Fashion: Beauty, Expression, Subversion

I can’t profess to have had a strong interest in or respect for fashion in my early 20s. I lived in Ottawa, and there really was just one personality to inhabit: The nice, politically correct public servant. To stray beyond the bounds of this identity would be to commit career suicide, and I was more subsumed by politics and saving the world at the time. Looking nice was a trivial pursuit to me, and I understand why now, when I peruse the primordial, sycophantic headlines, of “who wore what” at the Oscars etc. When you’re not intimately exposed to the creativity, it is easy to conceptualise the fashion industry as being frivolous and for the elites.

I did, however, do my best to look clean and middle-class, since I had read a news report about an Aboriginal woman, who had fallen down and frozen to death on an Ottawa roadway. Passers-by had assumed that she was drunk and poor, and did not stop to help. I therefore discerned that as someone who looked Indian, I probably would be discriminated against less, if I looked like I had some money. Middle-class was within my realm of possibility, so that is what I aspired to.

I was always obsessed by cleanliness, but never developed the habit of perennially wearing make-up. Between the ages of 11 and 18, I went to school at St. Stephen’s College in Princes Town, Trinidad. Make-up was forbidden and we all wore uniforms.

Boys and girls still wear the following until they write O’Level (high-school leaving) examinations at ages 15 or 16.

If they continue on to write A’Levels (pre-university qualifying examinations), they are allowed the distinction of wearing a tie. I got to wear a tie.

All of these photos are courtesy of St. Stephen’s College Facebook pages.

Jean Paul Gaultier entered my life in 2013, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. The Museum initiated and produced ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier’, in collaboration with the Maison Jean Paul Gaultier of Paris, and the Kunsthal art museum in Rotterdam.

I was astounded. I was transported to another world. An otherworldly ethereal space, where intelligent energies existed that I had never tapped into. Never before been exposed to. The admiration was immediate and the feeling, heavenly. I developed a profound and sincere respect for haute couture. Until then, I had perceived it as an unnecessary and ludicrous capitalist pursuit. Confronted with Gaultier’s creativity, I saw what it was at its essence, devoid of all monetary transactions: Absolute genius.

The above image was created in the likeness of Madonna, for the 1990 ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour.

How can a person deny the extraordinary ability of this man? I have to go on a rant now, and speak directly to some people who are left-of-centre, and get all sanctimonious about how other people should live and present themselves. I have been labelled a bourgeois and a capitalist, because I do not want to be poor, nor do I exalt poverty as a condition that we should all aspire too. I have been poor, and I do not like it. It is a waste of physical, mental and emotional energy, to be in survival mode. You cannot empower and uplift other people when you do that. If I identified as a socialist, which I don’t, I probably would get labelled a ‘champagne socialist’, a.k.a. hypocrite. The impression I get is that if you enjoy anything in life, categorized as a luxury, then automatically you are a ‘sell-out’. This is a nasty and controlling attitude, as toxic as any from right-wingers.

I am cognizant that fast fashion (inexpensive clothing produced en masse from retailers, in response to the latest trends), encourages a grotesque consumerism, which is not good for the environment, the human psyche, nor the workers who produce them. It is absolutely repugnant that in our endless pursuit of staying trendy, that sweatshops and deplorable working conditions arise, for the women who work in this industry. Mostly, non-White women from third-world countries. It can be argued that the fast fashion industry is inherently racist and exploitative. Our emotional needs for beauty and acceptance can be met in healthier and more sustainable ways. I also agree that the sums involved in haute couture are exorbitant, and a reflection of a super-structure which reflects the values and economic interests of the elites. However, I cannot condone the arrogant and condescending condemnation of some people on the left, who think that people should live lives devoid of beauty, because it is not an important pursuit. I would argue that it is a fundamental human need. All societies practice bodily and physical adornment to some degree, even Aboriginal ones with limited contact with the West. Why attack and suppress our humanity? And why argue to limit the abilities of a person like Gaultier, abilities that you yourself do not possess? For this and other reasons, I became supremely interested in fashion.

To improve my knowledge of the French language, I devoured French movies and documentaries on Netflix. One such movie was ‘Coco avant Chanel’ (Coco before Chanel), which documented her rise from living in an orphanage, to life as a cabaret singer, to her career as a couturier, which was facilitated through her liaisons with powerful men. She invented the classic skirt-suit, which was quite revolutionary at the time, since women were constrained by corsets and bulky clothing, which hampered their ability to move. However, after watching ‘L’Amour fou’ (translated as ‘True love’ for distribution in English-language countries, but also, literally ‘Mad love’), I fell in love with Yves St. Laurent.

