Who can imagine a 1980s shoe that was absolutely white, without any logo, with no swoosh, not a single slogan? Sunday evenings, before the school week, I crouched down on the pink bathroom tiles and painted my shoes into the absolute of whiteness; like the Alice in Wonderland gardeners repainting roses. This task was performed with a toothbrush and with special paste that annihilated so many design features. Purity was attained by the application of a whitener that stank of scientific poly-syllables.
Of what does a woman consist? Where does her selfhood reside? In some Platonic form Woman, the theoretical perfection of the breed? If so, we human, embodied women are always compared, found wanting, found always lacking and excessive all at once. Or is she the grotesque creature of bodily function that Aristotle describes? Or is she dangling above the Cartesian mind-body abyss, kicking her little legs like Jane on a vine, or is she Hume’s empty stage upon which perceptions play?
What was difficult for Marilyn – or for Norma Jeane, who lived inside the Marilyn persona – was her need to be regarded as a fully realised being (difficult, although it may not sound like much, for famous women). Her authentic self was not a pale erotic phantom after all, but a New York intellectual: a method actress, and the wife of a playwright, and a wearer of discreet and modest clothes, a poet and a diarist. What frightened her the most was thinking Norma Jeane might, over time, disintegrate, and that she might be left with only Marilyn: a hollowed outline in a woman’s shape, a white dress hanging empty like a shroud; a spooky horror-movie bed-sheet, two holes showing panicked eyes, an animal confusion.
For underpants I’ll pick white cotton,
the briefs of my childhood,
for it was my mother’s dictum
that nice girls wore only white cotton.
Threva Throneberry pretended for over a decade to be fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen. She presented herself as a fresh-faced, pigtailed runaway in need of shelter and schooling in communities all over the U.S. and was largely successful in her act, even as a twenty-eight-year-old. Charity Johnson found many of her marks, women looking for girls in need of a substitute parent, on Facebook. She used Instagram to post adorably captioned soft-focus selfies (‘honey bee love’), and at age thirty-four she successfully enrolled in the tenth grade. The protean Frédéric Bourdin lived for many years in and out of foster care in Western Europe, speaking multiple languages, hiding his bald spot beneath various forms of teen-appropriate headgear.
If fashion truly is this thing that swirls and surges forth, if it changes and shapes our times, what happens when a designer stands still? Is perpetual self-homage a welcome, steady approach in uncertain times or does this dogma lead to a dead end? Staring into black mirrors we all play Narcissus, fascinated by our own faces, so can we really condemn Hedi Slimane for not evolving? Could it be that Slimane’s staunchness is the uncomfortable reflection of our own self-absorption?
Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, Men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.