How Fashion Helps Us Express Who We Are – And What We Stand For: Kaustav Dey (Transcript)

Kaustav Dey – Fashion revolutionary

I was around 10 when one day, I discovered a box of my father’s old things. In it, under a bunch of his college textbooks, was a pair of black corduroy bell-bottom pants. These pants were awful — musty and moth-eaten. And of course, I fell in love with them. I’d never seen anything like them. Until that day, all I’d ever known and worn was my school uniform, which, in fact, I was pretty grateful for, because from quite a young age, I’d realized I was somewhat different. I’d never been one of the boys my age; terrible at sports, possibly the unmanliest little boy ever.

I was bullied quite a bit. And so, I figured that to survive I would be invisible, and the uniform helped me to seem no different from any other child.

Well, almost. This became my daily prayer: “God, please make me just like everybody else.” I think this went straight to God’s voicemail, though.

And eventually, it became pretty clear that I was not growing up to be the son that my father always wanted. Sorry, Dad. No, I was not going to magically change. And over time, I grew less and less sure that I actually wanted to. Therefore, the day those black corduroy bell-bottom pants came into my life, something happened. I didn’t see pants; I saw opportunity. The very next day, I had to wear them to school, come what may. And once I pulled on those god-awful pants and belted them tight, almost instantly, I developed what can only be called a swagger.

All the way to school, and then all the way back because I was sent home at once — I transformed into a little brown rock star. I finally didn’t care anymore that I could not conform. That day, I was suddenly celebrating it. That day, instead of being invisible, I chose to be looked at, just by wearing something different. That day, I discovered the power of what we wear. That day, I discovered the power of fashion, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

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Fashion can communicate our differences to the world for us. And with this simple act of truth, I realized that these differences — they stopped being our shame. They became our expressions, expressions of our very unique identities. And we should express ourselves, wear what we want. What’s the worst that could happen? The fashion police are going to get you for being so last season?

Yeah. Well, unless the fashion police meant something entirely different. Nobel Prize laureate Malala survived Taliban extremists in October 2012. However, in October 2017, she faced a different enemy, when online trolls viciously attacked the photograph that showed the 20-year-old wearing jeans that day. The comments, the hatred she received, ranged from “How long before the scarf comes off?” to, and I quote, “That’s the reason the bullet directly targeted her head a long time ago.” Now, when most of us decide to wear a pair of jeans someplace like New York, London, Milan, Paris, we possibly don’t stop to think that it’s a privilege; something that somewhere else can have consequences, something that can one day be taken away from us.

My grandmother was a woman who took extraordinary pleasure in dressing up. Her fashion was colorful. And the color she loved to wear so much was possibly the only thing that was truly about her, the one thing she had agency over, because like most other women of her generation in India, she’d never been allowed to exist beyond what was dictated by custom and tradition. She’d been married at 17, and after 65 years of marriage, when my grandfather died suddenly one day, her loss was unbearable. But that day, she was going to lose something else as well, the one joy she had: to wear color. In India, according to custom, when a Hindu woman becomes a widow, all she’s allowed to wear is white from the day of the death of her husband. No one made my grandmother wear white. However, every woman she’d known who had outlived her husband, including her mother, had done it. This oppression was so internalized, so deep-rooted, that she herself refused a choice. She passed away this year, and until the day she died, she continued to wear only white.

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I have a photograph with her from earlier, happier times. In it, you can’t really see what she’s wearing — the photo is in black and white. However, from the way she’s smiling in it, you just know she’s wearing color. This is also what fashion can do. It has the power to fill us with joy, the joy of freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to look, how we want to live — a freedom worth fighting for. And fighting for freedom, protest, comes in many forms.

Widows in India like my grandmother, thousands of them, live in a city called Vrindavan. And so, it’s been a sea of white for centuries. However, only as recently as 2013, the widows of Vrindavan have started to celebrate Holi, the Indian festival of color, which they are prohibited from participating in. On this one day in March, these women take the traditional colored powder of the festival and color each other. With every handful of the powder they throw into the air, their white saris slowly start to suffuse with color. And they don’t stop until they’re completely covered in every hue of the rainbow that’s forbidden to them. The color washes off the next day, however, for that moment in time, it’s their beautiful disruption. This disruption, any kind of dissonance, can be the first gauntlet we throw down in a battle against oppression. And fashion — it can create visual disruption for us — on us, literally.

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