Josie Cray looks at the photographic project of Clementine Schneidermann and Charlotte James from the south Wales valleys currently taking the world by storm.
Five girls, all dressed in white, make their way across what could be a street around the corner from you. Oversized shirts, taffeta headdresses, and second-hand dresses billow in the wind as clouds interrupt the blue sky above. Like the clouds above, these girls interrupt the dominant narrative of their setting. Something big is happening in the Welsh Valleys.
In 2015, Clémentine Schneidermann, a French photographer living in South Wales, and Charlotte James, a creative director and stylist from Merthyr Tydfil, began a series of costume-making workshops at the Gellideg youth centre in Merthyr Tydfil, and at the Coed Cae Interact club near Brynmawr. From these workshops would come their project It’s Called Ffasiwn. Four years in the making, the project—characterised by hybridity, flexibility, and playfulness—searched for ‘all the oddities in Wales’ and has left a conversation regarding Valleys communities and their creative futures in its wake.
Fashion, or ffasiwn, is at the heart of Schneidermann and James’ project. Clothing, material and make up become tools the pair use to explore notions of gender and girlhood. Through this exploration costume, class, collaboration and agency intersect with constructions of gender, offering unique, visual rethinking of how gender is performed.
Throughout the collection clothing comes to function as costume; there is a playfulness, a game of ‘dress up’ taking place. The array of costumes—from black mock-Victorian frocks to leopard print leotards—present a timelessness in the photographs. Artificiality in the costumes situate the costume-wearers in a timeless moment, or, rather, outside of a recognisable temporality. The costume’s ability to render its wearers outside of time draws attention to the position of those in the clothes, opening a dialogue around gender and age. At the start of the four-year project, Schneidermann’s subjects were nine-years-old. Her own focus on girls, especially pre-adolescent girls, highlights both the playfulness of this project and also its location in a liminal time for the development of these girls. Not a child, yet not self-conscious teens, these girls inhabit a space outside of rigid socially gendered expectations or parental control. Their status as ‘girl’ in these photos, alongside the costumes, reveals a fluidity in gender alongside a resistance to or subversion of dominant discourses around fashion and femininity. The girls dress up, they dress down, they pose with fans and bonnets or weave taffeta into their hair; fashion rules are bent and broken in girlhood and nowhere is this more evident than in this collection.
In these costumes, themes of adaptability and fluidity intersect with gender and class. Stood in front of a grey weather-beaten pebble-dashed exterior, a girl appears almost camouflaged in her animal print leotard. Her wild hair announces the possibility of a body against that stony shell. Animal print clothing—a performance of the luxurious furs of the uber-rich—focuses a dialogue around gender, class, and material culture. For the wealthy, furs and animal prints reinforce an exuberance, a status symbol for their power and position. At the other end of the spectrum, animal prints in their various forms have become synonymous with the sexualisation of working class women; cheap, expendable, faux furs and zebra stripes offer little power to these women. The camouflaged girl, however, offers a new narrative arising from the intersection of gender and class. Adaptable to their environment, the girls of these pebble-dashed valleys in their animal prints suggest an independence, a street-smart and new source of confidence that might see these girls navigate their way through the concrete jungle. Combinations of clothing items, make-up, and hairstyles reveal a gender fluidity across the collection. Trousers under dresses, oversized shirts, trainers and fascinators all call into question the rigidity of gender binaries evident in clothing practises. The pre-adolescent subjects, in communion dresses and Adidas trainers simultaneously perform masculinity and femininity. At a stage where they are neither fully-realised women nor children under the watchful eye of parents, the combination of costume, camouflage, and artificiality offers a gendered spectrum upon which these girls can play and destabilise social constructions and expectations.
Schneidermann and James push their use of fashion further, using it as a tool of collaboration with the girls and their community. Often using second-hand outfits, the girls were gathered and encouraged to add and embellish their costumes, positioning the girls as active agents in the photographs; they fashion themselves. In this act of collaboration, Schneidermann and James test the limits of fashion photography and portraiture: no longer are they models passive mannequins. Instead, the girls regain control of their body and their image, their fashion and identity. The act of collaboration moves beyond the photographs, leaving an experience with these girls and their community, challenging the dominant narrative around the Valleys, a setting often viewed as bleak, post-industry, and with little to offer. The project becomes a way into discussions around the future for these town, held in the hands of the youth in these images.
It is from this landscape, the Valleys’ location in-between, that sees Schneidermann and James test the limits of a third photographic genre: landscape photography. In between the rural countryside and the urban cities of Wales, the small towns and communities of the Valleys are, to an extent, like the girls that inhabit them: adaptable. From the cul-de-sacs of towns to the more rural hillsides that cocoon them, Schneidermann and James combine their focus on fashion with the Welsh landscape. The costumes in the collection often follow a colour scheme, with all subjects wearing the same shade in their various stylings. From muted greens and funeral black to bold reds and brilliant whites, the colour of the clothing does more than contrast with its surroundings or draw our eye to the subjects. Colour themes are linked more closely to both the landscape of Wales and the time of year—in some instances colours are selected to represent certain calendar events and celebrations. Take ‘Ghosts, Merthyr, 2018’, for example. Figures draped in white sheets with cut-out eyes hide against the backdrop of a house painted white. Black trainers reveal more than a ghostly spectre under the sheets as Halloween made its way to the town. The seasons and celebrations enhance the playfulness of costumes and fashion in the collection.
‘Last Days of Summer, Blaenavon, 2018’ reveals a more intricate interaction between the girls, fashion and the Welsh landscape. As girls spin and dance in costumes of pastel yellow, the mounds and hills marked by mining loom over them. The sun-bleached grasses seem to pull these girls away from the grey-blue dirt track they inhabit. Post-industrial, and more evidently post-mining, Wales is on show and suggests how the past might inform the future of these towns and communities.
Although the project has come to an end, It’s Called Ffasiwn has left the girls and the communities with a taste of their own creative potential. Reimagining the Valleys’ narrative, Schneidermann and James have not only explored the ‘oddities of Wales’ but have shown, and shared, the hidden treasures of a place and community so often overlooked and forgotten.
It’s Called Ffasiwn by Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James will be on display at the Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol, from 27 March to 25 May 2019.
Thanks to Cardiff University’s new initiative Image Works from which this article was inspired.