Born in the Netherlands and raised in France, artist Gwen van den Eijnde studied visual art and textiles at Strasbourg’s École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, training under Belgian conceptual artist Edith Dekyndt. He then went on to develop, across a span of twenty years, his “baroque” interdisciplinary practice as a costume designer and performer. This article engages with van den Eijnde’s artistic work, focusing primarily on his “costumed performances.” Engaging with affect theory and queer theories of temporality, I theorize the performing costumed body of van den Eijnde as viscerally implicated in a carnal historiographic practice. I will show how his performances articulate an experimental dialogue with dress history that reveals insights into what it means to practice and feel history (lower-cased) through and on the fashioned body, and into the queer relationships with both the audience’s and his own body that such practice might engender. To parse van den Eijnde’s work, I will deploy the theoretical tool of “anachronism,” understood as an affective dispositif through which to grapple with a peculiarly queer longing for the historical past. The disjointed temporality encapsulated by the concept-metaphor of anachronism will be useful for understanding how the performer somatically embodies and psychically introjects affective histories of queerness.

Gesturing toward the Otherwise

Figures 1-2. Gwen van den Eijnde, “Longtemps toutes les étoffes,” 2005. Photos by Richard Decker

Van den Eijnde’s graduation project “Longtemps toutes les étoffes qui touchaient le corps devaient être blanches” (“For a long time all the fabrics that touched the body had to be white”) consists of photographic pictures of himself wearing costumes he had made between 2004 and 2005, while he was an intern in the costume department at the Opéra de Paris, and results from research into the costume archives of Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille. For his graduation, he did a performance in these costumes, which had been printed up as large portraits to give the illusion of 17th-century paintings and exhibited in the art school’s gallery. Van den Eijnde was the designer, model and performer of these costumes. The work was partly inspired by the retrospective of Matthew Barney’s work at the Musée d’art Moderne (2013), where “The Cremaster Cycle” (1994-2002) was showcased. Whereas the most vivid sexual imagery of Barney’s cannot be detected in van den Eijnde’s graduation work, the idea of self-staging as a mythological and sexually undifferentiated character, the combination of precious and cheap materials of the costumes, as well as the classical orchestration of costumes, photographs and sculpture coalesce in van den Eijnde’s self-portraits (figures 1-2).

The two outfits combine and irreverently mess with two different historical styles of dress: Baroque and Medieval. The headgear in the image on the right is corseted at the back and hints at a pope’s miter while also humorously evoking the shape of a chicken. The coat sits on a wide black underskirt invisible to the viewer and is cut to show the leg elongated by the poulaines (or crakows), i.e., the pointed shoes in vogue in 15th-century Europe and the subject of many caricatures over time. On the left, the outfit is a mixture of a dress and a pourpoint (a quilted and padded doublet) and is complemented by wings made of the synthetic material used to make comforter fillers; the ruffling effect is obtained through a manipulation of the hard polyester used for curtains. Both the wings and the sleeves are detachable: this approach to undressing (both materially and metaphorically) – a sartorial language of déshabille (Geczy and Karaminas 2020: 50) – is laden with both eroticism and humour, two elements that dovetail in his work. The affect and posture invoke the ornated elegance of masculinity before the “great Masculine Renunciation” (Flügel 1930) as well as the impassiveness of an inanimate creature; the overemphasized mannerism of the posture clashes with the “affective flatness” of the face which aesthetically registers as “unperformed emotional style” (Berlant 2015: 199) – what Caroline Evans has referred to as “staged performance of impassivity” (2013: 43).

Fashion photographer Eugenio Recuenco, renowned for his painting-like style and large format photos, inspired van den Eijnde’s choice to illuminate and zoom in on the characters on a black background making them appear otherworldly. The adoption of fashion-inspired contemporary photographic techniques and the amalgamation of historical references in the dress of the characters (as well as the materials used to make them), suggest the pleasure that van den Eijnde takes in the process of remixing the past through an imaginative approach. In the artist’s words: “I am interested in looking at historical figures and dress, paying attention to what they evoke for me, and then trying to transpose them as living beings and costumes in the present.” In these self-portraits, the subjects conjure court ballet dancers who, according to van den Eijnde, look “mythological and androgynous. […] When I look at pictures of those ballets I perceive a certain ambivalence – I feel there’s something queer about them.”

