Why are we so afraid of the F-word?

(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.

Yet 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 hash tag #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 this blog, I wanted to talk about fashion because that is something I am passionate about, along with gender equality and women’s rights, of course. I wanted to write about fashion, but 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 popular/counter culture 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 battle field 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 down trodden, 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.

 

 

 

 

Met Gala 2017: A penny for the peanut gallery’s thoughts.

After the ball was over, all the wannabes and fashionistas who were unfortunate enough to not be invited to one of the most prestigious fashion events of the year, swarmed onto social media to ooh and aah over the glorious gowns worn by only the best in the West.

Or, perhaps we didn’t ooh and aah over all of them. While some left us breathless, others left us speechless, and still a few more left us utterly confused as we passed scrutinizing judgements such as: “what is she even wearing?” and “she may as well not have worn anything at all!” But that’s what makes this glamourous evening so enjoyable for the remainder of us not-yet-famous social rejects.

The 2017 Met Gala (the event I am referring to) took place on the first of May, celebrating the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s spring exhibition: Art of the In-Between by fashion (aka anti-fashion) designer Rei Kawakubo and head of the Japanese Fashion label Comme des Garçons.

Kawakubo is notoriously known for emphasizing fashion as an art form, and all the celebrity guests followed suit dressing up perfectly for the occasion in the most artistic avant-guard outfits imaginable. Forget about the runway, the garments produced for this year’s Met Ball was like viewing artworks on walking mannequins. And just like in art,  some outfits leaned strongly to towards the shock factor, while others epitomized timeless elegance.

Here’s my list of the best, worst and most outrages outfits of the night. In no particular order, because, in the end, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder then we’re all winners.

Who. Why. Wear?

We have already established that clothes are never just clothes. They’re threaded with meaning and reflect our identities. We all have a relationship with the clothes we wear, whether we like it or realize it or not.

At a basic level, we need them to serve the primary function of covering our bodies, but the choice of materials and styles we choose to fulfill this purpose goes far deeper. The decision to wear what we wear is embedded in our psyche.

I am fascinated with this latter reason for dressing and so I decided to take advantage of the diversity of styles that inhabits Rhodes University’s campus and go find out what students wear, and why they wear it.

I asked eight students to describe their personal style and explain why they wear the clothes they wear. Here’s what they said:

 

The Retro Revolution

They say the only constant is change, but sometimes change is so consistent you have to blink to see the difference.  To quote the French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr,

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Ever left a place and returned years later to find that not much about the surrounding is different? New people may have replaced the old familiar faces that are imprinted in your mind, new buildings and structures and ideas may have been adopted, but the general feel, atmosphere, the skeletal structure has remained intact. You look around you and you’re taken back by the surreal familiarity of it all, while still nostalgically aware that the colours have lost their hue, it’s like you’re looking at a faded photograph.

F. Scott Fitzgerald not only knew this feeling all too well, he also was gifted with the ability to capture it in words: 

“Life is a journey, not to a destination but a transformation.”

I’m not exactly sure who said that but what matters most is the truth in it. We’re on a journey, and everything that we encounter has an impact on us, whether we realise it or not. The same can be said about fashion and the clothes we wear.

In her book The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant talks about the power clothes and fashion has on influencing our identities and how it reflects the different stages of our lives. She says that one could literally write an autobiography using the different styles of clothes worn through every stage of life. At every age, we embark on a new stretch of the journey accompanied by fashion, our faithful friend. The clothes we choose are social indicators of who we are and where we place ourselves in relation to the world around us. Whether we choose to fit in or stand out, clothes are bonded at the seams with ideology and we pick and choose what and who we want to embody by what we wear.

The other day in my Writing and Editing class, we were tasked with writing an overview of the year we were born and find a way to fit ourselves somewhere in the equation, because in this journey of life everything has a cause and effect, no matter how insignificantly seeming it is.

So I typed ‘1995’ into the Google search bar (because I’m that ancient you know,) and attempted to over-analyze this idea of predestination based on my subliminal reception to the outer forces at play around the time  I was welcomed into this world.  Could the global events and historical context surrounding my birth, really have that much of a significance on how I turned out as a person, and the course of life I ultimately chose as a result?

