“A woman’s dress is a permanent revelation of her most secret thoughts, a language, and a symbol.”
– Balzac, Une filled’Eve
As one of the most visible forms of consumption, clothing fulfils a primary role in the social construction of identity. Clothing choices showcase how people interpret both their socio-cultural surroundings, as well as their selves through visible markers. In doing so, it forms a useful tool in both maintaining and subverting symbolic boundaries. Historically, clothing has been the principal means of identifying oneself in public space, and enabled an expression of not only one’s regional or religious identities, but also negotiated status boundaries through its expression of social class and gender.
Artefacts however, can also be understood as exercising a cultural ‘agency’, beyond being indicative of social behaviour and attitudes. Within this framework, clothing can be viewed as possessing a vast reservoir of meanings that can be manipulated or reconstructed, so as to enhance a person’s sense and image of self, and even agency. Interviews by social psychologists, such as Kaiser, Freedman & Chandler (1993) for instance, show that people attribute to their ‘favourite’ clothes, the capacity to influence the ways in which they express themselves and interact with others. The construction and presentation of self as determined by clothing choices therefore, is a malleable enterprise, and produce valuable sites for the examination of relationships between existing marginal and hegemonic discourses.
In any period, fashion discourses include a set of those that support conformity to dominant conceptions of social roles, and those that express social tensions pushing currently accepted perceptions of social roles in new directions; including those of marginal groups seeking acceptance for clothing behaviour that is seen as deviant or marginal according to existing notions of status or gender roles. Historically, gender, far more than class, has been forced to assume a salient role in clothing choices; wherein the patriarchal system not only dictates, but also regulates women’s clothing choices, in both direct and indirect ways.
Denied other modes of participation in the public sphere in earlier centuries, women were often identified with clothing — the only visible mode of their presence in the public sphere — and associated with monikers such as ‘petticoats’ or ‘lightskirts’. Further, female clothing choices have often been seen and policed within society, as reflective of the bipolar paradigm constructed by patriarchy within which women serve as representative of either the Madonna (virgin) or the whore. Within such a paradigm, women are essentially reduced to their sexuality, above all else, and clothing choices are perceived are representative of their sexuality, whether intended, or not. In a consumerist world that has successfully brought about a widespread commodification of sex, and played into this paradigm, the sexual objectification of women (particularly as represented by fashion trends) has reached an apex in our contemporary times. These cultural practices and social attitudes, that have furthered an unfortunate climate of victim blaming in instances of sexual harassment, producing the false understanding that women’s clothing choices could be responsible for sexual abuse of any kind. Although empirical studies have proven the lack of any evidence to support a causal relationship between women’s clothing choices and instances of sexual harassment; and statistics show that men may perceive any kind of self presentation as desirable, including conventionally acceptable or appropriate clothing, societal impulses nevertheless focus on limiting women’s movements and choices by holding them responsible for harassment faced, as opposed to male perpetrators.
In such a milieu, where gender inequity — the primary cause of sexual harassment — remains unaddressed and women’s behaviour and clothing choices are constantly called into question, women often feel the need to protect themselves by conforming to these expectations and thereby restricting themselves from exposure, self expression and an engagement with their desires.
Cairo-based photographer, Roger Anis, decided to confront this issue by making diptychs of portraits of women, alongside the clothes they would like to wear, but find themselves unable to. Reaching beyond sexism, this photographic series, titled Closets Full of Dreams, addresses intersectional themes of ageism, body image, religious traditions and even political expression. In an article featured in TIME’s Lightbox, Anis notes that, “it’s not just about clothing. It’s the idea that there is no freedom for women in general.”
Fashion is often construed as the reduction of self-identity to image, or spectacle, and a frivolous pursuit, ironically, associated with the female sex. A Harvard Women’s Law Journal article that explores the legal justifications of gender-specific clothing regulations as a study in patriarchy, begins with the following quote by H. L. A. Hart, made in The Concept of Law in 1979:
“In contrast with the morals, the rules of…dress…occupy a relatively low place in the scale of serious importance. They may be tiresome to follow, but they do not demand great sacrifice: no great pressure is exerted to obtain conformity and no great alterations in other areas of social life would follow if they were not observed or [were] changed.”
This is followed by a second quote by Andrea Dworkin (1981) that pithily sums up the papers argument against this ideology, as translated in reality:
“Objectification, in fact and in consequence, is never trivial.”
It is of supreme significance therefore, that this photographic series publicises the everyday experience of multitudes of women who have to play active roles in deciding what clothes to wear, that is paradoxically informed by their passive roles in a societal construct that does not allow them to make these choices unfettered by its enforced external (and male controlled) codes that dictate their clothing choices.
Constructing personal narratives, Anis’ photographs are a revelation not only of the sexual harrasment faced by Egyptian women, but also of the larger endemic problem of conventional social assessment that conflates fashion and sexuality. Underlining the suffragette cry of the personal as political, it showcases the linkages between a hostile environment ripe with sexual harassment, gender, societal expectation, self perception, body image and sexuality — and explores how they play out in contemporary Egyptian society.
As the all pervasive structures of patriarchy, both place the burden of defending themselves and their rights on women, while accusing them of being extreme or aggressive when they do so, a male perspective of support is seen as more objective, or rationally driven. Within such a context especially, as Jen Tse notes in her TIME-Lightbox article, “Anis’ work is not only a man’s recognition of the threats women endure, the higher standards to which they are held, and the simple freedoms they are denied, but also a starting point for men in Egypt—and beyond—to see women through a lens of empathy and respect.”