Van den Eijnde explains that the queer pleasure he experiences in watching early dancers in period costumes is indeed rooted in the very history of theater and performance:

“In Shakespeare, the roles were all performed by men, so you already had an idea of transvestism there. In Japanese theater, at some point Kabuki actors were all men and were required to perform extremely stylized versions of femininity, ultimately being applauded for their gender performance. In the early 17th century, under Louis XIII, the burlesque court ballets were performed by male nobles who impersonated all kinds of characters through their change of costumes, stepping outside of their ‘everyday identity’”

Mark Franko notably explained how the burlesque ballets of the Baroque era had a countercultural and “politically destabilizing” dimension due to their autonomy from signification and their provocative incompleteness (2015: 105): despite happening at court and being usually performed by aristocrats, they had a carnivalesque element that blurred and complicated bodily (and hence power) relations between the dancers and the audience, including the king. A “diffuse spectacle of opera, the genre of excess and displacement par excellence” (2015: 2), the burlesque ballet was also known as “travesty” and was characterized by “‘free invention’– imaginative and fantastic, as well as scandalously eccentric – along with a cynical relationship to tradition; [by] an intentional plurality of styles in the quotation of earlier traditional motifs; [by] brusque transformations […] and oxymoronic structures that reject dogmatic truths” (7-8).

In the ambiguities of the past, van den Eijnde finds the inspiration to fabricate and impersonate characters that “escape a clear gender identification”: by sourcing the archives of the past one can retrieve forms of being that might otherwise be unknown or unavailable for us in the present. In this sense, anachronism is a stylistic strategy through which one can go back to aesthetic forms that, in their affective resonance, might allow us to take on the challenge of confronting normative protocols of masculine/feminine representation. Seen through the lens of anachronism, queerness is not only about self-expression but also about the felt ambivalent properties of the objects (psychoanalytically understood) that we cathect and instantiate an aesthetic relation to. In other words, queerness is about a queer affective engagement with past and present forms, namely what David Getsy refers to as the “intercourse of forms:” “a means for mobilizing formal relations in order to call forth counternarratives, to challenge given taxonomies, to attend to unorthodox intimacies and exchanges, and to subvert ‘natural’ and ascribed meanings” towards “new configurations of desire, bodies, sex, and sodality” (2017: 255-256, emphasis in original). What draws me to Van den Eijnde’s practice is how, in his work, queerness appears anachronistically displaced from identity and onto the register of sensation: the queerness of the imagery he creates is seen insofar as it is firstly felt thanks to his being attuned to the formal ambivalences of historical imagery – an attunement to camouflaged queer sensitivities that he unearths and makes available for himself and for the viewer.

As I will discuss further, gender and sexuality are linked to this idea of queerness not simply because the artist identifies as queer and therefore is able to sense and re-present queer forms from the past, but more importantly because gender and sexuality are part of a temporal engagement with historical figures and costumes that defamiliarizes (unfamiliarity being a particularly queer feeling [Ahmed 2006: 7, 177]) the past. Van den Eijnde put it as follows:

I embrace an idea of queerness as a form of resistance against a contemporary oversimplification of narratives and aesthetics that always shift into the domain of identity. I have a strong admiration for how Derek Jarman conceived of his queer work as a layered and collective experience in which the costuming is central. For instance, in Caravaggio (1986) he revisited the Baroque in a very particular and sensual way; it’s still very convincing that we could be in 17th-century Rome, but it could also be now. This double-bind temporality is what I’m interested in.”

In understanding queerness as a (in this case, anachronistic) felt form, however, it is important to emphasize how the queer feelings stemming from our engagement with history develop as a cognitive result of affects that impinge upon our soma. Thus, queerness is not detached from the body. To go back to history carnally means to go back to its bodiliness, that is, to the imagined hapticity of the costumes and the flesh of the people we encounter through books and archives. This phenomenological component is crucial in van den Eijnde’s work.

He shared: “I want to go back to the body and to the experience of the body feeling the costume in the act of wearing it. Through the tactility of textiles, I seek the quality of a ‘touch.’” As Carolyn Dinshaw argued, the desire to “touch the past,” that is, the bodily desire “to touch across time” establishing “affective relations” (1999: 2-3) is indeed a queer experience. While “at first glance it [this desire] seems merely nostalgic […], that nostalgia is tactical” (15): going back to the “pre-modern” expresses a queer longing for connection, community and identification through history. Such an inquiry into the past “is queerly historical because it creates a relation across time that has an affective or an erotic component;” the “tactile” and “erotic” qualities are inherent in the “cross-temporality of these relations” (50). I see this cathectic investment in history and the queer relationality it might entail – what I have referred to as queer anachronism and which Carla Freccero has compellingly described as an ecstatic “penetrative reciprocity” (20015: 102) – materialized in van den Eijnde’s work.

