Next I take out my morning suit – made in 1938 by Airey and Wheeler of 129 Regent Street for my grandfather, GM Jeffreys. Gordon Michael. English. English. The jacket is a beautiful thing: dark and matte and felty black, quilted interior, swooping lines of tails. Two rear buttons a legacy of some long-lost functionality. Like an appendix, a vestigial organ of tailoring evolution. I recently had the sleeves lengthened by an inch and a half, the beautiful stitching around the (non-functioning) cuff buttonholes replaced with a perfunctory line by a person who did not have the same skills or time or who was simply working for a client (me) with significantly less money than the original client (my grandfather). The trousers have been widened at the waist and taken in again. The legs have been shortened, then lengthened again. The waistcoat, dove grey, double-breasted, is oddly backless – compensation perhaps for the warm weighty heft of the trousers. I examine it all closely with a sense of trepidation, And, sure enough, the tell tale signs of mothery.
Catwalk shows hardly ever begin on time. Delay, anticipation and deferment are traditionally part of the routine. Waiting for the show to begin is, in other words, an integral part of the experience of the catwalk show as a live event. But time is precious and waiting not only exemplifies anticipation, but also holds an explicit value in itself. The time spent waiting for a catwalk show to start can be described as liminal, a moment that implies transition or passing from one state to another. In the age of information technology and instant image production, waiting – as both process and ritual – is, however, a rare occurrence.
Flagging is a way of communicating basic information without needing to speak. Bandanas are soft introductions. They are self-labelling devices, material imbued with meaning, intended to provide enough information for cruising parties to determine the likelihood of an erotic match. In many cases, they provide a way of making an initial connection. Like any system of underground communication, it is community specific, and does not travel well. Where do you wear them and what does that mean? Subcultural meaning stays local.
In a plane of crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.
How many miles of endless asphalt haven’t I covered in these shoes, and in how many cities? This pair of nondescript sneakers that sustained me for a year while I visited doctors, being prodded and poked, legs in the air and feet in stirrups, learning to inject myself until my belly and ass were both bruised and painful, messing up right at the end and having to do it all over again, hoping wishing yearning for a baby. It’s a highly intimate story, out of sight mostly, the one about becoming a mother through artificial means. Being fertile is to be productive, abundant, creative – being barren feels shameful. You need comfort, tenderness, compassion, so you look for it wherever you can: in people, in your environment, in the objects that surround you and hold you. My sneakers did their part by letting me forget that I was wearing anything at all on my feet, one less thing to worry about.
Vogue India, with its four million online readers and audience of seven million on social media, mostly catering to educated upper- and upper middle-class women, seems to abide to the very same attitudes that have been promoted by the Bharatiya Janata Party and right-wing groups. Overtly, it champions inclusivity and diversity, celebrates women’s empowerment, and decries discrimination. Dedicated to highlighting strong and independent women it predominantly features Hindu customs and upper-class Hindu women, signifying that Hindu upper-caste, upper-class femininity is – in contemporary Indian society – the desirable norm. Conspicuously absent from the magazine are Muslim women, Muslim Indian culture and Muslim fashion.
It’s been a year since my first miscarriage, and the summer sales have returned. I buy a loose kaftan, I buy a pin-tucked denim dress, I buy cotton shorts with an elastic waistband, I buy skin-tight hotpants. There’s no coherence in the silhouette or materiality of this selection of garments, no vision of what I want to be. The pandemic rages on, and in the convergence of societal crises it has caused, I find myself escaping into consumerism again, despite the ways it has failed me. My vision of how my life will unfold is no longer progressive or linear, I don’t assume it will just heighten and widen and deepen.
Carlo is concerned about his looks; it’s important to him how his ‘outer shell’ – his coat – appears. Decent clothes make it easier to earn money, easier to approach people on a more or less equal level. But the coat also comes with a second purpose: it’s the smallest possible of homes, a sleeping bag and a comforter. ‘Since childhood we’re used to feeling something on top of us when we’re sleeping, something heavy,’ he says. ‘Turning a coat into a duvet is better than wearing it, somehow. It feels more secure and warm.’
I never knew when or what I was going to lift. The Time to Take was a calm, concrete feeling that would spread like room temperature butter on toast. Walking around the store, my body would casually scan for cameras, peruse the aisles, and when the time was right, I’d surrender to an emancipation pure and brief: a feeling much like leaving the stove on while attending to a phone call in the other room. And though I knew what I liked, it usually wasn’t what ended up mine: somewhere I think I knew that if I began to rely on this method to fuel my actual desires, I’d be losing my own game. This was not about the things themselves, of course. Every so often I had to remind myself that they had no value, and that like most shoplifters, I lost attraction to them soon after attainment. To take was to feel oneself justifiably tampering with a system to find that it is the system itself that is flawed — a bit like opening a lock with the wrong set of keys.
‘They’ decide everything. ‘They’ know whether it is to be pink or green this fall, whether it’s to be short skirts, whether you can wear mink. For years everyone who thinks has gone around at one time or another trying to find out in a desultory sort of way who ‘they’ are. One of the most fascinating things about the world of fashion is that practically no one knows who inhabits it or why it exists. There are a few people who know how it works, but they won’t tell. So it just goes on, getting in deeper and deeper, until something like a war or depression slows it up from time to time. But once the war or the depression lets up, off again goes fashion on its mad way.
If the fashion show and pose are essentially historic, tied to the modernist movement of the twentieth century, then maybe the erasure of the fashion poses from the runway in our own time reflects the cultural trends of the twenty-first century. Today’s catwalk models no longer pose. And what use is the mannequin’s pose in this age of livestreaming and Instagram, when the preservative nature of modern media has expunged the transient nature of the event altogether? Weaving up and down the runway, models today become wholly defined by their motion.
Movies about sex are also movies about power; the way women in these films are dressed says something about the power that comes with womanhood, and the fear this power stirs. In simple, stripped-back outfits, innate sexuality (read power) shines through. Often, clothing is referred to as a woman’s ‘armour,’ but the women of erotic thrillers can be so steely they don’t need armour. They look less dressed and more powerful, wearing the bare minimum.