Each New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, merrymakers from across the city converge on South Philadelphia for something that at times resembles a well-choreographed parade of highly skilled performers, and at other times is more of a sprawling, shambling mob of happy, boozy, (primarily) men in costumes. These are the Philadelphia Mummers. The event is an amalgamation of cultural traditions that has evolved in working-class neighborhoods for over 300 years. Beginning as small bands of informal revelers scattered throughout the city, today’s parade includes recognized performance divisions and organized clubs that compete within those divisions. The group represented by this collection of photographs are the Wenches, a subset of the Comic division, who hew most closely to the Mummers’ anarchic, free-wheeling past. The all-male Wenches don female garb, including dresses, undergarments, purses, parasols, wigs, make-up and golden shoes, in tribute to the iconic song of Mummery, Oh, Dem Golden SIippers. The Wench tradition, and often the dresses themselves, are passed down from one generation to the next, with some groups including all the male members of a family, from young boys to great grandfathers.
Like so many clubs and teams, this group embodies a male mystique, a paradox of inclusion and exclusion that fueled my attention beyond the aesthetics of the parade. As a woman and a photographer, I joined the festivities as best I could. With an 8X10” view camera, I momentarily removed the Wenches from their reverie and photographed them, isolated, feet away from the party.
All the photographs were made on January 1, 2009-2018 in South Philadelphia: a 10-day, 10-year project.
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