Worn with Pride: Behind the fig leaf!

REPRO.1857A-161 Plaster cast of Fig Leaf for David after the marble original by Michelangelo (1475-1564) in the Accademia di Belle Arti. Florence, c.1857.

Plaster cast of Fig Leaf for David after the original by Michelangelo, cast ca.1857 (V&A REPRO.1857A-161)

In today’s blog Daniel from our Textile & Fashion department explains why he chose to feature ‘David’s figleaf’ on the back of his Pride march t-shirt:

‘My choice of the figleaf has multiple levels of meaning. First, we’ll consider what it was created for – the 19th century plaster fig-leaf was made for the sole purpose of hiding the manhood of Michelangelo’s David from the gentle eyes of female Royals such as Queen Victoria and Queen Mary. We are therefore looking at something that was designed to conceal.

The V&A's plaster cast of David after the original by Michelangelo in the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, cast ca. 1857 (V&A REPRO.1857-161)

The V&A’s plaster cast of David (without fig leaf) after the original by Michelangelo, cast ca. 1857 (V&A REPRO.1857-161)

But at the same time, Michelangelo’s David is very revealing. When queer people were forced to conceal themselves and hide, they had to rely on signs and indicators, and one way of doing this was through an appreciation of fine art. Michelangelo’s David is very much a homoerotic icon that was also universally acclaimed as a fine art masterpiece, legitimised both by its Biblical subject and classical allusions. One particularly famous instance of this is in Victim, a 1961 British film in which lawyer Dirk Bogarde’s bisexual lawyer is blackmailed under threat of having his homosexual leanings revealed. A framed photograph of David appears on the wall of the blackmailer’s flat, therefore making it clear to the viewer that the blackmailer is himself gay.

Screenshot from 'Victim', 1961

Screenshot from Victim, dir. Basil Dearden, 1961

And the fig leaf itself? It conceals, but it draws, even focuses attention to that which it covers. Apparently when David was first unveiled, it was pelted with rocks by those outraged by its nudity, and the statue was covered with an entire bush of fig-leaves. But at least David escaped the fate of other male statues in the Vatican, where the Popes commanded their parts be chipped off and replaced with coy fig-leaves. Apparently in the depths of the Vatican is a drawer of marble manhoods in the process of gradually being reunited with their former crotches.

Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence). Photograph by Jörg Bittner Unna

Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence). Photograph by Jörg Bittner Unna

We all know what’s usually found under a fig-leaf, and the temptation to lift it up and peek is often strong. By placing David’s fig-leaf on my shirt, I am inviting people to think about the process of lifting the fig-leaf and seeing what lies beneath. Many terms that the LGBTQ community have appropriated started out as slurs – not least of all the word “queer”.

As a fashion historian and specialist, I know my shirts. I know that in the parlance of those who seek to denigrate me, I would be called a shirtlifter, and worse. A term which amuses rather than offends me, as I DO lift shirts regularly. Only last week, I was unpacking a donation of several early 20th century men’s shirts. Yep. Definitely a shirtlifter.


Anyway, the fig leaf on my shirt invites danieltthe viewer to contemplate lifting it up to peek at what lies beneath. I am not inviting anyone to actually do so, but I am inviting them to think about shirtlifting. And perhaps also to think about the ability of words to hurt, but also be reclaimed and even owned with pride by those supposed to be hurt by them. I am so gay. I am utterly queer. I am a shirtlifter. And I am proud.’


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