There seems to be very little connection between the major issues that women in the wider world have to confront and how women dress, a subject which by its very nature should be considered superficial. However, I finished writing a style profile for my first online consultation this afternoon and this client lives in Malawi. This is a woman who sees the effect of poverty and disease on a daily basis so when I asked her to complete her pre-consultation visual exercises I wasn’t surprised to see that her passions in life involved HIV awareness in Africa, Nelson Mandela and Fair Trade. She was keen to shop ethically and felt that she couldn’t justify spending much money on her wardrobe when she sees people trying to survive on so little. Did she feel guilty about even spending £60 to find out what clothes will work with her body shape and lifestyle? Probably, but she also recognised that her wardrobe was an area that she wanted to develop. I would go further and consider her style development essential as this woman returns to the UK every few years to update her friends and supporters of the vital work that she carries out in Africa.
Why do the clothes that she wears warrant such attention? Because subjects such as maternal death and trafficking aren’t topics that we like to discuss at length. They’re shocking and depressing so we’d rather not think about them for too long, in fact I’d rather not think about them at all. It reminds me of my attitude towards ecological subjects in the ‘80s. Back then a friend of mine shared a flat with an ecologically responsible flatmate. He found her “100 uses for an empty yoghurt pot” and other practices wacky and extreme, but these days we would applaud her eco-crusade so why did it take us so long to cotton on? The eco-crusader, and many of her contemporaries, had one major flaw that stopped her recycling efforts from appealing to her flatmates and reaching a wider audience – her appearance. An abundance of body hair, an aversion to any form of deodorant and a propensity for all-clothes-flowing made this woman and her ethical values unattractive to the shallow masses who base their judgement of character mainly on outward appearance. Are we really that superficial? Did we really have to wait for Stella McCartney to point out the value of living in a more eco-sustainable fashion? Mmm, well, yes… It took a lot of campaigning by a few and some strategic marketing – the Anya Hindmarch “I’m not a plastic..” bag is a great example – before the masses started to waken up to the tragedy of our sorry planet.
The fact is that we feel guilty for enjoying so much freedom and wealth, we’re tired of working hard just so that we can enjoy that same freedom and wealth and we’re saturated by very clever advertising created by wealthy companies of the free market. To become sensitive to the needs of women in the wider world we need some clever marketing and people dressed in clothes that enable us to relate to them and want to listen for longer. Can anyone remember the name of the woman from Kenya who started planting trees (1), or the social worker who instigated the peace movement in Liberia (2)? No? But I can tell you that Annie Lennox is very involved in raising awareness of the current HIV situation in Africa. Why? Because I previously enjoyed her music and I think she’s still looking amazing in an edgy way – short white hair and fabulous bone structures are hard to beat – so I’ve noticed that she’s been in the press in recent years talking about this subject.
If we hope to gain the attention of the developed world regarding issues that affect women throughout the world I believe it’s vital that we dress up for the occasion. Our clothes are our personal branding, they can encourage people to wonder who we are before we say a word or they allow us, and our beliefs, ethics or passions to be passed by, unnoticed. And to be honest I think that these issues deserve our respect and attention. These are important, vital topics that must not go unnoticed, that deserve our greatest attention and our very best outfits.
(1) Wangari Maathai
(2) Leymah Gbowee