It’s no coincidence that last summer Charlie Porter started sewing his own clothes. “Vanessa Bell saw making as part of a holistic creative life rather than a hobby. Now it’s just something I do; yesterday I pickled plums and made apricot jam. It’s been a fundamental life change.” He attributes this seismic shift to his latest project, curating Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion, the inaugural exhibition at Charleston’s new space in Lewes.
The title refers to a letter Virginia Woolf wrote in 1920 to T.S. Eliot, who was due to visit Monk’s House, her home in East Sussex. It concludes: “Please bring no clothes: we live in a state of the greatest simplicity.” By clothes, she meant the restrictive garments of her Victorian upbringing. In other words, come as you are. “Woolf and Virginia Bell refused tradition,” says Charlie, who has also written a book on the Bloomsbury Group and the constraints and possibilities of fashion. “Friends of their brother from Cambridge would come to Bloomsbury on Thursday evenings to talk philosophy and big ideas with gender parity, which was revolutionary for the sisters.”
Big ideas are at the heart of the exhibition as well as Charlie’s approach to his first career - fashion journalism. “I grew up in the 1980s reading The Face and i-D magazine and although I couldn’t have verbalised this at the time, I can see now that I was drawn to fashion writing because it was a chance to talk about other things: people, politics, sociology, history.” He chose to study philosophy at King’s College London on a whim and spent most of his time there writing for the London Student Newspaper, which was distributed to universities across the capital. “It was super well respected; we were all trying to re-enact the television show Press Gang,” he quips.
One of his first jobs was on an arts supplement at The Times. “I presumed that I’d really enjoy it but I hated the position that the journalist put themselves in as a critic; I questioned that power balance,” recalls Charlie. A role as deputy fashion editor came up on the Guardian (the newspaper actively sought out non-fashion writers) “and I loved it straight away. Fashion criticism looks the same as art criticism but it’s totally different. You watch a catwalk show and there’s the possibility to tell stories on different subjects.” Stints on GQ and Fantastic Man followed, then, in 2012, he became menswear critic at the Financial Times. “It coincided with this exciting moment in London where menswear had recovered from the AIDS crisis and was back to the level it should always have been,” he says.
Five years later, just as he “wanted to push into other stuff,” he was asked to curate his first show: a contemporary art exhibition at Lismore Castle Arts in Ireland. He called it Palimpsest and themed it around artists whose work has a relationship with time, including Charlotte Prodger, Zoe Leonard and Nicole Eisenman. What he loved about the experience, he says, is that everyone, from the staff and volunteers to the visitors, were so engaged. “People immediately asked what my next show would be but I only ever want to put on exhibitions with a sense of purpose, in places that are loved.”
It wasn’t until he gave a talk on his first book, What Artists Wear, at Charleston, that he felt that connection. “The love that visitors and volunteers had for Charleston was palpable – it was the same as Lismore.” From the beginning, Charleton director Nathaniel Hepburn wanted to showcase not just the clothes the Bloomsbury set wore but 21st-century responses to them. Charlie spent the first year researching – digging into the archives, speaking to the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Nicholson – and then another 12 months putting it together.
From between 1904 to 1910, there are no photographs and very few garments other than those that belonged to Lady Ottoline Morrell, so he has used other formats (portraiture, ephemera, spoken word) to think about clothes in different ways. Contemporary fashion on show includes pieces by Commes des Garcons influenced by Woolf’s novel Orlando and looks from Kim Jones’ Dior SS23 collection based on artworks and designs by Duncan Grant. “Of course, there is a Bloomsbury look but today’s designers are inspired by so much more than that; they’re inspired by ideas. The exhibition is about the ideas that each of the six protagonists I’m focusing on represent.”
More than anything, he would like visitors to see its title as an invitation to delve more deeply into the reasons behind what we wear. “I would love for people to look at the exhibition as evidence and see what we can learn from it about how the world is today,” he concludes. “To think about our own relationship with garments, not in terms of looking good or style; I’m interested in why we wear certain clothes and what it means.”
Interview by Emma Love.
Photographs by Lesley Lau.
Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion runs from 13 September to 7 January 2024 at Charleston's new space in Lewes.