Fashion saves me. Everyday.
Some see it as an annoying intruder, a pointless culture, and a distraction from what’s important. Others see it as an occasional indulgence meant to be partaken in, only during special occasions. And a few, like me, see it as an integral party of the everyday, a constant saviour in the journey of life.
When I was little, my mother dressed me up in smocking frocks with peter-pan collars and puff sleeves, matching ribbons for my hair – little bows, white socks, and smart Mary-Janes. I was the “well-dressed” child in every circle, never without a missing ribbon or shoe, never with snot running down my face, and never in flimsy spaghetti straps and careless hot-pants. I was quiet, well-behaved, and disciplined enough to sit with my shoes and socks, white without a speck of dirt, at parties.
I wasn’t a cute child. I wasn’t adorable or talkative. And I had no special talent apart from being able to draw – not something you can show off to your relatives about. I couldn’t dance or sing or act or mimic. I couldn’t play an instrument or say adorable things that grownups could listen to and go, “awww…”. Nope. I was quiet, I sat in the corner, played with my dolls and read. I spoke when spoken to and answered with a “yes” or “no”.
Then I went to boarding school. And the awkward pre-puberty age set in. I no longer liked frocks and I wanted to look more boyish than ever. I looked at my friends with their jeans and shorts and rubber floaters and that’s all I wanted to wear. I lost my love for pink, I lost my love for frocks and a part of me lost myself for a little while. I tried to fit into boarding school, by borrowing aesthetics from the people around me. Baggy shorts and baggier denims. The more boyish, the better. With my skinny legs, bony knees, gawky face and giant braces, nothing looked good on me. And my school uniform? That looked particularly horrid. No matter how much I tried, the grey pleated skirt refused to sit flat on my tummy, puffing up in an odd sort of way.
My rebellious hair was chopped up – “Maggie cuts her hair” style with no real definition. And I would comb through my hair – a hundred strokes every night, hoping for some semblance of straightness. I would oil, shampoo and condition it twice a week. I would buy the serums “specially formulated for dry, frizzy hair”, as the Livons of the world smiled inwardly , conscious of the giant prank they had played upon frizzy-haired believers everywhere. And none of it worked. Of course.
As I grew older, little by little I realised the reason everything looked odd on me. It wasn’t my genes or the lack of effort on my part – trust me. I tried everything.
It was because I was running after an aesthetic that wasn’t mine.
And subconsciously I began to define myself. I lathered on kohl, got a set of double piercings on my ears, and I got my skirts shortened. I began to tie my hair up in a high ponytail, and wear my skirts an inch shorter than the knees (everybody else was going for the low wasted, extra baggy-long skirt look at that time). And I gave up trying to straighten my hair. I washed my hair less, stopped combing it like an idiot.
I finally started embracing my curls.
And that’s how I made my little mark in the sea of identical uniforms. But, when it came to “coloured” clothes or clothes that weren’t uniform, I was lost. I tried long skirts, short skirts, capris and flared denims. But, nothing… nothing made me feel like me. I felt odd, my body felt sloppy and I just didn’t feel like “me”. The me who wore her smocked frocks with matching ribbons and pretty shoes. The “smartly dressed” me.
I read up the Vogues and the Cosmos, and I tried to draw inspiration… For the longest time, I blamed my weight for making clothes look odd on me. But, then again, I wasn’t really fat.
I knew I had toned legs, and so I should wear shorter silhouettes. But I had a tummy, and at that time, shops were only selling really fitted tees and body-con dresses. So, I struggled and struggled to find clothes that would flatter me. And would make me feel more “me”.
I think, it was only recently, say around 3 years back, that I discovered my aesthetic. I think it was repeated trial and error and a conscious understanding of my body-type. It was finding the middle point between comfort and style. And understanding my mind a little better. That lead me to it. And slowly I knew I was all about cottons, checks, anti-fits and comfort. Of button-down dresses, fit and flare silhouettes and skater dresses. Of bright florals, knee skimming lengths and floaty-breathables – The exact opposite of tight jeans and synthetic tops – my uniform throughout college and early years of working.
And once I found my aesthetic, I suddenly knew, no amount of taunts and jabs and magazine advice could hurt this strong extension of my being – my everyday armour. And even though plenty in India would call my style “jhalla” for it’s incredible looseness, and even though I admire those who can pull of the tight dress and stiletto look, when I look at myself in the mirror, with my ultra faded-plaid dress and black-floppy-chappals, I know i couldn’t wear anything else – for the sole reason that it won’t fit in with me. It just won’t be me.
The deep-pockets for storing the odd lip-balm. The loose fit to cover the slight overeating at lunch. The knee-skimming length for leg-freedom. The cotton fabric to beat the humidity. And the absence of fluff to drive attention to my face rather than the dress. The dullness of colour to serve as a canvas to my personality. And the detailing of the dress, finally, to ground me sartorially and to pay homage to the talented designer.
This may seem too intense for something as seemingly light as fashion. But if you were to watch the documentary on Bill Cunningham and hear what people around have to say, you may understand things a little better.
Fashion is not just feathers and fluff and an ostentatious display of cloth for thrill. All that is advertising. Fashion is more. It’s advertising (of course), but it’s also style and craft and art and a tool that ordinary people like you and me can use to build ourselves a little brighter.
And as I found my aesthetic – an aesthetic surprisingly similar to the 5-year-old me with her plaid frocks and smart shoes – I found myself.