Wednesday, 27 January 2010

On the Politics of Clothing

Sally from Already Pretty wrote about signature pieces the other day. The conversation that followed in her comment box had people referring to their wedding bands, skinny jeans, cowboy boots, and all sorts of individual pieces that were specific to their style or person. In other words, certain pieces we wear can help us define our characters, not just for ourselves but the ones around us as well. What makes this issue particularly interesting is the power of the things we wear - they can be so much more than just statements of one's style, depending on how the people around us choose to interpret them. I was reminded of this yesterday when I read about the leader of the Swedish Social Democratic party, Mona Sahlin, whose political abilities have been questioned recently due to her carrying a 600-euro Louis Vuitton handbag. An expensive handbag, apparently, is not suitable to someone representing social democratic values in Sweden. Certainly then, Sahlin's handbag is far from being a personal style statement - it might have begun as a personal choice, but has become, in essence, a question of power.

Or take Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. His karakul, the hat that made Tom Ford once declare him as the most fashionable man on the planet, has metamorphosed from a symbol of Afghan nationalism when he was elected in 2002, to a sad reminder of an electoral mess and failed policies in 2010. It might be just a hat, but consequently, hat-makers specializing in karakuls are facing closure due to the unpopularity of a politician.

Or even further, take the current workings on banning the use of full veil (burqa) in public places in France, after partial veils (niqab) were already banned in state schools a few years back. How do we decide whether wearing a veil represents religion, culture, tradition, personal choice, someone else's choice, or the state's choice? Can wearing a burqa even be considered a personal choice, or dare I even say it, a style statement? Could burqa be a signature piece, and if not, why? What is the essential difference between culture, or state, defining what we should or should not wear? If the burqa is a symbol of "debasement of women", what should we call the ban on wearing one? Freedom?

I realise that I am throwing a lot of questions out there - that is my way of trying to decide what I think about a certain issue. Regardless of culture, state, religion or any other notion of power coming from the outside, I am all for women (and men) deciding for themselves what to wear, and how to represent themselves on the outside. It is not that easy at times though. There are all sorts of forces in play, forces that are extremely difficult to pin down. The most important one, for me, is the individual's own will. How do we get to the point where our personal choices are free of our cultural surroundings and independent of social pressure - now that is a different question. Let me know what you think about the burqa ban - I am so torn on the issue!

Seahorse sweater: second hand / UFF
Skirt: Urban Outfitters
Tights: Noa Noa
Shoes: Vagabond
Necklaces: JBL and a random one

non-outfit images from,,


Anonymous said...

wow, that never crossed my mind. I like reading posts like this one, that make you think outside the box. The burga has had such a negative talk from the media so some of us see it as something negative, women being deprived and abused, but on the other hand, what if a woman liked to wear it, unfortunately, people would see it as bizarre because of what it means to us now. I would centainly not be comfortable wearing one and maybe I would be intrigued if I saw a woman wearing it and I would look at her different, not in admiration but wondering "Why does she wear it? Is she being forced?". I'm just being as honest as I can.

Michele said...

Do you mean that she's demonstrating her affluence and power with her handbag? I think it's fair to raise the designer handbag as a question of values, which certainly are represented by our purchases, clothing and otherwise. There's a lot of murky business in the worlds of high street fashion and haute couture, and surely politicians (who purposefully represent specific values) shouldn't be spared evaluation.

As for the burqa ban, yikes! There are worrying cultural assumptions in the claim that women with covered faces are necessarily oppressed as well as a simplistic assumption that physically removing a piece of cloth would liberate these women.

Michele said...

P.S. Just read this literary view of Hel Looks and thought you might be interested:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post hon. These are big questions, all, and that they are fasion related makes me think about the greater issues involved here in a new way. Thanks for the great post! oxox, CR

ELM said...

I love your seahorse sweater!!

I disagree with the ban on burqas... just as the state shouldn't enforce what you DO wear, nor should it enforce not wearing it, either. I believe that you should feel free to wear a thong in public if you have a hairy ass or a swastika on your forehead if you want; you will certainly be the subject of enough social repercussion. I believe that you should be technically free to do most anything, as there are social forces at hand to keep us all in check, unless you totally buck peer pressure, then, more power to you, I suppose. Getting the law involved in things like this just detracts from energy best spent solving other, more important matters. I don't care if a woman is wearing a burqa, but I do care if she is being exploited or subjugated. Many women wearing burqas are happily adhering to what they believe is moral. I urge them to go on with their bad selves!

Frances Joy said...

I stumbled over here because of the link on Already Pretty, and I have to say that I love this post. Banning burqas makes me very uncomfortable because of the socio-political implications behind the bans. I also have to admit to a fascination with hijab in general because I believe that there's some level of empowerment in the way that women choose to take it on (when it's not forced), particularly in Western countries.
I teach high school and I've heard some Muslim students explain that they've chosen to take on hijab because it forces people to see them as "people" and not as "bodies". I can see that being the case in situations when women are given that choice. These same students had some stunning collections of head coverings, which were stylish and distinctive.
I always tell my husband that if it weren't so fraught with religious and social implications - if I could get away with it - I would totally wear head coverings when I felt like it. Maybe not quite a signature piece, but definitely an element of style.

Mar said...

I don't think the burqa ban is legitimate at all. In fact, it's hypocritical. The French government is essentially saying, "Hey, Muslim ladies: your men don't have the right to dictate what you can and cannot wear -- OUR men do. And if you don't like it, you can get the hell out of civilization and go back to your war zone." I think the whole thing is elitist, racist, reactionary, and pretty darn stupid. I mean, presumably there is some contingent of Muslim women who value the burqa as an expression of their faith. And what about French women who convert? I've met American women who converted and wear hijabs now. It was their choice to convert, and they seemed pretty happy with it. France is supposed to be a liberated state. Since when do they legislate religious expression? How do they justify it? And where will it stop?

Yassmin said...

Hi --

I am a muslim girl who wears a hijab and is kinda into the whole fashion deal (live in Australia) but I also (as you would expect) completely disagree with the ban.

Firstly: Many of the women who wear the Niqab CHOOSE to wear it. Those that are forced don't leave the house much anyway. They see it not as oppression but as the final expression of their faith, of their devotion to goo (Allah) -- though this is based on my personal knowledge --

Secondly: Who is anyone to tell anyone else what they should wear? Honestly?? I understand the political statement politicians construe from women wearing the niqab, but is that REALLY the issue? And how is it truly freeing women from oppression, when their view is that YOU are oppressing THEM by forcing them into something they don't want -- taking it OFF? I mean, its all relative, is it not? If there was a hypothetical country where women where forced to take their tops off in public because that was the social norm and anything else was oppression -- wouldn't you feel violated? I only wear a hijab (head covering), but I feel HELL naken without it, trust me. It becomes a part of you.

I apologise that this has descended into a rant, but it is frustrating when governments make ill informed decisions in an attempt to control a people...I am not angry, I feel it comes more from ignorance than anything.

Hopefully one day, they will understand?

Clothes have much more power than simply being stitched together fabric.