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Sylvia Plath wearing her kilt outside the Notre Dame
Courtesy of The Lilly Library in Indiana

This exhibition delves into the wardrobes of mythologised women poets

From Sylvia Plath’s kilt to Audre Lorde’s kaftan, Poets in Vogue considers the personal aesthetics of the most seminal women in 20th-century poetry

Yeats once wrote that the poet we meet on the page is “never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”, but how much better off would a reader be in knowing the poet sat down to their eggy bread wearing a fetching kimono, or sporting a plain towelling robe? Poets in Vogue is an exhibition currently running at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre, and focusing on seven female poets, or rather more specifically on their relationship with, and attitude towards, clothing. 

In a slight plot twist, only one of the seven exhibits on display – a plaid skirt once owned and worn by Sylvia Plath – is ‘authentic’; the rest, from a caftan representing Audre Lorde to a dazzling red frock based on one worn by Anne Sexton at readings, are given a considered twist, telling us not so much the prose of the matter, as offering a little poetic symbolism of their own.

“We wanted each installation to reflect the particular aesthetic – sartorial and poetic – of each individual poet,” co-curator Sarah Parker tells Dazed, and the way in which this has been brought about is by playing up certain aspects of the poets’ work in bespoke exhibits. They are, as Parker notes, “deliberately creative responses” to the poets’ writing. Equally creative is the selection of poets, from relatively mainstream figures such as Plath and Sexton to the more avant-garde, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and the political poet and thinker, Lorde. 

Sophie Oliver, co-curator, noted that in the case of a Black lesbian poet like Lorde “clothes were also a “form of action”, “creating a space – for herself and for women like her”. The exhibition’s response to her was, therefore, necessarily different to its way of framing a poet like Stevie Smith, the suburbanite Londoner whose faux-naïve work is paired here with a set of almost taxidermy-style stiff collars. “Smith’s life has also sometimes been viewed as a life of repetition, even stagnation. But rather than thinking of her as tragic and ‘eccentric’, I wanted to think about repetition as a deliberate strategy of defamiliarisation and as liberating, in a way”, reflects Parker, and the not-quite identical collars act to make stranger the already haunting words of Smith’s poem Pretty, displayed alongside.

But what of the drive behind the exhibition as a whole, and the potentially undermining concept of presenting these canonical women writers on the basis of their wardrobes? This was something Parker had – of course – considered deeply: “We anticipated that people might say we were ‘trivialising’ or fetishising the poets by focusing on dress or fashion”, she tells us. “We were highly conscious of the fact that focusing on women poets and dress raises vexed issues, including a very long history of women poets being judged through their appearance, and dismissed due to the way they dress. Clothing is not a superficial or trivial focus; it seems to us that attitude is largely due to old-fashioned and misogynistic assumptions about fashion’s ‘feminine’ associations.” 

Oliver added that the poets’ work was always, equally, in focus, and the exhibition was about “trying to reshape the narrative around the question of women artists’ lives, particularly clothes and image: to ask: ‘How does what they wore relate to what they made?’

“A real person wrote those poems; a real person wore that skirt” – Sophie Oliver, co-curator

This is no tabloid-style gawp at who wore it best; the art is still centre stage, the poets’ words every bit as much a part of the show as the striking, occasionally pantomimic, reflections on the ways they presented themselves to the world. Writing is a performance in itself, just as the poets’ self-presentation at readings or in author photographs, and Oliver is keen to show that poetry is always “an embodied practice”. 

In some ways Plath, that most cultish and worrisomely mythologised of poets, is rendered all the more poignant by the understatedness of her skirt being displayed soberly, behind glass, a “provocation” as Parker notes, against the fetish-like voyeurism that has built up around her since her early death. While the exhibition is keen to avoid trivialising its poets, it is equally keen to avoid denying the flesh and blood reality of the bodies that were once behind the clothing, and poems, as Oliver is quick to point out. “A real person wrote those poems; a real person wore that skirt.”

Poets in Vogue is running at the National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, London, until September 10 2023.

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