In the photographs and performance of “Longtemps,” the graceful gestural poetic of Russian ballet dancer Alexander Sakharoff (1886-1963) is a poignant reference. “Avec un geste, il réussit à créer tout un monde, toute une époque,” stated choreographer Alberto Testa (In Tinbergen 2012). Van den Eijnde extensively researched Sakharoff’s costumes, made between the 1920s and the 1940s, at Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Sakharoff and his wife Clothilde were dance partners and successfully performed in Baroque outfits they designed themselves. In “Pavane Royale” (1919), Sakharoff, probably impersonating Louis XIV, was dressed in an extravagantly sophisticated outfit adorned with (what today could be read as campy) little roses and bows attached to the wig. For Van den Eijnde, Sakharoff was recreating the figure of Louis XIV through an unexpected, elaborate orchestration of bodily posture, gaze, movement, and costumes that enfolded the environment. He told me: “while I cannot know exactly how the people in the audience back then reacted to that, I see it as a beautiful form of drag; he was adding those elements to his outfit to alter the costume of the period, giving them new life.” In other words, he was redressing the historical present, tapping into the past to pry open the present to yet-to-be, alternative modes of self-costuming. In the steps of Sakharoff, van den Eijnde puts us in touch with historical alterity showing that such alterity, in its ontological unknowability, can be further othered and hybridized in the present to create an experience of unpredictable connections that might reveal queerly felt imaginings. This speculative suggestion, revealed in van den Eijnde’s queer curatorial practice of historical costuming, can be taken as an invocation against the inherent heteronormativity of historicism’s unidirectional sequencing. In his work, anachronism expresses “its potential productivity” (Rohy 2006: 71): an anachronistic approach can, in fact, be “strategic” (Traub 2001: 262; 2002: 16), for it disrupts the dominant historical narratives. In van den Eijnde’s case, such an approach retroactively reveals the intimate queerness of Baroque costume, attuning the viewer to “a queer sense of temporality” (Halberstam 2005: 187) wherein new attachments and modes of living appear legitimate, sensual, and luminous.

In the two photographs, the clothes are atmospheric: they create what Giuliana Bruno would call “a sartorial architexture” (2010, 218, emphasis in original). In the performance, van den Eijnde said that he wanted the character to move in a very slow, out-of-time realm: a dreamy, atmospheric pull into a “pocket” of “slow time” that Kadji Amin would call an anachronistic experience (2013: 320, emphasis in original). Van den Eijnde stood on a rotating platform and moved minimally, like an automaton (a figure central to the burlesque ballets reappropriated by the early 20th-century avant-gardes), to showcase the costume as a sculpture and from all angles.

“There is of course an important gender element, especially in the picture on the left. The character is very androgynous, you don’t know if they are a king or a queen. You could say they’re pretty queer, and so is the gesture with his hand. It’s very posé. The shape of the doublet reveals the legs and it’s almost an opening for the genitals. But not everything was done intentionally. When you assemble this kind of costume and you put it on, you realize that you need to inhabit it: this was the beginning of my thinking about how to be in these outfits.”

The viewer’s eye is drawn to the extravagant composition of the outfit as well as to the camp mannerism of the pose, which is magnified by the costume, and finds a punctum in the hands. Gestures are a crucial component in the construction of his characters as well as in how they play with gender. While the pose and the elegant foregrounding of the hands have a long history in artistic portraiture, here van den Eijnde is slightly parodying his own self-staged uptightness, while also finding pleasure in a use of the body that the costumes make possible for him.

Van den Eijnde’s performances resonate with Lucia Ruprecht’s interpretation of Sakharoff’s performances as queer forms of “gestural drag” (2019: 169). Ruprecht explains that Sakharoff’s stage presence – “a form of display between a dance performance and a gestural fashion show” – and “gender-fluid styling” were judged by the press of the time as untimely, outdated, backward and anachronistic (2019: 169-170); the effeminacy, opulence, and refinement of his performances exposed Sakharoff’s pleasure in “performing the historical past, in his own kind of period style,” while his engagement with Baroque styles suggested an ironic, grotesque and nonnormative “euphoric historicist reverie” (176, 179). I argue that van den Eijnde’s sense of the baroque, with the unfazed mannerism of his gestures and poses, is indeed borrowed, whether consciously or not, from Sakharoff’s bodily reinterpretation of history. Sakharoff’s bodily practice haunts van den Eijnde’s, allowing the Dutch-French artist to make such queer haunting (or “spectrality”) the very aesthetic and affective engine of his imaginative mode of re-costuming history2. Since a gesture can be, to different degrees of legibility, a carrier of queer resonance, I wager that in van den Eijnde’s images, the gestures are forms of queer affectivity and affectability: they point to otherwise ways of feeling and imagining how we inhabit the world, exposing us to what José Munoz, in the steps of Adorno, called “otherwiseness” (2013).

