Wearing Life but as the fashion of a hat

Every once in a while I find that I am confronted by an idea which, even were I to have thought of it first, I would have put aside as of little relevance -or worse, of little consequence.

Clothing, has always been one of those for me: it’s something you wear, not something you are. And despite the desperate claims by Fashionistas that it reflects an inner self -or at least would, if you let it- I’ve always found the argument largely specious, and to reword Samuel Johnson’s quip about marriage, is a triumph of hope over expenditure.

And yet, I was drawn into an essay about clothes -albeit reluctantly- written by Shahida Bari, a lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London, for Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/why-does-philosophy-hold-clothes-in-such-low-regard?

I have to admit the article was not at all what I expected: I was neither deluged with praise for couture, nor subjected to shaming for my sartorial insouciance. At first, I was merely confused by her fascinating ruminations about clothes: ‘Ideas, we languidly suppose, are to be found in books and poems, visualised in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. They are taught in classrooms; expressed in language, number and diagram. Much trickier to accept is that clothes might also be understood as forms of thought, reflections and meditations as articulate as any poem or equation. What if the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries disentangling like a frayed hemline?’ What an utterly fascinating thought that what we wear is not merely a passive display, but has a voice of its own.

‘What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways that human beings have lived: a material record of our experiences and an expression of our ambition? What if we could understand the world in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?’

Do you see why I kept reading? The very idea that clothes have agency in and of themselves is powerful. She goes on to observe that ‘clothes are freighted with memory and meaning… In clothes, we are connected to other people and other places in complicated, powerful and unyielding ways, expressed in an idiom that is found everywhere, if only we care to read it.’

Bari seems to understand that ‘for all the abstract and elevated formulations of selfhood and the soul, our interior life is so often clothed… The garments we wear bear our secrets and betray us at every turn, revealing more than we can know or intend.’

But we cannot hide in clothes -as the poet Kahlil Gibran observes, ‘Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful’. And Bari goes on to suggest that ‘to entrust to clothes the keeping of our secrets is a seduction in itself.’ I would have thought that this alone would have been fodder for the Philosophers, but as she goes on to explain, ‘the discipline of philosophy has rarely deigned to notice the knowledge to which dress makes claim, preferring instead to dwell on its associations with disguise and concealment.’

She seems to think that Plato had something to do with Philosophy’s aversion to treating clothes as a worthy adversary. ‘Haunted by Plato’s anxiety over how to distinguish truth from its ‘appearance’, and niggled by his injunction to see beyond an illusory ‘cave of shadows’ to a reality to which our back is turned, philosophy’s concept of truth is intractably aligned to ideas of light, revelation and disclosure.’

Still, in fairness, she turns her spotlight on various other philosophers and notes that although appearance has always been a fair topic for discussion, it has rarely concerned itself about physical appearance or dress. And yet, after a tedious, albeit poetically expressed, litany of the views on clothes of characters, both fictional and academic, she concludes with a one sentence précis that I think might have made her point much sooner: ‘Philosophy might have forgotten dress, but all that language cannot articulate – the life of the mind, the vagaries of the body – is there, ready to be read, waiting to be worn.’

I did enjoy her metaphors and evocative language, and I have to admit that, until the latter half of the journey, I was swept along quite contentedly in the current of her thoughts. It reminded me of a recent conversation of two women, both laden with large cloth bags who plonked themselves down beside me on a couch that break-watered the teeming throng of shoppers in a downtown mall. Both were middle-aged, and both spread themselves out as if I wasn’t there.

I’m not keen on being jostled on a seat, and was about to launch myself into the chaotic tide of passing elbows when I saw the woman next to me pull some garish fabric partly out of her bag to show it to her friend.

“What d’ya think Jesse?” she asked, stuffing whatever it was back in her bag once Jesse had seen it.

Jesse looked frazzled by the crowds, and her once-coiffed, greying hair floated in little strands from her head while her eyes stayed anchored on her face. “Colour’s interesting, Paula…” she said, after a noticeable pause.

“It’s a statement, Jess…” She relaxed her buxom frame further into the couch and settled an elbow into my rib without seeming to notice the infringement. “I think it’s time people noticed me.”

Jesse blinked and a weak smile surfaced on her lips for a moment. “I don’t think you need the hat, dear,” she added, as tactfully as the situation allowed.

I could see Paula’s eyes harden, and then the pressure on my rib cage lessened briefly as her hand searched for a pocket in her incredibly wrinkled ankle length coat for a Kleenex. She blew her nose untidily and then tried to stuff what was left of the tissue back in the coat somewhere, and her elbow back into my side. “What are you saying, mirror-child?” she shot back. Clearly they were both tired, but I was beginning to enjoy the exchange.

“Just that you don’t have to wear a sign to attract attention…”

Paula’s face somehow retracted further into itself and her eyes peered out through the bars of their lashes like caged animals. And then, just as suddenly, her expression softened, and she shifted the position of her elbow again. “Oh, you mean that blouse, I bought…?” A smile darted onto her lips and stayed there like a runner that had made it safely to second base. “It’s really more me, isn’t it?”

