The other day I was walking through Ealing, seeing what was there, and I saw a very striking pair of young women walking arm-in-arm through the Broadway, talking and joking, out shopping perhaps. One was tall, with long black hair worn loose with dangling gold ear-rings. She looked “Arabian” – she could have been from Egypt or Iran, or even been of the darker extracts from the mediterranean. She was wearing a fur-effect form-hugging top, cut high exposing about as much midriff as possible without risking exposing more. She wore high-cut skinny jeans and black high-heeled boots. I felt more than a little guilty for having noticed her ensemble, but it also seems reasonably probable that was the desired effect. And actually I like to think I probably wouldn’t have noticed at all if not for her companion. She was medium height, but looked short next to her towering friend. All I could see of her was her round black face, as she wore a chador. As you’d expect, it was a voluminous article of clothing that meant she could have been anything from skeletal to obese, and wearing any kind of footwear. She looked perfectly at ease, comfortable.
I was struck by two thoughts as they passed from my view. The first was that they clearly existed in two completely different paradigms of feminine attire, and yet whatever that cultural divide had managed to sustain a friendship that looked comfortable and intimate. It’d be unwise I suppose to read too much into what was probably a 5-second window of time, but I wondered how much of an accommodation each had made to the other’s view on being a proper woman. I have no particular religious beliefs, but I find it a great struggle not to continually engage my Conservative friends and acquaintances in political debate, because to my pinko-leftie commie mind, they’re failing in the basic functions of being a citizen. My left-wing politics feel like they should be less of a personal statement than a religious or cultural code that defines what I wear – for one thing, you can simply ignore the little warning signs of political disagreement, it’s not easy to ignore a chador. Except that it obviously is in at least this one case. The glimpse into these women’s lives made me distinctly aware how WASPish and insular my whole world is – virtually everyone I ever talk to is basically a slight variation on myself.
The second thought that occurred to me, following closely on from this idea of difference, is that 5 years ago, as girls, these two women probably dressed exactly the same. In my casual transits through the various Middle Eastern areas of London, I notice women in niqab and chadors all the time accompanied by girls dressed in conventional Western attire. Similarly, you see the high fashion semi-glamorous moms in Selfridges accompanied by scruffy kids in jeans and t-shirts. At some point in each of their lives there was a moment where they crossed a threshold from being non-sexual to making some kind of decision about it. In the case of Woman #1, she decided to make the best advantage from her looks. Obviously I don’t know whether she eschewed the hijab for the halter-top, but there were certainly other styles of clothing available to her that wouldn’t have made such a statement or been so effective. Similarly, at some point Woman #2 donned the chador for the first time, perhaps committing a deeply personal act of faith, perhaps caving to social and cultural pressure, perhaps simply absent-mindedly going with the flow as I suspect almost all human activity happens.
However it happened for these two women, I struggled to think of any similar rite of passage or change in aspect in my WASP cultural context, unless it’s finally not having to wear a school uniform. What struck me was that one way or another these two human beings I’d seen had through their clothing made a statement about having become adults in a way I can never remember doing, unless it was having to make an actual decision to shave or not to shave. I dress much the same way as I did when I was 15, I’ve just upgraded the quality of the gear as my income has increased, so I wear Icebreaker Merino instead of Warehouse polar fleece. Sometimes I shave, sometimes I don’t. It seems to me that’s what a huge swathe of Western cultural product is geared towards – an unending adolescence, as all former Western markers of adult-hood are disregarded. Mine is, culturally at least, the generation which seems to have successfully resisted growing up. Just for a moment as these women passed, I felt a bit wistful, wishing I had such a clear idea what being an adult means.