I was at the India Culture Lab last weekend for an event called ‘Feminism & Fashion’. It was a fabulous evening (as evenings spent at the ICL usually are). Among all the wonderous sights and conversations, I had a chance to meet my longtime girl-crush Sharanya Manivannan in person and discovered that she knew me. She wore a bindi with a lacy dress and teamed heavy gold jhumkas with high heels. AND she’s a dark girl with a soft voice that speaks a lot of hard truths. Any surprises that I like her? 😊
There is a myth that dressing well and the intellect do not go hand-in-hand. As women we struggle with labels and we succumb to whichever label we dislike the least. I grew up choosing the label of Intelligent Girl over Babe, Diva or Princess. How far does that extend?
As a teenager, I hid inside grunge – unkempt long hair, oversized teeshirts, cotton pyjamas, very old jeans, boots and no makeup. It was the 90s and Alanis Morisette was all the rage. But my dressing had a lot to do with not wanting to be mistaken for ‘those’ airheaded girls who wore makeup and dressed to please men.
Then in my early twenties, I stumbled into an abusive relationship, where (among other things), he chose what I wore, basically dollface/sexpot – pastel shades, puffy sleeeves, heels, tiny handbags, clinging clothes. When I came out of that relationship, I realised that the world treated me better when I conformed to the beauty ideal and everything was a lot easier. So I embraced the warpaint.
Make no mistakes, my sojourn into dressing up was a militant move. Warpaint I call it and that is what I was. Through my twenties and even today, the clothes and makeup I wear were my armour. I am not ashamed of this because this does not rise from self-loathing. My dressing does not hide my flaws; it hides my strengths. I have faced too much for too long to believe that my womanhood will have any relationship to fairness and truth. The world (mostly men) will not let me be in peace if they see me as I see myself – an intelligent, determined, independent human being. My fashion is a statement, a ‘zor ka jhatka dheere se lagao‘ veneer over the hardness (and hardiness) of my being.
My look has evolved over the years, along with my personality and my feminism. I have started to realise that I can dress for the world’s comfort while also incorporating my own individuality into it. The I Wear series that I have been doing for years, has been an attempt to showcase just this. What I wear is an integral part of who I am and how I relate to the world.
To come back to Friday’s event, I had an sudden hankering to wear pink. Pink was a colour I gravitated to a lot as a child. But very early on, I knew that the world saw pink as a colour symbolizing ‘girliness’. This represented sugariness, princessy tantrums, weakness, dimwittedness and a general inferiority to boys/men. So I gave up pink. I went through black, blue and white before I embraced red. Red is still a very important part of my identity and will always be a symbol of strength and independence for me.
But what of pink, my abandoned desire? I think I only realised on Friday that I had begun incorporating pink into my wardrobe years ago by tricking myself. I always ‘butch’ up or turn up the volume on my dressing when I wear pink. It’s usually screaming shades of the colour such as fuchsia or majenta. If the gentleness of salmon or baby pink appear, I keep them to a minimum and contrast them with boots and dark colours or vivid prints. Well, that is quite a realisation to have.
Fashion is expression and full of powerful symbology. It affects the way we relate to each other and to ourselves. In its truest sense, it is also a celebration of the individual. By dressing up and dressing well by my own standards, I challenge gender stereotypes, oppressive attitudes towards sexuality and the moral police. So fashion is definitely a feminist statement.
A friend has had something to do with my shifting perspective towards feminism, womanhood, vanity and dressing up, in the past few years. She has been another woman who owns her wardrobe choices as well as her intelligence and it’s always comforting to have company. Sharanya was a striking instances of the same. Friday evening was the first time in years that I did not feel like I had to defend my dressing or apologize for my intelligence. Without realising it, I’ve also been deeply lonely in my dressing and being around other women who carried the same attitude was encouraging.
Maybe it’s time for me to let some pink into my life and this time without needing to hide it away with noise and saturation. After all, my feminism is not all hard. My strength can also be soft.
If you’d like to see what I wore to the event, run along to the I Wear post on The Idea-smithy.