The reason we are so desperate to buy or borrow new clothes, says the academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari in her clever, subtle book, is because they appear to bestow on us a charm and intellect that we can’t quite muster for ourselves. Yet the moment we acquire that new coat or those new trousers, we realise that nothing much has changed at all. For no matter how fancy we look on the surface, underneath we still come with metaphorical trailing threads and odd socks. “Dressing is so hard,” Bari writes. “It is astonishing that we ever find the courage to keep trying as we do every day.”
At the beginning of each of her five main sections (‘Dresses’, ‘Suits, Coats and Jackets’, ‘Shoes’, ‘Furs, Feathers and Skins’, ‘Pockets, Purses and Suitcases’), Bari writes briefly but in vivid detail about her encounters with an exemplar of each: a shared and mended dress; a suit jacket she was covered in (and then rejected) after surviving a car crash caused by a reckless lover; another dress, in green snakeskin, ‘iridescent, metallic, inhuman’; a pair of running spikes in which she felt herself ‘running up as close as I can against a limit I never knew I possessed’; her mother’s capacious handbag. Each of these italicised mini-portraits is a precise distillation of feeling, thinking and being in complex contact with oneself and others. The bulk of Dressed, however, consists of quick readings of cultural artefacts, punctuated by the words of European philosophers. A section on women, birds and feathers moves from Cecil Beaton’s designs for My Fair Lady, to Simone de Beauvoir’s novel L’Invitée, to Hitchcock’s The Birds, to Rubens and Correggio’s paintings of Leda and the swan, to Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter collection of 2001, to Wuthering Heights (I’ll stop there). In ‘Pockets, Purses and Suitcases’, we meet Freud’s Dora, Richardson’s Pamela, the Yoruba apo ifa bag, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, designer handbags and Dora the Explorer’s backpack. It’s hard to find a thread – of argument, narrative, history or portraiture – and the shifts from one text to another to another can be dizzying. There’s no way for Bari to do justice to each example.
“We dismiss dress as the most superficial of subjects, but we return to it... again and again in the critical debates of our time,” Bari says, citing the Islamic veil, skirt lengths in rape trials and the plight of transwomen. However, she rather disappointingly steps away from politics or current affairs and keeps her focus on fashion moments in film, art and literature. Bari also overlooks grubby consumerism and the workings of the fashion businesses. By keeping her discussion high on a philosophical plane and favouring abstraction, some of the human interest is lost.
"Dressed is, at its heart, really about memory, meaning and intimacy." Bari is a prize-winning academic and broadcaster, and a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker. Ranging widely through literature, art, film and philosophy, her first non-academic book is a fascinating cultural exploration of the layers of meaning inherent in the ways we dress ourselves, from Madonna's denim jacket and the paintings of Titian to Cary Grant's tailoring.