Wearing a uniform and Oxford shoes when I was in grammar school never bothered me. I liked the comfort, the consistency, and the knee socks. Clothes fascinate me. When I see someone’s toes draping over the front their sandals, or a woman struggling down the street in high heels, or pants so tight that they might rip if she tripped, my curiosity charges stories and questions that live in my head.
I used to think that men designed women’s shoes. My trips to the shoe store as a child confirmed this. The only person who ever hitched up his shoe stool to my foot was a man. I got it: men conspired to keep us under control through women’s’ shoe sales. Many women have been convinced that stiletto heels are a sign of beauty, and they do look good, as long as the woman wearing them does not have to go anywhere, or escape from something. In stilettos, her walking is clipped and the heel teeters to balance on a pinpoint. Women pour themselves into high heels that would prove challenging for even the most expert tightrope dancer.
I used to think that boys were exempt from restrictive clothing. Suits look comfortable, as long as they are not tight. I wore a tie for the two weeks that I was a Brownie and it was cool. The average guy wears things that allow him freedom of movement. Until the grunge look came in and boys found it fashionable to show their underwear. That’s fine, show your underwear, but why would someone give up his freedom of movement to adhere to this insignificant fashion statement? Suddenly, boys could not run, much less walk without their pants dropping to the ground. Fortunately, this fashion has died out and now that the boys have their hands back, they can tuck in their underwear, and run about again.
For lots of reasons, a uniform was always safe for me. I am not suggesting or condoning uniforms. This is personal preference. Even today I have a uniform: four dresses that I wear to work, wear hiking, travelling, and a myriad of other things. I shop once a year if I absolutely have to, and I avoid the mirror. I do not care what other people wear and I never ever thought anyone but my mother would have anything to say about my dress.
All of that changed when I went to India last week with my four dresses, all sleeveless, several inches above the knee – practical and cool. I rode an elephant, and a horse, climbed in and out of tuk-tuks, taxis, trains, boats. And I was a sensation! Everywhere I went people asked me if they could have a picture of me. People propped their children against my bare knees, and we all smiled. Groups of school children bellowed with laughter when they saw me. When I was stuck in the middle of a girls’ school group, their soft hands brushed my arms as they drifted by. When I saw the Himalayas for the first time, I wore leggings because my celebrity status was exhausting me. As I climbed to the viewpoint, 10 boys ran behind me begging for a picture. What they saw in my dress was just what I was seeing in theirs: their heritage, and their style just scratching the surface of their identity. No matter where we are from, what we wear is one of the first things that we experience when we enter a different culture from our own: the first impression. It is all about the fabric, its color and how it is wrapped.
When we were heading back to Kuala Lumpur, we came across some women wearing the niqab. When I see veiled women my radar kicks in. I admit that I have a hard time not staring. But it is like staring at the Himalayas, or riding an elephant. It lights up my mind; it takes me to a place beyond my reach. My curiosity little to do with whether or not they have the right to wear something else. My curiosity with them is the same as it is with high heels and the fall-down pants. Why would anyone wear something that restricted movement or sight? I know the answer. Clothing defines who we are, but it doesn’t have to.