Kōrero Kākahu: The Creamy Psychology of Yvonne Todd

Kia ora from Aotearoa/New Zealand! This is my first post as the Worn Through New Zealand contributor and I’m starting off with something a little unorthodox. Creamy Psychology is an art exhibition that recently showed at Wellington’s City Gallery. It was the first time that the whole gallery had been dedicated to the work of one artist: the inaugural winner of the Walters Prize (New Zealand’s most prestigious art prize), Yvonne Todd. Todd is an Auckland-based artist and alumni of the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland who works predominantly with photography to create often unsettling portraits of characters, real and imagined. The show consisted of around 150 photographs, an installation featuring a selection of Todd’s expansive vintage clothing collection and a room showcasing objects and images that inspired Todd’s work. As a recent convert to the Yvonne Todd cult, I found the recurring themes of nostalgia, obsession, glamour (and the fall from it), reality and imagined reality throughout her oeuvre. The creations in Todd’s photographs are a mixture of characters she has dreamed up, real people/situations she has obsessed over before styling and photographing, and people playing themselves, or at least Todd’s version of themselves. Throughout her work clothing and costume is a constant, whether it be the inspiration for the story she tells or an element she employs to assist in her storytelling.

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Installation view of frock room

The first room I entered presented two opposing walls of close-up portraits, the first a series called Bellevue depicting 9 women immaculately presented in their stiff cosmetician’s blazers and smocks. For this series Todd used real women i.e. women who worked in the beauty counters at local pharmacies, but these women were presented very coldly: their unsmiling faces and chests are cropped and lit in a way that makes them unapproachable. The starched look of their clothing only adds to the prim, distant feeling the evoke. Todd tells a story of how one of the woman reacted when seeing her portrait, gasping at it in shock and leaving the gallery. Across from these women is a similar series of female face and chest portraits titled Sea of Tranquillity. Here, Todd’s characterisation of the models is more overt; she has styled them all in high-necked, mock-Victorian, polyester blouses, again their faces are immaculately made-up but on their heads they wear wigs. However, these women do not match the unapproachable distance of the cosmeticians, in fact none of them look at the camera and their minds appear to be elsewhere. These portraits have a stifling feel about them, a sadness belies their distant looks and the oppressive feel of the itchy-looking high necks only adds to this. That Todd sees Bellevue as a modern day rendition of Sea of Tranquillity is highly insightful in regards to her childhood obsessions of cosmeticians.

The following room featured a photograph titled Pupators and on face value looked like a it could be from a girls clothing catalogue. It features three delicately fluffy angora cardigans that float in a black background. Though the cardigans were made for young girls, they are filled out by an unseen, flat-chested mannequin so they appear beguilingly androgynous. Todd styled these so  as to emphasise a time in life when girls are in a state of transformation, verging on puberty and inevitable adulthood. By presenting the cardigans in this way, Todd highlights the opportunities and experiences to come but with the black background the sinister feeling that is ever-present in Todd’s work remains.

Also featured in this room was the unsettling series Vagrants Reception Centre. This was one of the instances in which the story was inspired by the clothing. Todd is an avid vintage clothing collector and after buying two Victorian dresses online, she realised upon receiving them that the extremely nipped in waists would not work on modern women thus this series of discomfiting portraits of young girls was borne. For the most part the photos are cropped in a similar way to Bellevue and Sea of Tranquillity with the face and chest on show, and this only highlights the juxtaposition of their overdone, mature facial make-up and the high-necked, embellished, ruffled Victorian dresses. That these dresses were intended for women and yet are worn by modern day 12 year old girls is unnerving, what does this say about how young women’s lives in today’s society? What do they tell us when their portraits appear as a caricatured version of kids playing dress up in their mother’s closet yet none of them appear to be enjoying themselves? The leg o’ mutton sleeves appear even more exaggerated upon their young shoulders and symbolise the oppressiveness that recurs throughout Todd’s work.

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Installation view of frock room. The work in the background is “Mulkie” and features a model wearing a Norman Norell pantsuit.

As aforementioned, a selection of Todd’s clothing collection was displayed as part of the exhibition. Curated by Claire Regnault, Senior Curator Creative Industries at the national museum Te Papa, the decision was made to focus on the glitzier pieces in Todd’s collection. Todd has collected clothing for many years but her collecting practice gained momentum with the advent of websites like Ebay which gave her unprecedented access to glamorous clothing of a higher quality than before. Consequently Todd now has pieces by Emanuel Ungaro, Norman Norrell and Bob Mackie with some pieces having significant celebrity provenance including Whitney Houston and Liza Minelli. Despite these interesting back stories, Todd insists that the impetus to buy is due to the dress itself, not the provenance. Regardless, the inclusion of the dresses in the exhibition added a material dimension to the exhibition wherein the exquisiteness of the dresses in situ could be appreciated up close and the back stories added an element of intrigue in and of the clothing that is somewhat superfluous when they are utilised by a model in character. Glamour is a dominant theme in the works of Todd’s that I haven’t covered here but it is a flawed glamour, a glamour that has undercurrents of despair and darkness. The stories that the clothes and their former owners add via this sculptural dimension reinforces a lot of Todd’s ideas surrounding glamour and their inclusion is to be lauded.


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Installation view of frock room.

The final series that I want to highlight is Todd’s most recent work Ethical Minorities: Vegans and this is because I think it is her most overt example of the way in which Todd confuses reality, and clothing plays a major part. Todd herself is a vegan (and includes a self-portrait in this series) and through this work she wanted to explore the ways in which she believes that wider society sees vegans. Todd recruited her artists through specialist publications and unlike most other series’, the models showed up in their own clothing and it is unknown to the viewer whether Todd kept them in their clothes or not. By keeping this to herself, we as viewers are forced to confront our own perceptions of what a vegan looks like and what a vegan wears. It is a fascinating exercise in stereotyping and indicative of the ways in which Todd plays with her viewers.

There is so much to discover in Todd’s work and I implore you to look it up. She uses clothing to tell stories but also to manipulate what you think you know. A comprehensive book about the exhibition has been published and is available here. The book includes essays and images of her works.

All photos credit: Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology installation view. City Gallery, Wellington, 2014. Photo by Shane Waugh.

A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.

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