My father arrived from Jamaica on his own in 1944, I think. He was enamoured with the Britain of the Empire and wanted to come to the United Kingdom not only to be part of the war effort, but also for the chance ride the red London buses through the smog filled streets of a capital city he had only a fantasy objectivity about from his lessons in school. Of all the aims he had in life, one of his biggest was to buy a suit from Saville Row. With his first few pay checks he did exactly that, purchasing a grey fitted handmade suit after the war. He was so incredibly proud of this item, and the feeling that it gave him of having finally made it, that he had become British.
The years of racism he endured since then therefore hurt him to his core.
In our society, in the modern day, there is a drive to see decolonisation as the stripping down of everything external which represents an era since past. Those symbols, those names, who reflect the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonialist ideologies which then led to the dominance of the cultures of the Global North over the South, are then seen as wrong. These are statues which need to be toppled into canals, laws which need to be repealed, histories which need to be told in full.
Now, whilst I agree with some, if not all of this, one of the most difficult aspects of decolonisation is the recognition that even if we burn it all down and decide to start over, there is and will always be one set of structures which will endure. Like a polaroid picture held within a tin box which survives the fire that burnt down the building it was a picture of, the image of the colonised self continues on within us all.
It is also important to consider just how subtle some of the imposed cultural structures are for us all. From my father’s belief that to be accepted he needed to dress like an Englishman, this is a story which will hold echoes for many of you reading this blog. So many of you will have decided that you wanted to fit in; that you wanted to have the right hair, correct outfit, attend the coolest club, go on holiday to wherever is considered the most trendy place on the planet this month.
Trends are set like ideals, and we all scurry along trying to keep up with them, so we are not seen as weird, as gauche, or as the other, and how we use our clothes is a major aspect of this. This month’s blog, together with some of the subsequent blogs to come, begins an exploration of just how much we need to decolonise ourselves lest we simply just rebuild the destroyed house back using the image rescued from the fires.
My therapist gave me a podcast, which I will listen to later, about how colonialism and the wearing of trousers are, for example, linked (Walker et al., 2020). Anyone from another culture that wore dresses, skirts, sarongs, or anything that did not encase the genitals was seen as less civilised. I did some reading around how the kilt was banned by the English in Scotland (as were the bagpipes) for a considerable time (Mackinnon, 2017). I had little idea of just how many cultures suffered and had to give up their clothing so as not to appear too native, or uncivilised under the Coloniser’s Gaze. That disapproving, distasteful look of racial or cultural condescension can be rapier piercingly tough to be around, I realised when I was growing up.
So many of our behaviours fit into this idea of the colonisation of our clothing as a means of denoting who is acceptable and who is not. The ‘I wear the trousers in this house,’ narrative used by the family or cultural patriarch is one which still resonates to this day. Versus the vilification of men in sarongs (remember David Beckham?), or in skirts should they identify as say Trans (Bachmann, Chaka L; Gooch, 2018). This binding up of the genital area, for example, was designed to make the cultural or racialised other appear so much more civilised by a standard imposed upon them from their colonisers. The efforts made to make the other conform within this type of stereotyping of clothing has also had a major impact upon mental health of those whose identities were a lot more diverse, seemingly more rebellious by the centre, when they were unable to break free of the clothing constraints culture had placed upon them.
Even within some of our most classic literature, the idea that to be accepted, one had to dress like an Englishman was prevalent. From the classic line, ‘clothes maketh the man’ from Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, to Viola pretending to be a man in Lady Macbeth, the idea that for one to be accepted, or to be safe, meant that one had to look and dress like a white man of stature (Shakespeare, 2006).
Even in more contemporary forms, films such as Trading Places with Eddie Murphy or Working Girl with Melanie Griffiths, where in both instances the gendered and racial other looks to be accepted within a male or capitalist world, meaning they have to adapt, to perform, to power dress, wear shoulder pads, or pinstriped suits (Landis, 1983; Nichols, 1988). Or in the film Mrs Doubtfire with Robin Williams where to win back access to his kids he has to contend with a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan and his fit and toned Celtic form (Columbus, 1993).
