I’ve always thought red brocade Chinese dresses were beautiful, but they’re made for hipless women about 30 cm. shorter than I am. I found one second-hand for two dollars, and cut it straight up the back, inserting a kind of narrow origami cape made from a second-hand scarf, which I beaded to match the dress. At once point I found out that I had actually sewn the wooden embroidery frame into the dress, and had to break it in order to get it out – one of the crazy hazards of doing something you’ve never done before. I’ve had the sash since I was a teenager. I think it may have been part of an ecclesiastical outfit.
When I was about eight, I decided I didn’t like wearing dresses because I couldn’t climb trees in them, and the same holds true today, almost thirty-eight years later. This is why I rarely make dresses in Revisionary Design, or wear dresses, though I knuckle under for certain occasions.
I, and many other women, think a lot about clothes. This has been part of our traditional role and division of labour– clothing the family, knitting, sewing, and weaving, and it is one of the maligned arts – superficial, unimportant – in the way misogyny maligns everything to do with women.
Clothing has usually been traditional tribal uniform, whether of goatskin and beads, or lace caps and dresses, or instruments of oppression, like purdah or foot-bindings. Now, in western culture, the going myth is that women express themselves with their clothes – at least that’s what the fashion magazines tell us — while encouraging us to buy new manufactured inventions every season, which we did not invent; the uniform of consumer culture. And then there’s the plastic surgery phenomenon.
The idea of personal expression is still true in a smaller way. Some women do make their own clothes. Gandhi encouraged his nation to make its own clothes as part of its liberation from international oppression. It is true, that, if a woman lives in a culture that allows her to own her body, her body is likely going to be the only personal exhibition space she will ever have. Most women don’t actually say much with their clothes. There is little that is personal. They don’t tell their stories.
Much is said about what people are supposedly “saying” by wearing certain things: the closet rebel in the dark suit who still wears bright red socks — the punk girl with the fishnets and the army boots. If clothing is a language, then it can supposedly be read – but it means different things to different people, and is often misread, sometimes intentionally. Victims were often blamed for the crimes committed against them because they wore the wrong thing – but how could clothes be so dangerous if they were also so trivial?
When I was a teenager, I was told that I shouldn’t wear what I was wearing – gym shorts that all the girls I knew were wearing because, “you know what men will think.”
But I didn’t know what men thought. I didn’t understand why I was expected to read anyone’s mind, let alone a grown up’s, a man’s – someone so completely alien.
I was given more information about this once, by a friend who came from part of the world not known for it’s human rights; I shouldn’t wear what I was wearing because men couldn’t control themselves. I thought this was ridiculous. Surely if men couldn’t control themselves, they wouldn’t be allowed to be things like doctors and lawyers and the heads of corporations. They would all be locked up somewhere, right?
I was wearing these particular clothes because the other girls were wearing the clothes – it was tribal; it meant I belonged. I was told that men would “read” something else. I found this profoundly disturbing; I had no control of what people were reading into my clothes.
I wore dresses now and then, but in addition to being uncomfortable, and feeling like I was masquerading, I didn’t like the way people looked at me. They looked at me more intensely, sometimes with the self-satisfied smile that I was doing something appropriately feminine (perhaps these people were mostly my relatives), but sometimes with looks on their faces I couldn’t fathom. I’ve never been comfortable with men staring, but what about the women? Sometimes they seemed to look angry. Why? Did they want to get stared at too? Did they like the dress? Did they think the dress was weird?
Entering art school was a relief, because artists weren’t supposed to dress in any traditional manner, and certainly not in dresses. If you paid any attention at all to your clothes – which were usually covered in paint – you dressed to divide yourself from suburbia. You didn’t even realize you were dressing to be included in the new tribe.
I felt much more in control of what was speaking out from my body. I was beginning to feel more in control of how people read me… or at least I was confusing them good and hard.
I remember one evening I went to an automated teller at a bank on campus, on the way to some artsy event. Two cops came in as I was leaving, and I heard them burst into laughter as soon as they though I wouldn’t be able to hear them.
So? I was wearing cut-off jeans belted with a green scarf and orange and pink paisley psychedelic tights with elephants all over them. Good for them, I thought – I don’t mind bringing joy (or whatever) to the world.
After art school, I worked in a small city on the prairies, and tamed down the outfits. It didn’t take much to freak out small town Saskatchewan, anyway – just a couple of weird earrings – a different one in each ear — and a man’s coat; as I’ve said before, that’s my size: men’s medium. Someone told me I looked just like they imagined lesbians would look. Once, a little old lady followed me around in the grocery store convinced I was KD Lang, and this could have been dangerous, since the prairies were currently up in arms about her stance against eating meat.
Eventually, I didn’t even bother with the earrings anymore because I was too busy being an artist, and then a writer. Dressing weird is time and effort, and most of the serious artists in art school didn’t have time for that kind of nonsense. I liked the invisibility of dressing more normally, more asexually – jeans and t-shirts.
As a writer and a visual artist, I’ve always felt it was my role to be the watcher, not the watched. I’d sat through too many drawing tutorials where some poverty-stricken woman posed nude for money, and we all took her in in detail, and put her down on the paper. I won’t partake of the local nude beach on the west coast island I live on because, not only have I had radiation, and the sun shouldn’t see me naked, I’ve also read too much feminist-socialist art history.
I got married, had children, had cancer, had a lot of medication and surgery, and decided to start dressing out there again, to get over thinking of myself as a corpse, a way to cherish my body and feel good about it for the rest of the time I have here on earth. This was the beginning of my Revisionary designs, and a way to channel my compulsive making of things.
I still sometimes have to get up the courage for the masquerade, of being at one with the art object, of being looked at, of not being in total control of what others might think of me because of the material on my back. People’s assumptions change with the age of the woman they’re judging, too, and now I’m more concerned people will think I’m some rich anti-environmental animal slaughterer.
I still don’t wear dresses much. It’s too complicated, and also calls up too much of my mother’s post-war generation, and all the expectations of being that sort of female: corseted… heeled.
Clothing isn’t shallow for me — I can barely fight my way through all these myths and implications and expectations that are also laid over the female body.
I could go on and on.
It’s only a dress, I tell myself. Calm down.