Ever since I can remember, I have had this notion stuck at the back of my head that fashion is frivolous. Silly. Almost superfluous. That, somehow an interest in fashion, and attentiveness to what one wore was shallow and vain. Either the effect of growing up in a family where young girls were encouraged towards books and studies rather than clothes and fashion, or a direct result of a society obsessed with fashion, celebrities and a who-wore-what-mentality – I had decided by the ripe old age of 12 that I would have nothing to do with fashion. Instead, I would go to college, be super smart, ace all my exams and be a well-respected individual who didn’t need to rely on fashion or looking fashionable as part of my worldly armor. I agreed wholeheartedly with Oscar Wilde who stated quite plainly:
“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable; we have to alter it every 6 months.”
I was 18 years old when I got my first taste of the immense power and appeal of fashion. I had worn my first sari at a high school farewell party; the beautiful Indian chiffon sariwas lent to me by my grandmother, an avid collector and wear-er of saris. With the beautiful fabric draped around me, suddenly fashion was not just frivolous; no – fashion was history, in the ties that bound me to my grandmother, and her treasured sari. Fashion was sentimental; it wasn’t just a piece of cloth, it was a part of my North Indian heritage.
I soon understood that I was not alone in discovering the different facets fashion symbolizes. During my years at a diverse, internationally-admitting college in the U.S., my favorite event of the year came to be a cultural show where students from all over the world wore their national dresses and performed skits and dances. Somewhere between rubbing shoulders with fellow Pakistanis in shalwar kameezes, and watching my Bulgarian friends perform a folk dance in their traditional costumes, it was clearly the fashion from all over the world that gave the event its appeal. Albeit reluctantly, I admitted: fashion was not frivolous; no – fashion was culture, and fashion was identity.
In history class, I could no longer avoid the realization that fashion had always been a part of human civilization, from all the way back in the stone ages when people decorated themselves with feathers and leaves. Fashion has always been a defining characteristic in history – from the Egyptians’ innovative use of eyeliner to the Romans’ colorful togas and tunicas, not forgetting the Elizabethan corsets and use of heavy embroidery. Fashion was not frivolous; no – fashion was a story through time.
I was 23 years old when I started my first job at a well-known investment bank. It was clear to me from day one, that while my education and degree had gotten me to this point, it would be how I presented myself which would take me further. Just being the part was not going to be enough anymore, I would have to look the part as well. Power suits came to define me as an Economist, making me feel more capable and more confident. Fashion was not frivolous; no – fashion was a label, a social cue which was a continuation and expression of who you are and what you do. Fashion was security; a way to reflect your inside on the outside.
As the complexities of fashion became clearer and more obvious to me, I started to look at myself differently and also more closely at people who claimed not to be interested in fashion. Fashion had the power and ability to make us both individualistic and conformist at the same time. There was a fashion adherence even among those who rejected mainstream fashion, like the Goths I observed on the streets of Berlin covered in all black. Whether it was the red shirts I saw protesting on the streets of Bangkok or observing Catholic nuns in Italy in their habit, or walking through a sea of head scarves along the River Nile, I understood fashion can be a sign of religious, cultural or political affiliations. Fashion was not frivolous; no – fashion was political and even ideological.
I was 26 years old the first time I attended a fashion show. The dresses – each one unique and beautiful – sashayed down the ramp and remain imprinted in my memory. I remember feeling inspired, alive and excited as the fabrics and dresses weaved a colorful symphony around all present. It was then that I concluded that fashion was not frivolous; no – fashion was art, fashion was creativity and fashion was self-expression. Fashion was indeed the best form of self-escapism into another more beautiful world.
It is perhaps this self-escapism and overindulgence in fashion which may have led me and many others to the assumption that fashion was indeed a frivolous obsession. But while that may certainly be the case in some instances, I have come to realize that fashion is just as complex and multi-faceted as any other part of human culture; in fact, whenever I have encountered art, heritage, politics, identity, and ideology, it was in one way or another in the form of fashion.
I am 30 years old today, and I know now that one does not have to read Vogue or shop at Versace to cherish fashion; that it is not all about ‘Haute Couture’ or just about Paris and Milan. We all wear fashion in our own way every day, because it is a fundamental part of our human existence and identity, and it is here to stay and evolve ever more.