Essay: “Hen Nights” in Arty 35, ‘British Culture’.
I first noticed gangs of hens in Liverpool. Three girls in Where’s Wally stripes were picking their way down Bold Street. I liked their heads-down, purposeful dedication to their mission, a mission that looked so absurd with the bride’s veil shoved on awkwardly above T-shirt and jeans. I wanted to see more so I followed them to Concert Square and saw a spectacle of violet sashes, platform heels and burlesque hats. Subsequently I went out at 2am with my sketchbook and iPad and observed and drew as much as I could.
I liked the fact they were carnivalesque in a society that has emptied itself of much festivity, in part through losing connection with religion and nature. Hen parties, though recent in origin, are connected to those celebrations of the past, the “merrie-nights where musick and dancing abounded.” They echo rituals in medieval popular culture or the pre-Reformation Catholic church, rituals celebrating the cycle of the seasons, Mayday, the Feast of Fools or pre-Lenten excess. And as with the hen night’s use of burlesque costumes, makeshift veils and naked butlers, these traditional holidays, or holy days, employed masquerade, role reversal and parody to convey fleeting freedom from the constraints of everyday.
And of course there’s another side to all this. The reality is not all positive liberation and Bakhtinian glee. Police cars and bouncers monitor an event that may get out of hand. Conversely it may be disappointingly tame. Some are bored victims of a tacky convention with its pink boppers and penis straws. Then others feel left out, always the bridesmaid, or claim to have been exploited by a greedy bride. And I want this dark edge in my hen pictures. Although I don’t paint the police, bouncers and ambulances, the light is lurid and the night looks menacing. The girls striking out in the darkness are going nowhere very reassuring and in some of the pictures is a diminutive, three’s a crowd figure hanging onto the others, trying to keep up with her sexually successful peers or depicted on her own just standing in the street.
As is usual in carnival—whether contemporary or medieval–dressing up means metamorphosis, allowing people to live outside their everyday identities. This is true of the hens with their hats, bunny ears and leggings. But this outsider girl is not transformed by festive costume, she is simply painted as grotesque and misshapen. She is a reminder that carnival has a negative component not just because it is is transient or dangerous but because some cannot feel part of it.