Pussy Riot: Nadya Tolokonnikova Talks Fashion and Identity Politics

Pussy Riot: Nadya Tolokonnikova Talks Fashion and Identity Politics

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova discusses the feminist punk band’s early aesthetics and the identity politics that fuel their current look.

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova discusses the feminist punk band’s early aesthetics and the identity politics that fuel their current look.

Text: Joshua Lyon

When gender theorist Judith Butler was a child, she told an education doctoral candidate that she wanted to either be a philosopher or a clown when she grew up. For Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, one of the founding members of the feminist art collective and punk band Pussy Riot (and a huge Butler fan), the two aren’t mutually exclusive, particularly when it comes to symbols of revolution.

Pussy Riot exploded onto the global scene in 2012 after staging their guerilla concert “Punk Prayer—Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, dressed in colorful balaclavas and stockings. A few weeks later, three of the women, including Tolokonnikova, were arrested, charged with the adorable-sounding crime of hooliganism, and then handed a brutal sentence of two years’ imprisonment. The case captured the world’s outrage—everyone from Amnesty International to Madonna spoke out in protest. She was released a few months early, a move many viewed as a propaganda stunt by Vladimir Putin, due to the rapidly approaching 2014 Winter Olympics. Over the past couple of years, Pussy Riot has continued to stage protests, and recently began releasing highly produced and stylized music videos that branch away from their masked punk origins. Currently holed up in Los Angeles, recording new music, we caught up with Tolokonnikova to discuss her views on rebellion, the aesthetics of punk performance, and why she purposely wanted Pussy Riot to look clownish.

Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (right), Maria Alyokhina (center), and Yekaterina Samutsevich (left) sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia. August 2012.

Where did the name Pussy Riot originate?

Our idea was to tell the world that pussy could be tough as fuck. I think we succeeded with that.

When you first formed, what kind of discussions did you all have about the clothing, particularly the decision to hide your faces with balaclavas?

Our idea was to not focus on the personalities. Another reason is because I was part of Voina [a performance art collective that stages public protests] and I wanted to tell everybody [that] another group had appeared and [this way] it wouldn’t connect with Voina at all.

Why not connect the two groups?

With Voina, I learned how to do actionism [large displays of performance art], but then I had to leave. There was one person who constantly repeated that women couldn’t do art, and that the only woman who had done real art in history was Leni Riefenstahl. Very scary.

Yikes. Did the masks also serve as a safety function, to hide yourself from police during your guerilla performances?

Not actually, because political police knew who we were from the beginning. When they hear all your phone conversations, you can’t really hide from them. I’d been in activism for some time, and if you’re an activist in Russia, you will be followed for sure.

How did the rest of the costumes play into the philosophies behind Pussy Riot?

So, it’s like, “Riot” is mad, but we needed to identify “Pussy” somehow, and what is pussy? It is stockings and it is dresses. It was super uncomfortable for us to wear the stockings because most of us were all about wearing comfortable clothes at the time. It hurt us and we didn’t like it, but we had to represent “Pussy” in our image.

Why the bright colors?

It was a really dumb reason: we just didn’t want to be read as terrorists. We didn’t want to scare people; we wanted to bring some fun, so we decided to look like clowns.

Stockings are so often a fetishized element of female sexuality. Was it meant to be ironic?

Yeah, sure. But I think it’s important to work with fetishes because all cultures have them.

In your video for the song “Chaika,” you and the other women dress in severe government suits, but also wear fishnet stockings and towering red heels. Why did you make that costume choice?

If you go to Russian court, females there look exactly like that. They have to wear the uniforms, so their shoes and stockings are the only thing they can work with to express their personalities. Russia is still a pretty sexist country, and when men come into a room, they will shake hands with other men, but not pay attention to the women. To be noticed and to have some personality to be perceived or to be understood you need to wear these kinds of clothes.

Did you have to wear a uniform when you were in prison?

Yeah, and I sewed them [for the other inmates], too.

Did you tweak yours at all to help keep a sense of personal identity?

Yeah! Actually, almost everyone in the prison would rework her uniform. Of course, it’s illegal, but the guards would close their eyes until you started to make them really uncomfortable and then they’d notice everything.

Growing up, were there any bands you loved who dressed in a way that you felt represented a political ideal?

I was always into punk. Sham 69, Angelic Upstarts, Cockney Rejects, Bikini Kill, of course, and Le Tigre. But I would say that reading Judith Butler was a bigger influence on me than punk rock. She made me look closely at the movie Paris Is Burning, and it affected me a lot.

In what way?

It communicated to me pretty easily that I could be whatever I wanted and nobody could stop me from being that. And if somebody would try to stop me, I need to beat them.

Literally, or metaphorically?

Um…I took some boxing lessons. I will not reveal to you all the facts of my life.

Did you have any kind of local punk scene growing up?

I was living in a small provincial Russian town, so I was quite far from the punk underground. I knew some bands, but they weren’t political at all. They just taught me how to…well, they taught me how to swear. For me, politics is how you define yourself, how you structure yourself, how you grow yourself. That’s why it was so important for me as a kid of nine or ten to learn to swear like a sailor.

A couple of recent Pussy Riot videos, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Chaika,” experiment with musical genres outside of punk, like hip hop. What does the word “punk” mean to you?

To change yourself all the time. Don’t have any boundaries. My ideal music style is when your song doesn’t sound like another song and people couldn’t really say, “Oh, it is this style or that style.” They should be surprised.

Do you worry that when media focuses on the fashion of Pussy Riot, it detracts from your message?

You should pay attention to fashion and style because otherwise fashion and style will start to own you. There are a lot of people who say they don’t care about their clothes, but your clothes tell a lot about you. I change my aesthetic as often as I can. It’s not like I have millions of dollars, but I try to pick up clothes from different [eras] to try and understand how I feel in them, how they change me. Sometimes I want to be more female, and other days I want to wear men’s clothes. There are all these ways that my behavior will change. You move in other ways, you talk in other ways.

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