What Not To Wear
Everyone will agree that buying clothes for little girls is ridiculous fun. Buying clothes for teenage girls? Not so much.
I went shopping with my daughter recently and I had my first, “You want to wear that?” moment. Admittedly, it was not the more cliché misgivings mums sometimes have about teen girl fashion. This was a large, black shapeless top, with huge gold letters emblazoning no past, no future. I didn’t ‘get’ it, but respected her judgement just as I did when, at age 2, she decided she’d wear a swimsuit, weird shorts, gum-boots and a hat to go out with her aunt. My sister tried to squirm out of taking her alone to the shops, “People will think I dressed her like that! It looks like cruelty. My reputation!”
How we clothe ourselves is the most obvious of the cultural cues we project. It enables the world to pigeon-hole us and treat us accordingly. It’s called the semiotics of fashion and is a social reality that the whole industry – from goth fashion to the luxury accessories market – is built on.
When it comes to what women, especially young women, wear, though, it gets a little more complicated than trend and ramp reportage; you must gingerly step into the minefield of politics and moral discourse. Records of public discussion on women’s clothing begin with the suffragettes and women’s rights movements. In the late 19th century, the Rational Dress Society in London advocated that women wear no more than 3 kilograms of underwear for more ease and agility. (I’m assuming that underwear came from Victoria’s Very Big Secret.)
The historical timeline of women wearing trousers is intertwined with drastic social change. During the world wars, dealing with extreme rationing, working in jobs previously held by men, women did the ‘practical’ thing and used their husband’s clothing while the husbands served in the armed forces. (However, despite their sartorial emancipation, when the men returned after WWII, hem lengths went even longer.)
Clothing has the potential to be a form of both nonverbal conformity and nonverbal resistance, even as interpretations of the fashion statement evolve. For example, trousers and jeans on women no longer embody rebellious or practical masculinity, just as the black leather jacket has forgotten its (very awkward) WWI German antecedents.
But while fashions change, one thing remains constant. We’re all in on policing what our girls wear, especially here in India. It’s done “for their own good.” Codes of propriety are created based on our reading of the milieu. Cultural, social and individual personality attributes are attached to items of women’s clothing irrespective of whether the woman acquiesces to, acknowledges or is even aware of those attributes. We’ve all heard “good girls don’t dress like that.”
The dissonance is easiest to observe with girls my daughter’s age. Teen girls are at the perfect juxtaposition; awakening to their incredible female power just as every ding-dong person in the whole ding-dong world lines up to tell them how to bloody dress and behave.
A Mumbai college recently banned women from wearing shorts at its annual festival. The college was lampooned. But what they could easily have done is remind students that college is and always should be a place of education primarily. Therefore, a strict semi-formal/smart casual dress code is highly appropriate – for both genders.
At a private gymkhana last weekend, among members of a community usually very slow to police women for their behavior or clothing, my teen’s schoolmates were out in force. After weeks of rigourous drama practice, they’d won first place and were letting their hair down. The no past, no future top made its debut. (I figured, from looking at her friends’ similar shirts, this bunch is currently ‘hip-hop stylin’.)
Then, two teen girls stepped in, wearing make-up, high heels, ripped jeans, and crop tops that exposed their bellies. In the inevitable discussion that ensued at our table, I realized we were not immune to the ‘morality’ part of fashion’s semiotics.
“Well, someone’s going to catch a cold.”
“They should be allowed to wear what they want.”
“They’re kids and can’t parse the difference between good attention and bad attention.”
“Please, let’s not go Taliban on our girls.”
“Outside of this gate, they’d be targeted. Those guys don’t get it.”
Maybe our justifications were that their clothes exposed them to risks outside of the safe space we were in. But I admit, I was discomfited by my inability to take a stance, one way or another.
In an ideal scenario, our teenage girls could experiment and wear whatever they wanted until they found their personal style. They’d eventually evolve into dressing for themselves rather than for other people. There would be no fear of judgement or threat to their physical and mental wellbeing. Maybe they’d wear bikinis until running after their children made those impractical, or a flowing cape and boots for days they were feeling dramatic.
An artist friend recently said, “In India, patriarchy owns the public spaces,” and you can see the cultural and gender wars even in my mostly progressive city. It is very hard to explain clearly, but women can sense the difference in the male gaze from one culture to the next, from one male individual to the next. (The female gaze also differs, but that is for another column.) I’ll hazard the difference is between perceived appreciation and perceived threat – both difficult to decouple from ourselves, our outfits, even if they have very little to do with either.
In Lisbon, a group of boys clocked my teen and began to boisterously scuffle to attract her attention. I found it hilarious. She was just a little embarrassed with the attention. Here, every weekend I (secretly) audit what she is wearing, as huddles of men, including middle-aged ones, make a beeline at her on the streets. It is genuinely frightening for her and her contemporaries. I won’t lie. It turns me into The Hulk.
For most teenage girls, the normal grappling with their changing bodies, their ideas of conformity and rebellion, and experimentation with their wardrobes is hard enough. In India, that process is exacerbated by a history of confusing, regressive attitudes to women. As mums of feisty, fashion-forward teens, it’s almost impossible to find the middle-ground between what should be and what is.
I googled “What to wear to a minefield.” I didn’t get any satisfactory results.