well. And I wondered if they were alive today, would they live in King’s Cross. Maybe wear neon and bright clothes? They would have been sooo cool,” said Erdem, speaking before giant oil paintings of key moments in British democracy, from the first meeting of parliament after the Great Reform Act of 1832 to Westminster voting in the end of slavery.
 
Fashion as a metaphor for our times and of our moral history.

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