vulvè turns bling into activism

Bronte Leighton-Dore talks to i-D about making bejewelled vaginas, Instagram censorship and crying over Miley Cyrus.

by i-D Team
22 June 2015, 7:35am

Conversations about censorship and gender grow louder each day, and whether we're talking #freeingthenipple or gender fluidity, it's exciting to be privy to these conversations through the multi-faceted lens of the world-wide-web. This is something Bronte Leighton-Dore knows well. She's been listening intently to these discussions, and responded with Vulvè: a label making intricate vagina jewellery. To clarify, the jewellery is for your ears, neck and wrists, but features imagery of the vulva. Bronte spoke with i-D about understanding her own body, the beading process and how Miley Cyrus brought her to tears.

Why did you start Vulvè? 
Basically, to help people discuss their bodies. At the time of Vulvè's conception there was a lot going on in the media. I was exposed to the procedure of labiaplasty and became aware of how overwhelming some people's anxiety was towards their bodies. I can't help but think that if we talk openly with one another and share our stories, perhaps some of our body anxiety can be relieved. The jewellery was my way of responding to the surge of discourse centred on gender inequality, and a way of giving my support to people who felt their vulvas weren't normal or beautiful.

The pieces are so beautiful. Have you always seen your body as a wonderful thing?
I grew up with a mother who worked in the reproductive and sexual health industry. As a result, I was always versed in the natural ways of my body. Despite being extremely open about her own body, and teaching me to approach my maturing adolescent body with love and acceptance, I remember believing every girl had a vulva the same as mine. At the age of eight, sharing a bath with a friend, I was asked "why does yours look like that?" I had never been aware that my vulva was different or unique. I think my real journey to understanding the beauty of the vulva has been in understanding its diversity.

Arca recently had his Instagram account deleted after posting this picture. Are you worried something similar might happen to you? What do think about Instagram censorship?
In a recent Vulvè Instagram post the model, Olivia Fay, and I were left questioning whether exposing the areola would lead to deletion. I think Instagram censorship communicates to women that sharing their bodies in a natural, unsanitized and unsexualised state is not okay. I also think that when something is hidden it's more likely to become sexualised, through intrigue or interpretation. When something's regularly concealed in society, it runs the risk of becoming taboo. Just as we've seen the "free the nipple" campaign help to desexualise the nipple, I want to help desexualise the vulva. If we see vulvas more readily around us and discuss them more openly then maybe we can take away some of the shame and stigma attached. When something's exposed, it just is. I think it's important that we keep creating work which challenges convention and makes people question their perspectives and levels of tolerance.

How long do the pieces take - from the smaller studs to the largest beaded pendants?
A lot of the time goes into the construction of our handmade pieces. I usually work in two-day cycles: the first day is designated to beading and backing the pendants with leather, and on the second day I'll shape the pieces and attach the solid sterling silver fixings. The size of the pieces determine how many I can produce within those two days. For the larger pieces, it's usually just one or two.

Have you done anything like this before?
Not exactly, but I have experimented with similar themes and materials. In 2012 I created an installation work called Viel, which comprised of three large panels of silk printed with photographs of women. I worked into these photographs with beads and sequins to create motifs of the spine, lungs, and breast muscles. Viel was a comment on the exterior and interior spaces of women. Hung consecutively in space, viewers were able walk between the panels to see both the intricately beaded fronts and the chaotic sewn backs of the panels.

In 2013 I created a video performance called Foundation. The performance delves into the female identity, and the cultural importance of the 'face'. The soundtrack is a compilation of makeup ads, tutorials and media about female sexuality - including news reports regarding Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and The Honi Soit vulva magazine cover, which were all influences in the conception of Vulvè.

What kind of person inspires the jewellery?
I'm inspired by empowered women, like Miley Cyrus. When I first conceived the brand, Miley had just created this overwhelming media platform for herself. With this platform came a huge following and the power to impact the lives of so many people, especially young girls and women. I remember thinking "If Miley can grow her pubic hair and perform at the VMA's..." It's not that I believe all women should grow their pubic hair, but it's about having a role model who empowers us to explore our options and make our own choices. Her recent feature in Paper mag Free to Be Miley put me to tears. She is one brave woman and is paving the way for so many. She's a real inspiration for me.

How does Vulvè relate to trans women, or women who don't have vulva?
Vulvè started out as a personal journey; an outlet for me to explore my personal traumas and feelings about being a woman with a vulva. I know there are so many other stories out there, the struggles of trans women being one of them. I believe that if Vulvè leads to people asking more questions about the relationship between anatomy and gender, then that's a positive thing. You definitely don't need a vulva to be a woman. 

Vulvè's handmade pieces are available here.


Photography & Styling  Brad Tennant 
Photography Assistant Bee Elton
Model Bronte Leighton-Dore
Hair and Makeup Constance Bowles 
Delicates from Christie Nicole