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…

They didn’t ask for it

Sometimes, you just have to take a stand! Sometimes, enough is enough! How many times do we read about lawyers –or even judges- wondering about the effect of clothing on sexual assaults?

And it’s not just the criminal justice system that asks the question; I fear that it is a question that floats just beneath the surface of many a speculation –voiced or silently implied.

Blame seems to be a requisite component of justice however, and although it often is a focus for vengeance –sorry, punishment– it is always more satisfying if a reason for an action can be found. After all, an effect requires a cause, does it not? And post hoc, ergo propter hoc makes it even sound erudite. But, although it seems a logical outcome, it is a spider’s web that can be terribly difficult to disentangle unless we are motivated to take the counterintuitive step back from the seductive fallacy.

Admittedly, there are cultural differences that play a role in a society’s willingness to accept or at least tolerate excuses for behaviour, but in terms of the reasons for sexual assault, I would suggest that they are less cultural and more gendered. Excuses, not reasons. And, in these cases,  it is the action that must be examined, not the justification.

I found myself drawn to an article reporting on a woman in India who found an innovative way to draw attention to the issue: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42408844 ‘Indian artist-activist Jasmeen Patheja collects clothes donated by victims as testament to the fact they are not to blame […].’  Her project is called I Never Ask For It. And while the collection may seem a bit creepy, she maintains, ‘”It’s got nothing to do with what you’re wearing, there’s never any excuse for such violence and nobody ever asks for it. […] The project wants to contain and hold space for our collective stories of pain, and trauma.”’

It was a time when ‘[…] street harassment was being dismissed as just ‘eve-teasing’, something that boys do and girls must experience. It was being normalised. There was an environment of denial and silence around the issue, which made it okay to continue it. […] harassment in public places is all too common and almost every woman has experienced catcalls, lewd remarks, touching and groping. And anyone who questions it is told that the fault actually lies with them – she may have done something provocative, she may be wearing clothes that showed skin, she may have been out late at night, she may have been drinking, she may have been flirting: in short, she may have asked for it. “Girls are raised to be careful, we are raised in an environment of fear which is constantly telling us to be careful. We are told if you’ve experienced assault, then maybe you’re not being careful enough, that’s the underlying message we’re given.”

‘She set up the Blank Noise collective in 2003 to “confront” that fear. […]The first step to confronting any fear, Ms Patheja says, is to start a conversation around it and one of the things that Blank Noise does as part of the “I Never Ask For It” project is to gather testimonials from women. […] Almost all women chose to describe what they were wearing at the time of the assault and, Ms Patheja says, that’s what gave them the idea about the museum of garments.

“We found women often wondering about their garments. They’d say, “I was wearing that red skirt’, or ‘I was wearing that pair of jeans’, or ‘I was wearing that school uniform’. So it became a deliberate question at Blank Noise and we began asking, ‘so what were you wearing’? [..therefore..] we ask people to remember their garments, bring them in because they have memory, and in that memory it’s been a witness and it’s your voice.”’

I found that article very moving –especially that the clothes women had chosen to wear with pride at the time of the assaults had become forever tainted by the attacks –that those colours, fabrics, and even styles now made them feel sick. Guilty… Ashamed. They had expected admiration, approval, compliments, for how they dressed –or maybe hadn’t even thought much about their clothes beforehand. But, planned or not, a simple smile would have sufficed to indicate that they, too, could be beautiful. We all have a need for more than the mirror can say; most of us not only dress for ourselves, but in hopes our tastes will be vindicated. That we will be vindicated.

Yes, we often dress for effect, innocent or otherwise, and yet does the first chirp of the stirring robin cause the sun to rise? Are we looking at it the wrong way? Does attraction necessitate response? License behaviour? Does it even necessarily modify it? For some men, that is a vexing question, no doubt –and yet there it is. It has to be confronted. It is not enough for the man to say he was beguiled. That her clothes spoke for her –said what she chose not to say. That they told him all he needed to know… That they asked him and he merely accepted the invitation. Really?  He felt not only that entitled -that privileged- but also that omniscient? Stuff and nonsense!

Of course, how silly it all sounds divorced from the situation. After the fact. Even to other men, it would be difficult to argue his ability to know that he had been granted permission to violate someone else. To be assured that he could really see the world through his victim’s eyes…

As the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns put it: O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!

Because, no, they didn’t ask for it. And they certainly didn’t deserve it.

Hi, Heels!

I find it interesting that I can be so blind to something I see every day. How it can fade so completely into the Gestalt, that it is invisible. Not there.

Is it just me, or do we as a species, always attempt to accommodate to that which is constantly present –block it out like persistent odours- to make room in our heads for other sensations that may be more important for our survival? And yet, we don’t seem to be able to block all things out –patterns for example. We see patterns everywhere –we even invent patterns where there aren’t any- so it strikes me as odd that we can afford to ignore other things which might be even more malevolent. Is it just a matter of getting used to them, once we decide that they mean us no harm? Or, like taking off a pair of glasses, do we simply defocus them so they blur into the background with everything else?

It’s the unpredictability that bewilders me, I think. Why do some things persist, perhaps with only minor variations, while others seem to feel the need to change attire at the slightest whim -or even jump ship entirely? Disappear so thoroughly from sight that what once was common becomes laughable on review? Creepy –until, Phoenix-like , they rise again from their still-smoldering ashes, and mutton-chop sideburns, bell-bottom trousers, or even Afro haircuts are flaunted as if they were newly invented, and we get used to them all over again.

But do we ever get tired of beauty? Or does it have to dress itself up in constantly changing fashions to get our attention? So we don’t take it for granted? So we still regard it as having beauty? Is fashion just a trick to keep us on our toes? And, when is fashion no longer fashion? Is it just when we fail to notice anymore? Then what is it…? Invisible again? There’s something suspiciously circular in that. Suspiciously desperate. Meaningless.

Do I seem petulant about this –or at least leery of being clasped in fashion’s capricious arms? Perhaps it’s my age –although I seldom succumbed to the siren call even in my youth- but I remain genuinely puzzled at its grasp. Some things –like the styles of dresses or ties, as examples- seem sufficiently banal or entertaining to accept with little more than an inquiring glance and perhaps a shrug, while others… Others verge on the bizarre, the dangerous –all, no doubt well-intentioned, seemed-like-good-ideas-at-the-time inventions, and yet in the often unkind light of retrospect, unwise.

The Victoria era corset springs readily to mind. Worn by both sexes to slim the waist, it is better remembered as a device to mould women’s figures into some arbitrarily ideal hourglass shape. And in extreme cases, or with extended use, had deleterious effects on health by restricting the diaphragm, and unduly constricting the abdominal organs. Fortunately, in Western societies at least, they now seem to be confined to museum manikins labelled and planted behind glass like old photographs. Lesson learned…

And yet we may not have learned. There is another fashion as accepted as the corset in its time, and unless exaggerated, as invisible. As unremarked. I refer, of course, to heels –high heels. Once in the exclusive domain of men, they shifted into that of women, as I learned from a CBC article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/high-heels-health-and-popularity-1.4458020

‘[..] high heels have been popular for centuries, and were originally worn more by men than by women. “I dated the origin of the heel as far back as the 10th century in Persia,” said Elizabeth Semmelback, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “They seemed to have been invented to keep the foot in the stirrup,” she said. “It allowed men on horseback to wield heavier weaponry, to be more successful at warfare, and so they really were a military tool.” From soldiers, the high heel eventually became the footwear of kings. But by the end of the 19th century, the style became fashionable for women only. Over the decades, high heels, and especially stilettos, became synonymous with sexuality […].’

There are those who might defend their use as a way to even out uncomfortable height discrepancies –my first date to a prom with an even shorter girl, for example- but by and large they are just a fashion statements. They are expected in certain circumstances, impractical in others.

But ‘Long-term wearing of high heels can have long-term medical effects for the entire body, said foot specialist Kevin Fraser, a pedorthist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.  “Wearing high heels is going to force us to flex our ankles downward, a downward direction, straightening our knees as well as extending the back,” Fraser said. “That can create a whole host of complications within joint levels in the back all the way down to the feet.” People can experience problems ranging from bunions to osteoarthritis, he said.’

I suppose the reason I was even tempted to read an article on high heels stemmed from an incident on a bus –or, rather, off a bus- a few days ago. I was coming home from an evening meal at a downtown restaurant and it was raining quite heavily so people on the sidewalks were being careful about where they stepped. Sidewalks can be dangerous even at the best of times, especially for the elderly –there are cracks and uneven surfaces lurking in shadows cast from street lights at night, or under puddles in the rain.

My particular bus travelled past a seniors home in a posh neighbourhood, and that evening there must have been a concert that had lured several elderly ladies downtown in the evening despite the weather. The bus was noisy and unusually crowded for that time of night, so there were no seats available -the only place I could find to stand was in the aisle opposite the door.

There were two especially well-dressed women seated beside me, chattering excitedly about the music they’d heard, when one of them noticed they were near their stop. As they got up to leave, the bus was still moving, and I noticed one of the ladies wobbling as she stood. From her expression, I don’t think it was alcohol, so much as her unfamiliarity with the length of the heels she had chosen to wear. I suppose they were fashionable, but she seemed rather unstable in them, so I reached out to steady her as she exited the bus onto the curb. As soon as I let go, however, her ankle seemed to give out at an odd ankle and she fell, screaming into her friend.

Unfortunately the door to the bus closed at that point and the bus began to pull away, despite my efforts to notify the driver and keep it open. I was left watching through the window at her being picked up by her friend, unable to put any weight on her foot.

The point of the CBC article was to point out discriminatory dress codes in workplaces such as restaurants that require their female employees to wear high heels. They are considered a sign of being ‘dressed up’, and so prevalent that it is usually unquestioned. Like a tie on a man, the heels on a woman may be an expected accoutrement in some circumstances. Fair enough, I suppose, and yet I wonder if that poor woman on the bus might now have second thoughts about what should be deemed appropriate… I think I would.