When Quentin Crisp hennaed his hair and sashayed his way through London in form-fitting trousers and mascara, he generated rage. On one of the many occasions he was dragged off the street and beaten, he managed to raise his head and address his attackers: “I seem to have annoyed you gentlemen in some way”.
There’s been a lot in the news about Sophie Lancaster this week. In 2007, 20-year-old Sophie was beaten to death. She was out walking with her boyfriend in a public park and some boys decided they didn’t like her goth clothing. So they killed her.
Dwell on that for a moment: they murdered her because they didn’t like her clothes.
Sophie’s mother Sylvia heads the S.O.P.H.I.E campaign – ‘stamp out prejudice, hatred, and ignorance everywhere’ – and as a result of her work, Manchester police have announced they will be treating attacks on members of alternative subcultures as hate crimes. I don’t pretend to know anything about the law. I can’t say if this will make any palpable difference. But, personally, I’d like to live in a society that fosters creativity and diversity, especially in something so harmless as individual style.
When the news filtered through to the mainstream press, I’d been reading about the Australian artist Vali Myers. Vali, with her trademark raccoon eyes, red haystack of hair, and tattooed moustache, is such an exciting figure, not only for her outlandish paintings and appearance, but because her chosen adornments were so intrinsic to her sense of self:
“My father used to say to my mother, ‘Vera, how can you let her go out like that?’ But Mum used to tell him it was my war-paint. Believe me, in Melbourne in the 1940s, I needed it.”
I like that quote. Love it, in fact. But I can’t help but think she’d have a Hell of a time on a bus in 2013.
Yes, Vali was an unusual case. But you don’t have to be flamboyant to attract hostility. I’ve been physically assaulted more than once for wearing ‘too much’ black. By grown men, in daylight, on crowded streets. Every single one of my friends who hover in the vicinity of an alternative subculture have experienced street harassment. Sophie’s death was not a freak occurrence, a fact which is all the more bewildering when you consider that goths are, at the heart of it, arty, generally quiet people who like to pose for photographs in castles.
Why not just try harder to fit in?
It makes me happy to express myself. It makes me happy to see other people express themselves. At the railway station in Preston last week, I saw a little old lady wearing so much artfully layered green eyeshadow her face resembled the wings of a magnificent beetle. Was it ‘age-appropriate’? No. Was it fashionable? No. But she looked content and she looked fabulous. It’s a mark of self-esteem and imagination when someone is kitted out in an individualistic way, and I wish more people would.
But Quentin Crisp was right: it annoys people. And it’s a petty thing to be annoyed by; so anchored in ego and personal anxiety. How dare they leave the house like that? The naysayers seem to wonder. And what does it mean? Do they want attention? Do they think they’re better than me?
Well, what if it means nothing at all? What if it’s just …fun?
Everyone is entitled not to like things. But hostile reactions to the harmless creativity of personal style totally baffle me.