Fashioning the Space-Time Fold

Maskarada” is a costumed performance that took place in the Palace of Culture and Science of Warsaw in 2010, when van den Eijnde was a resident at the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art. He was invited to create costumes and perform them in the Palace, where dramatically operatic interiors (with grand empty spaces and ceramic chandeliers) recall the European Renaissance. Using multiple light sources to create a theatrical setting, with a soundtrack composed by South-Korean sound artist Jae Ho Youn, the performance, which involved the wearing of the costumes in front of the viewers, was languid. It expressed van den Eijnde’s desire to “create appearances that would exist in the space.” By creating such “appearances” he sought to reshape the mood of the place.

His idea was to offer himself, through such spectral apparitions, to the audience, inviting them to imagine themselves gliding into the costumes and experiencing the world differently, albeit provisionally. As Donatella Barbieri theorized, “costume embodies histories, states of being, and previously unimagined futures in the temporary space of the performance. […] [Their] ability to communicate metaphorically and viscerally provides a direct, visual, and embodied connection to the audience” (2017: xxii, emphasis in original). The viewers watched the surreal creatures impersonated by the artist, led by the music, move in space, with his gesturality producing an immersive temporality that enveloped them.

Imagination is a keyword in van den Eijnde’s artistic vocabulary. He said of his performances:

“It’s really like taking up the space of imagination. Embodying the costume gives you the power of taking the space of your dreams. Performances are like psychomagic acts, they are rituals through which you can experiment with alternative versions of yourselves. The question for me is also: by putting on these costumes and taking up space, what kind of relation do I negotiate with the audience? By wearing costumes, you are in another spaceship, like an alien, and yet you are trying to connect with the audience in the room. It feels dramatic and emotional. I try to communicate this feeling of abstracting myself from this time-space and pull the viewer into my world of imagination.”

His aesthetic imagination – or “aesthetic fashioning” as Amin would call it (2017: 237) – is pivoted on embodiment. In van den Eijnde’s words,

“My creative process consists in figuring out a character by experimenting with all different kinds of fabrics and shapes. I cannot make a drawing and know what the costume and the character are going to be. I need to put together ‘try-outs’ and dress up in them. I need to see how different and contrasting materials, usually raw, can be arranged and transformed, and how they would feel on the body. The amount of work that is involved is absurd. I have a sculptural approach that is based on my tactile experience.”

Thus, it is the haptic quality of the garments that prompts his imagination. Through his costumed body in movement, he triggers identifications, projections and aspirations in the viewers. He solicits them to observe his body and potentially envision their own as fashioned in ways through which they could experience a particular relation to the world.

These appearances, freed from the imperative of signification, can – to borrow from Elspeth Probyn – “cause different ripples and affects, effects of desire and desirous affects” (1996: 59). Van den Eijnde’s apparitions move as “lines of desire” and “can carry longing: they throw us forward into other relations of becoming and belonging” (59). In this sense, the queerness of his performances lies in the sensory attunement to a shared sensitivity with the audience that is disjointed from everyday perception and that ultimately feels queer. This construal of appearance as an affective vector of queer desire disentangles representation from the constraints of meaning-production and emphasizes the capacity of imagination to instigate unexpected connections with the public (Engel 2011). The desirous apparitions of van den Eijnde operate as a sensible reorientation of our collective desires and fantasies, unlocking an alternative temporality: an unknowable past from which his characters are emerging conflates with the not-yet-here of the future, that is, of what is going to happen next. This is an experience of queer time that cannot be essentialized to sexual identity (Atwood 2020: 153).

