Say Yes to My Dress! If you're David Bateman's friend, you may end up in this gender-bending project
Bateman's latest project is both a consideration of gender and a loving tribute to the people in his life
David Bateman owns a lot of dresses.
The Toronto-based actor, poet, performance artist, painter and playwright is also a veteran drag performer. His drag repertoire includes — among many others — a warped and warbling country singer, a high society matron in peril and a loose-lipped Jackie Kennedy. Even Bateman's home resembles an armoury in the War for Glamour, and visitors quickly learn there is always a fresh dress, or 20, waiting to be cat-walked.
So it's natural that Bateman's latest project, a series of photographs titled Say Yes to My Dress, is both a consideration of gender — its alleged norms, presentations and (de)constructs — and a pictorial guest book, a record of Bateman's life, friendships and the innate quirkiness of the human condition. Look past the surface comedy of seeing men in ill-fitting dresses, children in very ill-fitting dresses or women wearing gowns clearly not in tune with their personal styles or personalities, and you'll find a loving tribute to a diverse and fearless community.
Bateman began photographing friends modelling his dresses by happy accident. "Usually, my projects begin with cocktails...but this project started when I was on my way to visiting friends in the Ottawa Valley. I wanted to buy them something girly and take photos of them to leave as a reminder of my visit. So I went to a wonderful discount shop on Yonge Street where there was a pile of little dresses, all for five dollars each. I bought three, and halfway home I thought, 'What the hell, I'm gonna go back and buy four more and take photos of anyone who wants a photo.' That was over a year ago."
Gender play is a key component of Say Yes to My Dress, but what I noticed during the opening of the exhibition was how my fellow viewers immediately looked past the 'it's a guy in a dress' element and engaged with larger questions of identity and self-presentation.- RM Vaughan
Since then, Bateman has amassed over a hundred photos of 30 or more friends (he's not sure of the numbers) draped in his dresses. He will cut the back of a dress open to squeeze a model in, and to give the project "a nice one-size-fits-all element" — but, he warns, "don't stand up in the middle of the sitting or the dress goes berserk."
Gender play is a key component of Say Yes to My Dress, but what I noticed during the opening of the exhibition was how my fellow viewers immediately looked past the "it's a guy in a dress" element and engaged with larger questions of identity and self-presentation. Some of Bateman's subjects appear at ease, even camera-ready; others seem to be moments away from ripping the dress off.
The models in the photos obviously paid more attention to how they positioned their bodies and faces than how to wear a dress. The act of cross-dressing (an antique term) appears to be the simplest thing going on in the photos, merely the most obvious piece of information.
"I love that viewers see something beyond the supposedly unusual/non-traditional subject matter in these odd, lovely little photos," Bateman tells me, "Drag, of course — which this isn't really, in a strict sense — has moved into the mainstream in different ways over the past several years. Gender play has developed. And this project is part of that development: I just get whoever is interested in putting on a dress to put on a dress. What else the photograph captures is more important."
When Bateman says "whoever," he really means it.
"I find the straight men endearing. They pose with their wives, their buddies, their children, and somehow the final product, the photo, captures how very casual it all becomes. That might just be me being so used to dresses being everywhere that I don't see anything unusual about it. But what I see is a little...undefinable."
Even when someone says no to Bateman's dress — "A few people have declined," Bateman says. "One fabulous queer simply stated, in a polite but deliberate manner: I have my own dresses." — there is still plenty to be learned. "The decliners also have interesting, diverse responses — and yet, they are similar insofar as they all express conflicted feelings about wearing a dress. So far, it has only been male-identified people who have politely refused."
"I respect their reasons, of course. But part of me would love to photograph all of the polite dissenters together. A mildly resistant, slightly terrified group of frock covered fellas would be fascinating!"