The transformative powers of fashion: Do I define my clothes, or do my clothes define me?

The transformative powers of fashion: Do I define my clothes, or do my clothes define me?

Dress versus man

Text: Jolene Khor

"Don't be such a drama queen," I clicked my tongue at beauty writer Emily as she regaled the Buro. Singapore team with the story about the one time I made her go to sleep with her makeup on for a story in her new column, Like a Virgin. Pure at heart she may not be (whoever says they are, are a liar), but her skin was truly, at the time, uncorrupted by the number one cardinal sin of beauty. Laughing, I said proudly, "I made a mortal out of you."

Lest I forget, I too, am mere flesh and blood, and therefore am prone to the same dramatism I teased her for. Emily and I carry the same burden of occupational hazard. Because of the nature of our jobs, no matter how we try to spin it — fashion is art, beauty is a state of mind — they draw a lot of attention to our umm... physical welfare. Well, physical welfare, vanity... tomaytoes, tomahtoes. We don't need the help of social media to hold ourselves to unattainably high standards of perfection, though they are by no means vitamins to our self-esteem.

The transformative powers of fashion: Do I define my clothes, or do my clothes define me? (фото 1)

Alas. The difference between Emily's little experiment and mine, is that mine is self-inflicted. Out of morbid curiosity, I embarked on a journey on which I wore other people's clothes. By the end of my experience, I would like to be able to answer one of the many existential questions that have plagued my mind once upon a time and a half: do we define the clothes we wear, or do our clothes define us? It's easy to jump the gun and raise our hands to the idea that we are the masters of our fate, therefore we are also the masters of our clothes. But I also had a nagging suspicion that we give our clothes identity just as much as they establish ours, such as the case with uniforms, in large parts for others to identity and associate (or disassociate) with us. Hey, birds of a feather flock together... and who am I to argue with nature?

My first foreignwear (yes I came up with that terminology) was my ex-boss's. Norman Tan is a household name in Singapore — within the fashion community, at least. Under his mentorship (TBH, some of the best times in my career so far), it was impossible to meet anyone in the industry without his name coming up. "Where/how is Norman?" was the most common query if he was not standing next to me. Sometimes, it was delivered within the same breath as an acquaintance's "hello". Norman's Instagram shenanigans were sure to surface as well. In fact, my identity (and by extension, my reputation) preceded me, because I was often featured on his feed with followers upwards of 13 thousand.

I know what you're thinking: I was cornered into the shadows of the man whose sparkle I may never live up to. True it would be only if he wasn't one of my biggest supporters. And he was. Is. I'd be lying though, if I said his The H.W. Dog & Co. hat (which I wore with his Celine camp collar shirt and gold Cartier necklace, as pictured above) didn't rouse my insecurities, particularly because it was massive on me, flopping about with every move I made. I always thought I had a big head, literally, but clearly not big enough to fill Norman's headwear. I like to think it was the universe's way of telling me that despite my successes, I still know my place, that my head hadn't gotten that big, if idioms are to be taken seriously.

I borrowed my second outfit from beauty writer Emily. More precisely, she borrowed it on my behalf from her mother, a society lady who loves dressing up in brand names I only dare dream and write about. My eyebrows raised to the heavens when she presented to me what would be my OOTD — a Manish Arora dress with an A-line skirt and digital print of the galactical nature, seemingly incomplete without beads and sequins. Lots of them. It didn't matter that the dress was about two sizes too big for me. Even if it fit me right, it wouldn't fit me right in a way that counts. I've never been one to back out from a dare, no matter who imposed it, and I wasn't going to then. That dress, the Jimmy Choo minaudière, and those oversized pink Gentle Monster sunglasses be damned.

If I thought the dress was physically uncomfortable (it was a little stiff, so I in turn, was more stiff than usual), I had another thing coming. While my colleagues were able to spot my Norman impersonation from a mile away, my shower in girly luxury was more innocuous. Eager for their opinions, I asked a couple of them who had no idea about my experimentation what they thought of my outfit, if it was drastically different from my usual getup. To my astonishment — and slight contempt — they felt that the outfit was decisively me. When asked if it was more feminine than usual, I got a unanimous "no".