Figures 3-4. Gwen van den Eijnde, “Maskarada,” 2010. Photos by Hiroshi Nakayama

In the first costume (fig. 3), a dark pierrot with raccoon eyes is wearing a black shiny dress made of synthetic fabric scavenged from a thrift store in Warsaw. The oversized ruff is made of kraft paper that he pleated and painted black, with dried leaves (which he collected at Lazienki Park) attached to the edges with gaffer tape to make the ruff look like a burned object. The meshed skullcap, made of fine linen canvas, is adorned with delicate, shell-like Polish Christmas decorations made of paper and purchased from well-known local Polish folk brand “Cepelia.” In the second costume (fig. 4), the coat is cut out of thick cotton base; on top of it he stitched layers of ouate (polyester batting) in order to sculpt the hunchback shape. Over the hump he attached a cascade of ribbons made of recycled materials: they are frisés and knotted very close to each other to create a fur-like effect. The hat piece is made with elements of loofah, with a Chinese chicken feather fan glued on top so as to look, in van den Eijnde’s words, like “a cabinet de curiosités.” The whole ensemble is obtained through the manipulation of cheap materials, giving it a raw and unfinished patina. While the former character reminds us of a clown, the latter calls to mind a snow queen from a fairy tale. In both costumes there are historical references to 17th-century Polish dress history, which are, however, “profaned” to create otherworldly, allegorical figures.

Clothes, or in this case costumes, have indeed the ability to configure and reconfigure the spaces they move through: they are loci of affect, sites of intimacy that enfold and unfold atmospheres; they are, in Bruno’s Deleuzian terminology, “our second skin, our sensory cloth [and] they house the motion of emotion” (216). In a similar vein, Barbieri stated apropos of costumes that they are “a second skin that engulfs space” (2017: 125). Fabrics “not only can fashion affect-space but also transform emotional fabrics into moving images” (Bruno: 217). In this sense, they express great affective force insofar as they can shape the mood of a place and of the other bodies that occupy it. Through a “transmission of affect” (Brennan 2004), “in the transfer of dress and address, a passage of intimacy takes place” (Bruno: 225); in their atmospheric capacity, “clothes embody the ever-changing architecture of feeling” (228). Thus, costuming can be understood “as a fashioning of space” as much as “a transfer of states of mind, feelings and moods” which leaves psychic and somatic traces in our sensorium (Bruno: 225, 227, 230). This is precisely what van den Eijnde has in mind when he tells me about his desire to enfold the audience in “a sensory world of imagination” by creating “images in their mind” that instantiate a “relation with the realm of fantasy” into which he hopes to draw them.

“Off-gender”: Embodying Temporal Disjuncture

Figures 5-6. Gwen van den Eijnde, “Kakitsubata,” 2015. Film documentation by Mederic Reche

Kakitsubata” is a 20-minute fashion performance that took place in 2015 at the Atelier Mondial in Basel, where van den Eijnde showed a collection of five costumes he made following several trips to Kyoto to participate in Noh costume workshops. While there, he learned the techniques of Nihon Shishu (embroidery), Shibory (dyeing) and Kanzashi (hair ornamentation), and trained with Noh actors on how to make, wear, fold and store the costumes. The Japanese wardrobe provided inspiration for the construction of a visual Baroque vocabulary characterized as much by stylistic pastiche as by a disciplined precision in the assemblage of the costumes. The scripted performance, guided by choreographer Jean-Baptiste Veyret-Logerias, consisted in a slow ritual of dressing and undressing through which a fantastic creature gradually transformed itself: an act of “changing personas” that is historically characteristic of the “shape-shifter” attitude of the libertine (Geczy and Karaminas 2020: 10). The space was a minimally furnished room, with a small audience seated to watch. Van den Eijnde described this performance as follows:

“The whole story of the performance is about costuming and un-costuming. So eventually the costume clothes the space. It is a sequence where the character is shedding layers, letting them drop to the floor. Every costume looks highly constructed, but when it falls to the ground it unfolds as a completely undone mass of fabric. It’s about playing with layers: first revealing them, then taking them off, and in so doing exposing a sort of ‘emotional feel.’ It’s the construction and deconstruction of a ‘fabric world.’ Every costume displays a different character – which could conjure an aristocratic court figure, a Japanese warrior, a sumo, etc. – and this morphing discloses ‘worlds of imagination’. The undressing can also be seen through a contemporary lens as a form of striptease, so I guess there is something funny and erotic about it at the same time. The erotic, however, is only alluded to: there is no nudity; it lies in the intervals of movement, in the moments in which you might see an ankle or a piece of flesh through the layers of the kimono.”

