So this is Beyoncé’s new album cover. Fashion commentators have only a few metallic straps to content with
There was a time when “apparel oft proclaims the man” and—to supplement Shakespeare there—his woman. These days the reverse is true: stripped is stunning, near nudity is normative, and peeled, for sure, is proclaiming. Beyoncé has just shared on Instagram a photo of what is assumed (she did not say) to be the cover of her upcoming album, Renaissance. “Creating this album,” she wrote, “allowed me a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world.” She made no mention of cover art, but the photo looks very much the striking sort that you would want to front a new album, with enough space for the attendant text. The singer sits astride a model horse that looks like it is made of glass. Apart from the equestrian theme, there is also the message that clothing is not preferred. She is nude, except for the metallic- and osseous-looking body sculpture that appears rather tribal. There are chains around her abdomen too. In sum, they cover her lady parts, but are they enough to constitute clothes? Accoutrements, yes; clothing? However changed the definition of getting dressed has become, there is hardly any semblance of dress in the photograph.
Beyoncé’s bare proposition is, of course, hardly a fashion revolution. For a rather long time now, American pop stars such as her (hip-hop and R&B artistes, in particular) have depended on very little by way of clothes to project talent, as well as taste. And, emancipation. The image-making ‘tradition’, in fact, goes back quite a way—to as early as the ’20s, when, in Paris, another American performer, Black too, scandalised the city with a revue performance in which she wore as much as an abbreviated skirt, made of artificial bananas. On her torso, she had only a beaded necklace round her neck. She became an icon, a veritable (woke?) symbol of the burgeoning Jazz Age and the liberated Roaring Twenties. She was Josephine Baker. In fact, dance commentator and teacher Darren Royston, wrote on BBC online in 2014 that Josephine Baker was “the Beyoncé of her day”. Is Beyoncé, on her album cover, the Josephine Baker of her day?
Some observers have likened the image of the possible Beyoncé album cover to the British artist John Collier’s 1897 painting Lady Godiva. Who was this titular character and why was she depicted naked on a horse? Lady Godiva was one Anglo-Saxon (England in the early Middle Ages) noble woman who was also a patron of churches and monasteries, where she was noted for her generous contributions. But many now remember her as the nude rider. Apart from the John Collier painting, there was also a 1949 sculpture of her—similarly unclothed and on a horse—in Coventry, West Midlands, where she lived. Was this the naked truth? Apparently not. According to English legend, Lady Godiva rode, without a shred of clothing (her modesty, as per the John Collier painting, was somewhat protected by her long hair), through the streets of Coventry in order to urge her husband, an earl, to lower taxes. But, no, it did not happen, as most historians concurred. A famous woman riding a horse in unlikely places did not stop in the 13th century. In the mid ’70s, another was said to have quite a jaunt through the famous New York discotheque Studio 54: Bianca Jagger, former wife of Mick Jagger. Only thing, she was clothed, and another, that ride was not true either. In 2015, Ms Jagger had to explain, via a letter to the Financial Times, “No doubt you will agree with me that it is one thing to, on the spur of the moment, get on a horse in a nightclub, but it is quite another to ride in on one.”
Beyoncé did not actually ride on a horse either. She posed on the equine beast, and it was not even real (some reports describe it as “holographic”). Regardless, one media report called the photograph “a resplendent shot”. Unfortunately, we could not see the resplendence. True, the horse gleams, but is that enough to be make a splendid composition? There are no clothes to speak of that we can describe as lustrous either, not one ochre of fierceness. What strikes us more is how, like so many others, Beyoncé allows her image to be based on the look of her body, a sexualised whole. Not that it has not happened before, but as the star gets older, this need to bare seems more than an expression, or, as she wrote on IG, “a safe place, a place without judgment. A place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom.” All roads lead to the deliverance from clothes. It must be liberating indeed.