The story our clothing and bodies tell fashion is one of the few social art forms. It is both personal and communal, necessity and luxury, camouflage and spotlight. The way we dress gives us the opportunity to express ourselves to others while allowing others to form judgments and assumptions. Whether we are interested in controlling the narrative of our individual style or not, our clothing tells a story to the rest of our community in which the creator and audience are both active participants.
Pre-pandemic, I was pulled between two worlds of style, neither of which fully embraced me. In my rural Irish secondary school, the go-to night-out look was a short, plain PLT dress (often in the universally flattering red, black or white) with worn-out block heels. We were 99p Bond girls; inoffensively and classically femme with a thread loose here and there. When I moved to Dublin in 2018, this safe formula was thrown out in favour of the vintage-clad urban punk uniform of Temple Bar. To sport electric pink hair, fishnets as an undershirt, and studded platform boots is to blend in. These polarising schools of clothing are not dissimilar. I was drawn to both through my desire to be accepted and to fit the mould – to construct a story that felt safe. I felt misplaced in both because of my body type. There was constant narrative being told to me, about me, by others because of the shape of my body.
Thinness is an inescapable topic in fashion. Despite recent attempts to include curvier and plus-sized bodies in the fashion industry, this movement has not entirely surpassed the commercial field into the realm of high fashion. In my secondary school days, I was often criticised for my clothing in ways many of my other friends weren’t. Being a 34DD, I received unwanted attention in which I was condemned as ‘having asked for’. A dress perfectly acceptable on a friend with a smaller chest only printed a single word on mine: ‘Slut’.
In the world of more experimental fashion, looks that are desirable or edgy on thinner frames will not have the same effect on larger bodies. It is not the clothing that is desired, but the body. It is harder to find vintage and reclaimed pieces for sizes 12 and upward. Despite attempts to be more androgynous, hide my curves and explore my gender, the story my body told was: ‘Woman’. The same problem is rampant in these seemingly opposing communities – thin bodies are read as ‘high fashion’, ‘high art’ while curvier bodies tell us ‘commercial’, ‘affordable’, and essentially, less valuable. It is impossible to ignore these issues of sexism, fatphobia, and elitism in the fashion industry.
The pandemic allowed me and many others to tell personal stories to private audiences through our clothing. Escapist and maximalist trends surged through fashion outlets. I found myself experimenting with these looks in the safety of meeting with friends and family. For a while, I bleached my eyebrows without this fear of not looking ‘pretty’. I was able to ‘free the nipple’ through mesh and chainmail (a privilege the media will only accept on smaller cup sizes) without my body being immediately sexualised. I participated in the corset trend and Cottagecore aesthetic in the confines of my university accommodation room.
Eccentricity in my fashion brought joy to me in a global crisis – it took my everyday life to a fantastical place away from masks and hand sanitiser. The pandemic was a liberating time in personal fashion in that it allowed people to explore style without the watchful, predatory gaze of others. For the first time since early puberty, the way I presented my body expressed my narrative and mine alone, with no reader eager to critique. I found a way to enjoy sexuality in my clothing unashamedly through both urban and rural aesthetics.
Unfortunately, that dream of complete and unapologetic self-expression is harder to sustain in a post-COVID world. Although sexual assault is never a consequence of clothing choices – the recent spiking issue in our community, alongside the awareness that other people still feel ownership over our bodies and the messages it sends – strips us of our authorship, our nerve to cross boundaries with our clothing. Fashion is a social art form, and our society continues to judge that art through misogynistic and classist lenses.
It is up to the individual author whether they allow their readers’ inevitable judgment to change the story they wish to tell.