His retelling of the performance reflects an understanding of the clothed body which is aligned with the proprioceptive interfolding of body and space theorized by Bruno. “The material of emotional fabrics” (2010: 213) fabricates an emotional landscape. The intimate folding and unfolding of the garments on and away from the body discloses the “enhanced hapticity” (Barbieri 2017: 158) of both fabrics and flesh, the ever-changing intermingling of which transports the viewer from one atmosphere (or, as Bruno would put it, one “architecture of mood”) to the next.

Van den Eijnde also explains that “this character (and actually all my characters) has no gender.” I read the genderless dimension of his fantastic figures in terms of what Jackie Stacey has termed “offgender” (2015: 243). The aesthetic moods and atmospheres produced by the performance of the costumed body in Van den Eijnde’s work register an ongoing flux of modes of stylistic embodiments that cannot be reduced to categorization. Actors and activators of emotional landscapes, his characters exhibit not only the eccentricity of gender (i.e., its being resistant to naming and fixed into stable form) but also its constitutive citationality, that is, its indebtedness to modes of embodiment that have been assimilated through a process of referencing historical figures and styles. Indeed, his personas, in their illegibility, “opt out” as “a means of uttering the defiant No!” (Ruti 2017: 216, emphasis in original) of the logic of gender and sexual identification. Van den Eijnde’s continuous shifting between aesthetic and emotional registers contravenes, using Lauren Berlant’s wording, those genres of gender and sexual identity that function as “structures of conventional expectations” that people hold onto to acquire “certain kinds of affective assurances” (Berlant 2008a: 4).

To be “offgender” means to inscribe one’s body into the flux of past and present without ever crystallizing oneself in a gendered form. Since gender is always entangled with historical formations, by playing with disparate historical and geographical fashion references the artist disavows identification with conventional genres of gendered expressivity: this enables him to inhabit a spatiotemporal dimension that is not reducible to the here and now. In the words of Stacey, “to be off-gender would be less the in-between-ness of androgyny and more the capacity to move across, to embody the mobility of temporal flux” (2015: 267). Van den Eijnde’s “off-gender” characters go back to history only to reshuffle it: this process of queer anachronism is a transgressive historiographic approach – for it transgresses the telos of History, i.e., the organizing temporal principle of the social fabric which Elizabeth Freeman calls “chrononormativity” (2002: 3) and Dana Luciano “chronobiopolitics” (2007: 9) – that is central to van den Eijnde’s practice. The historical past haunts his performances: this haunting is playfully recast through a queer, offgender, baroque embodiment of fictional costumed selves. His anachronism, namely his going against the grain of History, inhabiting and remixing multiple past histories, coincides with Valerie Rohy’s description of anachronism as a “violation” of the “developmental chronology we might call straight time” (2006: 67-68, emphasis in original); in other words, his creative historiographic approach unsettles “chronology’s triumph” (Jagose 2002: 112) as heteronormativity in favour of a “queer enjoyment” (Rohy 2006: 64) that stems from his appreciation for backward styles of dressing and moving in the world.

Queering the Costume Archive

Figures 7-8. Gwen van den Eijnde, “Durch Das Pfauenauge,” 2013. Photos by Yohan Zerdoun

Durch Das Pfauenauge” (“In the Peacock’s Eye”), an exhibition held at the Kunst Raum Riehen in Basel in 2013, opened with a performance, the various acts of which taking place at set times on different floors, and lasting approximately 15 minutes. Each costume, as is usual in van den Eijnde’s practice, referenced different historical sources, in this case Japanese folkloric dress from the Edu era and Baroque dress. The red and yellow costume (fig. 7) carries an enlarged ruff (a typical Baroque feature), which the artist had screen-printed with a 19th-century motif he originally encountered in the archives of the Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes, in Mulhouse: he digitally redrew the motif and screen-printed it on yellow book-binding paper which he folded with a Japanese technique. The hairstyle evokes the 1930s and the makeup is a reference to Walter Van Beirendonck’s early fashion shows. The headpiece is made of multiple kinds of artificial hair: it is a sculpture made of cardboard which resembles an amphora. The silk ribbons that punctuate the three outfits (fig. 8) paid homage to Basel; the production of silk ribbons by Protestant weavers was, in fact, a source of prosperity for the city until the reign of Louis XIV. During the performance, he slowly pulled out long threads of hair from the amphora until they reached the floor and became a train that he dragged around, materially enshrouding the walls.

In his words:

“The beauty of this costume is in its folds. But you could also see that it has creases and tears because it’s lived. It’s not perfect. This imperfection makes a certain impact. I’d rather have something which has been sort of taped together and pinned. Something that has fragility carries emotion. I think the fragility and precariousness of this piece determine its emotional value.”

As Ellen Sampson has argued, the “affects of imperfection” include discomfort, ambivalence, and even shame, but their recoding allows us “to confront clothes […] as material records of the oftentimes difficult or discordant meetings of bodies and things” (2023). Starting with paper prototypes, van den Eijnde creates wearable costumes usually made from raw fabric; then he prints or perforates them, shaping them to adhere to the body’s movement and in the process creating voluminous sculptures. As van den Eijnde says, in his couture performances “[il] ya rien a jouer,” meaning that he is not supposed to “act” but rather to embody the costume and the space in a way that could create an effect (and affect) of surprise in the audience. He explains: “My costumes are puzzle-pieces; they are my way to inhabit and transform the past. But the question for me is: how can I activate them?” According to Gil Z. Hochberg, the activation of mixed and past archives from which artists draw functions as a counterhegemonic intervention in the status quo (2021: 13); by challenging coherence, authenticity, and often legibility, the manipulation of archives creates a “poetics of citationality […] to advance a radically different vision of the future” (72): it generates what she calls “a feeling of potentiality” (91). It is the practice of turning the archive “from a quest for historical truth and origins into an adventure of […] imaginative elaboration […] inscribed on and through the body” (111, emphasis in original). Van den Eijnde’s “fashion fabulation” (Vanni 2020: 144) consists in activating archives by costuming the body; in other words, he “recostumes history” through a speculative, or fabulative, process that works across past temporalities to imagine the present differently, unbounded by bodily and societal constraints. In each character, he says, “I see something erotic, something refined and something grotesque,” and it is up to the audience to let themselves be affected by the evocative power that the silhouettes in movement can trigger.

He links this idea of fantasy to his approach to history:

“I’m very interested in history, especially in the different representations of men and women over time. I want to blend codes that belong to different times in history and create figures that in a way are trans, in the sense of trans-historical, trans-cultural and travesty. It’s about playing dress-up with historical styles in a free and freeing way, sliding inside and outside of history. It’s a magical experience that is also charged with eroticism. When you put on a costume made with your hands and referencing other bodies from the past, there’s an erotic energy that you feel on your skin. As a viewer, you might feel some erotic charge by witnessing how in the performative act of costuming, a naked shoulder is exposed, or a foot penetrates a shoe.”

Van den Eijnde’s intimate, sensuous attachment to costumes leads him towards forms of becoming that in their trans-historicity rely on a queer sensate relationship to the past. His practice exposes “costumes’ ability to function as an organizing principle” (Barbieri 2017: 210) for his meta- and trans-historical visual narration.

Figures 9-11. Gwen van den Eijnde, “Lipizzano,” 2016. Photos by Miroslav Dakov & Yohan Zerdoun. Film by Marcel When

Lipizzano,” performed in the presence of an audience in 2016, and later documented as a film by Marcel When, was staged at Villa Wenkenhof in Rihen. The 17th-century villa was originally owned by the Clavel family, textile industrialists well known for their lavish costumed parties. Van den Eijnde thoroughly perused the interiors and exteriors of the location in search of material objects that could help him animate the atmosphere of the place; he discovered that the original owners were fond of Swiss classic portrait painting as well as horse-riding. Inspired by a porcelain horse he came across in the house, he decided to embody a horse character. He studied Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781), in which a woman is asleep, while crouching over her, staring at the viewer, is an incubus, and emerging from the dark background is the head of a horse. He wanted to reproduce the eerie and grotesque dreaminess of the painting, transposing it into the costumes and imbuing in them the atmosphere of the house. He created a horse headpiece (fig. 9) that referenced the horse masks made by Janine Janet for Jean Cocteau’s Le Testement d’Orphée (1960). The shape of the horse’s head was formed using plaster and papier-mâché, which was then covered with hand-painted fabric, while artificial hair was applied to the mane and the ears. 

