The statue (Millicent Fawcett by Gillian Wearing) has been commissioned by the Mayor of London with 14-18 NOW, Firstsite and Iniva to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, through the Government’s national centenary fund.
'It’s about literally wearing your heart on your sleeve.'
To mark the 2018 centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, a statue of Millicent Fawcett by artist Gillian Wearing will be unveiled in London’s Parliament Square on April 24th 2018. Wearing has collaborated with publisher Plinth, the Mayor of London and designer Bella Freud to produce a range of merchandise inspired by Fawcett’s message, and part of the proceeds from the sale of the range will be donated to the Fawcett Society.
Bella spoke to Chloe Grimshaw about her inspirations for the range, her hopes for its destination, and what happens when fashion meets feminism head on.
I’ve been interested in that for many years – in the visuals of protest, and the means by which one distills so much feeling into one word or a couple of words.
We love your new range, which features text and 'slogans' on every piece - were you influenced by Suffragette protest signs and more recently the hand-drawn signs at the Women’s March?
I’ve been interested in that for many years – in the visuals of protest, and the means by which one distills so much feeling into one word or a couple of words. There’s even power in how it looks; the layout is a really big thing as well. When record covers are very successful, for instance, they condense a universal feeling or a zeitgeist. I love seeing that, I find it very inspiring and I’m always on the look-out for it. So that’s why I was so excited about being part of this project, because Gillian’s ideas provided a big source of aesthetics and motivation for my work.
The suffragettes were protesting with their bodies because their voices weren’t being heard – why do you think this form of protest is still so powerful?
I think it’s because a lot of corporate organisations have hijacked the whole thing – a buzzword or a slogan, a feeling, and that makes it empty. When you see something that’s been made ‘organically’ as it were, made by a movement, it has an energetic force in the world. It creates a thrill and excitement of moving forward and a sense that it is possible to change things, possible to register unhappiness and desire for change.
Do you think about how your work goes into the world?
Once you send an idea out there and someone adopts it, it’s very interesting to see what they bring. Sometimes people bring something important, and then I can take from that in turn and go back again; that’s very exciting and really fun. You feel you’ve really connected with someone and there’s a kind of rapport. It feels like something’s taken, so that’s something to build on.
There’s some English thing where everyone’s brought up and are told as children to stop being so attention-seeking, but why on Earth not make yourself heard?
How did you respond to Gillian Wearing’s iconic photographic ‘Signs’ series? (Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, 1992-3)
I really like that series – for one thing, it shows that people enjoy attention. There’s some English thing where everyone’s brought up and are told as children to stop being so attention-seeking, but why on Earth not make yourself heard? Especially as a child, how do you let people know when you’re happy or sad or something’s wrong if you don’t attract their attention? It makes for a lot of socially inept people later on in life!
[Gillian’s ‘Signs’ series] is quite funny as well, and I like that way she has of coming at people – it’s serious and it’s funny at the same time. She herself seems quite inscrutable and shy, and yet she’s drawing attention to herself in her work and I love that combination. I find it fascinating.
Can you tell me more about your response to the Suffragettes?
It’s not only about their movement any more, it’s about what’s happening now. They were doing something to speed things up and what we’re doing now is to move forward again. [Women’s equality] hasn’t moved forward for a long time and now everyone’s fed up. It’s time for another huge push, and that’s what’s happening.
The Suffragettes were women with so much courage — it can’t have been the most fun thing in the world, always making people feel uncomfortable about the status quo. That takes a huge amount of thick-skinnedness. And now there’s a whole new generation with different ideas about how to do that, but essentially the goal is the same – caring about each other, women and men too. It’s a friendly thing across the board.
It’s really exciting drawing on the contemporary culture of music and fashion and art and taking it back – using it as a vehicle for a message. Being both serious with it and having fun with it. It lights me up being part of something like that; it’s about wearing your heart literally on your sleeve. What you’re wearing on your body is your passionate belief.
How do you feel as a woman and an entrepreneur?
Definitely proud of myself because it takes a lot of tenacity to stay in the fashion business. I really enjoy it and I feel I’ve got something to offer.
Can you tell us more about Sigmund Freud, your great-grandfather?
I’ve become really interested in him over the last 5 or 6 years – I did a perfume called ‘Psychoanalysis’ because I thought, well, I am interested in what motivates the undercurrent of things. I’ve always been into that, and then I liked the jokes and I liked the double meanings! Clothes are so much about what you allow people to see, what you cover up and how. I’m fascinated by the messages of fashion and dressing. It’s the perfect way to plunder some of his amazing discoveries and quotes and play about with them.
What made you choose this particular quote of his, ‘What do women want.’ ?
I thought, yes – that’s just right for this [project]. Obviously it’s got so much scope; it’s an endless question!
Are there any women in particular who you would love to see wearing these t-shirts?
I particularly love what Janelle Monae is doing; it’s so right, so playful and sexy. It’s got so much power, there’s nothing passive about how she shows a woman. It’s just gorgeous. I find her version of femininity, and a woman ‘owning it’, very powerful.
Billie JD Porter is a very cool girl, very young and mobilising young people to be active politically and take charge of their political futures by voting so they have people to represent their interests. I have a lot of respect for her.
I’d love to see the t-shirt on artists like Sarah Lucas and Sam Taylor Johnson – people who really do their own version of things and don’t let people get in their way. Claire Balding is lovely and has such a good vibe, and Sandi Toksvig is so funny and I love listening to her. My friend Jemima Khan is someone for whom I have a lot of respect and admiration, as I do for Thandie Newton and Kate Moss. There’s not a particular ‘type’ of woman I’m after; it’s about their personal integrity.