Standing in a bright, white room, I realise that my powder compact will probably never recover from its fight with Gary Jarman’s beard. It’s a Wednesday morning in North London and I have been pulled in to do makeup at the photo shoot for The Cribs’ new single. When I say makeup, of course, I’m not simply talking about hiding the odd pimple, or lightening a shadow. This is an all-out voyage in to housewife slap, for the aptly titled new single ‘Housewife’. Which is why those persistent Wakefield bristles are causing such damage to my ten year old cosmetics.
If the words ‘make up’ and ‘Jarman’ seem unnatural bedfellows then so be it. But bassist Gary is keen to point out that this isn’t intended as a confrontational, or even necessarily a political act. “It fits with the song,” argues Gary as I slide liquid eyeliner across his top lid. “With this I don’t see a political agenda to it. We are comfortable enough with all degrees of gender and sexual preference to see dressing up like this as no big deal. If it was a song about a soldier, then I suppose I could be dressed as a soldier. Also, I just thought it might look good.”
The photographer for the shoot, Pat Graham, is probably best known for his work with seminal Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill, as well as bands like The Make-Up and Modest Mouse. Two of these bands link closely to the current Cribs project; before becoming the fourth member of Wakefield’s finest musical export, guitarist Jonny Marr played in Modest Mouse, while riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, along with X-ray Spex and The Slits, have long been important to Gary Jarman, who was involved in Ladyfest celebrations in Britain and the US.
Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna was also friends with Kurt Cobain; another man who famously donned a dress in the public eye. While many will no doubt draw comparisons between the Jarmans’ housewife dresses and the way that Kurt Cobain played with sexual stereotypes in Nirvana, the final shot for the Housewife artwork also has a strong documentary feel, and could probably be more pertinently compared to the work of American photographer Diane Arbus. The cover hints at Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and there is even a vague air of Stepford Wives about that close-cropped, subdued image.
Back at the shoot, Gary and Ryan have brought their own dresses along with them. Gary’s is a red, 60s thigh-skimmer on loan from Ryan’s girlfriend, the singer and songwriter Kate Nash. The other, Ryan has picked up from a second hand shop and has a rather lower neckline. Has he had to take precautions? “Yeah, I actually shaved my chest this morning,” says Ryan. “I just thought, it would look really bad otherwise.”
While the brothers pose and shuffle in to position, both keep hold of one, almost talismanic, piece of their ordinary clothing. Below the gold dress and Elizabeth Taylor wig Ryan sports a pair of green Converse, while Gary resolutely keeps his jeans on. “To be completely honest, there were times today when I was really uncomfortable,” admits Gary later over a pint in a local beer garden. Times, for instance, like when he had to walk past a builder on his way out of the toilet? “Yeah. It’s stupid, but I just was really aware of it.”
So, inhabiting a female role isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally to the pair? “A lot of what we do is rooted in sexual politics,” says Gary. “As a band, we loathe machismo. But I didn’t want this to be too confrontational.” Which is why, in the final shot, fans will see Gary taking an intentionally indirect pose, looking away from the lens. “We don’t want it to be obvious straight away who it is. I sort of like the idea that you might see it in a shop and just think it’s a photo of two women. It wasn’t supposed to be glamorous or camp. We wanted to look like bored housewives. In fact, I think maybe we could have made it even more dowdy.”
Glamorous certainly isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind as I pluck, powder and pencil in Ryan’s eyebrows. The singer is, however, stoic in the face of undoubtedly painful depilation. Until he admits to “nearly sneezing right in your face,” half way through the second eyebrow, that is. As well as a bit of eyebrow shaping and downright lavish amounts of foundation, the transformation from twentysomething rockstars to ageless housewives also involves pulling on an impressive pair of wigs. Stylist and hairdresser Corrado has brought along a selection of potential hairdos, bought at a shop in Finsbury Park. After a little deliberation Gary opts for a long, wavy red wig, which sets off the scarlet of his dress. Ryan, on the other hand, opts for a classic Cleopatra black bob. In both cases, the boys seem quietly sure of the look they are trying to achieve.
Even when the shoot was still just in the planning stages it was clear that the pair had a very strong idea of what they wanted from their finished artwork. “With most of our other singles I give them my visual interpretation of the song and then we go from there,” explains designer and long time Cribs collaborator Nick Scott. “But there are occasions when they have a really clear idea in their head what they want. When we first worked together on ‘Hey Scenesters’ they knew exactly what they wanted, right down to the colours. And with ‘Men’s Needs’ they came to me with a photograph that they wanted as a cover, and so it was my job to make that work. With this, they knew from the beginning that they wanted to dress as housewives for the artwork.”
From the Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire, to Kurt Cobain on the cover of The Face, to Queen in the video for ‘I Want to Break Free’, male musicians dressing in women’s clothes isn’t new, although it does still have the power to cause controversy. So, how do the band think the artwork will be received by their fans?
“With this kind of loaded image you’re not trying to tell a story, you just want to spark people’s imagination,” offers Scott. “You want it to be implied, not to spell it out. It is more about the way that image is then interpreted by other people, than what we say.”
“I don’t care about men or women or gay or straight,” reiterates Gary. “I simply don’t care. It’s not about being dismissive about a person’s gender or sexual preference, but accepting them to the point where such divisions do not matter”. This is an image; something that may spark discussions. If people want to read in to it matters of gender performance, sexual equality, identity and politics then that is what they shall do. But for the two brothers sitting on a windowsill, their lips daubed with colour and their hair brushing their shoulders, the idea is something more nuanced, a little more enigmatic.
It’s not a Mona Lisa smile, perhaps. But it’s as close as two boys from Yorkshire are probably ever going to get.