Lydia Garnett pays homage to the relationship between hair and Butch identity

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Inspired by the black and white portraits that have historically adorned barbershop walls, Garnett’s collaboration with barber Zara Toppin and curator Lucy Nurnberg is “about trust and love between Butches, as much as style”

Buzz cuts and skin fades. Undercuts, mullets and crops. Hair that is sculpted, bleached, slicked or shaved. There isn’t one butch identity, but the ritual of a haircut is a shared experience that embodies more than fresh lines and a tight look. For many Butch people, their hair functions as a structure of identity. It’s a political act as much as a personal expression. It connects you to your community and is a tool for pride and power. An LGBTQ+ barbershop enables how you feel on the inside to match your outside; it is a space where you don’t have to explain yourself – you can just show up, feel seen, and be cared for. 

The concept for Close Shave, a new exhibition by Lydia Garnett currently on show at Sunbury Studios in East London, was born in the barbershop. Together with barber Zara Toppin and curator Lucy Nurnberg, they decided to pay homage to the relationship between hair and Butch identity inspired by the traditional black and white portraits that have historically adorned barbershop walls. “We’re calling it the Butch Renaissance,” says Garnett, playfully. “I know a lot of butches living their best life. Everything is at their fingertips, and they have this magical power. This shoot is about trust and love between Butches as much as style.”

© Lydia Garnett.
© Lydia Garnett.

On the surface, Close Shave centres joy and affirmation. The striking portraits reveal the strength and empowerment of a new generation of Butches that are defiant and unapologetic. Upon closer look, the images also describe the tenderness and care within a community historically misunderstood and discriminated against outside the queer community and from within.

Butch is an aesthetic and identity that conveys an attitude that is impossible to hide, which, together with its rejection of the male gaze, creates a threat to the patriarchy. This has resulted in Butch women bearing the brunt of homophobia for decades. Published in 1928, Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness – a semi-autobiographical novel in which a female protagonist longs to be accepted as a man amongst her peers and lovers – was made illegal in Britain under the obscene publications act. Butches in the 40s and 50s risked being arrested and losing their jobs and homes for wearing men’s clothes. It went beyond overwhelming societal pressures to appear physically palatable to the heterosexual majority – these individuals were fighting for their lives and the right to live openly. 

Despite the social, political and cultural repression, Butch pioneers like writer Gertrude Stein, painter Romaine Brooks and activist Stormé DeLarverie paved the way for gender non-conforming people in the early part of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 90s that Butches began to infiltrate the mainstream culture when a shedding of cultural prescriptions about what it meant to occupy your sex started to emerge. Trailblazers like comedian Lea DeLaria, poet Eileen Myles, writer Roxane Gay, and model Jenny Shimizu gained visibility in their respective fields, while the Butch aesthetic began to be appropriated in fashion, cinema and TV. Photographically, Catherine Opie’s Being and Having and Phyllis Christopher’s Dark Room offered radical artistic celebrations of the culture that had previously gone unseen.

© Lydia Garnett.

“Close Shave is about prioritising the Butch gaze. It’s about connecting with the gaze looking back at you. It’s for the community to see themselves”

© Lydia Garnett.
© Lydia Garnett.

“We’re always going to look back and reference queer culture from our past,” says Garnett. “It’s inspiring to [now] see people just putting themselves first, living their truth and not giving any attention to what mainstream culture thinks. That Butch confidence is attractive to me. Close Shave is about prioritising the Butch gaze. It’s about connecting with the gaze looking back at you. It’s for the community to see themselves.”

This notion of proximity is palpable in Garnett’s short film, Elio, which accompanies the exhibition. With the hum of the clippers and shards of hair effervescing across the frame, the sensate experience of buzzing your hair comes to life. The camera occupies the mirror’s perspective as Elio tracks their progress. “The film is about looking at your reflection and liking what you see,” says Garnett. “It’s a moving image portrait that captures the satisfying sensation of buzzing your hair.” For Garnett, it was necessary to reference the DIY mode of self-care that represents how many butch, dyke and trans-masc people live their lives.

What is radical about Close Shave is how it irradicates the lone-wolf stereotype of Butch people and instead pictures a more nuanced story of deep camaraderie and care. For Garnett, making this work has been vital on many levels, most profoundly because it’s the first time their work has become intrinsically linked with their identity journey. “I’m exploring things in my personal life through the work, and that’s a new experience for me,” they say. “Previously, it’s always been about creating for a client and trying to please others. Close Shave is the first body of work I’ve made for myself, and to give back to my community feels amazing.”

Close Shave by Lydia Garnett can be viewed by appointment at Sunbury Studios until 17 November 2023.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.