Culture Mulch | Society

What are clothes but a daily performance for the world?

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I hesitate to say this, but there may be hope around the corner. There’s traffic on the streets, masked faces I now recognise, and more street noise than I care for, but such is urban life. As I edge slowly back into the world, I am beset by the malady of most decently-off women in the world. I have no clothes. Which is, actually, not true, for I have too many clothes. But having spent the past year and something in moth-eaten pyjamas and T-shirts, I now have no sense of how to dress for the outside. For what are clothes but a daily performance for the world?

In Tom Ford’s superbly lit and immaculately coiffured film, A Single Man, Colin Firth’s character ruminates about how, every morning, it takes him some time to become himself. His words follow his movements as he picks clothes stored in some rather spectacular dressers of mid-century modern persuasion. I love that scene for it recalls my own morning ritual in the days of face-to-face classes as I would set out to teach. Colours, cuts, moods, accessories. A casually mixed pattern on pattern, an unexpected T-shirt, brogues on an uncharacteristically pleasant Chennai day. Blingy shoulder-dusters.

If you think I’m a bit extra for a teaching job, trust me, there are others. Many years ago, my fellow anthropology graduate students and I leafed eagerly through the pages of The New York Times Magazine, which in 2008 chronicled the lives of ‘The Stylish and the Tenured’. Michael Taussig, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, featured prominent and resplendent. All academics ought, I think, to follow in the footsteps of Chimamanda Adichie and love ourselves some fashion.

Perhaps you’re thinking that what I say does not refer to a large percentage of the population that cannot afford this cornucopia of possibilities. Think again. For a sense of self is not only the property of the landed rich. Pay attention to the teeming working classes out and about on the streets and see how you can pick out those with an eye for colour, matching clothes, accessories and swag. Every time those boys with no respect for life or longevity whizz past on busy Chennai roads, I cannot help but notice their buzz-cuts, drainpipe pants and nifty sneakers.

Fashion flânerie

Pre-pandemic, my favourite form of flânerie was to just hang out in the ladies’ compartment of the local train where women of every fashion persuasion heading to and from work, home, festivals, weddings, celebrations, school, and college brought along a unique sense of self for the world. They were abetted by canny train vendors with their stock of earrings, scrunchies, safety pins, and keychains. And I would imagine how all manner of daily struggle, household nastiness, anxiety, fear and despair may well be briefly forgotten in the wake of a flower-studded blouse and a crisply ironed and pleated sari. In Rabih Alameddine’s exquisite novel The Hakawati, the protagonist tells us how the more agitated his mother’s state of mind, the more attention she paid to presenting a stunning visage for the outside.

You might think that clothing and fashion bear paradoxical relationships to truth and authenticity. On the one hand, there is Gandhi, who via khadi and a loincloth wore his life truths on his sleeve. On the other hand are everyday life, popular culture and our own desirous selves with our ‘Outfits of the Day’ seeking validation, ephemeral joy, and daily pleasure. Are clothes, then, also a useful distraction to serve the world a version of ourselves that may have nothing to do with some true self? Better that we strive then to be like Sri Annapurani Amma, the naked and magnificent “raging river of a human being” whom Arundhathi Subramaniam profiles in Women Who Wear Only Themselves.

We know that clothing is both a matter of free expression and of marking identity in an un-free, fixed fashion. It is seduction, pleasure, armour, resistance, dissent, ideology, power, and powerlessness. It is, in other words, deeply political. What if we were to wear all of these in the process of becoming ourselves? What if our outfits are merely versions of self we try out every day as we go about the daily work of finding resonance in the world? What if our clothes signify the hope that perhaps, one day, in an ideal world, we too may shed it all?

The writer teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 2:52:15 AM |

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