V&A Dundee

Celebrating, championing and honouring the women of club culture

A new project seeks to shine a light on the pioneering women of club culture. Here, the team behind Lady of the House explain why their voices are so vital for understanding clubbing history – and why many have gone unheard for so long.

Written by: Jonno Mack and Laila Mckenzie

"A key barrier to seeing more young women enter the music industry is the lack of visibility.”

So says Laila Mckenzie, the driving force behind Lady of the House; a project that has gathered testimony from over 150 women involved in dance music and club culture, told through their own words and images. Alongside co-author Ian Snowball, McKenzie has drawn on her experience of over 20 years as a promoter, and embarked upon a labour of love to present these stories as a book.

“Respecting and upholding the legacy of the people that paved the way for dance music is crucial, as we wouldn't be in the industry we have today without their fundamental contribution,” explains McKenzie.

Pages of the Lady of the House book featuring Candi Staton
The project gives a platform for women to explain their contribution to club culture in their own words - image credit Lady of the House

“I can't go through my life as a woman and a mother and not give our women, especially black and brown women, the credit and recognition that they deserve.”

Laila Mckenzie

Untold stories

The Night Fever exhibition at V&A Dundee delves into the rich history of design and club culture.
But the truth is that after disco first got the glitter ball rolling in the 1970s, electronic music splintered into so many scenes and genres over the next two decades, that by 1999 there was enough to write a book on it.

Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was that book; the definitive written history of dance music. It is undeniably essential reading even for anyone remotely interested in how different genres blend and merge with one another; but its pages (like the history it explores) are more often than not dominated by the stories of men.

For Mckenzie it was important to provide a platform for those voices that have long gone unheard; Lady of the House set out with a mission statement to celebrate, champion, and honour the pioneering work that women have done for club culture.

Freedom of expression can also be used to flip the aesthetic expectations that the male-dominated industry imposes on women, such as dressing in a conventional way that appeals to the masses.

Portrait of Charlotte de Witte
It took a long time for Belgian DJ and record producer Charlotte de Witte to attain industry recognition - image credit Lady of the House

“I had to work doubly hard”

It took two decades for Brewster and Broughton’s book to arrive; and it has taken twice that time for Lady of the House. This idea of doubling up your resources just to reach the same platform as men is echoed in some of the women’s stories. Charlotte de Witte and Nina Kraviz are now headline names who tower over many of their male counterparts on event and festival line-ups worldwide. But their respective journeys to reach that summit dwarf that of most men.

For de Witte, it was a case of fighting to be treated as an equal, rather than an opposite, to her male peers: “I did feel that I had to work doubly hard to prove myself and to get accepted, mainly that it took me a very long time to be considered one of the boys. So, it sounds funny saying it because I'm not, but I always wanted to be and to be taken seriously.”

There’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland that strikes a chord with Kraviz: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that… I lived a 'double life’ for years and got quite used to it… Nobody at the hospital knew that I spent my nights working as a journalist and a DJ. On the other hand, only a few people knew that I rushed home in the morning just to be in time for my work as a dentist.”

Women still face barriers within club culture, and in being free to express themselves; obstacles which can be made harder by discrimination regarding ethnicity and sexual identity.

House singer Barbara Tucker wearing a white gown
Black women who are key figures - such as legendary house vocalist Barbara Tucker - are underrepresented in historical tellings of club culture - image credit Lady of the House

Taking creative control

Independent record labels like de Witte’s KNTXT and Kraviz’s трип show that women can be in control of their creative output like never before in the industry. As de Witte explains: “It enables me to explore more than I could do as Charlotte de Witte. As a label mainly we are looking for music that's strong, has a lot of potential and very functional music. But the coolest thing in KNTXT is that I can find younger artists, emerging artists out there and offer them a platform.”

This freedom of expression can also be used to flip the aesthetic expectations that the male-dominated industry imposes on women, such as dressing in a conventional way that appeals to the masses. Barbara Tucker is a celebrated house vocalist who was born and raised in New York, which alongside Chicago was the birthplace of house music as we know it today:

“What I like about New York is that you can express yourself any which way you like. You can go to a club and wear two different shoes and nobody points it out. Look, I have performed with two different boots on because I loved them both and didn’t know which ones to wear, so I wore one of each. That’s the freedom.”

Portrait of Laila Mckenzie
Lady of the House founder Laila Mckenzie aims to improve access and inclusion in the industry

Turning words into action

While Mckenzie and Snowball’s research has resulted in a cultural record – a photobook that pays homage to female pioneers of the industry – there is more work to be done.

Women still face barriers within club culture, and in being free to express themselves; obstacles which can be made harder by discrimination regarding ethnicity and sexual identity. Being a brown woman herself, Mckenzie understands the role that Lady of the House has in promoting representation and visibility for marginalised groups:

“I can't go through my life as a woman and a mother and not give our women, especially black and brown women, the credit and recognition that they deserve.”

This commitment to fighting for real change in the industry is emphasised by Lady of the House’s recent partnership with the NTIA’s #SaveNightLife campaign. Their work together started with a joint survey collecting evidence on ‘Women’s Inclusion and Safety’ in the night time industry. There is so much more they want to achieve together — but the journey starts by turning the words of the Lady of the House contributors into actions.

You can find out more about the Lady of the House project here.

To take part in the ‘Evidence for Women's Inclusion and Safety’ survey, complete the form here.

Video credit - SWG3 and Michael Hunter