Anarchists of Style: Quentin Crisp

Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.
—Quentin Crisp

@ martin fishman

Quentin Crisp’s jauntily tied scarf, his artfully applied eyeliner, was not an act. It was an identity; one consciously contrived in 1930s London. It was an identity created specifically to challenge the status quo: a society in which covert homosexuality could be shrugged off, accepted if not in-your-face, but looking the part was not acceptable.
Sure, predecessors such as Oscar Wilde had set the tone for a male peacock—but aesthetic dress was couched in an all-encompassing lifestyle that was reflected in the dress of women and men of both sexual persuasions. Crisp set out to change that, persevering through regular beatings until ultimately becoming a cause celeb at age 60.

Handsome/beautiful in his early years.

Resident Alien
Quentin Crisp was a Christmas baby, born in Sutton, Surrey in 1908. (As a fellow Sagittarian, I always pity those born on Christmas. From my perspective, birthdays are exceptionally important to Sagittarians. Those born on or around the 25th seem to inevitably miss their own party, which to me would be devastating. Could this be inspiration enough to stand out from the crowd?)

Quentin’s parents—who christened him Dennis Pratt—were middle-class in both status and spirit. For this emerging iconoclast, the “middle” was a place in which he could not comfortably exist. In Manners from Heaven, Crisp described his early years: “During my Edwardian youth and Georgian middle-age the world (I mean Britain) stayed exactly where it was, aggressively conformist and conservative,” he wrote. “I stayed exactly where I was, a blithe spirit reveling in androgynous anarchy, and there was a battle.”

An early nude, @ Barbara Morris

After a boarding school education, and collegiate studies in journalism and art, Crisp passed his days as a rent boy, moving on to a use his artistic skills to illustrate books and, ultimately, he worked as an artist’s model for three decades. The Naked Civil Servant, his first memoir, published in 1968, was a nominal success. But upon the 1976 BBC production starring John Hurt, his celebrity went worldwide. He moved to the East Village in New York City in 1981, living there until his death in  1999.

Crisp seated in a chair, @ Grace Golden

an early illustration@quentin crisp
Crisp was a master of the quip (“Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level” he advised), and the cool, proper distance of the English (“Treat all disasters as if they were trivialities but never treat a triviality as if it were a disaster”).
Today, his legacy is a subject of debate. In a 2009 article by Peter Tatchell, published in The Independent, the author recalls a chance conversation in 1974 with Crisp, who asked, “What do you want liberation from? What is there to be proud of? I don’t believe in rights for homosexuals.” According to Tatchell, Crisp was a “self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly.” However, in a 1968 interview—in which Crisp presents as handsome/beautiful; is there a French phrase for this?—our anarchist of the week proffers an interesting idea: homosexuality will not be an issue until it is a total bore. In theoretical terms, once no longer looked upon as “the other,” one’s sexual identity will cease to matter.

@Graham Clark

As he explained to spikemagazine.com, “You’d think to look at me would be enough. Obviously not. And that is why I do not march. I have realized I represent nothing grander than my own puny self. I am first and last an individual, not a spokesman for any group. I have lived my life with my sexuality clearly apparent. I cannot do any more.”

“The Stately Homo of England”
From Salon.com, a description I could not better: “At the root of Crisp’s act was a kind of radicalism: Mocked and brutalized for his flamboyant effeminacy, he nonetheless chose to live, beginning in the London of the 1930s, ‘not merely as a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one.’ He tinted his hair lilac, wore eye shadow, pert scarves and silk blouses, and transformed himself into a walking, quipping objet d’art. It was this feat of defiant self-invention that eventually brought him celebrity… Quentin Crisp’s masterpiece was, emphatically, ‘Quentin Crisp.’”

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1 Comment

  • Chana Ginsberg January 10, 2012 12.39 am

    I think this is a real great article.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

     

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