Often, when we dawn clothes, we choose what we show to the world. In this process of showing, we inevitably hide. London based Shahidha Bari’s “Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes” is an exploration of what is it that clothes loudly utter, but sometimes hesitantly whisper. Holding onto film, literature and philosophy, Bari’s raises questions that compel us to think. Platform listens to all that Shahidha has to say about her book, and her future projects.
You have previously been a student of Philosophy and Literature. How did you get interested in understanding the nature of clothing?
“Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes” is a book is about how we can use philosophy and literature to think about clothes. To my mind, it’s also a book about how clothes are everywhere in literature and philosophy, if we care to see them. In the book, I propose that it might be enriching and illuminating to think about these different things together. Philosophy and literature are ways to help us make sense of the world. I think the fact that we wear clothes – whether they are functional, fashionable, stylish, or unremarkable! – is an important part of being in the world. On any given day, my suede coat will brush against someone else’s wool jumper as we pass each other in the street. Maybe that is one way of thinking about ethics – what it means to share space with other human beings.
When I was a graduate student at Cambridge I was writing about how philosophers try to understand “lived experience”. I used to find that I was easily distracted from my studies by people wearing interesting clothes! But then, I started to think about how much of our lives are spent making clothes, repairing clothes, cleaning clothes, wearing clothes. Couldn’t they also be artifacts of our humanity? That’s where the book began.
Your book, Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes is divided into five sections –Dresses; Suits, Coats, Jacket; Furs, Feathers and Skins; and Pockets, Purses and Suitcases. What were your reasons for dividing the sections in such a manner?
I write about how we are accustomed to the notion that poems, paintings, books and buildings are places where we go to find ideas. I think there are ideas in clothes too. The trouble is that there are so many kinds of clothes! I decided to gather together an array of sources – finding films, poems, songs and artworks where clothes featured. Sometimes they appear in small, quite subtle ways. For instance, the beautiful Chinese dresses in the Wong Kar-wai film, “In the Mood for Love”, might only feel like a pretty, passing detail, but I write about how those dresses became a shorthand for Maggie Cheung’s feelings – how they illustrate her restraint and self- control. That became a way of thinking more broadly about how women self-regulate their clothes in a culture that constantly inspects them.
Similarly, I was watching the “Dora the Explorer” cartoon series with my young nieces and I was dazzled by Dora’s courage and curiousity I noticed that she always carries a rucksack and is fearless in her travels. I started to think about what adults keep in their bags, and why a child might think that they need one. That became the chapter about pockets, purses and suitcases. That chapter is about freedom of movement, how it can be enabled for some people and restricted for others.
I divided the book up into these chapters so that I could start to narrow in on the particular ideas, like that, which I felt were at stake in each kind of garment. That’s not the only way to interpret these garments, of course, but this is my way of suggesting how we might think about them.
Your book navigates across genres – literature, film and art to comprehend how clothing has shaped the culture we live in. Why do you think it was important to look at clothes seriously?
Some people love clothes. They care for them and pay meticulous attention to how they present themselves. Some people are indifferent. Others are dismissive altogether, rejecting dress as a superficial matter. But all of us wear clothes and our clothes are made. Often, they pass through many hands before they reach us. Fashion is a $2.4 trillion global industry. Of 100 billion items of clothing made each year, 20% will go unsold to landfill or incineration. The research indicates that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions in the air and 20% of industrial water pollution. We have to take clothes seriously because we are living in an age of ecological crisis.
And more personally, it seems to me that so much of our experience – love, friendship, death – is articulated through our clothes. That’s what I understood from the writers, filmmakers and artists I was examining for this book. I think there’s so much to learn by attending to them.
How do you think the perception of clothes alters across different cultures? Is it possible to derive a consistent understanding of the role that clothes play?
I made a BBC Radio programme about the sari, some years ago, called “My Mother’s Sari”. It was a personal story, with my young niece and my sister, talking about our relationship with our mothers through this extraordinary garment. Over the course of the programme, I learnt so much about the political history of the sari, how its cultural significance could vary according to locality and region, the different ways of wearing saris, and how modern Asian women are refashioning themselves in what has so often been taken as “traditional dress”. It was fascinating finding this out. I was also very moved by the number of Asian women, from across the subcontinent and the diaspora, who got in touch to tell me their stories. Every story was unique and personal, of course. Clothes are personal. My book tries to gather together some general insights, but it’s only a starting point, I hope, for more individual stories. My sources (perhaps because of my education) are largely British. But at London College of Fashion, where I work, so many of my amazing colleagues are researching dress history and culture from around the world: Syrian refugee tailors, the politics of Russian dress, Bangladeshi garments workers and black fashion in Britain. There’s so much to find out!
Often in our everyday lives, we do not consciously think about clothes. How do you think clothes make a space for the interaction of the conscious and the unconscious?
I never feel entirely convinced by the idea that our identity is expressed in clothes – as though identity were something so simple that it could be encapsulated in an Arsenal t-shirt, or a quirky tie! I feel like a different person every day. And if I’m lucky, on a good day, my clothes might match my mood or capture something about myself in that particular moment. Dressing is hard. We think about the aspects of our lives and personalities that we want to share in public life and we hope our clothes are equal to the task of imparting that. To me, the more interesting question is what do we chose to keep from public life? People hide in clothes too! I’m intrigued by the idea that there are things that we are also trying not to say in our clothes. The trouble is that others are constantly responding to us and we can’t always control what they think and feel. My book is an effort to acknowledge this idea of human responsiveness through clothes.
Are there any new projects that you’re looking forward to working on in the future?
My main interest at the moment is how we think philosophically about design. I have an idea to write a book about beauty – not the beauty industry, but the aesthetic experience of beauty. What happens to us when we encounter something beautiful? What is the physiological response that beauty elicits? Is it an entirely subjective phenomena, or is it a measurable sense of ratio and proportion? Most of all, I’m wondering if there is something collective in our ability to experience beauty. I think it might be one of the last markers of our humanness in an age of AI.
Text Muskan Nagpal