Disobedient Dress: Fashion as Everyday Activism | Dr Christine Shaw-Checinska | TEDxEastEnd



two things make us as much as we make things could the wearing of a pair of gold dance shoes in a non dance environment like I'm doing right now be seen as a form of everyday activism I'm going to talk about fashion at the border crossing the geographical is in migration and the social as in the crossing of societies imaginary borders founded on racial cultural and gender difference I'm going to talk to you about fashion as a way of speaking about ourselves and the way we want to be seen in a nutshell I'm going to talk about disobedient dress what inspires me is the theater of fashion the crafting and performance of identities through prompts such as a neatly pressed suit or a hat deliberately placed to one side or a particular favorite dress or the strategic mixing of prints and pattern I am fascinated by fashions potential to transform so we're gonna think about style about swagger about showing off my story begins with a case of mistaken identity about twenty years ago when I was still in my 30s I was working as the principal designer for a lifestyle brand known globally for selling the English look and as part of this particular role I'd have to meet with various fashion editors attend different industry events speak with a number of fashion people and to be honest I always felt quite uncomfortable about doing this then a colleague from our Boston office who was over in London on sabbatical at the time said to me in passing one day it's so great that you're head of design because let's face it you're not exactly in English rose and I was so shocked I can honestly say I'd never noticed that before and this set me on a mission to think about how our assumptions about race culture and gender are constructed how as humans we constantly speak visually and verbally how we constantly read and sometimes miss read these visual and verbal tags her comment got me thinking about the way that fashion functions a throwaway remark literally changed the course of my life and it led me to embark on what I now realize is over 15 years of research not just into the relationship between fashion and racial cultural and gender identity but more importantly to me fashion is a way of pushing back against invisibility stereotyping and the erasure of personhood society's imaginary borders are largely founded on hierarchies of value rooted in very negative readings of difference and this is the problem we internalize these borders and they become psychological boundaries that then have the potential to harm us to reign a sin it's no accident that in most societies the taking away of a person's freedom is often accompanied by the taking away of their clothing think about enslavement for example the process of enslavement in the Caribbean began with capture in Africa and what was termed seasoning the stripping of the newly enslaved the removal of all clothing the shaving of heads mark the transition from subject to object you might remember the John Boyne book and subsequent film the boy in the Striped bizarre armors the stories about the Holocaust Bruno a German boy discovers and befriends Samuel a Jewish boy living behind a barbed-wire fence that Bruno believes is surrounding a farm he also believes that Samuel is wearing a pair of striped pajamas of course we know that the farm is actually a concentration camp and that the Striped Pyjamas a Samuels prison guard so in a sense the Jews were also stripped I want to come back to the example of enslavement Ralph Ellison in the prologue to the Invisible Man writes I am the Invisible Man simply because people refused to see me what Ellison is writing about is the invisibility of those of us in the African Diaspora he's referring to the effects of being viewed from behind a colonial lens that fixes him as something other than human a colonial gaze that renders him invisible he's writing about the racialized visual field and the way that society's hierarchy is based on racial and cultural difference operate you see when Europe colonized the Caribbean it brought its own language systems ideas beliefs cultural expressions with it and it tried to fit the Caribbean into that framework to read and represent it from its own viewpoint using its own cultural language and in some ways this is not unusual because we all draw on what we already know and understand to read and represent that which we don't of course the issue here is that the encounter between Europe and the Caribbean was not an equal there were hierarchies of power at play traces of these remain even today we see them in representations or perhaps misrepresentations of us in the media and they're often framed by two polar opposites stereotypes so African tasks for women for example black women are seen as either asexual think of the mammy figure in popular culture like Hattie McDaniels playing the maid in Gone with the Wind or with Cena's overtly sexual think of Nicki Minaj or fictional characters like Foxy Brown remember Foxy Brown I don't know how she managed to be quite so ridiculously sexy whilst trying to run down the hoodlums that have just murdered her government agent boyfriend the individuals in each case are rendered invisible racial and cultural difference is oversimplified there are no nuances you see the Enlightenment set in motion these systems of evaluation and representation a major downside to the age of discovery and our need to name and categorize is that standards of comparison emerged so us and then us and the other okay so where does fashion fit into all of this fashion is part of the process by which the unequal distribution of power within society is constructed maintained and experienced as legitimate but fashion can also be used to challenge and contest one's position within society so by vocalist idea of disobedient dress I'm suggesting that fashion might also become a way of resisting societies at times limited and therefore limiting expectations of us and in this way it's as though the body becomes a site of protest the border itself a space of transformation imagine what it would be like imagine what would happen if we stopped thinking of society's imaginary borders at the moment when we're reined in as a point when everything ceases what might it be like to think of society's imaginary borders as the point at which something begins if we open the border out so it becomes a space if we stretch it out so it becomes a borderland space and in between space beyond the mainstream we're rigid pigeonholes these stereotypes no longer exist and we have the possibility to reevaluate ourselves to refashion ourselves it's a little bit like going to Carnival have you ever noticed is that during Carnival you put on a costume feathers sequins a dragon's head batty riders whatever and we sense of freedom to become whoever we want to be we can become a bigger version of ourselves we're energized empowered it's not that we completely disappear we're still there inside the costume you see Carnival is a kind of borderland space it's the space in between reality and fantasy like a Twilight Zone and our carnival self is our transformed made bigger larger than life itself it's the costume the costume allows us to reveal something of our inner beings that might actually be at odds with what other people expect of us I guess you might be wondering why I have to speak Nepal suitcase with me well this beat Nepal suitcase is actually my father's grip made of cardboard and it's the suitcase that he carried with him when he travelled from Jamaica to England in 1956 crossing a geographical border dressed up in his Sunday best suit moving from one life to another from one sense of being to another these white gloves belonged to my mother I'm sure that many of us here are children of migrants and there are such memories embedded in these objects we learn at a very early age from our parents the importance of being well dressed as a way of showing respect for ourselves and to others in fact were often well dressed to the point of being overdressed but this is not the way we're expected to look as migrants yet for us we might only have a few pennies in our pockets but we have to look good the only way to dress is up it's about dignity about personhood and the same goes for the istic attorney conspicuous consumption taken to the absolute max the Issyk attorney a mainly young men who have grown up in the former South African townships and they're typically 15 16 17 years old do you remember how you were at that age trying to work out who you were what you were going to do with your life rebelling against your parents generation I remember being young when the punk movement began I was never going to be confident enough to become a punk I wanted to get my grades and besides I was far too worried about what my Jamaican parents might think so I became a new romantic sadly I don't have any photographs to show you or luckily I don't have any photographs to show you so where the punks customized t-shirts tartan and bondage gear there is a katana rebel by disobediently wearing Italian designer brands mismatched shoes gold teeth crossing society's borders founded on wealth and class in a South African context where class and color become conflated they are masters in the art of showing off I like to think of them as elegant anarchists the model Philomena relishing her sensuality challenging our assumptions about body aesthetic about who is allowed to be sensual and show their skin lastly I absolutely love the work of photographer Gavin Fernandez and he for me seems to blur every single social social water-going taking the notion of elegant anarchy to another level again if we are wily about the way that we use fashion it will allow us to reveal something of our inner selves to push back against stereotypes and to say to society Here I am this is me deal with it but you know I often feel that as women in particular we hide behind a cloak of invisibility this is they were happy to shrink to disappear into the background there's absolutely nothing enlightened in shrinking and I believe that we each possess a creative spark a creative spark that might ignite the way that we present ourselves in everyday life these gold shoes are the soul of my outfit they're my disobedient object so why conform to the person that society tells you to be and to look the way that society tells you to look why not be disobedient and embrace your uniqueness instead why not Rabanne a little No why not rebel a lot thank you you

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