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Bridging the gaps in an evolving language

close-up photo of colourful cloth patches.
Of pockets, piercings and vocabulary

A long time ago in a land far away, on a cold and foggy winter morning, two friends waited for assembly at school. Exhaling white breath, one rubbed her hands, touched the other’s face and then determinedly shoved her hands into that other’s kurta pockets. Many things happened here. Hearts felt warm, loving intimacy was acknowledged, the lack of pockets in her kurta permitted the friend with cold hands to own the deep, rebellious pockets of she who was a deep rebel. The school uniform for girls did not generally come with pockets. Yet pockets were part of the person and being of one girl and not the other girl. Girl, simply girl, because in those days of the lived history of this writer, and perhaps some readers, you could be a tomboy, which is still a girl, not non-binary, queer and the rest of it.

In an earlier issue of In Plainspeak on Attire and Sexuality, Kristin Francoeur and Surabhi Srivastava wrote a brilliant and thought-provoking piece that considers what pockets have to do with fashion, identity, gender justice and equality. Here’s the article, in Hindi, in English.

Laterally, if not literally speaking, do your pockets speak Hindi or English? Kannada? What does language have to do with fashion or sexuality? The things we do not have a vocabulary for, are not just worth a lifetime, but are of generational worth. Textbooks need updating. Entire identities could fall through language gaps, like keys through a hole in your Hindi, English, patchwork, perhaps non-existent, pockets.

A recent article available online presents aspects of the connection between fashion and expressions of the queer experience in India. Fashion is a language that expresses survival, rebellion, freedom, visibility and invisibility, identity, representation and inclusion. One of the individuals quoted in the article speaks of fashion as being “a survival skill. My language of rebellion is not asking people for acceptance, but about showing them that I am queer and so is my fashion.”

So could fashion help bridge language gaps? Could fashion effectively support the communication of identity, gender expression and sexuality as life experiences of a complex and extraordinary diversity?

While we’re asking questions, here are some more. Is your bra showing through the tee? Where is your secret tattoo? Do you admire body art and piercings? Do you have any? Would you like one? Eww? Yes? No? Perhaps?

What ‘type’ of person sports piercings, through eyebrows, nipples and scrotum? Scrotum piercings have specific names, hafada, lorum, guiche. Did you know this? Did you know headgear is of different types and has different names, cap, hat, beret, helmet? That some sweaters are pullovers, others turtlenecks and then there are also cardigans and vests? The things we know and the things we don’t may be a function of what we are permitted to include in the text books of our lives. Excuse me while I repeat scrotum and lorum in my head all day long because it’s fun but saying either word aloud is tough shit.

The assumptions we make, the shallow breathing, stomach-knotted reactions some people sometimes have to another person’s self-expression through clothes and accessories, or even just to a vocabulary for genitalia, are indicative of the inseparable, intertwining of fashion, sexuality and identity.

Pockets as an element, as a symbol in the world of fashion, are just one amongst many other such elements. Pockets, like those other elements, speak tradition, rebellion, explorer, collector, keeper, juggler, parent, trekker, and secrets, amongst other languages. That’s life experience talk. And sexuality is central to the ways in which we experience life, as individuals, as communities, in our relationships.

Of fashion and the intricate connectedness of life

(1) A post-gender world

In 2018, at London Fashion Week men’s, models strutted down the catwalk as part of a choreographed show called ‘Tantrum’, heckling the audience, some of whom looked a bit wary, others stupefied, as they proceeded after that to sit at tables drinking wine! Take a look here, it’s on YouTube. About two to three minutes in, it’s time for wine – some of the members of the audience, visibly shaken, look like they could do with some strong pick-me-ups! Designer Charles Jeffrey, as described in this article, explains that “the collection was partly inspired by Alan Downs’ 2005 book The Velvet Rage, about growing up gay. “It’s about accepting anger and utilising it,” he said. “This is the first time I wanted to explore that particular emotion. It’s always been so joyous and fancy-free but there is a dark side to that, too, so I think it’s good to explore that.” ”

The article describing these events focuses on concepts of fashion in a post-gender world. This combination of concepts, fashion and post-gender, is an exploration of intergalactic scale. Say fashion – think history, anthropology, bodies, oppression, trends, obscenity, politics, society, culture, religion, health, wealth, class, country, media, industry, deep thoughts and powerful emotions. Say post-gender – think rights, sexuality, sex, stereotypes, and all the other words attached to fashion in the previous sentence. Just a different lens.

What is a post-gender world? There is quite a bit written about this and available online. This article says, “Living in a post-gender society means that one’s gender identity will be a casual topic of conversation with a friend—and not something that tears one apart from their family. Living in a post-gender society means we’ll do away with toxic gender reveal parties. Living in a post-gender society means all employees will use pronouns in their email signatures without second thought.”

(2) The location of the ‘world’

What does it mean, moving beyond gendered identities? Are we there yet, and still discussing pockets? Also, who is ‘we’ and what is the location, geographically, politically, socio-culturally of this post-genderism? A focused search for a post-gendered corner of the world, using for example, the words Asia and South East Asia, or the Global South, does not throw up equally useful search results. Kallol Datta, in an interview for this issue of In Plainspeak says, “There are however a new generation of designers who are operating on their own terms, using social media effectively to disseminate information, and are making clothes for people living in a post-gender world. These designers need to become the norm.”

