That day, I started a campaign with my parents to obtain a Totally Hair Barbie, even though up till then I’d only had a few basic dolls, one Skipper and many hand-me-down Barbies, since my green-party parents were not very enthusiastic about the American ‘teenage fashion model’ with pink plastic accoutrements. Once I got one, the best thing to do was go over to my neighbours’ house, where two of those dolls lived with the two girls, and add mine to their pair, so we could play with a Total Hair extravaganza set of three dolls, twisting the different strands and braid them together in a sort of octopus-like hair situation.
Moving between continents and cultures like I do requires some skill when it comes to dressing. I remember once, six or seven years ago in New York; the first day I went out wearing a kaftan people wouldn’t stop staring at me in the street. And the ones who stared the most were other black people. I felt so uncomfortable, I just turned around and went home to change. But in Nigeria you can get more money wearing trads actually. If I have a meeting in an office I’ll put my trads on and hold my mobile phone in a particular way so as to command power. When I’m dressed like that, I hear ‘Yes sir yes sir yes sir!’ You really get treated differently depending on what you wear in Lagos. If the police stop you, and you’re young but wearing trads, you’re much safer.
A conversation with three generations of quinceañera
The young quinceañera is seemingly always in a ball gown. She is in pink, green, blue or other pastel colour, festooned and bejewelled, and with a large skirt that sways in a way that affirms the hooped crinoline underneath. She is beautiful and brimming with excitement for her impending journey into womanhood. Her mother typically accompanies her, helping her with her dress and fixing her hair just so as the photographer captures the moment in front of a city’s landmarks.
Growing up, I had no consciousness of gender but at a certain point in school we were separated by it, at gym class, at lunch, at home ed. I was always getting put back, like, ‘No you have to go with them.’ Clothes went with that, and so did hair. I always rejected those conventions and it culminated into… It was a whopper. It was homecoming – I didn’t want to go with a boy, but I felt all this peer pressure. It was a blow-up situation. I literally had a panic attack in the changing room, putting on dresses – my first panic attack. Everything but my conscious mind was saying no, no, no. I did get a dress – velvet, with lace at the bottom – but I got completely loaded to deal with it all and I ended up getting suspended. I still have a hard time standing in the women’s section in a store with my friends or girlfriend or whatever. I still carry that ‘I’m in the wrong place’ feeling. Like, I shouldn’t be here.
A Conversation with Mohammad Saeed
‘Clothes are very important because people always look at what you wear. They don’t think about who you are, they only think about what you wear. I don’t like it, but I accept it. When I dress up, to go to a restaurant or to work, people look at me well, but if I’ve just woken up and haven’t made an effort they will judge me. They look at me like I’m bad. I don’t really like my clothes now, but I have to wear what I have because I’m living in a camp. I have clothes in Syria, in Turkey, in Greece, everywhere. The only clothes I miss are the clothes I was wearing when the bomb struck and I was hurt. I asked my mum to save them, and she did. One day I will come back for them.’
A Conversation with Abdul-Wahed Daaboul
‘All my clothes were taken: my jacket, a T-shirt that my best friend gave me before I left Syria with “Lamborghini” written on it. They were my favourite clothes. When my backpack was stolen I had to buy everything new: I bought a jacket and a pair of jeans for €50. In the camps they gave clothes away for free but I couldn’t take them. I don’t know why. Maybe because I had some money, and I felt I should buy my own clothes. There were so many others without money; they should get their clothes for free, not me.’
A Conversation with Bushra Al-Fusail
‘I only have a few things from home now. One is a cotton scarf, it’s black with a red stripe. In Yemen I would have worn it to cover my hair, but here I wear it around my neck. I have a silver necklace too, with a dark red stone. I wear that a lot, though I often take it off when I work with the Yemeni community here in New York. They are often simple people, and they’re not used to seeing a Yemeni woman without an abaya or a hijab. Many Yemenis don’t want to change, even when they’ve left Yemen. The Yemeni community in New York is very strict, so I don’t want them to identify me as Yemeni necessarily. It’s funny: I’m so attached to Yemenis on the one hand, but I also want my space.’
Each Maasai has about six outfits. Men wear robes – we call them shuka – in different colours and patterns. You can wear whichever colour combination you like, as long as there is red in it. Red is very important. I’m wearing two shuka tied together now. It has to be long, to cover the body but not so long that you can’t run in it. Would I ever wear Western clothes? Well maybe if I went to Europe.
I came out of the era of the ‘60s and ‘70s. You had the Black Panthers, you had the Young Lords — they were like a paramilitary group. They were at odds with the status quo, with police. But then again, what we were trying to do was to provide public safety, so we were the opposite of gangs. In searching for a name, ultimately I thought that the group that seemed to have the most traction among inner-city young men and young women in the late ‘70s was the Hells Angels. They hated Black and Hispanic people, they were one-percenters. And yet young Black and Hispanic men idolised them. They were watching the B-grade movies, like Hells Angels Forever, in Times Square — you could get three flicks for five dollars — and they would emulate them. And I said, what’s the complete opposite of Hells Angels? Well, Guardian Angels. But still it didn’t matter: People thought we were a gang, thought we were vigilantes, thought we were Hells Angels, thought we were Charlie’s Angels. Everything other than what we were.
Fashion is popular because it’s a mystery. It’s the ebb and flow of the subtle things we propose as designers, and that people respond to like flocks of birds turning all of a sudden in the middle of the sky. That’s what makes it fascinating. It’s all about instincts and subtle references that certain people can grasp in a very vague way. It’s a pattern or code that is understood by a group of people at the same time.
I felt like an outsider because I wanted to be a part of that group but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t go to Biarritz, I couldn’t go to Gstaad, I couldn’t go to St. Barts or to the places where rich people go to have fabulous luncheons and dinners, but I could afford to buy some cheap taffeta and make a ball gown and go to the clubs where those people went, and walk into them like I owned them.
‘An actress who lives in California brought in a dress that felt like hard paper, a material you couldn’t really clean. Another dry cleaner had tried it. It was white with big flower and it had brown smudges on it. I went to the stationary store art department and found some marker paintbrushes and drew the flowers back on to it. She loved it and started hugging me. I’m really good at drawing and I redrew the flowers. It was like redoing a tattoo. Afterwards she Yelped: “Mike Pagano is an artisan.”‘