Sometimes it is necessary to take a step aside and try to decipher the world from data other than the major economic indicators, the main preoccupation of observers and power players. Having done so by studying some apparently marginal activities (music, in particular), I know how powerful and eloquent such a change of perspective can be.
In particular, clothing is indicative of the oppression of some and the power of others:
The Iranian drama reminds us of the extent to which clothing remains, in many countries, a means of oppressing women, after having been so everywhere in the world; this is the case of the burka and all forms of humiliating dress, in which women are confined, on all continents, by men.
Conversely, clothing is also a symbol of power; and, at a time when there is so much talk of the decline of the West, it should be noted that, with a few very important exceptions, to which I will return, most of the world’s leaders, women or men, have adopted the basics of the most classic Western fashion: Not a Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Brazilian, from the upper middle class to the most powerful, who would think of dressing in anything other than a suit and tie (yes, tie) for men and a skirt or trousers for women. This westernisation of clothing is found in all classes of society; it is even a sign of social ascension; with the obsession to change wardrobe often and to undergo the tyranny of fashion and especially of fast fashion, which has become one of the major industries, whose products made of plastic materials with a very short lifespan are one of the main sources of pollution and climate change.
The Chinese might explain that this is not the case, that the origin of Western clothing is Chinese; that it is in China that the oldest known trousers are found, in the thirteenth century BC; and that they arrived much later in Europe, (like pasta, spices, printing and so many other things), passing through the Arab world and landing in Venice (hence its name, inspired by a Venetian saint). In fact, its origins go back even further: it is, first in the form of leggings, three thousand years before our era, the garment best suited to the horseman, and especially to the fighting horseman; hence the symbolism of virility attached to it, unlike the toga, which is supposed to be a peaceful garment, as found in places of conversation and teaching, in Athens and Rome. The same goes for the shirt, invented in ancient Egypt, and the tie, which was worn by the horsemen of the personal guard of the Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi in the 3rd century BC, and which comes to us, like the rest, from the Arab world and then from the Adriatic, this time Croatia, hence its name.
But clothing is not only a sign of submission or domination. It is perhaps also the announcement of a liberation; there are at least two signs of this today:
Firstly, the youngest, who, for some, have done away with the costume and the gendered garment (in order to end gender assignment, by the way) and go so far as to dress only in sustainable, if possible recycled, clothing. This seems sustainable, as many do not revert to more traditional codes when they cross the threshold into the world of work.
Secondly, some major countries refuse to give up their traditional clothes. And it is a way for them to signal that the future is theirs; among them, not surprisingly, the Gulf States, India and Nigeria, whose dress codes are found in many other countries in the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa. Look at the way their leaders dress, both men and women, and you will have understood that they want to assert their desire to be different, not to be swallowed by the Western model.
In fact, their fashion industries are flourishing; and their dress (kurta and sari) on the one hand, and agbaba (including buba and sokoto) on the other, are, with infinite variations, infinitely better adapted to modern life and the changing climate than ours. One day, perhaps, the West (as many of the great fashion designers in Paris and New York are already doing) will have the humility to recognise what it owes to Asia and Africa, and draw inspiration from them.
Painting: Jean Béraud, Une soirée, 1878