I adored his intelligence, humour and energy, and had compassion for his story. In 1957, at age 21, he was handpicked by Christian Dior to be the head designer at the House of Dior. In 1960, he was conscripted by the French government to serve in the army, during the Algerian War of independence. What followed was a brutal hazing, which resulted in St. Laurent being discharged from the army after 20 days, and sent to a military hospital. He was subjected to electroshock therapy, and given enormous quantities of sedatives and psychoactive drugs. It was a gross violation of his will. Can you imagine what this does to a person’s equilibrium? St. Laurent himself traced the origin of his drug addictions and mental health problems, to this time in the hospital. It broke my heart to see him driven to alcoholism in particular, and he could barely stand sometimes, at the end of his season’s presentation. Emotionally, he was very fragile.

When I went to Paris in 2017, one of the first places I visited was the Yves St. Laurent museum, founded by his life-partner Pierre Bergé. The two men ended their romantic relationship in 1976, but remained life-long friends and business partners and married in 2008.

The building and decor ooze class and elegance, the same way St. Laurent’s clothing did and does. He created the tuxedo suit for women.

Safari jackets for both men and women.

He popularized the beatnik look and tight pants for both sexes, as well as thigh-high boots for women. He liked his women strong, bold and direct, and wanted fashion to reveal and accentuate who they were, rather than restraining them. (Thank you, St, Laurent!) He was the first couturier to use non-White models on the runway, and once described Somali-model Iman as his “ideal woman”. He was also the first couturier to launch a ready-to-wear line, making fashion more affordable and accessible to the masses. I still cannot afford any of his stuff, but I love looking at his creations, and end up purchasing similar styles from designers I can afford. Here are other gems from his imagination.

I totally enjoyed my visit there. My other fond memory is that of the young, hot security guards, insisting on speaking with me in Spanish. (Meaning ‘hola’ and ‘senorita’) Despite my insistence that I was an English-speaker who spoke French, they refused to believe me. This happens everywhere though, even in Spain, where even Spaniards mistook me for a Spanish-speaker. Latina or local Spanish-woman, I do not know. But my great-grandmother was a Venezuelan woman of Spanish ancestry, so it is not far-fetched. I was always taught to conceptualise myself as an Indian woman from Trinidad, but as I age and evolve, I see how bullshit this notion of identity is, although it remains very important for some people.

Fashion has the potential to be subversive. Our attire sends a message to the world: How we choose to identify. What we choose to conform to. How we express ourselves. Growing up in rural Trinidad, I HATED going to the Hindu temple near my house for Hindi classes. One of the major reasons was that I detested having to wear a long skirt or dress to the temple, if I did not choose to wear traditional, Indian attire. Jeans and t-shirts, which I loved wearing, were deemed ‘masculine’, ‘western’ and ‘inappropriate’ for women, even though they more than adequately covered my body. I was told that I defiled and disrespected Indian culture by wearing this to informal prayer gatherings in people’s homes, and for Hindi classes in the temple. It was deemed perfectly acceptable for Indian boys and men to wear this; they never got accused of disrespecting the culture. I ended up HATING the people and the culture which tried to police my body. What is so fucking great about being Indian, if you cannot even be free? I’ll take the food, yoga and tantrik sex like everybody else, and leave the rest behind.

I am now obsessed by ‘Parisian chic’, and a sustainable approach to attire. Even as a teenager, I always wanted to wear clothing that would be in style forever. I tend to buy things that last, and wear them for a very long time. (Quality versus quantity) Even when I gained weight recently, due to working the night-shift, I thought “Fuck it! I’ve got to lose weight! I am not buying any more clothes! I have lost over an inch around my waist and my clothes fit better.

I recently discovered a Youtube blog by French fashion designer Justine Leconte, who embodies the philosophies which I embrace. Here is her video on “10 wardrobe essentials for French style”.

Her video on French make-up and hair, also reinforced to me how natural French women are, and how they are encouraged to embrace themselves as they are. One youtube user, Nada Majdy commented:

Correct blemishes not hide your skin! Enhance your features not change the way you look! I hope Instagram makeup girls get those 2 points. Great video Justine…

Yes Justine, thank you. You are empowering all of us to be careful, thoughtful consumers who love ourselves. I hope my blog post does the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *