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.
Lessons of defiance have always been taught by fashion’s great revolutionaries: its designers. Jean Paul Gaultier taught us that women can be kings. Thom Browne — he taught us that men can wear heels. And Alexander McQueen, in his spring 1999 show, had two giant robotic arms in the middle of his runway. And as the model, Shalom Harlow began to spin in between them, these two giant arms — furtively at first and then furiously, began to spray color onto her. McQueen, thus, before he took his own life, taught us that this body of ours is a canvas, a canvas we get to paint however we want.
Somebody who loved this world of fashion was Karar Nushi. He was a student and actor from Iraq. He loved his vibrant, eclectic clothes. However, he soon started receiving death threats for how he looked. He remained unfazed. He remained fabulous, until July 2017, when Karar was discovered dead on a busy street in Baghdad. He’d been kidnapped. He’d been tortured. And eyewitnesses say that his body showed multiple wounds. Stab wounds.
Two thousand miles away in Peshawar, Pakistani transgender activist Alisha was shot multiple times in May 2016. She was taken to the hospital, but because she dressed in women’s clothing, she was refused access to either the men’s or the women’s wards. What we choose to wear can sometimes be literally life and death. And even in death, we sometimes don’t get to choose. Alisha died that day and then was buried as a man.
What kind of world is this? Well, it’s one in which it’s natural to be afraid, to be frightened of this surveillance, this violence against our bodies and what we wear on them. However, the greater fear is that once we surrender, blend in and begin to disappear one after the other, the more normal this false conformity will look, the less shocking this oppression will feel.
For the children we are raising, the injustice of today could become the ordinary of tomorrow. They’ll get used to this, and they, too, might begin to see anything different as dirty, something to be hated, something to be extinguished, like lights to be put out, one by one, until darkness becomes a way of life. However, if I today, then you tomorrow, maybe even more of us someday, if we embrace our right to look like ourselves, then in the world that’s been violently whitewashed, we will become the pinpricks of color pushing through, much like those widows of Vrindavan.
How then, with so many of us, will the crosshairs of a gun be able to pick out Karar, Malala, Alisha? Can they kill us all? The time is now to stand up, to stand out. Where sameness is safeness, with something as simple as what we wear, we can draw every eye to ourselves to say that there are differences in this world, and there always will be. Get used to it. And this we can say without a single word. Fashion can give us a language for dissent. It can give us courage. Fashion can let us literally wear our courage on our sleeves. So wear it. Wear it like armor. Wear it because it matters. And wear it because you matter.