Jesse’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she nodded. “But I don’t think you should wear them together, do you…?”

I could feel, as well as see Paula sigh. “You’re right, dear,” she said, as they both struggled to their feet. “I’m someone else with the hat on, aren’t I?” Another smile surfaced briefly, like a seal. “But it’s always nice to have a choice, Jess,” Paula added, hefting her bag onto her shoulder. Then pulling her friend with her free hand, they both stepped into the ever-passing flood like branches falling together in a river and were swept away.

I think you learn a lot about philosophy in malls if you’re patient…

The Temple of Clothes

I caught someone inspecting me the other day. Okay, it wasn’t an inspect exactly –it was more of a look… Well, maybe a glance, but it bothered me all the same. I could feel her eyes doing a quick little dance on me. They started on my mud-caked running shoes, before appraising the hem of my rumpled jeans where they had partaken of the same puddle. Then they scampered up over the tattered edge of my untucked sweatshirt before flitting around my face like barn-swallows looking for insects. I felt violated, even though it certainly wasn’t my first encounter with eyes.

Frankly, I hadn’t expected the examination on a trail. It’s true I am not at my best in the woods. I am an anticipatory dresser; my couture is seldom haute even on city streets, but when I have to be en garde for roots, wary of curiously moving bushes that extend onto the path, and on the lookout for riparian sinkholes, I like to move carefully and blend in. Not make myself more of a target than necessary. And looking shabby, and unostentatious is all part of it –I do not dress for passersby, although I often wave.

I heard them coming before I saw them –a little girl’s shrieks of delight as she ran along the trail ahead of her more cautious mother. The girl was tanned, perhaps six or seven years old, and dressed in jeans and a grey sweat shirt that seemed several sizes too large for her. Curly black hair that tumbled and bounced on her shoulders as she ran, the forest held no terrors for her.

Her mother, though, was wary, looking from one side to the other, and then at her child, uncertain just what to expect. She was wearing a dark-coloured cloak that partially covered her head, and was making her way slowly over some roots and stones on that part of the path when I first saw her.

It was the mother who noticed me first, and then grabbed her little daughter and sheltered her from my advance, lest I lunge at her. I suppose I should have admired her courage –I could have been a criminal for all she knew. Or maybe a fugitive bent on taking them hostage. I mean, you just can’t be sure with men in forests nowadays. Her eyes were lasers, bullets aimed squarely at my clothes, but she was in mother mode.

Her daughter, on the other hand, was in child mode. Curious mode. She whispered something to her mother, who instantly shook her head. “Stay away from him!” she must have said, because the little girl began to pout.

Finally, she broke free of her mother’s tether and walked a few paces towards me. We had all stopped to declare our territorial boundaries by then, and she knew precisely where to halt.

“You live here, mister?” she asked slowly, her expression flirting with wonder. I thought I could detect an accent, and suspected the girl might be encumbered by a beginner’s vocabulary.

I had to smile at the innocence of the question. I shook my head and lowered my eyes to disarm the mother who by now was hurrying to restrain her child before she got too close to me.

“Where you live?” the girl continued.

I shrugged. “In the city. How about you?”

The mother had caught up with her by then and I could hear the urgent whisper but the only word I recognized was a name: “Nattie!”

Nattie looked up at her with adult eyes, and shook herself free of her mother’s grasp once more.  She said something to her that I didn’t understand and then turned to face me again. I suppose I must have looked puzzled, because she then translated it for me. “’Why not speak?’ I say.” There was a big smile on her little face. “Can we be friend?” she added, glancing at her mother out of the corner of one eye.

I smiled and nodded, but her mother still looked worried –terrified, actually- so I decided not to move.

Nattie went into a sort of huddle with her mother and the two of them began to argue –or maybe it was just a discussion -I couldn’t tell. But eventually Nattie turned to face me, her eyes sparkling. “My  mother want your name…” And as she said this, her eyes sought refuge on the ground. “She say is important…” I could hear her mother say something again for Nattie to translate. “She is afraid for strangers, but I say her this is Canada, not Afghanistan.” She seemed pleased at being able to communicate so well.

“My name is Gary, Nattie,” I said, uncertain about whether or not to offer my hand to shake –especially under the still-suspicious stare of her mother.

But little Nattie came right up to me and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you Gary,” she said, as if she’d memorized the phrase for just such an occasion. Then her face puzzled up. “How you know my name?”

I smiled again to reassure them both. “I heard your mother say it, Nattie…”

She immediately turned to her mother and said something, and her mother laughed and waved at me. Nattie turned back to me with a little giggle. “I say you must speak little bit Pashto, Gary… She okay now.”

We all smiled and laughed, and I suddenly realized how similar we were -no matter how we dressed for the woods. There are no strangers on a trail.