Given the current global social and political landscape, the idea that fashion is armor—a form of protection from our surroundings—is clear. The need to wear a face mask, a now vital accessory to shield ourselves and others for the purpose of public health, is the newest phase and symbol of fashion’s intimate relationship to our bodies and lives.[1]

In general, clothes keep us warm when it is cold and cover our bodies as a way to display modesty in accordance with modern normative ideals of decency. Clothes are tethered to notions of decorum and are gendered as such, attracting or shielding another’s gaze from us. Clothes, too, have the ability to empower us, to make us feel confident as we navigate different spaces in our daily lives. The manifold capacities of clothing and fashion are perhaps self-evident, but I want to put pressure on thinking about fashion design as an artistic endeavor that takes into account historical and material conditions: for many of us—especially brown, Black, Indigenous, trans, queer, and subaltern peoples—fashion is armor, aiding our navigation of various environments and protecting us from hostile people and spaces. 

Rather than focus on major fashion houses and the design of commercial garments by corporate brands and independent labels, I instead focus on contemporary art and DIY creative projects where the use of clothing and traditional notions of fashion are explicitly complicated and challenged. Therefore, I highlight the work of three distinctive artists—Naiza Khan, micha cárdenas, and Rajni Perera—whose respective works exemplify how fashion can function as multiple forms of armor: as both soft and hard, as deeply gendered, and as protection.

In 2008, the renowned Pakistani artist Naiza Khan displayed her collection of drawings and sculptures called “Heavenly Ornaments” as part of an exhibition of her collected works entitled The Skin She Wears. The pieces in “Heavenly Ornaments” consist of metal and leather sculptures of corsets, bras, chastity belts, slips, vests, and stockings, all constructed as armor.[2] These creations are Khan’s way of rethinking gender norms and examining religious concepts that guide forms of dress and bodily comportment.

3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs

 Naiza Khan, photograph of studio with armor and studies, dimensions variable, 2007, photograph supplied by the artist.

For example, Khan engages the Bahishti Zewar, an early twentieth-century Urdu handbook written by the Islamic scholar Ashraf Ali Thanawi that translates to “Heavenly Ornaments.” This text sets up guidelines for women’s behavior through both male and female perspectives.[3] One notable example from Thanawi’s handbook is a section dubbed “The Book of Etiquette and Manners,” which includes advice on “women applying perfume in the presence of men,” “modesty and immodesty,” “sitting, lying down, walking,” and “day to day manners.”[4] By using this text as the basis and translated title for her work, Khan highlights how women’s bodies are subjected to excessive scrutiny. 

19 vintage images of showgirl portraits in sepia

 Naiza Khan, “Cage Corset,” metal and fabric, 30 x 30 x 30cm, 2007, https://naizakhan.com/press/2006/heavenly-ornaments-1.html.

In “Heavenly Ornaments” Khan makes what appears to be traditional—such as medieval armor and the invocation of a text of gendered religious codes—work in tandem: they force viewers to think about how gender is policed by patriarchy across time, cultures, and belief systems. Khan juxtaposes the supposed softness of women’s bodies and forms of dress in works like her lingerie and “Cage Corset” and combines this with the rough and impenetrable “masculine” armor of her bulletproof vests. Her work acknowledges women’s sexuality and presumed vulnerability by experimenting with outdated garments: she innovates on forms and materials seen as part of a private and intimate realm, enlivening them as external forms of armor against pervasive gendered and sexual violence. The various pieces Khan presents function as intentional, gendered, protective garments in response to the historical antagonism and violence of heteropatriarchy in its many forms.

Next, I focus on “UNSTOPPABLE,”[5] a collective and ongoing DIY project started in 2015 by scholar and digital media artist micha cárdenas, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, and various other artists. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this project utilizes sustainable materials, including recycled car tires and Kevlar airbags, to make bulletproof wearable garments and accessories at low to no cost. On the project’s site, the artist collective deems the project “art as intervention,” and describes the project as necessarily responsive to myriad forms of state-sanctioned violence, stating:

Governments today kill both through direct acts of state violence, such as police killing black people, and through neglect, choosing not to prosecute the murders of trans women, or looking the other way when civilians and paramilitaries arm themselves and commit murder. In this state of necropolitics, where the government facilitates death for communities it deems unwanted, we must act to physically protect ourselves now, as we do not even know where the next bullet might come from.[6]

The kind of DIY, direct action approach used to create and disseminate bulletproof clothing reflects the overwhelming violence toward minority communities that is, time and again, deemed warranted in the eyes of the state. Such an expansive vision for the creation of dresses made of Kevlar and backpacks packed with strips of old rubber tires exemplifies the spirit of direct action and thus enables this kind of creative response to social and political conditions. 

Black and white portrait of showgirl in small feather headdress

micha cárdenas, Patrisse Cullors, Edxie Betts, and Chris Head, “Bulletproof dress,” Kevlar, 2015, https://michacardenas.sites.ucsc.edu/unstoppable/.

