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Grayson Perry at the Barbican

The artist talks about his favourite dolls and dresses.

On 18 September Grayson Perry opened up about what he calls his 'hobby', dressing up as a woman. He headlined the last in a series Thursday Fashion Lates as part of The House of Viktor & Rolf exhibition at the Barbican.

Grayson arrived in sapphire sparkles and star-stroked eyelids to the Barbican with a trolley and rolly suitcase loaded down with bespoke dresses. And what, or shall we say who, was in the suitcase...? Grayson’s dolly, Shirley Jean! His original porcelain dolly, Clara, took a fatal fall from the bureau and had to be retired. It was only after a long search through the internet that Grayson came upon Shirley Jean, a vinyl doll which can fit into all of Clara’s dresses, shoes and accessories. Much like the Viktor & Rolf’s dolls, Shirley sports scaled-down, miniature versions of Grayson’s dresses. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s a blondie.

While Grayson began unpacking his treasures and Shirley Jean took centre-stage we met the woman who’s made all the dolly dresses in addition to all of Grayson’s Alice in Wonderland-style dresses, Sonja Harms. After the sound check was complete 150 lucky guests made their way into the Redgrave room.

Having worked on the show, I was happy to hear Grayson start off the talk by saying he thinks that The House of Viktor & Rolf is the best static fashion exhibition he’s seen.

Flashing back in time he then told us about his first time wearing women's clothing [his sister's ballet costume, age 7] and showed us the first photograph of him dressed as a woman, from 1979. Describing his early transvestite image as “dowdy housewife”, and “low-budget trannie”, Grayson fumbled around trying to look like a realistic woman: ‘When you’re a transvestite it’s like you are erotically driven to put yourself in your worst nightmare. What’s the worst nightmare for a teenage boy walking down the high street dressed as a woman? It is a pretty tricky situation to deal with. Basically you feel like you’re being kind of sexually compelled to dress up like Koko the Clown.’

He went on to say that ‘transvestitism has had a big effect on my attitude to art, it’s made me embarrassment-proof in some ways. This was a time when everyone was dressing up very much, and I liked to dress up like a housewife occasionally and they all thought this was terribly amusing and ironic. I was still at this time very self-conscious and nervous about being a trannie’. Showing a recent photograph in his ‘Whistles and Monsoon lil’ number’, Grayson can still be seen out and about as a domestic goddess.

Goddess he was bolting back and forth across the stage in silver-and-white heels made especially for him by Natacha Marro. ( http://www.natachamarro.com ) Grayson says he can't manage a heel over three inches, a platform helps keep the balance! For the price of a pair of Jimmy Choo's, you can have a bespoke pair by Natacha.

Grayson shared with us many of his most prized dresses, among them this so-called 'Elizabeth Hurley' dress that he wore to accept the 2003 Turner Prize, such a sweet lil’ dress with disgruntled daisy faces and ‘sissy’ bunnies.

We also got a glimpse of the regal, stately cape with a map of the Metropolitan Museum of Art around the crotch that Grayson will wear when he visits New York later this month.

While Grayson got changed into a custom-made vinyl dress by Robin Archer of House of Harlot, we heard from Sonja the story of how she and Grayson met and how she got involved in making clothes for transvestites through her work with theatre. Most impressive was a green checked dress that unzips to reveal raw flesh, fur and horns.

The highlight of the evening was hearing Grayson talk about his work with students from Central Saint Martin’s. Each year he gives the students a request for a new ensemble and the winners are given ‘Claires’ (Grayson’s version of the Olympics!) in bronze, silver and gold. How exciting to have a dress of your own design bought and worn by Grayson Perry! My top picks from the selection were a ‘paper doll’ dress with detachable ‘fronts’ (by James Gardener) so you can always have a new look, and this fairy-tale jacket with teddy bears (by Heezin Jung ) you can move around wherever you like.

When all was said and done there were lots of laughs and cheers as Grayson generously opened the discussion up to the audience and gave refreshing, honest answers to questions like how long it takes him to get ready [one hour]. He said he prefers style over fashion and his one insistence is on the high waist.

The ultimate treat came at the end of the night when Grayson said good-bye to his fans with autographs, an up-close-and-personal look [and touch!] at his and Shirley Jean’s treasured dresses, and if you were lucky, a photo. Definitely a night to write home about.

We are all sad to see The House of Viktor & Rolf come to an end, but we’re pumped about the upcoming openings of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Frequency and Volume and This Is War! Robert Capa at Work, Gerda Taro, On the Subject of War.