The Genteel
August 11, 2020


Underneath the Fabric

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The hijab has been called both empowering or oppressive (Source: The Hijab Diaries).

Sitting at my desk one morning, sipping my coffee and reading the newspaper, I came to an article on the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the height of the Afghanistan war. 

Before I could get any further than the headline, I was distracted by the lead photograph. It depicted an endless line of women waiting to fill their tins and broken plastic buckets from the single source of water in Peshawar - a sad image that one might expect from such a dire situation. But it wasn't the despair of the grim backdrop that had caught my attention. Rather, a shock of brilliant colours wove through the foreground of the image. It was the women's headdresses, which popped brightly from the photo - completely out of place. 

The false cheerfulness of the scarves' vivid hues was a morbid contradiction to the dark milieu, and I paused to ponder this unnatural juxtaposition. I began to think about how sometimes things are not as they appear, and how more often than not, things are softened or masked by a pleasing visual. Specifically, in this photo, the beauty of the clothes and textiles obscured the true significance of the image.

While we commonly think of "fashion" in terms of artistic expression, it has many other levels beneath those pretty fabrics, cool trends and unique designs; it can be a product of capitalist consumerism, fundamentally utilitarian and, on occasion, a tool of oppression and control. 

Fashion as the ultimate illusionist: David Copperfield eat your heart out.

Take for instance the sweatshop scandal of the 1990s, which turned the fashion world upside down, leaving the reputations of some design houses permanently tarnished.

Some companies, such as Nike, still struggle to explain their outsourcing of product development to third world countries, though they have made considerable improvements since the early 1970s. Others, like Gucci and Prada, bring their factories into Italy, but maintain their bottom-line by paying less-than minimum wage for immigrant workers to piece together their pricey couture.

But it is not the exploited garment worker that we see when we peer through the retail window of those high-end designers. We see the item as it is displayed before us, and we covet it, giving little to no thought to the origins of that must-have purse or delicately patterned scarf. Fashion as the ultimate illusionist: David Copperfield eat your heart out. 

My mind continued to wander further down this path, to women's role in this dance of disguises. According to feminist theory, personal appearance has been used repeatedly over time as a mechanism of power and control, reinforcing women's objectification, inferiority, class, ethnicity and social status. Throughout history there have been examples of clothes, accessories and garments as facets of control and subjugation of women. Consider the geishas of early Japan. Their aura of sensuality was based upon an un-natural petite-ness - a physical smallness that accented their modesty and emboldened the dominance of their male admirers, whom they entertained and, in some instances, sold sexual services to.

In order to attain this tiny physique, the women would undergo much physical suffering. Perhaps most noted by historians is the binding of their feet, mutilating them in order to wedge them into impossibly small shoes. This "look", while delicate and elegant, was the cause of much pain for the women. 


A part of the Geisha's elaborate costume
was the cause of much physical pain

Other previously controversial clothing items include the high heel, mini-skirt and, of course, the corset - possibly the most contentious garment in fashion's complex past. While there are some today who challenge the feminist notion that any clothing that is sexy is ipso facto oppressive, there is little doubt that the corset was created and used as a device of body modification in order to better meet the patriarchal ideal of beauty at the time.

The result was certainly a slender figure that accentuated the delicate materials and elaborate designs of the Victorian epoch and onward, however, the compressed organs suffocating women wearing the corset often caused them to faint. Thus making the corset literally an instrument of oppression underneath the fabric. 

Even in modern society, clothes exist that are considered tools of control. And some do not attempt to shade their dark motives with sequence and bows. Perhaps the most divisive and well-documented attire in the 21st century is the shapeless, dark cloth of the burqa. Religious-based dress, the burqa is deeply rooted in some Islamic traditions, and is still worn today by hundreds of thousands of women all over the world.

The history of the burqa possibly extends even beyond the arms of Islam and into the early 200s (AD), where the pagan women of Arabia are praised for "not only cover[ing] their head, but their whole face...preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face."[1]

While there is ongoing debate as to whether the garment is oppressive or empowering, it is commonly viewed as primitive, out of touch with contemporary culture and in direct opposition of women's liberation. So much so that several countries have attempted to ban the burqa outright, including France and Australia.

Ultimately, the dress is simply so intertwined with the repression of women's freedom, it is difficult to see beyond the suffocating cloth, to a possibly more enlightened and beautiful underside.

As with many things in life, it is really what's under the surface that matters most. The glossy photos and pretty colours are just the crux of many deeper layers and folds. Looking at the brightly veiled, deeply lined faces of the women in the photo took me on a meandering journey of thought. And, at the end of my line, I found I had a deeper, slightly more meaningful appreciation of the modern concept of fashion - for no worthy facet of culture is without a darker side.

[1] ^ Tertullian's Latin reads: "Iudicabunt nos Arabiae ethnicae feminae ethnicae quae non caput, sed faciem quoque ita totam tegunt, ut oculo liberato contentae sint dimidiam frui lucem quam totam faciem prostituere."



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