Speaker spotlight: Martin Pel

Gluck: Did She Really Wear That? 

This paper will explore the potential and complexities of using dress as evidence of lives lived. The artist Gluck (1895 – 1978) declared her lesbian identity through the dress she wore; masculine tailored garments, shirts with ties, ‘men’s’ shoes from Lobbs and her hair cropped short. In 1977 she donated a large collection of clothing to Brighton Museum.

The gift includes Tunisian menswear and two linen painter’s smocks, but the majority of the items comprise – perhaps surprisingly – ‘arty’ flowery dresses, and fashionable slightly bohemian women’s evening wear. Museum correspondence reveals that many items were her girlfriends, the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald (1885 – 1976). We know that a black bifurcated evening dress was made for Gluck in the 1930 was and subsequently enlarged. Gluck was shorter than Edith, but an examination of the garments suggests anomalies about who wore what.

In 1937 Gluck painted probably the most famous image of a lesbian relationship of her and her lover ‘wife’ Nesta Obermer . Entitled ‘Medallion’ Gluck called it the ‘YouWe’, re-enforcing the idea of conjoined lovers. Is the donation of dress to Brighton also a declaration of ‘YouWe’; of two lives lived as one?

The paper will also analyse Gluck’s style, derived from photographic evidence, and explore what rendered it apparently masculine, in the 1920s when ‘garconne’ styles were the height of chic. It will also ponder another 1930s dress, made for Gluck in the offices of French Vogue but which – to contemporary eyes – seems incongruous.

In 2017 these items will form part of an exhibition on Gluck at Brighton Museum, curated by myself and Professor Amy de la Haye (University of the Arts, London). We are also working closely with Diana Souhami, Gluck’s biographer, and cultural historian Elizabeth Wilson.

Martin will be speaking on day 1 of the  conference

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