A Dissertation on Dress

How many times in a month do I close a BBC News tab and open a fresh one to wistfully browse stories.com, or perhaps read Vogue’s advice on retro florals? Fashion is undoubtedly a form of escapism, especially when the world might feel as if it's collapsing. Yet it frustrates me that an interest in clothes is often judged more harshly than other guilty pleasures. Am I really shallower because I seek refuge in fashion, rather than in fine wine or a football season ticket or state-of-the-art gadgetry? I believe not.

Which is why I sought out academic and critic Dr Shahidha Bari, a self-confessed lover of fashion whose interest in clothes runs deeper than most. Clothes are not trivial for Bari, who is researching a book on the poetics of dress, currently writing a chapter on bags, purses and pockets. “Everybody 'reads' clothes,” she says, “except that we're not encouraged to think of them as meaningful. I think clothes are serious….We can’t pretend that something powerful isn’t being articulated in dress.” I long to sit in on her lectures at Queen Mary.

I’m convinced I will like Bari, not only because of our shared obsession. Her voice sounds lovely on radio: crisp eloquence overflowing with sunny enthusiasm. Her emails are also lovely, signed “warmly, Shahidha.” In person, she is no less forthcoming. I want her to be my cool, clever older sister, on hand with fashion advice and fitting literary quotations. Or at least to be my friend.

The Jonathan Swift quote in her Twitter bio must refer to somebody else: “she wears her clothes as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork”. Shahidha wears her clothes casually, like she wears her abundant knowledge, but her get-up nevertheless reveals the careful judgement that she considers an ingredient of style: “there's a kind of intelligence in knowing what suits you, understanding colour and shape, and how what you wear might contour a particular encounter.” It worries her that women are often “reduced only to our clothes.” But she also recognises that it’s problematic “to be disqualified from taking an interest in our clothes, as though we would be betraying certain inferiority.”

Chatting to Shahidha, I glimpse the fruitfulness of her research. Our exchange of clothes-related anecdotes is enriched by her fascinating cultural insights. We talk about childhood memories and a much-loved “pink sailor dress with a smart square collar” – the curiously British choice of her Bengali mum who emigrated here in 1979. It transpires that the “Prince George effect” is nothing new. I learn that the nautical craze in children’s fashion began with Queen Victoria’s eldest son, who was gifted a miniature uniform from the Royal Navy.

Pride in her smart dress gave way to dance-mania and teenage style crushes such as Madonna in her True Blue era (“I still have a soft spot for a cropped denim jacket”). Memory is powerful in shaping our relationships with dress: “of course clothes are about memory!” Shahidha believes clothes can possess a kind of magic, confessing to owning garments she’s never worn but won’t part with, and enthusing about seeing Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dresses: “You think you know it, but then you see it in the fabric, and it’s something else entirely.” In pieces such as these, fashion becomes art.

But there’s a distinction between magic somehow inherent in an item and that which resides “in the meeting of you with the perfect garment – a kind of love at first sight.” Here Shahidha cites feminist academic Hélène Cixous: “basically the most glamourous philosopher you could ever imagine” (Shahidha’s style icons have become more sophisticated since her legwarmer days). Cixous wrote about a Sonia Rykiel dress in which she felt “dressed at the closest point to myself…..in a light that is undiluted, perfectly truthful and just.” This is the dress Shahidha dreams of. We sigh together, yearningly.

But whilst clothes represent heady possibility, “there is hazardousness in dress, particularly for women”. “There is no option of privacy. We are dressed bodies and our bodies are always available for inspection.” Shahidha speaks about her own “exhilaration” and “anxiety” in relation to this duality. We have both experienced periods of ill health and I relate to what she describes as “a certain precariousness about my body that I felt my clothes had to conceal.”

I would talk forever, but Shahidha’s schedule is hectic. In contrast, my only “pressing” task is finding a copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, “a novel that abounds with dresses and hats, but they are more than just dresses and hats.” I feel like the too-keen student clutching at the recommendations of the coolest tutor. Shahidha says we could meet up for a coffee next time I’m in London. Does this mean we’re friends?

by Emma McKinlay