Carnivalesque Ends - Normality Begins?

Nikita Chernyshov

The interest of this essay is essentially to question the fundamental idea of Mikhail Bakhtin and Terry Castle that carnivalesque is only temporary (that once it ends, normality begins) in the context of contemporary culture. In order to do so, it is sensible to parallel and contrast two different forms of masquerade from entirely distant time periods – to understand if the way in which masquerade informs fashion and popular culture has changed at all over time, and if so – then to which extent and in which manner? To illustrate the answer, the essay is to examine the 18th century mask balls in contrast to the contemporary fetish club culture, on the particular example of the photographic archive of Torture Garden club night. The key idea in this study is to clarify whether Castle’s and Bakhtin’s ideas of carnivalesque are still relevant and still stand for subversion and ‘dressing as one’s opposite in life’ or whether they became outdated in the rise of constructed identities in both fashion, fetish and club cultures.

Terry Castle writes, “To its contemporaries the masquerade represented diverse things: the decay of civilisation, frivolity and freedom, sexual and moral chaos, a liberating escape from decorum.” In particular, the emphasis on escapism refers to and accentuates the reality of the 18th century, and its immense presence, stigmatisation and vitality of traditional identities at the time, such as religion, nationality and social class, as much as surely gender and sexuality, too.

As Castle later suggests, “People dress themselves in what they have in a mind to be, and not what they are fit for.”, which clarifies that the attendants of such masquerades would essentially be people of traditional identities, (for instance, middle class, members of the aristocracy or religion), for whom the masquerade itself would be a secret act of enjoying the pleasures of decay and decadence, such as cross-dressing, sexual freedom and cultural appropriations. Due to that, it becomes self-evident as to why carnivalesque was treated as a special, intensely subversive, ‘against the norm’ ritual conducted behind a veil of secrecy in which an attendant would be, as Castle summarises, “dressing as one’s opposite in life”.

Interestingly, in the reality of 1990s, just as it is today, Torture Garden equally manifests itself to be a contemporary fetish masquerade, however, its concept and philosophy rather lays in the idea that any participant who attends the event, is there to celebrate one’s own nature – no matter if that is appearance, gender or sexuality, or any particular fetish, or a combination of all. T.G.’s manifesto, written by V. Vale and Andrea Juno, describes TG’s philosophy and club concept in a following way: “As well as working on the basic level of a nightclub, T.G. also strives to be a conceptual and creative platform, a movement…”, which only suggests that the masquerade in this instance is no longer secret but also conscious at promoting its own concept. As they continue, “… creating a total multi-dimensional sensualist experience, and an environment which accepts and encourages individualism, diversity and self-expression.”

For that precise reason, it can be agreed upon that although the ideas of decay and decadence (as the main constituents of a masquerade) are still in place, the overall value and meaning of such masquerade changes significantly; it stimulates one to celebrate one’s own identity instead of subverting it. Peter J Carroll settles the issue quite completely by wiring in relation to T.G., “Our dual nature is all morality. It is foolish to be other than we are.” In fact, T.G., just as any other contemporary fetish club scene, which describes itself as a carnival, normalises the grotesque instead of keeping its nature subversive.

A crucial point on this matter is discussed by a media theorist and sociologist Dick Hebridge, who claims that “The body can be decorated and enhanced like a cherished object. Self-mutilation is just the darker side of narcissism. The body becomes the base-line, the place where the buck stops.” It is of great importance that possibly, the partygoers of the masquerades in the contemporary culture no longer look to transgress and escape the body, but instead strive to decorate and enhance it.

In addition to that, it is important to remember that the idea of wearing a mask still remained on the fetish scene today, which clearly imitates and echoes the 18th century masquerades. Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that: “The mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames… It reveals the essence of the grotesque.” That, as a concept, seems totally relatable to both masquerades as before so today. However, carefully observing a masquerade of the 18th century, one notices, a mask seems to be a must, an obligation, and is it quite difficult to spot a person not wearing one, whereas looking through a photographic archive of T.G. of the 90’s, it shows that a mask is not worn by default, instead only worn if needed conceptually or as part of one’s aesthetic.

“The mask serves the double function of displaying and concealing, it is at once surface and depth” – writes Francette Pacteau in ‘The Sympton of Beauty’, which summarises the duality of the use of masks today. In that sense, it is fair to say that the use of mask still reveals the nature of the grotesque, but its reason now is to accentuate one’s own individuality and not escape it. In other words, the idea of concealing one’s own face or fearing to show one’s true identity was abolished.

The vital point, which was only touched upon briefly in this essay but not yet fully considered is the clothing itself, or the main aesthetic, as well as specific traits and connotations, which surround the way of dressing for a masquerade – both an 18th century masked ball and T.G. in the 1990’s. Precisely because the dress codes for the latter two are a dichotomy, both need to be mentioned – paralleled and contrasted to understand how the notion of dress up has changed – in the contemporary culture. Alternatively, the question is how did the idea of carnivalesque influenced one’s dress code back then and how it does now – in contrast to it.

For instance, it is described that a dress code at a masked ball would normally range from “…fancy dressed, to Venetian masks, to dominos, hoods and cloaks in assorted fabrics and colours”. A domino, so visually iconic, and so commonly worn to a masquerade of that time “covers the entire body and usually had a hood too”, which signifies the idea that a wear preferred to choose a rather covert and obscured look, which relates back directly to disclosing one’s own identity. A fancy dress in its essence is entirely pompous, full of vivid arrays of colour and embellishments, structured in numerous layers – definitely an opulent outfit yet seemingly formal in presentation. Due to its extremely exaggerated shape and enormous volume, a fancy dress would transform, expand and signify the silhouette of the body, and although the body shape would be disfigured rather beyond recognition, the outfit certainly served as a power dressing, too – by physically extending the wearer’s body and therefore physically claiming the space around them.

Due to that, it can be concluded that the key notion of the dress code at a masked ball was grotesque in a form of excess and overdressing, which as Castle suggests, stood for “…display of social, cultural and economic capital”, as well as surely “cross-dressing and cultural appropriations.”

Should one explore the general dress code in place at T.G., it immediately shows that the 1990’s masquerade entirely abolished excessive overdressing, and as a rule, all kinds of appearances covert and obscured became extinct – in fact, its partygoers prefer to wear as little as possible.

In regards to that, Giles Neret, who is closely associated with T.G. philosophy, states that “Clothing is the second skin… eroticism draws on the collusion of the body and garb: sexual fantasies and desires toss off their fetters, attire and bodies commingle, flesh and fabrics meld.” As for the interrelation between fabric and skin, Julia Emberley provides a valid insight into the issue by pointing out that “Clothing, the act of wearing fabric is intimately linked to the skin, and the body, to our tactile sense.” in the work called ‘Body Invaders’, which is essentially a study of body and sexuality in the queer culture and at the fetish scene.

It must be for that precise reason that the extremely exaggerated body silhouette of the 18th century has metamorphosed into a look of the second skin; in as much as the idea of transforming and transgressing the body was rather noticeably superseded by the idea of enhancing and accentuating the body – its surface, contour and shape. Since that is established and clarified, it is little wonder that the commonplace fabrics used in the dress codes for T.G. are leather and latex, which indeed become one’s second skin, accentuate and emphasise the body, as well as reveal and expose it, as the partygoers celebrate sexuality and erotic sensations. To summarise, in Torture Garden’s dress code the notion of grotesque is present as strongly as never before, yet instead of overdressing, nudity is the key – exposed body and clothing as ‘the second skin’.

However, the issue of misusing the term ‘carnivalesque’ as this point becomes apparent, and the reason for that is purely the fact that Torture Garden, just how it clearly manifests itself to be, is an art movement, which has its own concept manifesto. It follows that the vast majority of its partygoers (or club scene) are direct contributors and collaborators, or solely those who share and enjoy the aesthetic and concept of T.G.: performance artists, dancers, models, DJs and photographers. The vast majority of the artists listed above are well known to use and incorporate the ideas of grotesque and masquerade (both visually and conceptually) into the daily life; in other words, the artists of the scene portrait and illustrate the notions of masquerade and grotesque by default, regardless if at the club scene or not, therefore regardless of the existence of Torture Garden itself.

Valerie Steele, a fashion historian, has written a lot on the body in context of the fetish scene, and T.G. in particular. On that matter, she states that “Perhaps we are now seeing played out in fashion our ambivalence about what seems to be a disappearing boundary between the “normal” and the “perverse”.” To take Steele’s question much further is it necessary to ask: if a masquerade is normalised as one’s approached to daily life – perhaps it is no longer a masquerade? What if, perhaps, in this context, the very term ‘masquerade’ is no longer appropriate? No longer accurate?

In the end, it is vital to recognize that both theories of grotesque and masquerade still crucially influence fashion and popular culture, yet the way in which they inform both are different, too. The key difference, shown by a contrast of the two case studies, illustrates that masquerade has been normalised and institutionalised in fashion, fetish and art. Furthermore, masquerades became creative platforms, art movements and finally industries, as opposed to only entertainment, and finally: the partygoers of a masquerade today are immediate artists who create the masquerade itself, and not only its attendants. Addressing Castle’s and Bakhtin’s theory of temporality of carnivalesque (that once it ends, normality begins), it needs to be said that this theory is today out of context, out of use, and out of date – no longer applicable. In contemporary culture, narcissism superseded transgression. In this instance, one no longer looks to transgress one’s own body and look like one’s opposite in life, but instead looks to enhance oneself, cherish oneself and celebrate who one actually is – one’s true nature.


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