Note: This piece was originally written as supporting work for my MA thesis.
“[Fashion] shapes our bodies and the way we look at other people’s bodies. It can enable creative freedom to express alternative identities, or dictate what is deemed beautiful and acceptable.”Rebecca Arnold (2009) Fashion: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press: London
Ahead I look, and my gaze is met by two glassy eyes that pierce back more ferociously than I expect. The focus narrows, and pupils dart along the curves of my body: its rounder bits, its nooks and crannies, and its surface marked with blemishes galore. These eyes dissect my outfit, hairstyle and preening choices. I go to button my shirt to the top, as I am surveyed in one gulping stare.
I want to be treated as more than a conquest, as more than a body to ogle and possess, and so I let the fabric drop a little looser until it barely skims the skin beneath. I begin the elaborate game I’ve perfected over many years. I cover up to deflect unwanted attention and choose flat shoes to reassure myself that I can dance away with added haste if it doesn’t work. I belt in and layer garments where needed. I ritually remove anything that is deemed to undermine my worth – anything that, this week, I’m told is conspiring to make us wholly unloveable. I crop my hair and paint black lines along my eyes. For too long, my body has been something that has been mocked, manipulated, despised and bridled. So I ready myself to battle through the fleshy experiences that today’s world serves up.
In honesty, fashion is silly. Fashion is suggestible and scared. It sends angst, where pleasure or joy would perhaps be better. Fashion listens to feedback. It watches the parade of ideas and, with a minute and morbid fascination, dissects them until its curiosity cabinet brims with expertly catalogued specimens. Fashion’s toolbox is one of social survival. It is how we change our appraisals with others. How we present and assume a body that meets the so-called acceptable criteria. In wearing some things from the box instead of others, do we reclaim ourselves? Or is it how, without conscious awareness, we’re simply claiming each other?
Fashion is an accomplished actress. It has assumed the guise of a guiding hand for years; telling you what’s hot, and what’s not, and who’s who, and who’s not. I listened to its ghost stories for years, and in those moments when my body or my life does not feel like mine, it’s hard not to listen again.
We meet daily. The glassy stare amplifies as I step closer to the silvery sheen. To be a woman has meant keeping the mirror clean, and it works in tandem: the tool shaping, and my experiences refining. We learn to diminish the glares and glide them slowly into the background. This dress was too much and that one never enough. Fashion listens whilst I learn, and between me and the reflection staring back, I begin to cultivate my kit.