Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers review

Art, Photography Photographers' Gallery , Soho Until Sunday June 3 2018
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Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers review
Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920. Copyright Sebastian Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sebastian Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

If you watched the Golden Globe-winning series 'Transparent' and were captivated by the sepia-tinted flashbacks to ‘30s Berlin, you’re going to fall in love with this show. If you didn’t get around to watching Jeffrey Tambor star as the parent of three who comes out as transgender later in life - and have no idea what I’m talking about - then head to The Photographers' Gallery anyway, because this is an exhibition well worth shunning time in front of the telly for.

Opponents to trans and queer identities sometimes claim that a fluid approach to gender is a strictly 'millennial' invention – before that, men were men (and dressed accordingly) and women were women (and wore organ-squashing corsets, as nature intended). This myth gets a firm smack over the head with a collection of photographs dating as far back as 1880. 

The images come from the personal archive of Sébastien Lifshitz, who trawled flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and eBay on the lookout for photos showing people dressed in the apparel of the opposite gender. As such, names and back-stories remain largely unknown.

The brilliance of the exhibition is it shows the great variety of ways people have used ‘male’ or ‘female’ clothes to construct identity. Along with photos of the ultra-glamorous Bambi, a 1950s French transsexual cabaret performer, there are images of The Washington Community, a group of men who chose as their fashion inspo the pie-baking suburban housewife.

Another highlight are the mock wedding photos taken on all-female US college campuses. Designed as a practice run for a woman’s Big Day, the popular events were banned by Wellesley College in 1910 out of fear they promoted lesbianism.

Aside from the topic, this is a gorgeous set of mainly non-professional photographs celebrating the transformative effect of fashion – whoever you are.

By: Rosemary Waugh

Venue name: Photographers' Gallery
Contact:
Address: 16-18 Ramillies St
London
W1F 7LW
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm; Thu 10am-8pm; Sun 11.30am-6pm
Transport: Tube: Oxford Circus
Price: Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
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    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
    • Photographers' Gallery Free before 12.00. £2.50 online advance, or £4; £2.50 concs.
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