This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2016

Clothes Encounter

What we wear can be a political act


Months ago Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show performance of “Formation” served as a poignant example of the evocative power of clothing. Clad in outfits that paid homage to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Beyoncé and her dancers embodied a necessary social commentary on police brutality against predominantly AfricanAmericans. For some shocked, colourblind fans this was the ultimate day of reckoning: the day they realized not only was she Black but she was also political.

More recently in the foreground of Jian Ghomeshi’s trial and his acquittal of all sexual assault charges, defence lawyer Marie Henein’s designer shoe collection, her “architectural-inspired” hair and courtroom attire were also heavily debated as deliberate choices on the part of arguably one of the most polarizing legal figures in our immediate collective memories. Were these clothing choices a foreshadowing of what would be her razor,-sharp dissecting courtroom strategy? Were the red bottoms of her Christian Louboutins meant to warn of the figurative bloodshed awaiting Lucy Decoutere on the stand?

Our clothing is a second skin, our social epidermis. Our chosen threads are by far one of the most powerful tools we use to convey our social selves, our feelings, beliefs, and our aspirations. Clothing can be rebellious, resistant; it can signify aggression and authority as well as it can embody assimilation and passivity. Intriguingly, that the same garment has the capacity of being all of these or none at all in different spaces and at different times. There is power in our clothes, how we perceive ourselves in them, and how others perceive us.

I have had items of clothing be my best friend at times—my ride-or-dies. I’ve mourned their passing when they are no longer wearable, when their seams had had enough. I’ve had clothing speak to and for me, help facilitate my confidence when I ran low in that department. Similarly, clothing can betray us. Nothing is worse than when a stranger has to inform you of an open zipper. Or, when clothes demand we take stock of our financial reality when a well-hidden price tag, the accomplice to a “wear and return” scheme, makes itself visible to those around us and a good Samaritan, unaware of the aforementioned deception, pulls the tag off and your stomach drops—your backstage is now your front stage and you are exposed.

Clothing, its meanings, and how we relate with it is complicated. Are we its hunter or its prey? Beyond its capitalist agenda, clothing choices, far from being a mere personal preference, are highly social, political, and filled with emotionality. In the end, we may wear our clothing but in what ways do our clothes wear us?

Jill Andrew, PhD(c.), is the co-founder of the Body Confidence Canada Awards (BCCAs) and a fatshion lifestyle blog Fat in the City, among other body positivity projects. Tweet @JILLSLASTWORD @BCCAwards.

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