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.

 

 

 

 

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.

The ‘weaker’ voice: What it’s like to be a woman in a Man’s world.

On Wednesday, the world united together to celebrate the Wonder that is Women.

If you weren’t aware it was International Women’s Day, then you either live under the ocean, or the universe has punished you (or rewarded you, whichever way you see it) by sending you to a place that has no internet connection or any links to the real world- and if that were so, you wouldn’t be reading this, so we can dismiss that theory altogether.

For those of you who do live under the ocean, and just came up for some air on Wednesday, I’m sure you were bombarded with the motivational, inspirational, ‘Girl Power’ dialogue that dominated the day.

But then came Thursday, and we woke up to the void of Happy Women’s Day messages and perhaps unwillingly returned to normality- a state that’s forever being promoted as ‘over-rated’ and ‘cliché’ and compelled to be replaced with ‘originality’. “Don’t be normal,” they say, “be you!” -Whatever that means.

How do we ‘be’ ourselves; how do we embody what lies at the core of being when society, is constantly using its subtle tactics and manipulations to choke us into a mold.

Just like men, women are also classified as strong, brave and courageous, but not for the same reasons that men are. No, women are awarded the labels of ‘Bravery’ and ‘Strength’ for overcoming the daily hurdles that men breeze over without a second thought. Men are brave and courageous for fighting off giants and walking head first into battle and defeating their opponents without hesitation.

Women are deemed brave and courageous for daring to enter into a male’s world and succeed. Every step up the corporate ladder is a dagger in the heart of the giant, that is the Patriarchal society. Every woman who attempts to shout louder than society’s redundant voice dictating who we should be and what we should look like is walking head first into battle against a mob of brainwashed opponents.

We’re courageous for trying to break free when in actual fact we should never have been chained in the first place. And by no means does that place a slight on our achievements and strength at all, we’ve earned the title, we deserve it. We’ve undeniably proved that Women as a nation are a formidable force, but it’s a fight we shouldn’t have to continuously relive.

It’s all good and well that we’ve succeeded in standing up for ourselves countless times throughout history, but why do we continuously have to rejustify our case? Why do we constantly have to repeat ourselves in order to be heard? Why do our voices still feel so weak?

I like how Kriti Sanon says it in this video that went viral on Facebook.

This year, on International Women’s Day, while women around the world were for one isolated day, making sure that they were heard, I was interviewing a scientist who told me how on a daily basis she struggles with not being taken seriously in the workplace by her fellow male counterparts.

“It’s really difficult to be a female scientist in a largely male-dominated field. I feel like I’m always having to try a little bit harder to prove to everyone that I can do the tasks. If a man comes along, he is automatically trusted with a project, but the minute you’re female, you always end up having to defend yourself.” said Environmental scientist Puleng Tsie.

Puleng is based at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, where she works as communications manager for Sci Enza, a company that works toward finding interactive ways to make learning science fun and understandable for learners. She said that although the field of female scientists is growing, it is growing at a very slow rate. “Women are still breaking into a field that for centuries has been dominated by mature male scientists,” she explained.

“Happy Women’s Day” didn’t seem like an apt response to that revelation. The worst part was that I wasn’t surprised at her answer when I brought up the topic of gender stigmatization and discrimination in the workplace. I was kind of expecting her response to be more or less on same lines.  Her answer expressed the same underlying truth that we shove in the far out corners of our minds, and we try to flush away with every pro-women motivational pep talk we seem to be constantly dishing out to one another.

Take a moment to consider the ratio of male to female non-fiction writers who win, or get nominated for literary prizes. Majority of the time, male authors walk away with the prize.  What is it about the female voice that makes it more well-received and accepted in fiction, or when women do dare to delve into the non-fiction battlefield, why do they often settle for memoirs?

In an article published on Slate, Kate Waldman questions why the memoir genre is on the rise for women non-fiction writers and links it to the fact that female non-fiction writers fail to feature on the receiving end of book prizes as often as men do.

“Does the relative invisibility of memoir on the nonfiction prize circuit lead to the underrepresentation of women? Or is it the other way around? Perhaps women are drawn to memoir for the same reasons that NBA judges seem to flinch from it: The genre’s goals feel less explicitly grandiose and weighty, more acceptable for us—with our “emotions” and our “fine brushwork”—to strive for,”  Waldman writes.

Do women stick to fiction and memoirs because it’s too treacherous a territory to compete with the loud, overbearing voices of their male counterparts? Is it the tiny societal voice that’s been subliminally engrained in us from infancy: “Blue is for boys, pink is for girls” in the adult world can translate into “stick to what you’re good at.” Who has the right to set parameters around what areas we can excel in?

There are however the few exceptions of female non-fiction writers who braved the deep waters and succeeded. Last year, three of the four writers shortlisted for The Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, were women. So, maybe there is hope, but how long must we wait around to find out?

Women finally make it to the top of the ladder; the plateau of so-called equality, only to find that they “still have a way to go”. I hate those six words, that are repeated so often they’re bordering on cliche, but maybe I hate them more because the truth in them rings out an ineffable defeat: so close, but yet so far. Will we ever find the pot of gold under the rainbow? Does it even exist, or are we all just a bunch of supreme idealists?

Where to from here? I honestly wish I knew. Puleng has some solid advice, which she stands by:

“I know my background, I understand and I’m good at what I do. If people want to check up on me, or question me, it’s their waste of time and energy not mine.” That’s her expert advice on dealing with being second-guessed just because you’re a girl.

And as much as I agree and applaud her attitude, I fear that the day will come when after screaming so loud, for so long, in the vain hope of being heard the first time, our frail voices will finally falter, be reduced to a whisper and we’ll be back at square one. Having come so far, but with so much further still to go.