the new acne campaign should remind us to never lose the joy of dressing up
The new Acne campaign is unbridled fashion fun and a reminder that playing dress up and shifting gender is brilliantly liberating.
Growing up in Bradford, I used to wear my mum's heels, put old tea towels on my head to pretend I had long hair (I especially liked a thick ponytail) and thought I wanted to marry my Auntie Rose because she looked so good in stilettos (clearly I just wanted her skyscraper heels). When it came to Halloween, I dressed up as a witch (my brothers and cousins went as vampires and ghosts) and tottered down the street in kitten heels and a velvet cloak playing trick or treat. I sketched out dresses for characters including "Glamorous Gloria" at Heaton Tennis & Squash Club and played with Barbies and My Little Ponies at Bradford Salem Rugby club. For the record, I was also better at tennis, squash and rugby than most of the straight kids.
I had so much fun, and no-one seemed to want to stop me. Perhaps there were more concerned adult conversations than I was aware of, but when I saw a cousin's son creating dramatic head wraps out of aunties' fragrant scarves in a local Yorkshire pub recently, I noticed that none of the grown-ups batted an eyelid.
I like to think that the popularity of Acne's new campaign by Viviane Sassen, featuring the creative director's 11-year-old son Frasse Johansson in high heels, a ladies coat and swinging a handbag, is down to people's joyous Proustian memories of fun childhood days in the dressing up box, where playing also meant unconscious gender play. Acne's Creative Director Jonny Johansson's son volunteered to feature in the campaign and looks pretty happy in the powder pinks, baby blues and weird and wonderful constructions. He's wearing mad futuristic shades and has a haircut to match. And boy/girl, does he look like he's enjoying playing with his ideas of adulthood and womanhood.
Credit to Frasse, he's several years older than I was when I was in my dressing-up heyday, so you might think he'd be in greater danger of being bullied for his decision to wear a blocky heel. It seems to me to be a sign that "the times they are a-changin'" - that a boy, whatever his future sexuality, feels free to experiment like this on a public scale is incredibly positive.
By the time I was 11, I had morphed out of my 'girly' phase because I was at a boys school and needed to butch up so I wouldn't be found out gay. Hopefully these days (admittedly in progressive places like Acne's Sweden or Jaden Smith's LA, but there's always the trickle down effect), there's no need to quit experimenting with women's clothes, whether you're gay or not. Plenty of straight men admit to having dressed up as women as youngsters. Sadly back in the 1980s, I was forced to shed any dressing-up box sense of fun when I was about eight. I'm happy with the way my style evolved and how I was forced to encounter traditionally masculine modes of dressing, but I do wonder what I'd look like right out if I hadn't had my creative impulses peer pressured out of me (And would I be designing for the "Glamorous Glorias" of the world?).
Whilst I rarely get nostalgic for my days in girls' shoes anymore, these photos have flashed me right back to a time when putting on clothes was pure creativity, and I paid no heed to what was for men and what was for women. I doubt I'll be returning to those times any time soon, casting off my grey marl t-shirts, indigo jeans and Nikes for the entire Acne womenswear collection this autumn/winter, but at least this ad made me remember and think.
Above all, it reminded me that dressing up was never really about the way things looked, but the way they made me feel: volumes of fabric, splashes of colour, "hair" tossing, heels clacking. It was a joyous sensory overload; pleasure derived from sound and touch as much as from look. I remember always forcing my friend Tori to lend me her pixie boots so I could walk up and down the pebbles of her country road and enjoy the sound and the sensation. Likewise, being swamped by clothes (as Frasse is in the ladies' coats) is a big part of the appeal: it's why girlfriends like boyfriend sweaters, kids like dad sweaters and Kanye currently likes long-sleeved grunge sweaters. Clothes needn't necessarily be a gender issue, but a sensation you enjoy and a personal feeling that you fancy channelling.
Whether or not I follow the lead, I'm pleased to hear the campaign will be hitting billboards in big cities across the globe, reminding everyone that kids (and adults) should feel free to dress how they want and play with gender until their heart's content. It's good to see that fashion campaigns from global brands can still hold progressive power. From Benetton's brilliant campaigns that focused on race relations and the AIDS crisis, through to Céline's embrace of the older, intellectual woman with Joan Didion, we see that advertising can have another (positive) agenda. Acne's latest stands out not only because it shows us that boys can wear girls' clothes, but in a wider sense it's a celebration of the power of being able to be who you want to be and the allure of the freedom that offers.