Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers, an exhibition

Tues. 12 June 2018

I attended an exhibition recently that will resonate not only with many of my visitors, but with a great many more people both in “the Scene” and in other ways just living their lives with one foot (at least) outside traditional social acceptance. The exhibition was Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers; it was mounted by The Photographers’ Gallery in Soho, London. The exhibition opened on 23 February and closed Sunday 3 June, and I made a special effort to get to London to catch it just before it closed, and I’m very glad I did.

The exhibited photographs were collected over many years by French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz who, as a young gay man, began collecting images of cross dressers as a casual pursuit to aid his own journey of self realisation. As his collection grew, he began to pursue it more seriously and the collection is now a substantial one of international importance.

This extract is from the exhibition’s publicity online:

“Drawn from the extensive personal archives of filmmaker and photography collector Sébastien Lifshitz, this exhibition of amateur ‘found’ photographs from Europe and the US explores gender non-conformity and cross-dressing. Dating from 1880 onwards, the photos are mostly of unnamed and unknown figures – having been mainly collected from flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and ebay – and as such offer an unauthorised view into the worlds of individuals and groups choosing to defy gender conventions.

“...the photographs reflect a range of styles and attitudes from theatrical, defiant, shy, proud, subversive and understated; showing individuals and groups from different classes, professions, genders and nationalities, whose only commonality is that they dared to play with dress codes in front of a camera, even if unable to do so in public.”

The vast majority of the exhibited photographs date from between the late 19th century to the mid 20th century; there are some staged and posed images, but probably a majority are a record of cross dressing at a grass-roots level: there were no professional photographers, and the subjects were not models but mostly people making a simple, personal recording of moments in their life assuming the guise of another gender.

The first picture I’ve included with this News article is the exhibition’s main publicity image, as featured on The Photographers’ Gallery website: it’s an American man from around 1920, and it was shot in a photo booth; he’s wearing makeup, but the splashes of colour on the nails and lips would have been applied to the photo by hand. The original photo that was part of the exhibition was scanned and the resulting digital image used in publicity; this digital image belies the original’s diminutive size: only 1.25 x 1.5 inches (3.17 x 3.8 cm). I know because I measured the original myself (accurate to within a couple of millimetres), and to illustrate I’ve included the image at approximately its original size, which I think reinforces the grass-roots, real-life nature and authenticity of most of Lifshitz’s collection. See The Photographers’ Gallery site for the exhibition’s page: Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers.

The third pic is my scan of the Under Cover page in The Photographers’ Gallery exhibition brochure (there were different exhibitions on other floors). The image here was also exhibited, and it’s around the same size as the main PR image described above (they were hung next to each other if I remember correctly), so the reproduction in the brochure is probably this second photograph’s real size. You might just be able to see his necklace – a double row of pearls – and pearl ear ring (presumably he’s wearing a matching pair). This image adorns the front cover of the latest edition of the gallery’s journal, Loose Associations, which takes the Under Cover exhibition as its “starting point” (see Loose Associations Vol. 4:1).

I might also mention that Under Cover was paired with an exhibition entitled Grayson Perry’s Photo Album (on another floor of the building), which featured a small collection of the famous, Turner Prize-winning artist’s personal autobiographical photographs in a distinctly mundane suburban setting when he was in his early 20s. I’ve included a scan of the relevant page of the gallery’s brochure as a fourth image here.

Now, it took me a little while to digest everything from this exhibition, including a copy of the current edition of Loose Associations, which I bought, and going through all the photos I took myself during the exhibition. Because of the latter, especially, I’ve decided to follow up this News item with a second one that will focus more on my reflections on the exhibition and that will be accompanied by my own photos.

Mistress Geo

Update (19 June): Here is the link to my follow-up item: Continuing Under Cover, with A Secret History Of Cross-Dress[ing].

Man in makeup wearing ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of colour (approx. size of original:
1.25 x 1.5 inches). United States, c. 1920. Sebastian Lifshitz Collection. Publicity image for the exhibition
Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers, The Photographers’ Gallery, 23 Feb–3 June 2018.

Man in makeup wearing
ring, United States, c. 1920.
Approx. size of the original
photo-booth photograph,
1.25 x 1.5 inches (3.17 x 3.8 cm).
Sebastian Lifshitz Collection.