Grayson Perry: What should I wear?

The Turner Prize-winner, famous for his transvestism, is ruthlessly honest about his life and work. But right now, he tells Hermione Eyre, his biggest problem is deciding on a frock for the opening of his new show
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Grayson Perry has yet to decide which dress he will wear to the opening of his new show on Thursday night. A lot of people will be there from his past, and his present, and he needs a killer frock. "It's tricky, you know?" he says. "Opening-night parties are a bit like weddings."

Perry will be the bride, of course. (Also, in a sense, the groom.) He wants to wear leather, which he is "really getting into at the moment", but that will be too hot for summer. He's interested in kimonos, though he finds them too unshapely to wear. With his tall, angular frame, finding dresses to fit his female alter ego Claire can be difficult. He used to shop at Long Tall Sally; since winning the Turner Prize in 2003, dressing Grayson Perry has become a brief for the fashion students at Central Saint Martins. Last year, his favourite design was "a very high-waisted Korean folk costume"; this year, he says, "I hear someone's making me a chav-themed dress!" Perry gives a deep, brief belly laugh.

He is sitting in the back yard of his London gallery, on a break from installing his exhibition. Here he is "himself", the straight artist, a married man with a 13-year-old daughter, and he is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He looks blokey, from his slightly stubbled chin to his paint-filled fingernails. (Though there is, it must be said, a touch of Aunt Sally about his floppy,oversize green-and-white sun hat.)

Perry is keen to take me through the entire catalogue for his show, as much for his own pleasure as for my edification. He is patently proud of the exhibition, entitled "The Charms of Lincolnshire". It places his own work (ceramics, woodcuts, cast-iron effigies) alongside Victorian artefacts from the archives of Lincolnshire museums - samplers, man traps, a hearse. The effect is extravagantly morbid. Empty child-size nightdresses hang from the walls, as he puts it, "like souls ascending to heaven".

"But probably the most weird thing in the show is a picture of Lincoln Cathedral embroidered in human hair," he grins. "I should think of it as a dead relative's hair. They really liked that kind of thing, the Victorians."

So, it seems, does Perry. He has never lost a loved one ("I'd never even seen a dead body until the week my daughter was born, when I saw a murder victim lying in the street"), but his current fascination with the Victorian way of death is deeply felt. "Child death has a very strong pull on me because as a parent, you know, it's the worst thing that could happen. I can only make art about things that snag me emotionally."

It occurs to me later that since his daughter is now 13, this exhibition might be a kind of funeral for her childhood. Such cod-psychologising would feel inappropriate applied to another artist, but Perry seems to invite it. He is, after all, an artist who spent six years in therapy, who married a psychiatrist, and whose work, like Tracey Emin's, often seems to be an act of self-analysis.

"Sometimes I give too much away," he says, a touch sadly. He bared everything in his recent memoir Portrait of the Artist As a Young Girl: his violent stepfather; his first dress (yellow Crimplene); his discovery, in childhood, of auto-asphyxiation. He has never kept his trans- vestism secret from his wife or daughter; as he once explained, "a secret does corrode a relationship - it sits there like a parrot waiting to speak".

"And by being outspoken and honest, I've said things that have helped trannies, you know? Also I'd rather be open and embarrassed than be pinched and safe the whole time. Being in the creative industry, I can't get... constipated." He gives way to a gale of deep giggles.

There are signs during our interview that his neural passages are in no danger of being blocked. He makes more Freudian slips in an hour than most people do in a year. Discussing the chocolate-box charm of rural England, he says "kitschiside" for "countryside". Referring to the trademark pointy hat of the writer Terry Pratchett, he calls him Terry Hatchett by mistake. And make of this what you will: "I do quite like reality TV. I would be watching The Convent, only my sister - Freudian slip! - my daughter insists on watching Big Brother."

Perry's transvestism is, he has always maintained, deeply linked to his fantasy of being a little girl. He says he loves it when people cosset and pet him and say things like, "You look lovely today, you precious thing." Grayson is so close to his inner girl-child that it's strange, yet also touching, to hear him mistakenly refer to his daughter as his sister: it makes so much sense.

Perry doesn't give the slips a second thought and carries on the conversation seamlessly. He is keen to show me his "existentialist poem", which lays out his beliefs. This looks like a Victorian sampler, but the words on it are very un-Victorian. "They're the four existentialist givens of life: you will die, you are alone, you have free will, and life is meaningless." Grayson's confidence in these rational tenets seems iron-strong: his gender may be vague, and he may be in thrall to fantasy, but his rational beliefs are fixed and solid.

"Oh, and I've added 'Live life now and act with love' to the end of the poem, because religion doesn't have to have the monopoly on being good. We atheists can claim some of that too."

There is still the vexed question of what Perry will wear to his opening. "I really like the way Victorian clothes are so fetishistic. Women wearing them are somewhere between a doll and a piece of furniture. Kinky."

Here, Perry becomes animated. "Fantasies are very inspiring to me." Do they come to him in dreams? "No. They're just sex fantasies, mainly. I love the creativity that comes from sex fantasies. If you look on sex websites where people write stories about what they'd like to happen to them, they're amazingly creative and various, and I think that's great, you know?"

I leave Perry having received his message strong and clear: live life now, and act with love. And don't be ashamed to fantasise.

Grayson Perry's show 'The Charms of Lincolnshire' is at the Victoria Miro Gallery, 16 Wharf Road, London N1, 020-7336 8109, from Friday until 12 August

A life in art: From Essex boy to a girl called Claire

BORN 24 March 1960 in Chelmsford, Essex, where he says his interests in both transvestism and pottery developed as a young boy after his parents separated. Now lives and works in north London with wife Philippa, a psychotherapist, and daughter Florence, 13.

EDUCATION Stayed in Essex for an art foundation course at Braintree College of Further Education. Went on to graduate from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 with a BA in fine art.

CAREER Moved to London in the early 1980s, where he took part in film and performance works with the Neo-Naturists group. Had numerous solo and group exhibitions and continues to work with a variety of art forms, including embroidery and photography. Best known for his ceramics, for which he won the Turner Prize in 2003. The first potter to participate in the event, he famously collected his award dressed as his alter ego, Claire. His Essex upbringing continues to influence the subject matter of his work, exploring challenging and contemporary themes such as child abuse and masculine stereotypes. The Victoria Miro Gallery represents him in the UK.

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