In the fashion film, the camera follows the character through the villa, zooming in on mirrors, on paintings hanging on the walls, and on a tapestry – all of which help create a disquieting mood, as if we are on the verge of a horrific scene. The temporal rhythm of the performance is also unsettled due to the sudden tonal changes in the soundtrack –dramatic pitches or abrupt sound glitches that augment the tension and which alternate with dreamy harmonies and adagio passages that add to the mystery of each room. In each transition into a new room, the performer-character, in a new outfit, conveys a different emotional state, thus fashioning a new mood-world. The horse character is slowly deconstructed and reconstructed through various costume changes. He wears Japanese Geta sandals, which make his gait awkwardly twitchy, puts on a turban, shows a Baroque-style ruffle and virago sleeves, and exhibits a crinoline that is left uncovered in the back, erotically exposing the performer’s legs and evoking, in van den Eijnde’s words “the centaur-style look of 19th-century womenswear.” The crinoline is constructed as a reversible shell that with its bounce enfolds the whole body (fig. 11), transmogrifying it into a creature that then climbs onto a dinner table and wraps itself, surrounded by the audience, “like a pheasant being served for dinner.” This scene conjures the grotesque and disturbing final scene of Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover, in which the thief is seated in front of the roasted body of his wife’s lover and is forced to eat it. This “becoming-animal” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 232), which recurs in nearly all of van den Eijnde’s performances, is coherent with the artist’s symbolic attempt to prompt escapism from self-containment and boundedness, opening the human body to the non-human and problematizing the binary logic (human/non-human, organic/inorganic, male/female) in which Western rationalist thought is rooted.

While the crinoline was traditionally used to cover and modify the female shape to display a gracious, elegant form and demeanour, here it is grotesquely modified, becoming, as van den Eijnde puts it, “a kind of lobster tail.” Once he removes the horsehead, he replaces it with a red headpiece of an unusual shape (fig. 10). It is a bustle, or a small half-crinoline, made of kimono silk so as to minimize volume and allow it to pliably fold onto itself and eventually become a headscarf, “humorously recalling Lawrence of Arabia.” In this absurd, surreal rethinking of a historical garment, van den Eijnde might be seen as “carnivalizing time” – an expression that Francesca Granata, following Bakhtin, employs to describe “an inverted and topsy-turvy time where temporalities of past, present and future are reversed and/or thoroughly confused” (2016:104) – or as engaging in an “erotohistoriographic” practice of extracting from the archival past outmoded objects and styles that Freeman refers to as “temporal drag” (2010: 62, emphasis in original).

The wandering figure eventually runs out from the house, liberates itself from its dress constraints and walks freely and flawlessly in the French gardens of the villa, dragging a colourful veiled outfit behind him. His proximity to the paintings, his poised immersion into the villa’s Baroque interiors and his simultaneous costuming of the body and the space through a mutation of garments belonging to different epochs and geographies, comprise the signature of van den Eijnde’s queering of the past. This “lingering of pastness” via an “anachronistic style” through which he remodels the aesthetic and affective qualities that haunt him can be read as a “queer affect” (Freeman 2002: 8). He delves into dress and cinematographic archives, reactivating them through a crosspollination of stylistic citations whose awkward bricolage determines the eccentricity of the performance, that is, the sensual experience of feeling temporally and physically off-centered while unfolding “sideways” (Stockton 2009) modes of being in the world on the outskirts of controlled, normative comportment.

In conclusion, van den Eijnde’s investment in “feeling historical” (Berlant 2008b) by “feeling the historical” (Freeman 2002: 93) in the form of the sensorial traces that haunt his practice, establishes a queer affective relation with historical figures and dress styles through a tapestry of references that make up the aesthetic palimpsest of his performances. His creative practice, which I read through the rubric of anachronism, might provide inspiration for the viewer to reinvigorate their aesthetic imagination. In a time pervaded by the neoliberal, presentist rhetoric of being “in the moment,” van den Eijnde’s work invites us to discover a frisson of excitement – what Adorno called “aesthetic shudder” (1997: 145) – in the archival past, reactivating it queerly for new unpredictable, non-teleological aims. Touching and wearing old fabrics of which we have no previous direct sensory knowledge can activate unexpected imaginings of ourselves that would otherwise be out of reach: by dressing up in baroque costumes, we can phenomenologically feel the past. Seen anachronistically, van den Eijnde’s practice demonstrates how queerness is not merely about performing a dissenting relationship with normativity but rather about embracing the textural ambiguity of citational styles of gender and sexual embodiment that can be re-lived through dress; not about subjectivities deviating from the heteromatrix but about a travestissement of those very historical dress and corporeal conventions that, dragged into the present, can enact queer forms of feeling.

[1] In using this expression, I am inspired by Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of “corporealized historiography” (2002: 117, emphasis in original).
[2] According to Carla Freccero, “queer spectrality” (2005: 69) is a queer erotic and affective force that prompts the act of “queering temporality” (2007: 488-489). She calls “fantasmatic historiography” a queer method of reading history that involves the openness to being haunted by ghostly figures (2005: 80).

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