What’s the Point of
Shahidha Bari on the Pleasures and Politics of What We Wear
The pleasure of dress comes easily: in the unexpected thickness of velvet into which our fingertips sink or a skinny, knitted tie the exact color of moss. Clothes can work upon us quickly—the suit that commands our attention with the authority it emanates, the fluorescent vest that warns us of the hazard from which we must swerve, the gown whose golden luster summons our eye like a sunbeam in a darkened room. But the ubiquity of clothes means that we can be careless of them too. We rarely think to take the things we wear and hold them up to the light, inspecting them as objects of intellectual inquiry.
What do we talk about when we talk about clothes? Mostly, I think we are liable to lapse into truisms. Our “identities are expressed” by them, we say vaguely, as though the boy in the Ramones T-shirt was the sum of what he wore and as though selfhood were a thing that could be articulated so effortlessly. Fashion historians, more usefully, trace the genealogy of corsets and conscientiously chronicle the Victorian dress reform movement. Ethnosociologists identify the sartorial markers of subcultures in leather jackets and feathered headdresses. Formidably stylish bloggers swoon over the sumptuous details of designer wear.
None of this explains what it feels like to pull on a padded coat on the first cold day of September. Why do some of us carry backpacks and handbags spilling with stuff we think we need and can never find what we do? What is the peculiar peace that overcomes us when we peel off our shoes at the close of day? These are the questions that interest me.
It is true that, in times of crisis, what we wear can feel like the most trivial of concerns. But isn’t it curious that so many of our most heated cultural disputes should circle around the right to wear particular clothes in particular circumstances? Think only of the dresses claimed by trans women, the near constant state of anxiety over the visibility of the Islamic veil in the West, or the length of skirts regularly rebuked in cases of sexual assault.
In our clothes, we see our larger social crises play out. What strikes me is how the undeniable politics of dress illuminates a paradox: we dismiss dress as the most superficial of subjects but we return to it too, again and again, in the critical debates of our time.
What I mean to say here is that life happens in clothes—in our gowns and suits, our furs, boots and bags. In all these things we find the articulation of particular ideas or dilemmas: the depredations of violence and aging, the longing for freedom, our illusions of civility, and the erosion of privacy. I write to both male and female readers here and also to anybody for whom the conventions of gender can make the act of dressing an especially alienating or emancipatory practice. In the end, we are all of us returned to the fragility of our human form for which our clothes provide only the thinnest protection.
We are dressed. In all parts of culture—literature, music, film, and art—we find the representation of clothes. They can be ordinary and unremarkable or glamorous and arresting, but they are there. When we examine these representations together, we strive to truly see our clothes, hoping to better understand how they function and what they might mean to us.
My concerns are not the beauty of dresses and dinner jackets, but the desire and denial, the fever and fret with which we love and are loved in clothes. Our deepest internal life is found in them. The garments we wear bare our secrets and betray us at every turn. I want to encourage us to put aside the distracting questions of what constitutes “fashion” and move beyond the conventional discussions of identity, subcultures, and social history.
What I have in mind is something more expansive and open than that: a kind of philosophy of dress. I want to suggest that in dress we might find a way of apprehending the world, understanding it as it is expressed in an idiom that is found everywhere, if only we care to read it.
We are, everywhere, surrounded by ideas. For the most part, we unthinkingly suppose that they are found in the form of books and poems, visualized in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. Some ideas are born of dogged intellectual inquiry or diligent scientific discovery; they are taught in classrooms, a form of knowledge expressed in the mode of language, number, and diagram. But what if clothes could be understood as ideas too, as fully formed and eloquent as any poem, painting, or equation?
What if in clothes the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries unraveling like the frayed edge of a sleeve? What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways human beings have lived, a material record of our experiences, and an expression of our ambition? Could it be possible to understand the world in firmer, felt truths, in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?We select clothes painstakingly as though they didn’t ruthlessly appoint us, indifferent to our intentions and contrary to our will.
For all the abstracted and elevated formulations of selfhood and the soul, interior life is so often clothed. Our memories tenaciously retain the texture and forms of dress. My own childhood replays itself as a jumble of sense impressions, often in the color and shape of clothes—most unforgettably, an emerald green winter coat, fur-lined, hooded, and belted, worn to the circus one afternoon, its silhouette so perfect that every coat after is a vain attempt at recovering it, caught at like a dream.
I remember that coat and I see myself in it as I was then: a childish body, unbruised and uncurbed. We outgrow clothes, of course, and yet they stay with us, as though their fibers were imperceptibly threaded into our memory, winding through our experience. But our clothes do more even than this, sometimes more than we can know.
If through them we seek to declare our place in the world, our confidence and belonging, we do so under the veil of a deception. We select clothes painstakingly as though they didn’t ruthlessly appoint us, indifferent to our intentions and contrary to our will. Old, favored clothes can be loyal like lovers to our cause, while newer ones dazzle and deceive us. There is a naivete in the perilous ways that we trust in clothes because dress never promises to indemnify us, neither from external assault nor internal anguish. Skin turned to sunlight, some of us exult in exposure, as though unclothed we could be closer to truer, freer, more naked realities.
E. M. Forster, misquoting Henry Thoreau, wryly cautions us to “Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes.” He has the slogan scrawled on a wardrobe belonging to the soulful George Emerson in A Room with a View (although there is another kind of closetedness we might read into Forster’s own Edwardian elegance too). Our clothes can also provide refuge, acting as a canopy under which we shelter our most secret agonies. When despair echoes deep inside, dress can help us pacify and dull pain; a blazer and slacks somehow allay our vulnerability. Yet to trust that our clothes will keep our secrets is a seduction in itself.
Excerpted from Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes. Copyright © 2020 by Shahidha Bari. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.