Inspired by Comme des Garçon’s SS16 coven, we trace the sex and magick of female power distilled – with contributions from Tavi Gevinson, Simon Costin and Claire Barrow
Taken from the spring/summer 2016 issue of Dazed:
Men, beware of witches: they will steal your penis, reanimate it and keep as many as 20 or 30 in a bird’s nest or a locked box, feeding them oats and corn, “as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report”. This bizarre piece of castration anxiety comes courtesy of German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer’s notorious 1486 book Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on witches and the threats they pose to men. Like the Cliffs Notes to misogyny, the book deems women “a domestic danger” and explains how “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”, quoting the Roman philosopher Seneca in warning: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
The Malleus Maleficarum exemplifies how the witch has long been a vessel for the demonisation of women and society’s fears around female sexuality and autonomy. Because if you’re looking for female power distilled, the witch is a good place to start, and in light of today’s wider conversation around feminism, it’s not surprising that the witch is back at the fore of the collective imagination. While there are plenty of male witches, it’s the female witch archetype who’s been reclaimed as a potent figure casting a spell over fashion, pop culture and academia with her badass symbolism – a perfectly imperfect icon of strength and complex womanhood, where darkness and light exist unapologetically side-by-side.
For the new wave of feminism, the witch is a compelling, marginalised figure of change whose nonconformity is far more inspiring than the post-feminist who ‘has it all’. “They were powerful women, and there’s nothing more scary to a patriarchy than that,” notes Geraldine Beskin of the witch trials of early modern Europe and America, known to neopaganists as the ‘burning times’. The owner of the Atlantis Bookshop, London’s oldest occult bookseller and the birthplace of the modern witchcraft revival, Beskin herself is a third-generation witch and occultist. “The independence of women is the great strength of witchcraft,” she says, citing Samantha from Bewitched, who signalled a move away from women as housewives, and Hermione Granger as prime examples of witches doing it for themselves. “Take Hermione. She was allowed to be bright and not just somebody’s girlfriend. She bested them in various ways. Her innateness was her strength, and that’s very witchy.”
With the modern fascination with all things occult, the wicked witch has been reframed in a powerful and multifaceted way, in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to American Horror Story. There’s Eva Green’s darkly glamorous turn on Penny Dreadful as the awe-inspiring, sexually liberated, inner demon-battling Vanessa Ives, whose abilities as a medium, tarot reader and herbalist underscore the empowering skills inherent in witchcraft. Even Disney has taken the side of the witch, portraying Maleficent as a survivor within an allegory on rape.
“Witchcraft today is the default rebellion religion for American teenagers. The numbers are absolutely off the scale, and it’s because their voices are heard by the groups they get involved with” – Geraldine Beskin
For Simon Costin, who dreamt up the haunting, otherworldly set for these pages, it’s the great personal strength of the witch that makes her such a fierce heroine. The owner of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, Costin curates the largest and oldest occult collection in the world. “It’s the way in which, under huge duress and pain and death, they were able to carry on doing what they did,” he says, citing Isobel Gowdie as an example of that resilient, defiant nature. Tried for witchcraft in Scotland in 1662, Gowdie’s unwavering will came through in her freely given confessions, describing how she would turn herself into a hare or a jackdaw, have sex with the devil under the stars and fly away with her coven on corn stalks. “When she talks about having sex with the devil she would probably have been talking about the leader of the coven,” explains Costin. “But we don’t honestly know, because it’s impossible to find out. (In the parts) about flying on the Sabbath, it’s highly likely they’d be using a ‘flying balm’, a sort of ointment made from hallucinogenic plants which they would ingest or smear on their bodies and imagine they were flying. They were tripping, basically. But (it makes it) all the more fascinating, because that would have been very anti-establishment in the way that drugs have always been.”
There’s definitely a strong alt side to witchcraft. “Witchcraft today is the default rebellion religion for American teenagers,” comments Beskin on the rise of Wicca. “The numbers are absolutely off the scale, and it’s because their voices are heard by the groups they get involved with. I think there’s a natural perversity to being involved with magic and witchcraft, because you want to find answers for yourself. And even if they drop out, they have been shown a different way of thinking. It’s not an evangelical religion and a lot of the kids have come from that, where the Bible is strictly true. This is an experiential religion. You are allowed for it to resonate in the way that suits you.”
Right now, the witch informs several groups of young women. In New York, the Witches of Bushwick are a modern-day coven-meets-art and fashion collective that collaborates with Becca McCharen’s transinclusive, body positive label Chromat. Feminist website The Coven was formed as a sacred space to express thoughts and ideas outside the norm, while in the Bronx, a Latina all-girl skate crew calling themselves Brujas – Spanish for witches – are gleaning power from the idea of the witch in traditional cultures as someone who offers a compassionate, healing alternative to a rigid patriarchal system.
“There was one guy who was always kind of fucking with me. I would stare at him and mouth a bunch of non-things so he would think I was casting spells” – Tavi Gevinson
Where #girlsquad can sometimes feel slightly hollow, the coven has emerged as a symbol of united sisterhood. “When you think of The Witches of Eastwick or The Craft, they’re coming together against their bullies,” says Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson. “There’s something attractive to me about embracing these stereotypically feminine qualities that can sometimes be thought of as very negative, like being too sensitive or emotional, and using that intuition to make something change in your life with your friends.” Plus, she adds with a faint chuckle, “there’s really nothing as terrifying as a pack of teenage girls”.
Gevinson currently plays Mary Warren in a new Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece The Crucible, starring alongside Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw. “I wanted (to do) The Crucible because I’m so very well versed in the psychology of troubled teen girls,” she says. “And because it’s an amazing examination of a community in crisis and the use of power. The Crucible is the most produced play in the world because it’s about something that people in power do all the time. It’s also about what happens when you don’t give a group of people any space to create their own identity. Abigail, who is played by the amazing Saoirse Ronan, has a taste of power and what it’s like to feel free and be somebody, and then they all rise up.”
Hollywood has also turned its attention to witch trials. The TV show Salem, where witches rule the town via the men they’ve bewitched, is about to go into its third season. Revisiting the New England witch hunts, Robert Eggers’ film debut The Witch draws on period accounts of strange phenomena among puritan settlers to describe a teenage girl’s sexual awakening and the terror it strikes in those around her. The film’s subtle horror builds on a thinly veiled fear of female sexuality – something that still rings true with Pussy Riot. Publicly denounced by Russian Orthodox groups as witches and demons, it’s hard to think of a better example of a modern ‘coven’ persecuted for their combined voice and fearlessness around their bodies.
“I feel like the witch is relevant because women are still mistreated,” says Claire Barrow. Previously, the designer’s spindly illustrations have drawn on 70s films about witchcraft, and her subculture narratives often have overtones of paganism, like AW16’s frayed hessian headpieces and wheat sheaves growing out of a bustier with painted eyes for boobs. Beskin similarly welcomes the “rise and rise of a feminist movement” in relation to witches, but points out that “men need to be strong and strident, too. The male witches don’t get a word in now. And they really should. That balance is very necessary.”
“The idea of the ‘other’, this powerful, liberated entity that exists outside the normal rules of society, is quite appealing when you’re dealing with fashion” – Simon Costin
For Gevinson, the witch archetype has been an influence since her school years: “In middle school, being a witch was like being a troll. You were trying to troll people (to prove) you didn’t care about what they thought of you. Obviously, a more enlightened adult would say, ‘Then you wouldn’t be doing anything with them in mind at all.’ But at 13 or 15, I wasn’t that advanced, so I had to actively go against what my classmates thought of me and wear weird stuff that often turned out to be a lot of powerful, black Comme (des Garçons), and also a lot of unflattering outfits that were a little bit like armour.”
In high school, Gevinson got into The Craft, Hole and mega-witch Stevie Nicks. “Stevie was huge for me,” she says. “It was like a badge of honour to be puzzling to men and for your feminine wiles to be both very enticing and very off-putting.” It’s that element of making people uncomfortable that’s so exciting about the witch. “There was one guy who was always kind of fucking with me. I would stare at him and mouth a bunch of non-things so he would think I was casting spells. I don’t know if it was healthy to isolate myself like that, but it was like a Daria thing, a defence mechanism.” Now, she says, “I am drawn to this archetype that seems to have no romantic counterpart necessary. It’s not like a princess and a prince.”
That Gevinson should make her early venture into witch territory via Comme des Garçons makes sense, and doubly so this season, when Rei Kawakubo explored the full force of witchcraft. “Witches,” said Adrian Joffe backstage, “are strong women who are often misunderstood by the world.” This manifested in massive, arresting and mysterious shapes – so big the girls had to pause and face each other to get down the narrow runway, beautifully acknowledging the sisterhood inherent in witchcraft. “I took (the shapes) as the way witches are renowned for shapeshifting, like becoming a hare,” comments Costin.
The collection also subtly connected the girls to Mother Nature, and Wicca’s beliefs about treading lightly on the Earth, which seem more important now than ever. This notion of the witch as a healing figure was felt in mossy textures, large flower rosettes and feathers spiralling around the body like a witch’s ladder, punctuated at either end by blood-red masses of hair and pointy shoes. And just like medieval witches would bind the power of the winds into knotted ropes for sailors, to be released one by one when at sea, here cord magic was harnessed with tangible energy knotted and twisted in fantastical shapes.
“One thing that’s so attractive to me (about the witch) is the idea of being unafraid to embrace your own power, even at the expense of being polarising to others” – Tavi Gevinson
It wasn’t easily decipherable, and that made it even more beautiful. “There are things we should live by and believe, but there’s no one way to define a witch,” says Beskin, likening witchcraft to Christianity’s many strands. In an age when any curtain of mystery is ripped open by social media, witchcraft is one of the few things that still feels relatively unknown, operating in a secretive and alluring realm. “You don’t really know what’s going on when these women are grouped together. It’s exciting and mysterious, like an inside thing. It’s a unity, they have something to talk about and do and they’re taking things into their own hands,” says Barrow.
There’s a strong link between the High Priestess and high fashion, from Myrtle Snow crying out “Balenciagaaa!” at the stake in American Horror Story: Coven to the way mother-daughter witch duo extraordinaire Morticia and Wednesday Addams have shaped fashion through their black silhouettes and strong independence. “The idea of the ‘other’, this powerful, liberated entity that exists outside the normal rules of society, is quite appealing when you’re dealing with fashion,” notes Costin, who worked with Gareth Pugh for SS15 on a pagan-fuelled collection of eerie scarecrows in sackcloth, horned gods, thistle headpieces and white witches in leather harnesses cut like pentagrams.
The presence of the witch is clearly felt in academia as well. Pam Grossman, a curator, writer and teacher of magical history and practice, organises the annual Occult Humanities Conference in New York, while at the city’s New School, Slutist founder Kristen Korvette – who sees clear links between the way the words ‘witch’ and ‘slut’ have been used to police female sexuality – teaches a course titled The Legacy of the Witch. The two gave an interview to The Huffington Post in October last year, where Grossman observed that, while the witch draws power from nature, her power comes mainly from within, not from an outside source, and Korvette noted that “young women are looking for an archetype outside the tired virgin-whore binary that we’re offered, and the witch can do just that”.
Witches have come a long way from the two-dimensional, sexist portrayals they are often saddled with. “Traditionally, witches were predominantly depicted either as the wizened hag no longer able to bear children, often on the outside of village life and seen as an outcast, or as the voluptuous seductress,” says Costin. “Those were the two extremes. They were never anything in between.” While he is hesitant to draw parallels between then and now in terms of these stereotypes, it’s hard not to feel that echoed in the way society today sexualises young women and discards the mature woman through ageism.
“Sod ’em. I take great pride in being a witch. It’s also humbling. You’re not meant to strut about saying, ‘I’m a witch, I am.’ That’s not what it’s about at all” – Geraldine Beskin
“To reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful,” Starhawk wrote in her 1979 book on Wicca and the Goddess movement, The Spiral Dance. In February last year, she told The Guardian: “I think that part of the power of the word is that it refers to a kind of power that is not legitimised by the authorities.” Will the word ever truly lose its negative connotations? “I don’t know if it will,” says Costin, “because it’s been embedded in our culture for so long. But it will get reclaimed.” For Beskin, it doesn’t matter. “I’m proud of it,” she says. “Sod ’em. I take great pride in being a witch. It’s also humbling. You’re not meant to strut about saying, ‘I’m a witch, I am.’ That’s not what it’s about at all.”
“One thing that’s so attractive to me (about the witch) is the idea of being unafraid to embrace your own power, even at the expense of being polarising to others,” says Gevinson. “I think we do a lot of things as women to avoid contending with our own power. We worship celebrities or romantic partners or people where we’re like, ‘I’m obsessed with that person’s Instagram!’ when really it’s like, ‘Their Instagram makes me feel bad inside because I think they’re so much better than me.’ We go out of our way – or at least, I have – to avoid contending with our own power and all the possibilities that exist when you realise how much you can really do when you take your ambition seriously… and listen to your desires.”
Hair Yannick D’Is at Management + Artists using Oribe, make-up Hiromi Ueda at Julian Watson Agency using Sisley Skincare and Cosmetics, nails Hiro Takabayashi at Jed Root, model Anna Ewers at Women, set design Simon Costin at CLM, photography assistants Mélanie Rey, Barbara Marangon, fashion assistant Louise Ford, hair assistant Quentin Guyen, make-up assistant Kamila Forini, digital operator Antonio Pizzichino, casting Noah Shelley