Most performers are chameleons, inhabiting costumes that blend in with each production’s unique microclimate. But Figs in Wigs aren’t afraid to stand out as a strong and surly girl gang, with an oddball aesthetic that travels easily from cabaret nights to club nights to festivals to theatre shows without ever just becoming part of the scenery.
And when you see all five figs in the wild, it’s like spotting a flock of rare birds – you have to stare. Angela Carter’s music hall epic Wise Children captures some of their appeal, when Dora tells her twin sister “On our own, you wouldn’t look twice. But put us together…” What could look accidental on one person starts to look very, very deliberate once it’s multiplied by five. It’s a vaudeville trick exploited by everyone from Las Vegas showgirls to Pan’s People to Friday night variety troupe The Roly Polys.
I spoke to the five Figs (Rachel Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots) off duty in the Wetherspoons opposite their rehearsal space, with not a sequin in sight. What shone through was that there’s no shadowy impresario in the wings – they devise their performances, make-up and costumes in a completely collaborative way. And as they explain their process, their voices overlap in a seamless story of chance discoveries, bargain hunting, and most of all, the fun of making something as a team.
The Figs met studying drama at Queen Mary University, choosing their name because, as they tell me, “figs are used to describe female genitalia in medieval fiction, and in Italian. Then wigs because it rhymes with figs.” The troupe put themselves up for the University’s voting selection process to go to Edinburgh in 2010 – “we spent the night of the vote saying [feverish whisper] ‘figs in wigs figs in wigs figs in wigs’ and drawing the name in the sweat of the pub window”.
Their style has hardened into a slick shiny shell since the dreamy, “very ye ye-inspired, 60s French vibe” of their first appearances. And the monobrows came about by accident. “In the first show we started with a completely nude face, then built our whole look live on stage, making ourselves look worse and worse with smeared makeup. The monobrow was part of this whole messy face thing.”
This messy brow grew into a power brow under the influence of their regular slots that Edinburgh Fringe on Scottee’s cabaret show. They explain that “when you’re sharing a dressing room with drag queens you suddenly start feeling very underdressed. We were like ‘Oh, well have to jazz it up, let’s put some sequins on it!’” Without a make-up artist involved, the figs learnt on the fly: “I guess we got better over time. And we picked up tips from the drag queens. Like setting your make-up with hairspray, or they’d say cover your eyebrows in Pritt Stick and draw them on to get a really good brow.”
Needless to say, their self-taught approach got them into some sticky situations: “we did use a really bad glue use that tore everybody’s eyebrows off! We learnt to put the gems just above our eyebrows, not actually on them, otherwise there are a lot of ows.”
The figs went through the same evolution with their costumes, evolving from the simple culottes and trainers at the start (eerily prescient for SS2015) through Poundland fantasias to their latest iteration, explosion in a tie dye factory.
Their self-designed aesthetic is the kind of thing you could write some hugely pretentious, fashiony screed on: “folklorique chic hair flowers with a strong Frida Kahlo brow, a Chanel trainer, and a Celine suit.” But talking to the Figs, it’s clear that their look builds up as a kind of accumulation: “we see things in shops by accident rather than going for specific cultural references. Because there are five of us we’re all seeing things and taking things in, and feeding in ideas. Every decision we make, it’s all five of us – we send a lot of photo messages!”
The Fig hive mind is invaluable, as they also point out that “because you have to buy five of everything it gets expensive!” They scour their favourite sources for bargains, buying garlands of fruit, visors, bumbags or trainers at poundshops, Sports Direct, and Tiger – “we’re those women you see asking for inflatable pool tables or saying ‘have you got any more inflatable mohicans, I lost mine!”
One of their best buys was seven suits for £70 on Ebay “they all belonged to the same man, but he obviously got bigger over time because they’re all different sizes. He must be dead now – is he looking down saying what are you doing?” Outfits have nicknames as personalities. One new ensemble they call “granny on a cruise”. It’s built around “Lycra onesies with this good floaty ruff round the shoulders that makes them feel a bit more dressy. Those are from a shop in Ipswich called (multiple figs chime in) NOW!”” – and destined to be topped with “five pink fluffy fleeces that are new from Barnardos. They’ll be great for festivals when it gets cold.”
