(And by F word, I’m referring to Fashion, just in case you were wondering.)
In High School, I was the most interested in fashion, out of all my friends. We would make plans to meet up over the weekend, going to parties, movies or shopping dates and a few hours before, I would phone them up and ask them “what are you wearing tonight?” To which they would casually reply, “Aah probably just jeans and a tee-shirt or something, I haven’t decided yet.”
I could never relate because there I was, at 2 pm, with the aftermath of hurricane ‘I-have-nothing-to-wear’ clearly visible in my ransacked closet.
I soon became aware that in the company of my friends, I was more often than not, ever so slightly overdressed. They noticed it too, and once or twice a friend even messaged me beforehand asking me to “please not dress up too much” because she was only planning on wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. Shorts and a tee shirt??? I had to use every inch of my near-non-existent self-control to stop myself from revealing my dismay.
The truth was I couldn’t bring myself to be seen in public wearing plain old shorts. I grew up under the influence of a clothing-designer mother who did not hold back on her opinion that “shorts were made for painting the house or going to the beach, not for wearing out.” In short, shorts were just simply short of fabulous, in my vocabulary at least.
Initially, my friends probably thought I was trying to show them up, turning dressing into a competition; taking a page from Gossip Girl and acting like a typical Blair Waldorf wannabe. But in time, they got to know and understand me and accepted that paying attention to what I wear and how I look, boils down to me simply being me. It’s just who I am. And I guess they figured they could learn to love and put up with that person because, almost a decade later, we’re all still best friends.
Although my style of dress has changed since my high school days, my new style of dressing is still constantly met with “ooh you look nice” and in recent years, the more aggravating “who are you dressing up for?”
As a feminist, you can understand that I do not take kindly to the latter remark at all. I have always remained firm on the stance that I dress for me and no one else and I get annoyed by the small-minded implication that the effort I put into my appearance is purely to attract male attention.
However, what annoys me more than this is the largely accepted association with fashion and frivolity. The judgement passed on people who overtly embrace and showcase their interest in the taboo topic of outward adornment.
Perhaps it is this same reason that has caused me to conveniently refrain from bringing up my interest and love of fashion when questioned about my interests and hobbies in social circles.
Or in the name of discretion, avoid disclosing the name of the magazine from which the article I am quoting comes from, because society dictates that fashion and science don’t mix and therefore, in certain social circles, regardless of how well researched and scientific the facts, if people knew it came from a fashion magazine, the information would immediately be discredited and furthermore, I as the messenger may suffer brutal wounds to my esteemed intelligence in the scrutinizing eyes of my listeners.
Deemed as ‘shallow’, I would be silently criticised for wasting my precious time reading fashion magazines instead of investing my focus on more prevalent matters inside the Times or National Geographic.
Perhaps this is also the reason why sometimes, when I meet friends for coffee or dinner, or anything really, I catch myself feeling an impulse to dismiss their “Wow, you look great” with an evasive response such as “I was in such a hurry, I literally just threw on the first thing I found;” because you know, spending more than five minutes at the mirror, and more than three minutes negotiating with your wardrobe is a sin.
The Vanity of all Vanities. The ultimate faux pas.
I am tired of hearing that societal voice in my ear guilt trip me every time I open a fashion magazine or get excited over a new pair of shoes. I am tired of feeling like a feminist locked in a room with a bunch of male chauvinists every time I dare to express my love of fashion. I am sick of constantly feeling the need to justify, excuse or subdue a part of myself in an attempt to be seen as a whole person.
Is it too much to believe that I can care about my appearance while still remaining modest and humble?
In a world so centered on the self, with the social media trend of the ‘selfie’ fast becoming one’s societal ID, (only with a constant need of updating); juxtaposed with the equally popular hashtag #iWokeUpLikeThis, the balance, if it exists, is terribly blurred.
We must look good, but not too good. We must take time on our appearance, but just not too much time. We must try, but without appearing to have tried. We must be natural, but not too natural. We must look like we “woke up like this,” even if we didn’t- because we dare not admit that we didn’t because God forbid we appear to love ourselves enough to make ourselves look beautiful.
If fashion is false, maybe it’s because we don’t care enough to take the time to be real.
When I first started writing about fashion, I wanted to talk about it in a way that is meaningful, in a way that matters. I didn’t want my discourse to get lost in a wave of one-dimensional, superficial dictations that I am aware is too often associated with the namesake.
For me, fashion isn’t about the latest trends; who wore what to where and when; black is in and blue is out and velvet is making a comeback. Rather, it’s the phenomenon of fashion, its aesthetical quality: the artistry, the colour, the design, and the mood and emotions it evokes.
That feeling of the fabric between your fingers, the different textures and the layers; how it all comes together and the way it makes you feel inside when you put on a dress that speaks to your soul and reminds you of who you are and makes you feel like you can conquer the world, even if you’re four foot tall.
I felt a need to create a dialogue about the facet of fashion we can’t seem to escape. That fact that what we wear speaks to a part of who we are. We care about what we wear. We may not realise the extent to which we do, we may try not to, or we may pretend that we don’t but on some level, we do.