At first glance, the whole idea seemed like a somewhat horoscope-type reading of my fate. But interestingly enough, amongst other things I discovered that Amazon sold its first book the year I was born, and seeing I dream of one day being a published writer, perhaps I could see it as a sign that I too will someday sell a book. Or am I reading way too far into everything?

But then I modified my search slightly and typed in ‘fashion in 1995’ and what eventually popped onto my screen, was a classic case of déjà vu. Turns out while my mother was working out hard at the gym to lose her baby bump, the rest of the world was standing in solidarity with her, skipping the fries and piling on salads in order to fit into the ‘latest trend’: crop tops. And slip dresses, velvet, chokers, platform shoes and nude lips.

Ring a bell? Because I’m pretty sure, just the other day I saw a picture of Kendall Jenner rocking a metallic slip dress, with a matching choker. And let’s take a minute to pay a tribute to the tiniest excuse for a t-shirt in history: the crop top. It features everywhere these days. It will take you from the beach to the bar; the gym to a girl’s night out; it’s even made its way onto the red carpet countless times in recent years.

Trust me, IT girl and super model Gigi Hadid, backed by the biggest and the best fashion houses, has got plenty to lose by wearing clothes that are ‘outdated’, so when I see her constantly showing off her killer abs in crop tops, I’m going to instantly assume that this itsy bitsy insignificant piece of cloth must still be pretty significant after all.

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Let’s take a moment to salute the slip dress, for surviving 21 years and finding its way back, not only into the fashion pages but more importantly back onto the streets where it is accessible to everyone and can be dressed up and down in the most creative ways. Recently, I too set off in search of my very own slip dress to wear over a plain t-shirt, and I still remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally found the one (that victorious moment holds another story altogether, but I’ll save it for another day.)

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Platform shoes and nude or brown hued lips are also all the rage these days, just in case you somehow managed to miss them screaming out at you from across the street, shop windows, or even the pages of magazines. (If this is the case, then you must be deaf).

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So it would appear my life in fashion has gone full circle (I guess that means I should be content to die now?) I’m back to where it all began; back to where my life all started. The 1990’s makes a comeback, but this time around I can actually fit into the clothes.

Yet amongst these trends, there are still the few that twenty-one years have failed to make my heart grow fond of. Crop tops, unfortunately, feature high on that list. While I don’t despise the item and admire it on others, it remains one style that has just failed to find a place in my wardrobe.  There was a stage when I was around nine or ten that everyone my age was wearing them, and so based on that premise, I too wanted one. I begged and pleaded with my mother to let me wear them, however being the classy, elegant women she is, and trying oh so very hard to turn her daughter into a ‘lady’ (trust me it was mission impossible those days,) there was no way she was going to have me baring my stomach, even in the name of a floral print. And so the desire passed, and shortly after so did the trend, for a while at least…

Fashion evolves and revolves, like waves crashing onto the shore and then retreating temporarily back into the deep blue. Through all the ebbs and flows of life, there’s one thing we can be certain of: The waves always return to the shore. And amidst this recurring cycle, sometimes we find ourselves revisiting home, watching new faces come and go in crop tops and dungarees, and those psychedelic hippy pants that speak to my eighteen-year-old hippie self. It is then that we realize, that amidst all these ‘constants’, it is us who have changed. Fashion evolves, but so does our style, it’s all part of the journey.

As the late fashion designer Yves Saint Lauren said:

“Fashion fades, but style is eternal.”

What’s on my bookshelf?

How can one write properly and insightfully on any given topic, and ensure the writing remains relevant to the present socio-political context if one doesn’t themselves engage in extensive reading on the said topic?

The answer is simply that you can’t, or at least not very successfully. As writers, we have to constantly seek inspiration not only from our own minds, but the genius thoughts of others, and so of late,  I have been doing a lot of reading on the subjects of Fashion and Feminism and the fine line between Art and self-expression.

And I’ve been so inspired and moved by the reading material that has landed in my lap, I simply feel it would be selfish of me not to share my findings and what makes them so valuable to me as a writer engaging in these different dialogues.

So here’s a list of just a few literary gems, of all mediums and lengths. Assuming majority of you have wandered on this site because you are equally as passionate about these discourses as I am, I’m confident these reads will inspire you just as much as they have inspired me. 🙂

1.) The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant. Simon and Schuster, 2009. 

