I was around 10 when one day, I discovered a box of my father's old things. In it, under a bunch of his college textbooks, was a pair of black corduroy bell-bottom pants. These pants were awful — musty and moth-eaten. And of course, I fell in love with them. I'd never seen anything like them. Until that day, all I'd ever known and worn was my school uniform, which, in fact, I was pretty grateful for, because from quite a young age, I'd realized I was somewhat different. I'd never been one of the boys my age; terrible at sports, possibly the unmanliest little boy ever.
I was bullied quite a bit. And so, I figured that to survive I would be invisible, and the uniform helped me to seem no different from any other child.
Well, almost. This became my daily prayer: "God, please make me just like everybody else." I think this went straight to God's voicemail, though.
And eventually, it became pretty clear that I was not growing up to be the son that my father always wanted. Sorry, Dad.
No, I was not going to magically change. And over time, I grew less and less sure that I actually wanted to. Therefore, the day those black corduroy bell-bottom pants came into my life, something happened. I didn't see pants; I saw opportunity. The very next day, I had to wear them to school, come what may. And once I pulled on those god-awful pants and belted them tight, almost instantly, I developed what can only be called a swagger.
All the way to school, and then all the way back because I was sent home at once —
I transformed into a little brown rock star.
I finally didn't care anymore that I could not conform. That day, I was suddenly celebrating it. That day, instead of being invisible, I chose to be looked at, just by wearing something different. That day, I discovered the power of what we wear. That day, I discovered the power of fashion, and I've been in love with it ever since.
Fashion can communicate our differences to the world for us. And with this simple act of truth, I realized that these differences — they stopped being our shame. They became our expressions, expressions of our very unique identities. And we should express ourselves, wear what we want. What's the worst that could happen? The fashion police are going to get you for being so last season?
Yeah. Well, unless the fashion police meant something entirely different. Nobel Prize laureate Malala survived Taliban extremists in October 2012. However, in October 2017, she faced a different enemy, when online trolls viciously attacked the photograph that showed the 20-year-old wearing jeans that day. The comments, the hatred she received, ranged from "How long before the scarf comes off?" to, and I quote, "That's the reason the bullet directly targeted her head a long time ago." Now, when most of us decide to wear a pair of jeans someplace like New York, London, Milan, Paris, we possibly don't stop to think that it's a privilege; something that somewhere else can have consequences, something that can one day be taken away from us.
My grandmother was a woman who took extraordinary pleasure in dressing up. Her fashion was colorful. And the color she loved to wear so much was possibly the only thing that was truly about her, the one thing she had agency over, because like most other women of her generation in India, she'd never been allowed to exist beyond what was dictated by custom and tradition. She'd been married at 17, and after 65 years of marriage, when my grandfather died suddenly one day, her loss was unbearable. But that day, she was going to lose something else as well, the one joy she had: to wear color. In India, according to custom, when a Hindu woman becomes a widow, all she's allowed to wear is white from the day of the death of her husband. No one made my grandmother wear white. However, every woman she'd known who had outlived her husband, including her mother, had done it. This oppression was so internalized, so deep-rooted, that she herself refused a choice. She passed away this year, and until the day she died, she continued to wear only white.
I have a photograph with her from earlier, happier times. In it, you can't really see what she's wearing — the photo is in black and white. However, from the way she's smiling in it, you just know she's wearing color. This is also what fashion can do. It has the power to fill us with joy, the joy of freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to look, how we want to live — a freedom worth fighting for. And fighting for freedom, protest, comes in many forms.
Widows in India like my grandmother, thousands of them, live in a city called Vrindavan. And so, it's been a sea of white for centuries. However, only as recently as 2013, the widows of Vrindavan have started to celebrate Holi, the Indian festival of color, which they are prohibited from participating in. On this one day in March, these women take the traditional colored powder of the festival and color each other. With every handful of the powder they throw into the air, their white saris slowly start to suffuse with color. And they don't stop until they're completely covered in every hue of the rainbow that's forbidden to them. The color washes off the next day, however, for that moment in time, it's their beautiful disruption. This disruption, any kind of dissonance, can be the first gauntlet we throw down in a battle against oppression. And fashion — it can create visual disruption for us — on us, literally.
Lessons of defiance have always been taught by fashion's great revolutionaries: its designers. Jean Paul Gaultier taught us that women can be kings. Thom Browne — he taught us that men can wear heels. And Alexander McQueen, in his spring 1999 show, had two giant robotic arms in the middle of his runway. And as the model, Shalom Harlow began to spin in between them, these two giant arms — furtively at first and then furiously, began to spray color onto her. McQueen, thus, before he took his own life, taught us that this body of ours is a canvas, a canvas we get to paint however we want.
Somebody who loved this world of fashion was Karar Nushi. He was a student and actor from Iraq. He loved his vibrant, eclectic clothes. However, he soon started receiving death threats for how he looked. He remained unfazed. He remained fabulous, until July 2017, when Karar was discovered dead on a busy street in Baghdad. He'd been kidnapped. He'd been tortured. And eyewitnesses say that his body showed multiple wounds. Stab wounds.
Two thousand miles away in Peshawar, Pakistani transgender activist Alisha was shot multiple times in May 2016. She was taken to the hospital, but because she dressed in women's clothing, she was refused access to either the men's or the women's wards. What we choose to wear can sometimes be literally life and death. And even in death, we sometimes don't get to choose. Alisha died that day and then was buried as a man.
What kind of world is this? Well, it's one in which it's natural to be afraid, to be frightened of this surveillance, this violence against our bodies and what we wear on them. However, the greater fear is that once we surrender, blend in and begin to disappear one after the other, the more normal this false conformity will look, the less shocking this oppression will feel.
For the children we are raising, the injustice of today could become the ordinary of tomorrow. They'll get used to this, and they, too, might begin to see anything different as dirty, something to be hated, something to be extinguished, like lights to be put out, one by one, until darkness becomes a way of life. However, if I today, then you tomorrow, maybe even more of us someday, if we embrace our right to look like ourselves, then in the world that's been violently whitewashed, we will become the pinpricks of color pushing through, much like those widows of Vrindavan.
How then, with so many of us, will the crosshairs of a gun be able to pick out Karar, Malala, Alisha? Can they kill us all?
The time is now to stand up, to stand out. Where sameness is safeness, with something as simple as what we wear, we can draw every eye to ourselves to say that there are differences in this world, and there always will be. Get used to it. And this we can say without a single word. Fashion can give us a language for dissent. It can give us courage. Fashion can let us literally wear our courage on our sleeves. So wear it. Wear it like armor. Wear it because it matters. And wear it because you matter.