I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.
Some people know they’re depressed when they can’t eat or sleep. I know I’m depressed when I stop giving a damn about what I’m wearing. I’m a huge believer in what Tim Gunn called “the semiology of dressing”; my ostentatious collection of attire and accessories – stacked, scattered or in storage – colour my allegiance glorious. From fluorescent pink bras to huge hibiscus hair ornaments to boat-shaped bags you could zip me into, I have it all, and then some.
Ever since I began choosing my own clothing, I’ve taken this liberty and spun carousels with it. In college, I enjoyed semesters of never repeating an outfit. It wasn’t as though I set myself a challenge. I just had that many clothes and that much imagination and that much disrespect for the humility required in the face of Institutions.
My passion for fashion has often been privileged over common sense. I own a red feather boa, after all. I’ve stalked through international business districts in cowboy hats and feathered ornaments. I went to church the other day draped in a black wool crotchet poncho. In Madras. In May. Because that’s just what I think I should wear to church. It helps me feel, you know, spiritual. Whatever sins I confessed to, rest assured they were not sartorial.
Get off your holier-than-thou clotheshorses, I’m only kidding (but not about the poncho). For more drastic consequences than death by flamboyance, consider this: I’ve done dozens of spoken word readings, but excepting a few truly special ones, pretty much all I recall about most involves what I wore. When I did my first solo show a year ago, I embarked on several expeditions seeking the perfect outfit. I settled on thigh-high leopard print boots and a brown kurta worn as a dress with a huge waistbelt. I spent the afternoon before the event hand-stitching the kurta to my shape. I wrote my set list in the taxi on my way to the show.
Do I dress for men? Absolutely. I also dress for women. I dress for pets. I dress for plants. I dress for praying and flights and to hang out by myself. I dress to drink black coffee at 1a.m. and dance around in my sister’s room for an hour and incur her wrath. I dress because if God had wanted us to be drab, She wouldn’t have created the bias cut and the body to carry it off.
I also dress down. I do the typical Fab India kurta and jeans work thing. I tie my ridiculous Draupadi hair up. When I really need to get serious, I even wear my glasses. It’s all about aura. And as the most cunning coquette will tell you, sometimes it pays to keep it toned down.
I’m a slave to my narcissism, alright. Stoned on my own sensuality (and greatly bolstered by my uncanny ability to spot rock bottom bargains). Vainpot? Yes. Victim? No chance.
What I do, dressing up and down and occasionally upside down – it’s not what a magazine or a man or a mannequin told me is expected of me. It’s not under someone else’s power.
There is one dogma I live by, and it is this. Anais Nin wrote: “Women always think that when they have my shoes, my dress, my hairdresser, my makeup, it will all work the same way. They do not conceive of the witchcraft that is needed. They do not know that I am not beautiful but only appear to be at certain moments”. And that’s my secret.
Because it is power. And all of it, every last bead and hook and the divine proviso of femme fatale-ness vested within, is mine.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.