Wanders and Wonders
I’ll be back in the UK shortly, and have started thinking about what that is going to be like. Getting on the Tube at Heathrow; walking past the same food outlets in every station; using pedestrian crossings that are recognised as such; WiFi everywhere…I wonder what noticeable changes hi-end technology which have wrought to public space (more video ads on the Tube no doubt). I wonder what people will be wearing.
I don’t follow fashion but I’m intrigued by clothes. Sartorial semantics was part of what made walking round East London with your shades on so fascinating. Some of the more seemingly outlandish outfits you’d see are a reflection of social conventions and often interpreted as conservative. The burka is the most notorious example. On others the most eye-catching couture is worn and read as rebellion, as avant-garde, as liberation from social mores and an expression of pure individualism. The look of the latter is pretty fluid – as soon as hipsterism is recognised as a thing, the ‘original hipsters’ will look to convert, subvert, ironise or deny the trend by wearing something more ‘extreme’ (which could mean a suit and tie). Of course, you could always make the point that in breaking the rules you’re only playing the game, but anyway…
I was having lunch with a friend in La Paz last week who is soon due to start teaching a Masters course on multiculturalism. The subject is taught as part of the State’s university Education degree, and his students will include many working class indigenous Bolivians. Young people whose cultural identity may well be closely bound up with the government’s ‘decolonising’ efforts, looking to reverse the centuries of oppression of indigenous communities in Bolivia. Nonetheless the course – which challenges Western conceptions of ‘multiculturalism’ – will (at least for now) be taught in Castellano rather than Aymara, Quechua or one of the others dozens of languages spoken here that pre-dated the Spanish conquest.
My friend and I were talking about women and multiculturalism, and thus clothing. ‘Traditional’ dress is very prominent in Bolivia, personified especially by the female ‘cholita’ with her braided hair, bowler hat, layered skirts, shawl and aguayo. A clothing choice with a complex history, the style was adopted from the Spanish colonisers (apart from the bowler hat – that came from the Brits supposedly), but became a colourful symbol of Bolivian national and indigenous identity – a significance reinforced by the current government’s styling as the ‘first elected indigenous’ leadership. Though it doesn’t carry a specific religious importance, this dressing of the Bolivian female as a representation of cultural pride, perseverance and preservation implies many of the same forces at work as when the ever-contentious topic of women and Islam is discussed. While women from immigrant communities in the East End of London use clothes to maintain their cultural distinctiveness in their new yet foreign home, in Bolivia it is more often the forces of internal migration at work, rural traditions seeking to avoid the homogenisation of globalised urban lifestyles.
It bugs me greatly that women’s bodies have to bear so much of the burden of ‘cultural identity’ in the way they are appareled – but then I’d also be sorry to see everyone’s tastes dictated by nothing more than the whims of the fashion and media industries too. For me the strange thing about coming from ‘the dominant culture’ is that I don’t really feel like I have one. I’m excited to come back and share in British music and the sense of humour and the unique cosiness of the UK at Christmas time; to feel ‘at home’ in that intangible yet very forceful way that comes from strong connections with where you grew up. But ask me to describe my “cultural identity” and I couldn’t – to me it feels amorphous and ubiquitously informed. Most importantly, it’s not threatened, I’m not trying to preserve anything. Although people all over the world would instantly define me as a Western woman, not only because of the colour of my skin but because of everything about the way I look, I don’t feel as if I make any deliberate choices to dress in order to display my ‘roots’ or ‘heritage’ or ‘culture’ or ‘identity’, because generally I don’t feel like I really have those things. But of course, how can I know other women really make deliberate choices about these things either – we just get dressed in the morning out of habit, right?