 “UNSTOPPABLE” underscores the way that art and technology intersect, specifically through the concept of the “wearable.” Making bulletproof clothing in this DIY-mode by using sustainable, low-cost materials shows how the conceptual can also be practical. However, the need to consider bulletproof garments and accessories as practical or useful for people to wear highlights the ways that gun violence—including rubber bullets used against protesters—has become a quotidian aspect of our increasingly dystopian present. The artists, activists, and practitioners behind  “UNSTOPPABLE” make clear that their vision should be used to inspire clothing designers and activists to produce garments that can operate as forms of collective self-defense.[7]

Lastly, I turn to a 2020 photo-essay by the Sri Lankan-Canadian contemporary artist Rajni Perera, entitled “A Primordial Culture.”[8] Perera is a painter, sculptor, and textile artist; her work engages with themes such as ancestry, futurity, migration and diaspora, mythology, gender and sexuality, and the creation of dream-worlds. “A Primordial Culture” was published on the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “AGO Insider,” and offers a unique set of images that include Perera donning garments and masks (face masks and gas masks) that she created in collaboration with the Punjabi-Canadian artist, Nep Sidhu. 

Photographed by Omii Thompson, the images of Perera in these textiles and masks amidst the lush greenery are stunning. Thematically, the essay covers our present with the ancient, invoking indigeneity, and engaging futurism through her prophetic language. Paired with the text, these garments are otherworldly and ancestral: Layers of heavy, patterned, and embroidered textiles, joined with head coverings and masks act as armor carrying the weight of history and the material of cultures old and new. Both Perera and Sidhu have artistically and personally been committed to creating art centering BIPOC, each inspired by their roots in South Asia. Sidhu’s textile design is influenced heavily by his Punjabi heritage, as well as his collaboration with Indigenous Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin.[9] Despite their heaviness, these clothes are worn with movement in mind, reflecting the kind of atmospheric unknowns of migration. These forms of dress, which are situated in nature amidst an unspecified urban built environment, reflect a kind of anti-colonial new world. In “A Primordial Culture,” Perera writes:

The places we loved are gone now but we can build arc reactors for love and hadron colliders for peace. It all happens in a new place which is also an old place, a primordial culture again…Mothers covering children covering mothers. The air burns strangely all the time…Nothing was left for us here. We had to build our palace into everything atop the remains of the old world that said no to us.[10]

Perera invokes the condition of our supposed postcolonial world, or perhaps migration to another, more hospitable place for subaltern peoples. She envisions a world where love and peace are central, ancestors are revered, mothering is a verb, and revolution is necessary to abolish the old order and ways of life. Moreover, Perera’s adorned gas masks force us to reckon with our climate crisis, its disproportionate impact on the Global South, and its ongoing catastrophic effects on already vulnerable bodies. As she writes, “the air burns strangely all the time,”[11] her masks become essential armor, indicating the environment may be poisonous, rife with particles and remnants of old, toxic structures. “A Primordial Culture” casts Perera on a lush new planet, prepared and protected by both her weighted garments and a deep-rooted historical, ancestral knowledge from both Indigenous and migrant peoples.

These three distinctive projects center the use of fashion as armor, exemplifying an imaginative capacity that serves multiple functions. Given the contemporary global social and political climates of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the creative modes of engagement through garments—as critique, as practical, and DIY—demonstrate the impact of fashion beyond just aesthetic form and function. Fashion as armor must be considered as conscious, as political critique, and as having revolutionary potential.

 

Black and white photo of 11 showgirls on stage

 Rajni Perera, “A Primordial Culture,” photographed by Kareem Omii Thompson, styled by Tala Berkes with clothes by Nep Sidhu, 2020, Art Gallery of Ontario Insider, https://ago.ca/agoinsider/primordial-culture.

Black and white photo of 11 showgirls on stage

 Rajni Perera, “A Primordial Culture,” photographed by Kareem Omii Thompson, styled by Tala Berkes with clothes by Nep Sidhu, 2020, Art Gallery of Ontario Insider, https://ago.ca/agoinsider/primordial-culture.

References

[1] Sarah Spellings, “Cloth Masks to Shop Now,” Vogue, September 25, 2020, https://www.vogue.com/slideshow/stylish-face-masks-to-shop-now.

[2] Naiza Khan, “Heavenly Ornaments,” 2006. From the exhibition The Skin She Wears, 2008. 

[3] Ashraf Ali Thanawi, Bahishti Zewar, original publication date unknown, translated from Urdu to English, 1980, https://archive.org/details/BahishtiZewar_201307/page/n9/mode/2up.

[4] Ibid., 631-632.

[5] micha cárdenas, Patrisse Cullors, Edxie Betts and Chris Head, “UNSTOPPABLE: Improvised armor inspired by #BLM,” 2015, https://michacardenas.sites.ucsc.edu/unstoppable/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rajni Perera, “A Primordial Culture,” AGO Insider, July 8, 2020, https://ago.ca/agoinsider/primordial-culture.

[9] Balbir K. Singh, “’No Pigs in Paradise’: Speculative Materialism in the Spirit of Black Constellation,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, 36, 2020, http://www.rhizomes.net/issue36/singh/index.html

[10] Rajni Perera, “A Primordial Culture.”

[11] Ibid.