I keep a neatly stacked pile of pictures of my mother by my bed. In all of them she looks immaculate. Dancing in Greece wearing a zebra-print green and black strapless dress, her black hair a mass of curls, golden earrings dangling from her ears. Posing with her sister at her nephew’s wedding, her Mugler Couture dress fitting her frame impeccably. A jade-green silk ensemble at another wedding, a white cape gown, my favourite, sometime in Lebanon in the early 80s, her hair short and sleek, enjoying a coffee with a friend on a sunny terrace by the sea, her burgundy leather boots shining in their 70s perfection.
I still keep her shocking pink blazer. The Moschino Couture lace and tweed jacket she knew I loved so much. Coats, jackets, shirts and dresses I chose from her wardrobe on what was probably one of the hardest days of my life, when my father, sister, aunt and I had to sort out her stuff after she passed. On that day I didn’t cry. There was work to do and feelings to swallow. Just picked garments after the other and put them away or chose to keep. When I came home that night every muscle and every bone of my body was aching, a kind of searing pain that only went away when another woman held me and made space for that monstruous pain. Only then did I let go. Breaking down in a jumble of clothes isn’t particularly dignified, but one hardly chooses the time and place of one’s breakdowns.
My mother was highly creative, with an eye for color, patterns and a passion for high quality material. She loved a good sequin dress (I still have one she gave me, black sequins, strapless, so impossibly curve-hugging it feels like a caress) and she loved a good oversized shirt with a loose tie. She let me go through all of my crazy phases growing up, confident that she passed on the bug to me and that I’d eventually stop wearing dresses and skirts over trousers. She was right, I stopped. Now I love tweed blazers, leopard-print anything, see-through tops over lacy bras, stripy buttoned-down shirts buttoned all the way up, dresses and gold trainers, sequins dresses. Sequin skirts. Sequin tops. Chunky jewelry and a love for any shade of red lipstick. I am my mother’s daughter and make no mistake, and when I wear her clothes, I am glad to see the remnants of the joy and sparkles she sowed into this world staring at me in the mirror.
The women in my family never dressed for men, to be fair it was as if men barely existed in their universe anyway, apart from being a headache. They dressed for themselves. They dressed to express themselves in societies (and social class) that didn’t allow them many avenues for expressing. They dressed to make a point (my mother once wore a completely backless dress in the middle of late 70s Algiers to signify to her then-fiancé, my now father, that she intended to do whatever the fuck she wanted then and pretty much for the rest of their lives). They dressed up as a sign of respect to others. They dressed to express feelings. They wore black forever after my grandmother passed but always forbade their daughters to do the same, as if we were too precious for grief.
The day after she passed away, I purposefully didn’t wear black. I carefully chose an outfit she’d approve of. It might sound weird to think of garments at such a time, but it was one of my ways of honoring her. I can do clothes for feelings too.
For her 40th in Beirut we were forced by social conventions to wear black. Everything felt fake, from the event itself to the dress I wore and never wore again, a dress that felt wrong, a dress that felt like an insult to the woman who never wanted to see us dressed in funeral black, who hated these conventions and performative attitudes. ‘C’est ridicule’, she’d scoff, side-eyeing my father as if he were the sole responsible for these silly traditions. It was, indeed, ridicule. The dress is still in my wardrobe, frozen in time and shame on its hanger, waiting for my anger at it to pass.
One of my paternal aunts was a seamstress and taught me to sew in my early childhood. There was nothing I loved more than seeing her work at her metal green Singer, her meter around her neck, patiently putting together dresses for us and outfits for women in the neighborhood. Women who come for a dress and coffee, stay and talk while my aunt was working. I’d spend days in that atmosphere, basking in the warmth of Beiruti afternoons, half listening to their chatter. It was a safe space, it was a breathing space, spent looking at patterns and talking, away for a minute from the incessant demands of families. It’s easy to look down on women for finding solace where they can, at beauty salons, at other women’s houses or elsewhere when you are unburdened by insane amount of unrecognized and unpaid reproductive work.
Clothes are however more than gateways to self-expression, and the history of fashion and clothes is not only deeply gendered, but also deeply enmeshed with capitalism and racism.
Patriarchy equates anything deemed ‘girly’ into something negative, belittling women for being preoccupied by ‘chiffons’ while the men were supposedly busy ruling (and ruining) the world, eschewing how clothes and a sense of style had been tools for self-expression and liberation for centuries. This attitude towards clothes has also pervaded into feminist movements, where it is sometimes deemed as superficial to be preoccupied by one’s appearance, when it’s not downright misconstrued as wanting to attract the male gaze. These forms of either blatant or internalized misogyny forget that sexual liberation in the 60s was accompanied by the mini skirt, that designers like Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent helped mainstream clothes that would revolutionize the way women dress and that subverting strict gender dress codes plays a crucial part in the dismantlement of harmful gender norms and stereotypes and can make all the difference to non-binary and gender-bending folks. They also forget how clothes are an integral part of sub-cultures actively engaged in the challenging of the cultural hegemony of dominant classes.
Capitalism has turned fashion into an exploitative, highly polluting industry, exclusively preoccupied by mere consumerism, appalling and alienating working conditions for workers and profit. It is therefore our duty to stand in solidarity with the struggle of textile workers from Egypt to Bangladesh to demand a complete overhaul of their work conditions while we actively work towards the end of capitalism and for workers to own their means of production, without falling into the liberal trap of self-righteously admonishing anyone who is not in a position to pay high amounts of money for more eco-friendly, ‘ethical’ brands.
Systemic racism establishes a clear double standard between what white people can get away with wearing versus the treatment BIPOC receive if daring to wear the same things. BIPOC are held at a much higher standard of ‘respectability’ in the way we present ourselves just to be taken seriously, or in some instances, just to be allowed to remain alive.
The act of dressing up is therefore not innocuous: it can be emotional, it can serve a million and one purpose, it can be highly political. It is how we decide to present ourselves to the world, the armor we put on. It is political as it often comes at the cost of exploitation, it is political as it can be a vector for subversion or on the contrary a signifier of conformity. And beyond the political, it can be a link to a person, a time, a place we long for, and wear to come back to.