18 June 2010

Do You Wanna Funk? Fat, queer archives, and Sylvester

The other day I had the good fortune to spend some time looking at some of the holdings at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. I had some common-or-garden research to do, which was interesting and rewarding in its own way, but I also took the opportunity to have a look at some of the other material that this incredible and unique archive looks after. One of the collections is a group of boxes containing some of the stage costumes owned and worn by Sylvester.

You may not know who Sylvester was, in which case look him/her up on Wikipedia, or read Joshua Gamson's biography. The extremely simplified version is that Sylvester made some of the most sublime records to dance to in the world, was Black and what we might call genderqueer today, and died way before her time of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. This is someone you should know about, a person who provided the soundtrack to a generation of queers, may of whom also died in that first devastating wave of AIDS.

I've heard Sylvester called fat, and this has often intrigued me. His body size is not always apparent in photographs, and sometimes he looks chubbier than others. People's bodies change, and hers would likely have changed dramatically too as she faced her final illness.

So I had a break and asked the archivists to pull out Sylvester's costumes for me to paw and prod. I love a flamboyant, overly-sequinned outfit on any day of the week, and I was also interested in their size and shape. I wondered if these might be costumes worn by a fat person, and from that, if Sylvester might be a historical rad fatty whose life people might turn to for clues in how to live today.

I looked at four boxes of clothes containing a couple of sequinned jackets; a pink sequinned trouser suit, a white, glittery dress in the style of a wedding dress; a layered peach ensemble, with silky pyjama trousers, a sequinned apron, and heavy sequinned jacket; and a gigantically pouffy black sequinned batwing jacket/dress, with hanging ties, and matching space-age style skullcap hat covered with feathers and other embellishments.

I wore white archival cotton gloves and the archivists help me take the garments out of the boxes and inspect them. I didn't ask to try them on, though I wanted to, I knew that would be a no-no. Everything was carefully wrapped in tissue, I handled the outfits gingerly.

I didn't expect to be so moved by the experience of looking at someone long dead's stage outfits. I think it was something to do with the contrast between the larger-than-life colour and pizzazz of the sequins and glitter which contrasts so greatly with the awful reality of Sylvester's passing, not to mention the deaths of countless others like him. I was moved that these costumes had been preserved lovingly, and grateful for the work of the archive in remembering and making accessible the life and work of this person. There are others in the archive who were not so famous, whose lives are also commemorated, which is beautiful to me, evidence of everyday revolutions happening over and over again (and there are artefacts from more famous people too, there's a pair of Harvey Milk's jeans in a box there somewhere). It reminded me that activism is often about very small interventions which may seem like a drop in the ocean at times. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. But archives show that these small actions – the queer wearing of an insanely glittery outfit, for example – have wider significance over time, especially if they are part of a consistent body of work. I love the way that the archive creates a dialogue between the past and the future. So I felt moved by Sylvester's costumes, and the research materials I've been working on, they encourage me to continue my own work and to encourage others to do theirs.

Oh yes, and some of the outfits were roomy and large, big enough for me, though others were smaller, the pyjama trousers in particular had a small waist. Sylvester was pretty tall, so I'm imagining someone who was of relative normative size, but bigger than most.

I want to end this by saying that last night I went to the great Michelle Tea's reading series at the San Francisco Public Library. Entitled 'Old School: Writers Unearth and Re-imagine the Lives and Legacies of Queers Gone By,' writers presented work inspired by the GLBT Historical Society's holdings. Robin Coste Lewis presented a magnificent piece about many things, but also about Sylvester. She talked about people whose histories are not commemorated, including the slaves who were her ancestors, and included passages about Sylvester's archival legacy, which is shockingly patchy to say the least. But the costumes remain, and they speak. Mighty real (of course I had to say that).

Gamson, Joshua (2005) The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The 70s in San Francisco. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

GLBT Historical Society

Radar Productions


CTJen said...

Oh how I wish I had a fabulous purple sequined trouser suit to wear to the supermarket.

Anonymous said...

I love Sylvester's music. "Do Ya Wanna Funk" is on my iPod, and he also sang backup on some other great dance songs too.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This was a fantastic post! I forwarded it to a couple of my friends who are big Sylvester fans. One does a dead-on karaoke of "Do You Wanna Funk" and he will die seeing your pics of his clothes. Thanks!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Glad to be of service!

Don said...

Thanks for this. I have had the honor of curating an exhibit for the GLBT Historical Society that showcased that very outfit. It was one of the highlights of then show for me.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Great stuff! The outfits are spectacular.

Anonymous said...

hey, it's robin. how interesting. the box i was given had no clothes or photographs, just the reel of film we discussed. i wish i could have seen these things. i'm so green with envy. good for you.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Robin, please go back!

I still think your piece has huge resonance, despite the presence of these outfits. For a start, there's no additional information, just the clothes. And these must be such a tiny fraction of the whole, what happened to the other outfits? There's so much missing for future generations to know, which is a terrible thing.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a wonderful Sylvester anecdote I read in the comments to this post, http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2010/04/san-francisco-aids-agencies-receive.html (about the donation of $140k from her estate to SF AIDS charities, it's a two-hankie read).

Anyway, so this is the story: 'Sylvester was singing at the Anvil -- didn't really know who he was. I bumped into him after his first set and said, opera guy that I am, "WOW! If the Met ever does any Handel, they should call you!"

I was a kid in a atupid insulated musical bubble, thinking that everyone would know what I meant, but Sylvester hugged me and said "I can sing Giulio Cesare better then Treigle! In the right key."'

Charlotte Cooper said...

Sweet story, thanks for that.