Take Hipsterism for example, as my first year Art History lecturer pointed out in a lecture series on counterculture I will never forget: she said that hipsters put a great deal of effort into carefully curating their image to look unkempt. In essence, Hipster fashion is just that: Fashion. In the same way, the counterculture it belongs to is still a culture. It’s pretty postmodern if you really dissect the notion of using a medium to escape that exact medium and it speaks directly to our lifelong pursuit for self-expression.
Beckett did it with language in his literary works where he details his search of a self, devoid of language, through the medium of language.
We do it all the time ourselves when we allow ourselves to connote fashion with frivolity; deem it superficial and irrelevant but then proceed to judge others’ characters, intentions, personalities and even societal and economic status based on their apparent relationship with the exact phenomenon we’ve deemed superficial.
Since that revelation in my first year Art History lecture, I have become hyper-aware of the presence of this hypocritical double standard at war with the underlying subliminal intentions found in the act of dressing.
It’s never just clothing. It’s an ideology; meaning encoded through colours, fabric, design, and patterns shout louder than a voice and say more than words can express.
It was during this time, while I was racking my brain for a way to tactfully bring up the runway without causing people to literally run away, that I found a kindred spirit in the form of an author, who had braved the battlefield and successfully articulated in words, all my jumbled thoughts on the relevance of fashion.
In her book, The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant debunks the stigma that fashion is superficial, by exploring its purpose amidst the perils of war. She starts the book by focusing on a pair of red high heels found at the Auschwitz concentration camp at the end of World War 2 that form part of an exhibition at the Auschwitz Museum in Poland.
This powerful imagery of these vintage haute couture red heels- an artifact of war and inhumane mass murder, becomes a central symbol to her dialogue on fashion’s interconnectedness with history and its ability to tell a story.
Grant starts to pose questions around the presence of these fancy, expensive high heels in a concentration camp. How did they end up in a concentration camp surrounded by rubble and the smell of death? Who did these shoes belong to? And was their owner wearing them before she died?
And thus by connecting the object to the identity of a person, she establishes her argument that “fashion exists, whatever you think about it. It’s everywhere, even in the gruesome relics of a concentration camp.”
Grant then goes on to give countless examples of how clothes are closely linked to and form a large part of our identities. One of the most compelling stories she includes is taken from a diary entry of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willet Gonin, one of the British soldiers who liberated the German concentration camp Bergen Belsen in World War 2.
He recalls dealing with raped and vanquished women in the concentration camp, who were so broken and soul-destroyed, nothing seemed to be able to revive a spark of light in them. That was until a package containing a large quantity of lipsticks mysteriously arrived.
“This was not at all what we men wanted. We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick” the Lieutenant wrote but then admits that the lipstick turned out to be an act of pure genius:
“Someone had done something to make [these women] individuals again. They were someone, no longer merely a number tattooed on the arm. At last, they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”
There you have it, from the soldier’s mouth. Through the darkest, most hopeless and inhumane experiences, humankind can’t help but search for colour.
Be it a red shoe carrying the memory of a life from which it became estranged, or simply a shade of rouge on the lips of the downtrodden, fashion has the power to not only tell a story but empower us to continue to live out ours.
And that is largely what Grant’s (and my) argument seeks to establish: that fashion and the desire for beauty transcends into every sphere of our lives. Even in unbearable situations, it begs to serve a purpose as Grant so aptly sums it up:
“The defeated women of Berlin, the liberated women of Bergen-Belson and of the French Resistance all had in common this collective desire to look pretty. It survived intact when the rest of their humanity had been assaulted beyond repair. I cannot see how such an instinct could be described as superficial if it can withstand the almost total destruction of the personality.”
Yes, there are more important things, more prevalent problems that beg for our attention. Amidst the perils of famine, drought and poverty, countries ridden with war and natural disasters on the perimeter of my existence, here I am, facing what I call a crisis of “epidemic proportions”: What can I wear?
That I admit does sound like a terribly frivolous first world problem.
I am definitely not about to trivialise the magnitude of real problems our global community faces. I am not in the slightest attempting to justify self-absorption and superficial emphasis society places on appearance, but what I am proposing, is that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
I am asking if perhaps, I can love and appreciate fashion without the label that comes along with it, the scarlet letter that gets placed around my neck when I dare to admit that I swoon over beautifully designed garments and love wearing and celebrating this art in fabric form.
That perhaps I may be granted permission to read and appreciate a fashion magazine with the same enthusiasm and intrigue that I would a novel, an autobiography or even a National Geographic, without being thought of as an airhead.
I am asking if maybe, just maybe, I can be given the opportunity to dress fashionably while still being taken seriously, and do my bit to make the world a better place in five-inch heels if I so choose. Without being met with judgement.
All I am asking is that we strip away our pretentious prudence and consider fashion to be as much of a creation as we are both the creators and contributors of it.
Featured image: Jade le Roux