Discussing style, adornment and questions of conformity is a tantalising invitation to outright sedition in On Line Opinion, a website peopled and read by some of the most vociferously opinionated, conscionable, demanding thinkers in this nation. Given the focused scope and intensity of debate, examining fashion’s ideological supremacy and superfluity on these pages is potentially treasonable, but perhaps I am ready to make one or two more enemies in the online community for the sake of presenting a woman’s side of the argument.
Besides, the question of why we conform (or rebel) and why many westerners adopt tribal forms of ornamentation is especially intriguing to me as I’m currently based in India, a nation of nations, assembling some of the most decorative cultures on the face of the earth.
For the first time since leaving London for Hobart six years ago, I’m forced to dress up for work. Much as I love Tasmania, it stubbornly remains one of the last style-free bastions of anti-consumerism in the western hemisphere. Living there means that a dozen of so pairs of expensive high heels and as many sharp outfits, carefully acquired as an indispensable part of my professional identity working abroad, have had remarkably few outings since I returned.
In contrast, in Delhi where I’m based at Tehelka, a progressive independent weekly newspaper edited by some of this country’s savviest women (and men), the pressure is on. Six days a week I must find something decent to wear and to pull it off (or rather on) with a sufficient degree of personal dignity required for peaceful co-existence with my adopted foreign culture.
It means getting in and out of auto rickshaws without catching my trailing dupta scarf and being choked to death, and enduring the daily onslaught of this country’s urban mud, dust, manure and flying beetle nut (paan) juices without getting splattered or stained. Female modesty is a recurrent theme in Indian life, but so too is co-ordination, colour, grooming and decoration, and I have happily risen to this new sartorial challenge albeit with some trepidation. It’s damned hot for a start, so staying cool is a necessity, but so is covering up one’s shoulders, legs and cleavage.
Fortunately, given the need for frequent breaks from the stressful pace of this hard-hitting weekly, fashion chat is recurrent in an office full of Indian men and women who pay compliments and constantly inquire of one another’s style choices.
Somehow, a scope that seemed fiercely restrictive to me a few months ago, now feels almost limitless. Why is this? Never one to readily accept conventional boundaries, as a foreigner here in India, I’ve willingly submitted to local dress codes. Call me susceptible, but I’m certain that an essential part of a woman’s intuitive survival is closely related to our internal self-possession or composure. This means that fashion, or at least personal style is always going to be significant in a female’s sense of psychological not to mention physical security.
It is worth recognising that in spite of several generations of feminist censor there’s been less than expected impact on style as a sustaining influence upon women’s contemporary existence. The long held myth that we women dress predominantly to appeal to the opposite sex, rather than as an expression of our own cultural condition or personal ideals has proved harder to disabuse, in part due the international fashion industry’s marketing of sexuality as an open source commodity.
Nothing could be further from the truth for women of course, but it’s not surprising that the legend prevails, given the extremes the industry goes to in promoting its endlessly mutating season-by-season products.
Possibly because I grew up in the New York art world and migrated to London’s cultural scene some years later, I’ve long felt style is lived as opposed to sought and bought. Twenty-five years ago, many of my so-called cultural tribe were pretty self-conscious about where we fitted in contemporary fashion’s food chain. Although largely a group of artists and writers, most of us could little afford the mainstream industry’s high-priced entry tag.
So, in those self-inventive days of the burgeoning downtown Manhattan underground art, music and literary scene, we innovated, conspicuously, defiantly and most of all definitively, creating an authenticity of looks, as the performance artist Leigh Bowery would later call his exquisite sculpted costume masterpieces, as codified signatures of our individuality, rather than as imitations of unaffordable current trends.
Adorned in red eye shadow, hair rolled onto the front of my brow in the style of Blade Runner’s most beautiful automaton, I dressed for success in gallery and magazine life in patent blue leather high heeled cowboy boots, my boyfriend’s pink Jermyn Street shirt and plastic ear rings shaped like martini glasses. Another prized outfit was a dress constructed of carefully torn red and black suede tied ingeniously at strategic moments and pre-loved platforms shoes said to have once belonged to a famous Pink Floyd groupie.