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Crepe and Couture: Holly Falconer’s Parading Ladies

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Some of the younger participants in Neston Ladies Day holding the festival’s traditional flowers, ribbons, and medals pause during the walk through the town.

To be honest, I’ve never really been all that fond of parades. Sitting on the sidelines while waving to strangers in odd costumes has never made much sense to me. But when I saw Holly Falconer’s photos of women parading in the U.K., I felt quite differently.

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Emily Walmsley, a participant at Neston, also perfomed in a one-off play put on for the 200th anniversary of the parade.

I was intrigued with the poppy colors and Victorian styles, but also felt a closeness to the characters she captured. These were women who knew how to express their unique identities. I wanted to ask Falconer about what inspired her to work on a project on these unusual, gender-centric parades.

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Girls wait outside the church where the town’s vicar holds a yearly service for the women following the walk.

Falconer said that “the idea stemmed from the many gay pride parades I’ve attended since I first came out in my early twenties, which I have always found to be both a profound and fun experience—it’s such a fantastic feeling to walk through London’s streets surrounded by others who’ve been through the same experiences as you.”

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The Neston Female Society’s banner is a quote from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Falconer started off by going to the Neston Ladies Day parade, which she just happened to visit on its 200th anniversary. “The annual walk through Neston has taken place since 1814 on the first Thursday of June, and women of all ages process through the town bearing garlanded white staves and a banner that declares ‘Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens.’ The procession is held in honor of the Neston Female Society, which was established during the Napoleonic Wars as a means of mutual self help for women who were experiencing hardship. It is unique, as it’s now the last such female friendly society in the UK.”

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Kasia Violet wears an outfit designed by her friend, student Brooke Adams, at Art Couture Painswick.

Falconer was so inspired by the Neston parade, she decided to seek out similar events. “Earlier this year I started to look into other processions in Britain, and I chose to focus on female-based events. Marches and processions have been a key part of British women’s lives for decades, whether via localized events in towns such as Neston, or on a wider scale through marches such as the 1907 National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society’s march in London which 3,000 women took part in, to the more recent Slutwalks.”

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Onlookers in Neston line the streets, perching outside every shop, pub and house.

She also went to Art Couture Painswick, a festival that takes place in Gloucestershire, in the village she grew up in. Falconer says “It’s a far cry from the annual summer fairs I used to go to in the village when I was a little girl, which were more about selling sheep and cake baking. The event focuses on the human body as a canvas for creativity and showcases body artists and local designers’ creations.”

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Rhiannon Adams at Art Couture Painswick

“The participants—who were predominantly female—parade their work on a catwalk in the village churchyard, and then progress through the village. I didn’t really know what to expect before I photographed it. I suppose I was nostalgic for a more traditional village fete. But it was fantastic—an inspiring event bridging the gap between fashion and art, as well as folk traditions. It felt very modern and genuine: the event was more preoccupied with imagination than an idealized version of women. I met teenagers who’d spent a whole year designing their creations, and local fashion students whose work was fantastic.”

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Participants stop to hold their flowers as high as they can in some of the town’s lanes in Neston.

Something that struck Falconer about both events was the way they defied the social standards she was raised on. Falconer says, “I grew up in a society that told women they weren’t funny, had to be slim and not too slutty to have a chance of finding a husband, and that Cinderella and Barbie were our ultimate role models. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration—things for the average middle England kid in the eighties and nineties were still pretty conventional.”

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Meredith Adams stands in the church graveyard where at Art Couture Painswick takes place. This outfit took her a whole year to knit, sew and assemble.

Falconer isn’t the only artist who’s interested in exploring gender issues these days. She says that feminism is becoming a “common theme to a lot of artists’ work at the moment.” But in her mind “this saturation is great: being a feminist is finally not a dirty word, and we’re a generation of British creatives who want to talk about that.”

View more of Holly Falconer’s work on her website.

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