Dress to Express: Adornment as Art

Fashion | By Anthea Taderera, Lawyer/Blogger | 31 October 2014
PHOTO: © Baynham Goredema

For some time now I have been pondering (obsessing over?) how people relate to their bodies and whether or not this affects their understanding of bodily autonomy which has fairly obvious implications for those interested in women’s rights.

Whilst pondering I took a detour and wondered how people associate with their clothes and their adornment, beyond the search for or subscription to beauty, and in terms of representing who they are? That is presenting themselves to the world as they would like to be regarded as opposed to how they think they should be regarded. All with a side of “Why can’t this be art?”
I have come to appreciate fashion as an art form. Actually, that is a little misleading – I have come to understand the way in which people dress themselves to be an art form. I see the creativity that extends beyond the beauty of the initial designs of the garments, which grace catwalks and the pages of glossy magazines. I am referring to the end product of people choosing what to put on their body, what to adorn themselves with be it their clothing or something more permanent such as piercings or tattoos, that allow the world at large to catch a glimpse of the person that lies beneath.

I used my laptop’s dictionary in an attempt to find a definition of art, it said that art is, ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form’. It is the element of expression that I am particularly fascinated by – having the opportunity to interact with the persona that someone represents as the physical manifestation of her or his inner self. It is yet another example of art being used in order to represent or explore what is otherwise a potentially inaccessible abstraction. The self.

I am a feminist. I have always liked clothes. I juxtapose those two statements purely for the effect, although I am a little bit late to the party given that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer already wrote quite a compelling article, ‘Why Can’t A Smart Woman Love Fashion?’ You see, it is often expected that feminists or women who take themselves seriously, will neither enjoy clothing or fashion, nor see it as a form of self-expression or creativity – art. Instead, they will see clothing as yet another (frivolous) means by which the status quo regulates women’s bodies. This is with good reason as prevailing beauty standards are often exclusionary: racist, ageist, sizeist, ableist and many other things to boot. There is in fact a rigidity in place in the over arching beauty discourse of mainstream society, in terms of what can and cannot or rather what should or should not be worn by certain people, as well as value judgements in terms of who can be deemed attractive.

For some the clear solution to the issue of regulation of beauty seems to be a sustained boycott not only of things easily identifiable as being fashionable, but also boycotting the idea that clothing can hold any meaning. I’m not saying that everyone should go out there and embrace a particular brand of femininity complete with make up and high heels (not that there’s anything wrong with that if its what you enjoy). Neither am I suggesting that clothing or material possession usurp the importance of the inner self. Rather the point is that because we are the masters of our bodies we are entitled to present them and represent ourselves in any way that we see fit and that the way we dress presents such an opportunity.

Clothes, tattoos, jewellery are often deemed to communicate. As such, we might as well take the opportunity to express ourselves, our world views and our paradigms in the way in which we adorn ourselves and to do it with pride. A T-shirt and a pair of tracksuit bottoms worn for enjoyment meet this criteria perfectly. The goal is not to aid in the objectification of the human body through conformity to prevailing beauty norms, but rather to use our agency to better reflect the subject and our subjectivities. That is, to dress to express. That must be art.