Standards of dress, like standards of beauty, have been controlled by the coloniser from its inception, so much so that it is often second nature to judge someone else for not presenting the right image because they are not wearing the right school tie, shirt, label on their jacket, or holding the right bag. Fashion in many ways is as riddled with the scars of colonialism as any Western cultural endeavour.
I have been asking myself some important questions about what it is to be a black man, hence the outfit(s). I do a lot of work to push the boundaries as a POC, so this will include asking questions about what kinds of clothes define me as a man, especially in this culture. Wearing a sarong around my own house should mean nothing, but it is interesting how much just the idea of this brings up for people around me.
When I was a teenager, like most of us, I took whatever money I had from my part-time job and spent a good portion of it on clothes. Living in West London, I loved visiting Kensington Market, with its alternative or second-hand stalls which sold a variety of styles, or Hyper Hyper across the road, with its designers. Clothes meant a lot to me growing up. I watched and was drawn to Cameo, Grace Jones, and Prince, none of whom were the most normal of dressers, all of whom found their own style and made it work for them. Yet, alongside all this, was always the pull of the coloniser; from the school uniforms we all wore, to the basic blue of the Royal Air Force, to the shirt, trousers and tie of the office, ways to fit in, to comply, dress codes which mark out how we are seen within a society. This dichotomy of styles would of course become internalised. From my father’s example, to the messages from this English society, the colonisation of all of us through how we dress and how we look, it would have been impossible to avoid.
Decolonisation, as I have said and as I will keep on saying in my next hardback and paperback is not just about the external. Decolonisation is about the internalisation of all the ways that one has become colonised. From my father and, who eschewed the garments more naturally worn in Jamaica, in Ghana, in India or China, in favour of those bought from Saville Row, Marks and Spencer’s or Selfridges. To others who wore flipflops whilst living in the favelas of Belo Horizonte whilst hoping to wear the latest leather made boots from LK Bennett. Colonisation of clothing is actually a very important facet of the battle we all face. So, whilst many claim to want the external world to change for us, that it all needs to be burnt down in order for us all to start again, just remember how much of the air of colonialism we have already imbibed into our expansive lungs. Remembering how much of said colonised O2 rotates around our system, permeating every single cell, bringing meaning to us, whilst keeping us alive, then brings into focus just how important it is to decolonise ourselves first. To ask the important questions, such as; how did my relatives past, my ancestors, survive colonialism, what did they have to give up along the way in order to be seen as human, and what has been passed down towards me in this generation? These types of questions open doors to understanding just what decolonisation of the psyche even means, and also just how difficult (yet not impossible) this process actually is. And it is important that we ask ourselves these questions, it really is. Otherwise, all we are left with is the fantasy creation of a dystopian wasteland of annihilated social structures populated by people who still hark back to the ways, the means, the structures, the languages, the behaviours and the dress senses of days since lost.
The most interesting thing about writing this months blog was the level of resistance I had to posting a picture, let alone being honest in what I wanted to say. Second guessing myself, the fear of judgement, worry that i’ve gone too far, all of these subliminal superegoic messages almost prevented me saying, doing, and wearing what I felt was appropriate to make my point. It was the inner force of authenticity which helped here, and which has always helped.
So I ask you the reader; how do you censor yourself in what you wear? How is your clothing colonised?
Bachmann, Chaka L; Gooch, B. (2018). LGBT in Britain – Health. https://www.stonewall.org.uk/lgbt-britain-health
Columbus, C. (1993). Mrs Doubtfire. Twentieth Century Fox.
Landis, J. (1983). Trading Places. Paramount Pictures.
Mackinnon, I. (2017). Colonialism and the Highland Clearances. Northern Scotland, 8(1), 22–48. https://doi.org/10.3366/nor.2017.0125
Nichols, M. (1988). Working Girl. Twentieth Century Fox.
Shakespeare, W. (2006). The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: The Alexander Text (New Alexan). Collins.
Walker, J., Remski, M., & Beres, D. (2020). Conspirituality Podcast: Body Politic Recovery. Conspirituality Podcast. https://conspirituality.net/wellness/24-body-politic-recovery-w-tada-hozumi/