The globe underneath my skirt
I was always encouraged to be more English and to acquire the talents or skills which were more suited to Europe as opposed to what would be more essential to live in a country like the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We never ate with our hands at home, we never spoke in Urdu at home, we only had Gujarati speaking domestic staff, we were discouraged from having brown friends and any items of clothing with long sleeves were linked very closely to radicalism. Now that I am finally in England I find it so bizarre that I was raised to be a perfect English woman. I think about how London was always sold to me as a child as the magical jewellery box when once opened, a ballerina twirls around to a clinkering ballade. Being in London is like being trapped in a behind the scenes episode of the making of Veera Rustomji’s life. Sometimes when I walk around Westminster amongst screaming Brexit protestors underneath Churchill’s bronze shadow, I think about the utopia Britain is supposed to be and the reality that it is.
And then, there’s Christmas, the two month fiasco where lights sweep over London, Mariah Carey carols are sung throughout Harrods and charity collections for the cold and homeless are multiplied in the spirit of giving. Alas I had a bad back injury so I was strapped to a sofa at my British relatives home in Uxbridge and unable to escape watching Christmas TV with intervals of UNICEF’s dying Syrian children advertisements. Inevitably a flux of old movies, especially musicals were being played by multiple TV channels and one of those was The King and I. I distinctly remember singing and learning the song ‘Getting to Know You’ in which Anna Leonowens the British governess teaches the Siamese court children the value of cultural knowledge and encourages an interest in world geography as opposed to singularly understanding Thailand’s immediate surroundings. The King of Siam impresses upon her to navigate his court into a more Western sphere in order to appear more progressive so that his Kingdom can avoid colonisation like their neighbours, Burma. Over the course of the movie Anna becomes a mothering figure in the court and a kind of maternal diplomat. She teaches the women how to courtesy, how to wear and swerve around in large skirts and teaches them basic English etiquette, especially the importance of underwear underneath a skirt.
As the movie continued, I realised how twisted it was. Of course some of the dialogue is obviously very problematic but what is even more amazing is the visual emphasis on costume and attire of the characters. The scene of critical importance which is the study of maps during ‘Getting to Know You’ makes a 21st century audience not only realise the discrepancies in the accuracy of the map; In the 1800s, historians note that many European men who were sent on expeditions to map out borders were often kidnapped by locals as the dispute of geography was highly contentious and obviously used as a form of political sabotage. Anna encourages dialogue and cultural exchange through the song with the large map in the background of her class which is bordered in gold. Her feminine charm exudes throughout the song and unlike a military man demarcating borders she serenades everyone with her philosophy and ethos on world geography. She enchants everyone sweeping into every scene in massive crinoline skirts which could be more than 4 feet in diameter. Perhaps it is the visual element of Anna Leonowens’ character which exempts her from being a ‘European enemy’. Academy award winning costume designer, Irene Sharaff’s creation of exaggerated crinoline skirts was intended to make the character seem larger than life, otherworldly, royal and kind of alien. Her clothes are usually blue, stripped with minimal glitz but amped up with lace and fabric. This draws a sharp contrast to the gold, green red and black attire the Siamese King wears which are silky, figure hugging and his shirt is always buttoned down to his chest.
Initially in the 1800s crinoline was made out of whale bone because of the rounded flexibility of it and muslin and cotton were imported from subcontinent. The real Anna Leonowens was obviously more conservative in fabric usage but the costumes in the movie made me think how much art direction goes into plot manipulation. The crinoline which I bought is a wedding garment and not necessarily vintage but one should keep in mind that as women’s fashion progressed it was shaped to allow women more mobility and freedom. The more restrictive the crinolines indicates a later time period. The crinoline made me think about costume design for women like aprons and fedora hats or crinolines which are just really accessories and not clothing which functions as apparel. What is the function then of clothing which serves no actual purpose?
Images of my installation for the Unit 1 show at Chelsea College of Arts which was pinned together with blue lace and blue ribbon roses interlacing a neon wire which is bent to give a vague impression of the world map.