As well as clever shopping, there’s “customisation and making things”. Rachel Gammon is particularly expert: “I made us all snowball onesies by drawing around a jumpsuit we already had – they’re white with stringy glittery bits. I’ll also customise trainers with glitter paint, or add sequin trimming – it’s so much cheaper.” There’s even – and I can’t tell if they’re joking here – a plan for Fig merchandise including “grate earrings, which are little cheese graters”.
The Fig aesthetic is built around the demands of stamping around stage in energetic, self-taught dance routines.”Comfort is very important to us, that’s why we wear trainers. And our bumbags are incredibly practical.” But their love of transitions and big reveals mean that they’re swaddled in layers of synthetic fabric at the start of their performances. “In our third show we had a thermal layer, a velour layer, a boiler suit in thick cotton, and a plastic suit, all in white – the idea was that we peeled off each layer in a kind of extended, very disturbing strip tease. But doing so much dancing and wearing thermals under stage lights you just sweat so much.” “There was sweat dripping in my eyes”, chips in another Fig – before explaining that their next show will be just as cosy. “We don’t learn!”
But even after five years of accidentally tearing out each others’ eyebrows or sweating into several kilograms of synthetic fabric, it’s clear that the Figs don’t feel imprisoned by their distinctive aesthetic. Rachel Porter tells me that “I like my face better with a monobrow on it. There’s something about the strength it gives to the shape of your face, there’s a contouring element to it.” But although she likes to keep her make-up on as long as possible – “she’s immaculate until the end, even at three or four or five in the morning” – staying in the surly character that goes with it is a bit harder. She explained that “that’s something we struggle with in the drag scene. In the club world we are a deadpan dance troupe, but we’re expected to interact with the crowd and be hosts on the dance floor.” And although they don’t want to be rude, “we have this sense that it dilutes us a little bit if offstage we’re smiley, when we filter out of that frame. When theatre shows get pulled out into a club it gets a bit strange.”
The poker faces stay in place for the duration of the Figs’ own club night Hi-Brow – “we are in costume the whole time, hosting, performing, DJing” but they explain that “at someone else’s night it feels really inappropriate to stay in character. We’ve recently made that distinction, that we can smile in a club when we’ve finished our dance routine.” But that’s where the thawing ends: “we realised that we have to have a whole outfit otherwise we feel weird, like our values are being questioned.” This commitment means that they’re as likely to appear in a tweed suit as a jumpsuit – “we’re exploring gender by being open to all paths with our aesthetic which feels quite liberating, having a disregard for those binaries.” One fig explains that “I find myself coming towards androgyny more and more when I’m in fig costume. When you put on this suit, you find yourself doing this sort of swagger. And because there’s a group of us, we’ve got the confidence. We’ll be doing this strut, saying can we be butch? It’s like playing.”
Figs in Wigs’s jumpsuit toting, androgenous eclecticism fits uneasily into a blogger-invigorated fashion world that’s embracing the quirky power of neon trainers, white socks, and contoured layers of warpaint that are brighter and thicker than ever. They all pile in to point out the times they’ve seen popstars step onto their turf. Chicks On Speed, Tuneyards, and even X-Factor stars come under fire for glittered eyebrows: “there are spies everywhere. We learnt this through the drag queens, stylists run down to clubs when they run out of ideas.”
And the stylishness of their aesthetic can be a stick to beat – or least dismiss – them with too. As they explain, “people will say we’ve got a ‘fun’ look. [In a mocking parody of a luvvie journalist] “Aww, they’re fun. I’ve seen them, at a little club.” But fun allows you to slip in different things without people realising. We love it when people understand that we are mixing together frivolity and seriousness in a very specific way. And we’re using that humour and silliness as an aesthetic – we’re lucky that we’ve got a platform to express our pop-political oppression and be fun and colourful.”
Unravelling the Figs’ well-wrapped message doesn’t come immediately. They explain that “you have to invest in it, unpeel a couple of layers of glitter and interact with us to find it.” Their performances are saturated with satires of consumer and pop culture, as well as of the rather more serious live art world that nurtures them. After I’d met them, I thought about how you separate the tacky fun of kitsch from the deeper, more subversive message of camp. Susan Sontag helped – her essay on camp writes that “camp nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.” And that’s what Figs are doing – becoming a swaggering girl gang with a real love for their shared identity as “very stylish aliens”, equally at home and out of place wherever they are.
Figs in Wigs: Show Off is at Soho Theatre, London, 1st-4th May, and at the Incoming Festival at the New Diorama on 4th June 2015..