This book is fast becoming my bible for understanding the correlation between fashion and the consciousness, and basically how fashion and the art of dressing and caring about our appearance, lies at the very core of our existence and history. Grant completely shuts down the argument that fashion is only a superficial, trivial and frivolous phenomenon. “You can’t have depths without surfaces,” she writes and I’m blown away. I really want her to just jump out from behind the pages so I can physically give her a high five. She uses history to prove that fashion and the desire for outward beauty exist even amidst the horrific gruesome perils of war. Do yourself a favour, and just go read it.

2.)  ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2008.

This catalog is a compilation of articles and essays on Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo from her ReFusing Fashion art exhibition in 2008 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The exhibition as a whole, as well as the essays on her work, serve the purpose emphasizing fashion as art and its place in the museum space. Although Kawakubo’s work has often been described as ‘anti-fashion’, she uses art to create an extremely political dialogue through her designs. Her work not only screams out against social injustices but inherently emphasizes fashion as a form of identity.

3.) Coco Chanel: The legend and Life by Justine Picardie. HarperCollins, 2010.

Because you can’t claim the title ‘fashionista’ without familiarizing yourself with the legend of Coco Chanel. And there’s a pun on legend, because she gave so many varied details and different stories about the events of her early life, one simply doesn’t really know who or what to believe. It’s so easy to romanticize famous icons like Chanel and fail to look past all the glitz and glamour of their success, but to quote Linda Grant once again “You can’t have depths without surfaces”, and piecing the picture of Chanel’s early life together, is one of dark and humble beginnings. What also stood out for me, when reading about her early life is how her upbringing in an abbey, appears to have impacted her style and her designs. Reinforcing the undeniable idea that fashion is intertwined with identity. And of course, her profound quotes scattered throughout the book are always a treat. I’ll leave you with my all-time favourite:

“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different,” Coco Channel

4.) This article by Emma Brockes that appeared in The Guardian titled  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Can people please stop telling me feminism is hot?’ 

Adichie is a feminist of note, but what I love most about her is her brutal honesty and defiance. She is a strong formidable woman, and she isn’t interested or concerned about being liked, rather what concerns her is justice, and justice with regards to how women are perceived and expected to be perceived in society.

“It’s not your job to be likable. It’s your job to be yourself. Someone will like you anyway.”

She challenges and questions the idea of feminism as a trend, tackles the problem with selective feminism and deconstructs the notion of woman’s ability to ‘have it all’. Her refreshing, revolutionary, yet definite attitude towards feminism burns through all pretense, and is so raw and real you can’t ignore it. Above all, I love her response to when a student expressed doubt as to whether he could still hold her in the same esteem since she started writing “this whole feminism thing.”

“While I love to be loved, I will not accept your love if it comes with these conditions.”

Her words ring the truth of self-confidence every woman needs and deserves to practice.

5.) Self-Loved by Malibongwe Tyilo. Elle SA, March 2017

This article published in this month’s edition of Elle SA, talks about the journey to self-love. Tyilo says that the art of ‘self-love’ is an accumulation of little ways and efforts we make to care for ourselves. Like moisturizing our skin and taking care of our bodies, not based on what society is dictating to us to follow, but by responding to our individual needs.

“It’s a work-in-progress this self-love thing, and it goes far beyond the body; but every day, with every drop of moisturiser, with every cigarette I don’t smoke, I understand a little bit more that loving oneself is not some intangible idea”

With society constantly down our throats telling us we need to be this size; look this way; act that way; do this; don’t do that, in order to be the best version of ourselves, Self-love is like a constant tug-of-war battle and we always seem to end up lying in the mud. Tyilo explains that self-love isn’t a destination, as opposed to society’s idea of what loving yourself, and body confidence is, instead, it’s an accumulation of little everyday things and activities that we can focus on, like eating right, and caring for our bodies, not for the purpose of ‘looking good in skinny jeans,’ but for ourselves, to make us feel good. Taking the time to focus on what we need to do for us, instead of spending time paging through magazines that tell us what others think we need. Because in essence, love is in a relationship with time. Love=time. The same applies to how we treat ourselves and the thoughts we think towards ourselves. Do we spend time building ourselves up, or focusing on the negative, because that ultimately what will determine whether or not we foster self-love.