(3) The world in your head

Radam Ridwan, as described on their website, is a “a queer non-binary model and writer— from indonesian and australian origins, has landed in london”. Speaking of skirts, they say in an Instagram post, “wearing a skirt shouldn’t mean anything other than a cute, comfy bit of fabric wrapped around your legs. yet the street harassment when a queer person puts one on is constant !”

This expands the conversation from designer to wearer of clothing, and, yes, as always, society’s gatekeeping of who should wear what and why. Actually, more than gatekeeping, the identity, moral and social policing, because that’s what’s happening, it’s not the skirt, but the person, who is taught their place in the world. This could lead us to another conversation. Clothing, fashion, and what it suggests, invites, or the safety it is erroneously seen to provide from violence and abuse. A subject of vast debate already, not just in India, or Asia.

(4) The world of your body

There are more than physical ways by which fashion and clothing can free or constrict identity, expand or reduce acceptance, and turn life into an obsessive exercise of adding and subtracting time, heartbeat, pulse, steps, calories on a fitness tracker, fragmenting and fracturing one’s image of one’s body into parts that must be measured in fractions of an inch. Finally conforming to S/M/L/XL etc. Who calibrates those alphabets to what is still a bit of an unknown. Alphabets far more consistently threatening of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, to far more individuals than, say, LGBTQIA is threatening to the biased, prejudiced, anti-queer, anti-rights lobby. It is no surprise that eating disorders are still primarily seen as some form of individual, mental and physical health issue, through a medicalised lens. But as this writer points out, “The emphasis that the fashion industry puts on thinness perpetuates eating disorders and the toxic culture surrounding them. Women are conditioned from a young age to value being “skinny” over anything. Our society tells women that it’s okay to put themselves through physical and emotional turmoil to go down a size or to fit into that one dress that used to fit 10 years ago.”

An Internet search shows very little content and information on the impact of society in this context, but it is there – and it points us to look at a different direction for understanding and solutions. Beyond therapy and treatment of the individual, at issues of social justice and patriarchal constructs of body. In this article, the author speaks to parents about children and eating disorders, saying, “Society is a contributor, even a cause of eating disorders. The more you can identify and understand areas where you can counterbalance social messages, the better your chances of helping your child recover. This is hard because so much of society’s messages are hidden and hard to find within ourselves, but learning about societal untruths can help you create an environment that fosters recovery.”

Trijita, who identifies as a queer woman with disability, writes in this article, “Manufacturing companies and designers seem to think that increasing width is the only difference between “normal” clothing and plus-size wear. Most clothes are cut and stitched as may befit large sacks of flour, not the diversity in women’s bodies.” She also says, “Under the garb of inclusivity and body positivity, the Indian fashion industry continues to play to society’s rules of feminine beauty by offering a portion of fabric leftovers. Designers and companies are selling products that make shopping a humiliating experience without taking responsibility for furthering a violent cycle of patriarchal conformity.”

(5) The patriarchal world of politics and industry

There is a hydra-headed feeling to this, as clothes and fashion are also backed by the force of industry and economics. Both of which are historically highly gendered, and remain the stronghold of patriarchal livelihood and workspace politics. This article on women weavers in Uttar Pradesh points out for example, “Patriarchy plays a vital role in maintaining the inequality in wage distribution and power position among the weavers and allied workers. ” And as this writer says, “Most of us don’t know that the embroidery or sequins on our favourite t-shirt were sewn by a woman in her own home, working without a contract or social protection. Yet in South Asia, 50 million women work at home in the textile industry. These invisible homeworkers are the lowest paid and most precarious workers in the sector: they earn on average 40 percent less than factory workers.”

Hurry up and change, it’s time for something new somewhere!

Change is here, both as relief and as challenge. The right questions must be asked if the right answers are to emerge, questions such as: “Is aid and ‘raising awareness’ a long-term solution, or a band-aid driven in some instances by a ‘savior complex’?” and “What really needs to change so that workers receive a living wage and job security, and why hasn’t this happened already?”

Audiences at India Couture Week a few months ago saw Rabanne Victor in what is described here as a golden fishtail lehenga. As the writer comments, “Inclusivity is not just a fleeting trend; it is a powerful force that drives positive change. Rabanne Victor’s bold walk demonstrated that fashion has the potential to dismantle barriers and pave the way for acceptance and understanding.”

Media plays a big role in visibility and conversation. This means responsibility, a subject that is much debated and increasingly complex, since everyone can use media to influence anything. Here’s a quick peek at some good things! Earlier this year a zine called Queer Labour Behind the Label was launched as “a collection of stories from LGBTQI+ garment workers in Cambodia and Indonesia.” Then there’s this article in Tatler Asia, a gem, as it speaks to six Asian models who are “breaking boundaries and refusing to be limited by gender, race, sexuality, size, age, religion or ability”. For example, Sonya Danita Charles, described in the article as ‘freelance model, marketer and founder of Vitiligo Association Malaysia’, who says “I decided that it was time for me to start doing the things that I was always too afraid to do, and to embrace every part of me, despite the outcome. I decided that if the world around me wasn’t going to see me for who I am, then I need to start showing them exactly who I am, and what I am made of – a stronger substance, with a voice of my own.”

Many good things are already around us. To end with the words of another writer, who says, “Generation Z and Millennials play a big part in blurring these gender roles. They are much more open-minded when it comes to gender and sexuality, and they’re also more body-positive than previous generations.”

So, what’ve you got in your pockets today?

Have you got pockets today? Happy with your life and being, kicking up your heels, or flats as the case may be?

Cover Image: Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash