How does art heal? Can it make do and mend? dressed. does – and it does so with real love and care. Made by four friends, best mates since they were kids, it tries to redress trauma with collective creativity – not just by making art, but by making it together, for one another. It is as tender a thing as I've seen all year.
Lydia Higginson sits at a sewing machine as it hums in the dark. On her gap year, at the age of 19, she was "stripped" at gunpoint by a gang of ten men. She uses the word carefully: it hides a multitude of sins. On her return, she threw herself into costumery, creating three bespoke outfits for her three closest friends: "costumes for a show that didn't exist."
Six years on, the four have finally created that show. Olivia Norris steps into her black flapper dress and becomes a femme fury. Lottie Tickner glides to the mic in her elegant silk slip. Josie Dale-Jones clowns in baggy felt pantaloons. All of them shape personas – performances – in response to the outfits Higginson made and, in doing so, shows us something of themselves; something Higginson might have seen in them. Each fits their costume, and their costume fits them.
Whether retracing dance steps the four of them learned together as children, or singing songs inspired by and written for one another, dressed. both celebrates their particular individual talents and uses them kindly, as a form of friendship and support. It takes comfort in creativity and treats art as a gift.
Quietly, dressed. nods to the Women's Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, itself a response to the Industrial Revolution. The sewing machine that sits onstage in a spotlight becomes both a symbol of female liberation as of the factory work done by women.
Yet, dressed. is, first and foremost, a personal piece: rooted in real female friendships and the support they bring. Higginson describes the howl that went up, woman to woman, house to house, on the night of the ambush. dressed. is, in its way, a continuation of that: made for other women that have incurred something similar.
Throughout, the show ducks in and out of the male gaze, continually snagging it, then shaking it off. It's in the occasional cutesy coo-coo-ca-choo dance moves they retrace, or moments the four change costumes in the dark. You clock the eroticism of four bare backs, then sit watching four supportive hands on four shoulders. Frustrated, Dale-Jones strips nearly naked to force her friend's attention: "Is this what you wanted?" she screams. The question is, subtly, aimed straight at us.
Because dressed. refuses to adhere to that gaze. In interrogating clothing, it dresses for itself – never dolled up, always well-dressed. That, in itself, is a kind of undoing: the absolute antithesis of being stripped. Just gorgeous.