In 1977 I bought my first flat cloth cap – in navy cotton twill with leather detailing on each of the crown sections and a striped lining. It was a souvenir from a family trip to Jamaica, bought from a Rastafarian man selling his own designs at a stall in Kingston. At the time I saw the purchase as a defiant act: the feat of a post-colonial religious activist.
The zoot suit was an icon of its time, born from the bespoke draped silhouettes of London’s Savile Row in the mid-1930s then adopted and exaggerated by young jazz-obsessed men and women across America. Amid a period of social and political turbulence just before World War II, the style was not only a means of dandyism, but also a badge of cultural identity for many African American and first-generation immigrant youths.
The wakashu, traditionally played by teenage boys, represented a specific subculture within Edo Japan. Wakashu are described by kabuki scholar Imao Tetsuya as ‘floating between the polarities of male and female, synthesising the principle of both sexes.’ The wakashu, etymologically resisting gender identification, is translated into English most closely as ‘youth,’ constituting what many scholars consider a ‘third gender.’ By rejecting the imposed male identity, wakashu represented the possibility of an existence outside of Edo society along with the prospect of future transformation for Edo culture.
When he was out running errands or working in his study, bent over a book or teaching the students who filed into our house to sit with him and fix their test scores, I’d slip into his bedroom and rifle through his belongings: fingering his penknives and leather-strapped watches, feeling the soft silk and woven wool of his neckties, inhaling the funky, wonderful smell of his aged leather belts – which I handled with a mix of awe and fear, the two or three times I behaved very badly, these doubled as instruments of punishment – and studying that weathered, bizarre source of power, his wallet.
A man in his own clothes is as much sexless as possible. He shaves his face so that, if he be young & fair, you’d not know but that he might be a girl, and any protuberance by which his sex might be known is carefully and shamefully suppressed. It is an organ of drainage and not of sex. It is tucked away and all sideway dishonoured, neglected, ridiculed and ridiculous – no longer the virile member and man’s most precious ornament, but the comic member, a thing for girls to giggle about – comic and, to nursemaids, dirty. ‘You dirty little boy, put it away.’
When the burkini appeared in the news a decade ago, it carried with it a dense web of historical associations, political connotations and moral valences. The histories of the bikini and the burka – including the ways that each garment has been framed as the other’s antithesis – played an important role in shaping how the burkini was represented and interpreted in the new century. In Europe and the Anglophone World, modest swimsuits and the figure of the burkini-clad women were appropriated as catalysts for contemporary debates about the possibilities and limits of cultural pluralism in an era of economic globalisation, mass migrations, war and terrorism and ethnic nationalist movements.
The Gypsy costume that won me prizes in school carnivals in the late 1970s and early 1980s had little to do with the family stories my grandmother whispered at bedtime and that filled the night with magic or terror. Truth and fiction switched places so many times, I don’t think even she could tell them apart after a while.
Two years after the Paris 1968 student riots, Parisian couturier Jacques Esterel launched a timely couture collection for men and women that responded to the shifting gender ideals of the time. Resplendent with matching his and hers outfits and unisexwear, Esterel’s looks seemed to reflect a breakdown of the fashion system and the gender issues that were a result of the zeitgeist; an exemplar that periods of crisis are not only foreshadowed by, but also directly result in, changes in systems of dress.
In March 1997 thirty-nine people were found dead in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, an upscale suburb of San Diego. Between the night of the twenty-second and twenty-third, they took their lives in shifts, each group tidying up after the previous. First they drank a poisonous cocktail of barbiturates, vodka and applesauce; then they proceeded to tie plastic bags over their heads. The bodies were found lying on their backs with purple shrouds covering their faces, dressed in all-black uniforms and brand new Nike trainers. The uniform-like clothing made it impossible to distinguish between male and female bodies. In fact, it indicated that the body’s physical traits were perhaps irrelevant or undesirable. Five dollar bills and change were found in the shirt pockets, alongside identification. Next to them were rucksacks and bags with a change of clothes. The careful planning suggested that the act was of ritual nature; a farewell videotape confirmed that the bodies belonged to members of a millennial religious cult known as Heaven’s Gate.
In his 1946 Theses Against Occultism, Adorno addressed the swiftness with which occultism, when translated onto the political stage, could provide fertile ground for exploitation. Nowhere is this evidenced more theatrically than in the political intrigues of Haitian dictator François Duvalier, who from his election in 1957 to his death in 1971 harnessed and exploited the magical thinking of the Haitian people by dressing and acting like Baron Samedi, the voudou god of the dead. Duvalier used fashion to make implicit what he did not say explicitly: that he was a god, the god, of Haiti – and as such, was entitled not only to unmitigated power, but to absolution, loyalty, and even affection.
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.
Linda, Austin, TX
I was dressed in a gorgeous short leather-suede skirt and top having a birthday dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant. When I was leaving my house, I was unaware that a lacy red thong was statically tucked underneath the back end of the skirt – or that it fell out in the middle of the restaurant floor. The maître d’ picked it up and came trotting after me, waving it as he’s announcing ‘Oh ma’am, ma’am, you dropped this,’ as everyone was pointing and snickering. I turned and horrified, I said, ‘Not mine, but you can keep it.’