Our Abrahamic faiths tell us that when Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness, they sought to cover themselves with the leaves of the plants in Paradise. Such was the beginning of clothing.
Humankind have since that time moved from one form of clothing to multiple methods of covering up themselves. Today, the global apparel market is valued at close to US$2 trillion and employing approximately 75 million people.
While the choices of clothing are exhaustive and rapidly changing in today’s world, a human being’s decision on what to wear and their appearance is dictated by countless factors. These factors range from economic to cultural, to religious, to style, to comfort, to practicability, to where in the world one finds oneself among so many other reasons.
Humankind’s fascination with dress and clothing has also gone through many transformations, and it is safe to say that dress is one of those aspects of life which continue to be closely watched, debated, criticized, envied, admired and despised –– all in one.
The world is full of “fashion police” for and critics and admirers of another person’s type, form and colour of clothing.
Barbados hasn’t been exempt when it comes to dress and the many debates that go along with the way someone chooses to adorn himself or herself. Over the years, these debates, like a pendulum, have swung between someone wearing too little to another wearing too much. Many Barbadians have also weighed in on the dress issues –– from academics, fashion gurus, priests and authority figures to the average man or woman on the street.
What is it that intrigues human beings and drives their fascination with dress and what they wear or don’t wear? Perhaps, thousands of books can be written on this subject, and perhaps have already been written.
I recall as a child reading in school The Emperor’s New Clothes. I’m not sure if that story is still taught today, but, as comical as it is, it is also instructional, with several different lessons that may be extracted. Rereading it, as I wrote this column, reminded me so much of the many happenings in our society today, even outside of the topic
An emperor, whose only desire was to wear the latest fashion, ignored all of his important duties and responsibilities, only to be swindled by two tailors who wove him an “invisible” outfit, supposedly seen only by intelligent people. His advisors, unwilling to tell him he was naked so they won’t be accused of being stupid, and fired, praised the so-called outfit as outstanding.
Eager to show off, the emperor paraded through the streets in his new clothes –– stark naked.
In recent times, there has been in Barbados much discussion on what we wear, how much we wear or don’t wear, and what is appropriate wear for times and places. Laws govern uniforms for our protective services, schools, courts, and many other institutions –– Government and non-governmental. And even with laws in place, debate has yet raged over what is expected and accepted.
From acceptable school uniforms to the very recent discussion of wear in the Police Force, these debates are a symptom of the changing world we find ourselves in and the accepted norms and practices that have come under scrutiny.
As a maturing and changing society, Barbadians must expect to go through these phases and we must, as a society, thoroughly and exhaustively examine all the issues. And we should never shy away from questioning, in a respectful manner, those long established traditions and their place in our society nigh 50 years after Independence.
I am sure with questioning will come answers, clarification and perhaps change for the better.
As mentioned earlier, what we wear is dictated by a myriad of reasons. In Barbados, this is no exception. Whereas in so many other countries of the world there is an easily identifiable form, type and even colour of dress associated with those places, unfortunately the same is not for us –– except perhaps for colour (ultramarine, gold and black). Perhaps historical considerations are a cause for this situation.
We live with the reality that our society has different expressive forms of dress –– these forms dictated hugely by cultural norms and economics. But religious motives are also very present. My faith, and so too, I am sure, all the other faiths present here in Barbados will subscribe to a concept of modest dress. And while it may be argued that “modest” is relative, and can be interpreted differently, people practising their faith will seek to abide by a form of dress that would not expose too much and would be considered respectable by the right-thinking.
In recent times we have heard priests lamenting the type |of wear now found at church services, funerals, and even worn in the wider society. Too short and too tight a skirt for women, and inappropriate low-hanging pants for men has been the cry. Perhaps these forms of dress considered inappropriate by some are an expression of choice dictated by cultural norms that have evolved from a fashion industry that has effectively utilized so-called “role models” in their quest to market the type of wear they see as appropriate. The story of The Emperor’s New Clothes may be very relevant today.
For Muslims, the cry from several in the society has been the opposite: the wearing of too much by some Muslim women –– the face and head covering especially being scrutinized. By and large, Muslims will make every attempt
to stick to their religiously mandated rules of modest dress. And the expressions of modest dress will vary from one Muslim community to another, depending on the people’s backgrounds.
So while we may see in some communities a lot of white for men and a lot of black for women, in other communities, especially in Africa and some parts of South-East Asia, Muslims of both genders wear a lot of colour.
But sticking to particular forms of dress is not only the case for Muslims. Many Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and even persons of particular nationalities and cultural backgrounds will also ensure compliance to a particular form or style of dress.
So the “sari”, common to Hindu women in India, is still worn here in Barbados by some Hindi women, while the traditional turban is still very much worn by Sikh men. Monty Panesar, the famous English cricketer, continues to wear his head covering while playing.
And many Africans will not give up their traditional dress even as they travel overseas. Even some Orthodox Jews can be mistaken for Muslims for having a style of dress which some Muslims wear.
Our society will continue to grapple with the ever-changing world of fashion and dress, and as the world becomes even smaller through technology and travel, we will be exposed to different and seemingly more exotic forms of dress.
I continue to advocate that we as a society must learn about others. Learning about others will include being aware of what they wear and the dress codes they subscribe to, and hopefully this will help in removing much of the stigma attached to other cultures, traditions and faiths.
The awareness that Black History Month has brought to Barbadians regarding African wear is one positive step in that direction. Beyond the outward manifestation of African wear, it is a positive step in creating a mindset that all wear is not dictated by the “fashionistas” and catwalks of the Western world.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association.
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