"How could it be?" I all but shouted at them, sure that the frock hanging off my back was the furthest thing from what I try to project — fierce androgyny with a side of Gummy Bear. Make of it what you will. I must have masked my discomfort better than I thought because they praised the dress (Manish gained a few new fans that day) and my wearing of it. As for the departure from my daily style, they didn't notice because to them, I "always mix it up" anyway.

The transformative powers of fashion: Do I define my clothes, or do my clothes define me? (фото 2)

As I wrap my head around that, and unwrap myself from Manish fall/winter 2012, it dawned on me that how I see myself is probably different from how people see me. And a lot of my projections of myself — the negative ones, especially — live in my head. You see, I hated that dress because I felt I had to/was expected to behave in a girly way, because I looked girly. You probably can't tell by looking at me now, but growing up, I learned wrongly that excessive girliness is a sign of weakness. I was bullied for being vain; I was laughed at for caring about how I looked. The more I cared, the more they mocked. While my experience didn't stop me (haters, look where I am now), I sure harboured shame about that which felt, and still feels, second nature to me. And that shame perhaps isn't put to rest.

The transformative powers of fashion: Do I define my clothes, or do my clothes define me? (фото 3)

Departing further and further from my everyday get-up, I saved my most drastic fashion transformation for last. I've never been a fan of polo T-shirts, and I suspect it had everything to do with the fact that my dad wore them all the time for golf. You know, golf, the least sexy sport of all time. For this assignment, mine was bright yellow, paired with a hard hat. I have to say, I was probably the most OTT, impractical construction worker, I beg your pardon, fake construction worker there ever was. Never mind that I tucked the top into belted high-waist jorts with raw hems, my hair, my highlighter, and contour game was on fi-yah. After an hour or so, I stopped wearing the hat because it was crushing my hair. If I was going to be dressed in a heinous outfit, I sure wasn't going to have heinous hat head when I was through with it.

You could say that I was overcompensating. And very intentionally so, even though I wasn't going to step out of my office without first removing the gear. Because I had to dress plainly, I was adamant I wasn't actually going to be plain. Which is just my way of saying that before I could give others the chance to judge me, I was already judging myself. I never for a second would have thought that the socialite outfit and the construction outfit would have that much in common, if at all, but the reactions they conjured from me were eerily similar — each time, I allowed my clothes to change how I feel about myself.

The transformative powers of fashion: Do I define my clothes, or do my clothes define me? (фото 4)

There were a few surprises over the course of the week.

For one, I learned that I define my clothes more than they actually define me. Yes, my clothes are a reflection of who I am, but more often than not, I project myself (and in tandem, my insecurities) on them. A lot of the reality about my fashion identity, especially in areas where I lack, are rarely externalised. It sounds crazy when I write it down, but I've always judged myself for having "subpar" clothing, certainly not good enough to impress my head-to-toe designer peers. In my mind, I'm always the pre-makeover Andy Sachs of The Devil Wears Prada, no matter how many "makeovers" I give myself, no matter how many levels of upgrade my wardrobe goes through.

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I developed this complex growing up. I wasn't poor, mind you. I was never physically hungry, but I was hungry in fashion; my new duds came from flea markets, and not the chic kind. That hunger, that constant yearning, didn't leave a lot of room for kindness, resulting in judgement which never wavered even when I graduated from nada to Prada, from flea to Fendi, only to realise that neither can measure my worth. Not even how "fashion" I am. Because fashion, though a tactile industry, is in many ways intrinsic. A good piece of clothing is functional; a great piece of clothing is fashion. And it's not fashion without history, context, know-how... all of which are measured with the same yardstick regardless of age, profession, economical status of the people who wear it, understand it, or admire it — the very conditions that determined my wardrobe over the last week.

Carrie Bradshaw says that love is a label that will never go out of style. She may not be referring to that of the self, but I am. And that will always be enough.