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Tilda Swinon cloakroom performance Pitti
Tilda Swinton performs Cloakroom at Pittivia

Tilda Swinton: the art of the everyday

The Academy Award winner and Dazed cover star reflects on the emotional bonds we form with fashion after her poetic Pitti performance

It’s not every day you line up at a cloakroom and hand over your ticket to Tilda Swinton, who hurries back towards the rails to fetch your stuff and delicately presents it to you. But that was what happened at Swinton and fashion historian Olivier Saillard’s Cloakroom performance in Florence this week, where the audience were invited to leave things throughout the play, which Tilda then contemplated and interacted with, from her licking a jacket to throwing herself full force on top of a coat and burying her face in a hood, in a gesture of bringing out the poetry in ‘ordinary’ clothes. 

Fashion churns out an endless stream of products – whether fast or high-end – and Saillard and Swinton’s performance asked us to press pause and appreciate the things we already own. As Olivier Saillard commented in his notes for the performance: “The collection takes life, built up on what’s acquired and not on novelty, wandering the opposite path to that which was constructed by fashion.”

A Fondazione Pitti Discovery project staged in the gilded Saloncino at the Medici-commissioned Teatro della Pergola – the oldest opera house in Italy now focusing on drama productions – it is the third instalment of the duo’s Impossible Wardrobe (Swinton showcasing fashion archive pieces in a performance inspired by Saillard’s position as director of the Palais Galliera in Paris) and Eternity Dress (the making of a dress on Swinton’s body) and the result of a three-year collaboration. 

“We kind of completed a trilogy with this one,” Swinton said after the performance. “It’s a completion of that enquiry which is something about the soul of clothes. Maybe the interesting thing about clothes is that people live in them, and that there’s nothing else really to be said, and so it’s trying to trace that and concentrate on that, and to honour our clothes, rather than Coco Chanel or Napoleon or anybody else. Actually our clothes.”

During the 90-minute performance, Swinton – in a graceful and demure long-sleeved black dress with black patent stilettos – continuously repeated the ritualistic act of approaching the audience’s garments and silently communicating with them, while Saillard then took each piece to hang on the rails along the wall. Dazed dropped off a fox stole, which Swinton laid to rest with a single stalk of wheat, and she put her ear to Dazed contributor Marta Represa’s coat to listen to it and whispered to another piece of outwear, “Oh, don’t be silly.” 

Afterwards, Swinton spoke of her approach to each item: “In the first instance there’s something about trying to resist the superficial attributes of something. I mean, it would be very easy to only go with something that’s brightly coloured in a brightly coloured way, or something that was very soft in a very soft way, so maybe [I try to] dislodge one’s expectations.” 

“Maybe the interesting thing about clothes is that people live in them, and that there’s nothing else really to be said.” – Tilda Swinton

The performance was not without its amusing moments as Swinton used her impossibly elegant body to comical effect by positioning herself on top of things, and tried to place a coat on a table like it was a person sitting up. But there was also a strong sensual element to it, like the way she crawled on all fours under to table to sniff a man’s jacket and then caress it with her head like a cat. It elevated our everyday clothes – whether inconspicuous or precious - to special status, and underscored the innate stories and memories that our clothes carry. 

“One of the inspirations of this piece was the fact that for last two years I’ve been slowly going through my mother’s wardrobe,” Swinton said. “She died two years ago when we were making Impossible Wardrobe, and so it’s been very much a part of our inquiry, this whole question of clothes outliving us very, very often. The body’s gone, the clothes are still here. And there’s a tradition of people inheriting clothes. Certainly in Scotland people tend to wear their grandfather’s kilts. There’s a feeling that clothes are to be passed down from generation to generation. It’s only relatively recently that we have a fetish for newness.”

In a way, the performance had its own overtones of the fetishisation of clothes, but in the sense of imbuing an object with magical powers rather than a more superficial one. “It’s not really about appearance at all. It’s about spirit, I suppose, and the life lived in these garments,” Swinton said. “The more I do the piece, the more I realise that it’s about making relationships. Something comes, you go ‘Ah! I can make a relationship with this’. And you know, we all have relationships with an old jersey that people have told us to throw out, but we’re not going to because you know what, we have a very strong relationship with that thing.”

Watch Swinton perform in a striking original Dazed short by Glen Luchford, styled by Katy England: