The Thousand Natural Shocks

I guess I should have seen it coming, but I am a creature of an epoch that craved the security of its boundaries, liked the certainty of its labels, the comfort of knowing where things stood. I am older now, and can accept the confluence of sides. I live in the wake of new ideas.

And yet, all around me, I hear echoes of Yeats: The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. For goodness sakes, it’s just Fashion blinking once again.

Those of us of an age, still equate unisex clothing with the guerilla military garb of Latin American rebel groups –utilitarian, egalitarian in its camouflage if not its beauty. But these are the chains of another era, born of necessity, not fashion. Once only a whisper, a different voice now sings in the ears of a youthful culture tired of the constraints of gender, impatient with being assigned a role. And while I can’t say that I follow any particular clothing style, I suspect that I conform rather closely to the stereotypes to which I was exposed at a very early age. But I realize that nobody really cares what I wear; it is perhaps enough that I don’t object if people wear each other’s clothes.

And I don’t object, although in fairness, I can’t say I’ve really noticed. These things sometimes creep up slowly, as indistinguishable as shadows on a cloudy day. In fact, I only became aware of non-discrepant dressing a while back, when I found myself scrolling absently through an article on unisex clothing as an antidote to the troubling catastrophes that leave me sleepless in the night. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/04/joy-unisex-gender-neutral-clothing-john-lewis

I won’t say it was a surprise –things evolve, and clothing is certainly in the vanguard. ‘The British designer Katharine Hamnett has a long history of exploring non-gender-specific clothing […]. She says that, in the past, when women stepped on to more traditionally male sartorial territory – wearing military-inspired clothing, for instance – this “was about appropriating male power”. Now, she says, a move towards equality means women “may be feeling more comfortable with themselves”; in other words, they may have the freedom to wear what they like. (It is still far less common for men to seek out traditionally female clothing.)’ Uhmm… Yawn… I almost stopped reading at this point –I don’t know how normal people can slog their way through stuff like this.

Still, the next paragraph did manage to snag me from torpor’s edge: ‘Chloe Crowe, brand manager for Bethnals, a London-based unisex denim brand, says that when they have run pop-up shops, men and women in couples have come in and bought jeans that they can share.’ Okay, coals-to-Newcastle perhaps, but it was a candle in a dark room that kept me scrolling.

Then, something caught my eye, something that even I have noticed over the years -the frustration of seeing some patterns or styles that I fancied, only to find they were destined for the female market. This was a view from the other side, though. ‘The shirt company GFW Clothing – GFW stands for Gender Free World– has three fits, designed to fit different bodies rather than the broad terms “men” or “women”’ and Lisa Honan, co-founder of the brand online said ‘“I’d look in the men’s aisle and see great patterns and short-sleeved shirts […]” The men’s shirts, she says, didn’t fit her “because I’ve got a woman’s body. It got me thinking why is [there] a man’s aisle and a woman’s aisle, and why do you have to make that choice?”’ I don’t buy many new clothes nowadays, but Amen to that, I suppose.

One day, not so long ago, I was on a trip in a foreign city, and happened to walk past a row of brightly-coloured clothes hanging outside a store on a rack on the sidewalk. A sign above the clothes shouted Sale! 50% -or more- Off. And just like that, I fingered my way through a few of the shirts, stopping at a pale blue one that had a white linen flower sewn on the chest near the collar. In fact, the collar was what intrigued me –instead of the standard sharp angles, it was rounded off like the railings of an escalator. But its treasures didn’t stop there –the cuffs were adorned with a row of brightly coloured decorative buttons like digital fasteners all in a little row.

It was then that I noticed the eyes. And heard the mouth. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it sir?” I traced the words to a stoutly built middle-European woman standing in the door of the shop. She looked pleased, but suspicious –there was not the usual fawning of a sales rep on commission.

Embarrassed at being caught riffling through the clothes, and determined not to be pressured into buying anything, I merely smiled at her and withdrew my hand. Then, I shrugged and walked away a few steps until she disappeared through the door again. But there was something about the shirt that appealed to me so I turned around and pulled it off the rack. I think it was the little flower, to tell the truth. It seemed so… alive.  I couldn’t find the size, so I pressed the shirt against my chest like I’d seen people do to decide if it would fit. It seemed about the right size.

“Something for the missus, sir?” a now-familiar voice said softly, almost in my ear.

I turned my head suddenly and found a pair of eyes clinging to my face; I think I blushed. “No… I, uhmm, I think maybe…” I finally noticed the sign above the door, Plus One it said, and I wondered if it meant it was a two-for-one store, or something.

“I understand, sir,” she said with a big smile and what might have passed for a wink as she studied me and then let her eyes float up and down my face. “Would you like to try it on?” she added with a practiced, friendly expression and ordered her eyes closer to home base, finally satisfied with their assessment. She glanced at the rack. “I think that green one next to it would look good on you, too…”

So, it was two-for-one, I thought, happy that I’d found the rack.

“Try the blue one on first, and I’ll let you know what I think,” she said, hurrying over to one of two flimsy change room doors but found it locked. She looked at me and sighed. “You can use the other one. Some people just can’t make up their minds,” she whispered, and rolled her eyes. “That’s why they ask for my opinion.” She smiled innocently, as if she really would tell them what she thought.

I have to say that the shop had a sweet fragrance -as if someone had just shampooed themselves in a corner somewhere- and I was about to compliment her on the ambience, when the rickety door opened and a very large woman emerged. She was wearing a rather masculine-looking olive-coloured pant suit, complete with vest and a wide red necktie. It didn’t look like the stuff from the rack outside, but apart from some obvious strain on the fabric, I thought it really looked very nice on her.

“I don’t know, Helga,” she said, eyeing me suspiciously as she spoke to the saleslady. “I wonder if the colour is right for me.” She glanced my way again, obviously embarrassed.

Helga was already shaking her head, and I could see the disappointment on the large woman’s face. She really liked the outfit -and I kind of fancied it as well.

I put on my warmest smile. “I think it looks very nice on you, ma’am. The colour goes beautifully with your complexion, and I think it highlights your eyes. It’s a man’s opinion, of course…” I thought it best to issue a disclaimer.

Suddenly the woman blushed and a grin that almost split her face in half emerged. “I’ll take it, Helga!” she almost shouted, and disappeared behind the door again.

“And I’m gonna take these as well,” I said, handing them to Helga. “I don’t need to try them on… Two for one, are they?” You have to clarify these things.

Helga looked momentarily surprised but then slowly nodded. “Ever think of going into retail?”

You know, I’m beginning to think that someone like me would do very well in the burgeoning field.

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The itsy bitsy teenie weenie?

I am no longer simply bemused at the secular paranoia that seems to be growing like Topsy in the Western world; I am becoming irritated; I am becoming annoyed that it is now even conflating fashion with politics and spreading like blight in a deliberately monocultured crop. Pick your battles, folks –this is a demeaning one. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/16/burkini-ban-defended-as-french-mayors-urged-to-cool-local-tensions?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Or is it just silly: burkini -coined merely to suggest the word ‘burka’ and also contrast it with its other ‘ini’ cousin the bikini? An attempt to denigrate opposites? Have we grown so accustomed to less being more on the beach, that more is now less? Have we already forgotten how shocking the bikini was when it first appeared in the middle of the last century? How it was banned from many beaches then, and declared sinful by no less an authority than the Vatican?

Admittedly, the bikini reveals considerably more of the female anatomy and no doubt arouses different sorts of… well, passions, shall we say, than the iteration I’m discussing. But some of the burkini styles and colours are quite beautiful and, at least from my prairie -and admittedly male perspective- far more attractive than the burka parent. It is, for all intents and purposes, a tempest in a teapot.

Terrorist events in France have undoubtedly kindled a controversy over an issue that would otherwise have been merely a dispute over aesthetics –“Why would anybody want to wear something like that, on a beach? It must be so hot…” And that would have been that. Except for the resistance of some governments to clothing with even a hint of religious affiliation, the burkini would have quietly slipped into normalcy – become as obvious as nose-rings or purple hair. A barely noticeable mise-en-scène.

Of course there was that skirmish on a Corsican beach in August between some villagers and three Muslim families: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/15/corsica-mayor-bans-burkini-violence-beach-protests-sisco-france  But, interestingly, it was not at all certain whether any of the women were wearing burkinis at the time… The mayor decided to ban them anyway.

I can understand the reason… sort of. The idea, presumably, was to defuse tensions -not draw attention to cultural or religious differences in a time of us and them. Even when, in fact, they are actually us. The problem, I suspect, is that we are living in an inter regnum –a time when differences, no matter how picayune or superficial, may assume larger than life proportions –a significance that, when viewed years hence, might seem recondite –if not puerile. But it’s all very confusing, not to mention counterproductive, even now.

Surely inclusivity engenders familiarity and acceptance –on both sides. Banning something often breeds resistance and anger. And banning an innocent article of clothing is both capricious and inflammatory. If there were ever anything that could engender feelings of separation and non-acceptance, it is the belittling of the honest attempts of a culture to adapt to something that so enamours the population in which it is enmeshed -something that allows Muslims to visit beaches while letting them adjust their customs to what may never have been envisioned as a desirable or even feasible activity by their ancestors.

I remember a patient of mine that had a different take on the issue. Fatima was a devout Muslim woman who had nonetheless adopted many of the dress codes, so familiar on our streets. I was seeing her and her husband for antenatal care in their first pregnancy and once they both realized that I was nothing to be feared, we were able to talk openly about many things other than her pregnancy.

At the beginning, for example, she would always arrive wearing the more inclusive covering of a niqab –albeit a colorfully patterned one. Then she began wearing a hijab to our visits. I asked her why.

I remember she looked at me and her eyes twinkled as her mouth wrinkled into a shy smile. I noticed her husband was smiling, too.

She immediately shrugged, as if it was an unimportant observation on my part. “I wanted you to know when I was smiling,” she said mischievously. Then, her eyes suddenly became the interrogators –gentle inquisitors- and hovered about my face for a moment. “And quit looking at him,” she giggled. “He’s terrible at choosing clothes anyway…” It was a good-natured rebuke; Fatima evidently disliked our western stereotypes.

Although it was her husband that was the reason for her presence in Canada –he was doing some post-doctoral research in oceanography- Fatima was also fluent in English and more observant about our own vagaries than I was.

It was a hot summer that year, and conversation naturally turned to Vancouver’s love of its beaches.

“I really don’t understand Vancouverites,” she said with a laugh. “They flock to the beach and strip down so they can lie on the hot sand like wieners on a barbecue…” We all laughed. “I think it’s just a fad, though,” she added, her face turning serious for a second.

I nodded. “Maybe someday, someone will design beach clothing that is comfortable and cool, but still protects them from the sun…” I said it without thinking, I have to admit.

“We already have,” she said and winked.

How parochial we can be in this country, despite the vaunted cultural mosaic of which we are so demonstrably proud.

Cultures change –but more slowly than fashions. Maybe the rest of us will someday find ourselves covering up more of our skin on beaches to prevent UV damage; mothers are already dressing up their toddlers as they muck about in the sand… Beaches themselves are a fashion, after all. There was a time not so long ago when people feared the sea and –at least in Britain- only aristocrats seeking the putative benefits of both spa and beach for reasons of health were able to afford the areas where this was offered. In time, of course, the rabble followed and now we merely view beaches as de rigueur. But given the fickleness of contemporary life, perhaps this too shall pass, as the adage has it.

Fortunately, however, France’s highest court has allowed us to breathe deeply again, and step back a few paces for now -it has decided to suspend the ban on burkinis: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37198479 Sadly, the issue has not yet been put to bed; there is still considerable resistance among politicians and elements of the population who fear an upheaval of the status quo, and a slide into the morass of sectarianism. Several mayors have even threatened to ignore the ruling.

French law notwithstanding, it seems to me that the noticeability of an article of clothing like the burkini should not merit more than a transient raising of an eyebrow –if that- and certainly not a clash of Civilizations. Its proscription will not discourage terrorism, but perhaps its approval might. Who knows what a welcome might do to a culture so long viewed as other: strangers in a strange land…?

 

The Skirt’s the Thing

Skirts are back in the news –this time in France… for being too long

You’re kidding! A skirt’s a skirt, right? They’ve been around for thousands of years it would seem, albeit of multiple lengths and designs that accorded with local customs and –perhaps- fashions. The wearers were, of course, were no doubt sometimes tempted to flout the prevailing dress codes and deviate from what was common practice. This risked social approbrium at first, but eventually, as nowadays, also risked becoming the norm. We all flirt with change. We all want to be noticed on occasion –and, at least in the Western world, unique clothing is often a fledgling’s first dangle outside the nest. An experiment in independence.

But what is this deviation –this anti-Fashion- and can we ever differentiate it from protest? Isn’t it always about change? A statement of belonging –or not belonging- to a particular group? An identification for any who care to notice?

Indeed there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the brains of teenagers, for example, are not just young, unruly adult brains. They differ in neural connections, and although intellectually comparable to those of adults, lack the impulse control that develops with maturity. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml And this is not all bad. For example, Scientists believe that the loss of synapses as a child matures is part of the process by which the brain becomes more efficient. Although genes play a role in the decline in synapses, animal research has shown that experience also shapes the decline. Synapses “exercised” by experience survive and are strengthened, while others are pruned away. From a societal –but mainly, an evolutionary­- standpoint, this is probably a good thing: it encourages new thinking, new perspectives. Innovation.

But what has all this to do with long skirts, I hear you mumbling? Well:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32510606­

What bothers me is that a girl in France, along with several of her friends, was sent home from school for wearing a long (black) skirt –a 15 year old, Muslim girl no less…

In 2004, France introduced a ban on ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols at state schools in an attempt to enforce its secular version of separation of religion and state. The orginal issue seems to have been Islamic headwear.

But the girls had already removed their Islamic headscarves before entering the school! So what was the issue? The Toronto Star reported that: “It was a concerted action… with a will to put a (religious) identity on display,” Patrice Dutot, inspector of the Ardennes Academy, which oversees the schools in the area, commented by telephone: “It is not the long skirt that is the problem,” Dutot said. The issue is that the girls “had agreed to wear the same skirts… to display their belonging” to a religious group.

Stuff and nonsense! They are teenagers striving for an identity in a society that is bent on a futile quest for homogeneity. If they had decided to dye their hair green, or worn rings in their noses instead, they may well have been tolerated. But even if they were admonished it would not have had the same effect as stigmatizing an entire segment of society –France has about 5 million Muslims which is the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe.

I think it is a policy gone recklessly wrong! While I do not agree with their ban on conspicuous headscarves, if the argument was that the very ostentatiousness of a niqab identified the wearers as members of a religious group, surely the decidedly unpretentious length of a skirt is an individual prerogative –a fashion statement, even. Witness the popularity of the hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux (I wear my skirt how I want)!

As the BBC reports: In 2011 France became the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil – the niqab – in public places. Most of the population – including most Muslims – agree with the government when it describes the face-covering veil as an affront to society’s values.

You’ve made your point, France. Don’t push it too far, though: the lion only slumbers.