Seeing in Plain Sight

Having returned from a cosseted haven like Port Eliot where people were free to dress in a riot of colour without fear of judgement, you might think seeing Camila Batmanghelidhjih plastered all over the newspapers and websites, and now on this blog might be a pleasing  sight.  Except Batmanghelidhjih, the Iranian-born British philanthropist, is in the news defending her actions concerning the controversial shuttering of her charity Kids Company, which she founded in 1996 and was chief executive up until its closure last night.  I’m in no position to judge how Kids Company organised its finances nor how Batmanghelidhjih ran the charity and its employees but I was intrigued by the personal slurs and conjectured opinions that the public immediately began to sling her way purely based on the way she dresses.  In the media, she’s often been described as “eccentric” or “flamboyant”.  They’re polite ways of placing unconventionally dressed people into a neat and perhaps slightly condescending boxes.

Photo by Julian Makey/REX width=Photo by Julian Makey/REX

Camila-Batmanghelidjh-001Photo by Suki Dhanda for the Observer

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"CamilaPhoto by Mike Lawn for The Daily Mail

That seems harmless enough.  Yet when sartorial spectacles like Batmanghelidhjih are embroiled in media scandal as in the case of the downfall of Kids Company, it seems perfectly acceptable to deduce certain characteristics just by the way she chooses to dress.  A quick scan of the comment pages of the first news story that broke on Guardian yesterday and here are just a few examples:

“She always reminded me of Madame Trash Heap from the Fraggles, not that that should stop a person from running a charity…but…..”

“Her colourful, larger-than-life personality, flamboyant dress sense etc. – so adored by the media – were just symptoms of attention-seeking flakiness rather than suitability for managing a large organisation.  Which requires boring things like competence.”

“People who aspire to walking around dressed like a tropical fruit drink will never be taken seriously.”

“If you have to resort to wearing such garish and attention-seeking clothing, then you clearly lack charisma.”

“Would she get a job, turning up dressed like that for an interview. Unlikely, unless in pantomime.  Her dress says, ‘I’m not serious about this’.”

“Someone who dresses in a phony theatrical way in a calculated attempt to suggest she is some kind of unusual ethnic or religious minority ‘outsider’.”

“She dresses like an African dictator.”

And on and on it goes.  These are a smattering taken from Guardian, whose commenters are largely liberal and leftwing thinkers.  Dipping into the Daily Mail, the comments are infinitely worse.  The consensus seems to be that a woman, who swathes herself in colourful ethnic-tinged fabrics, who by her own admission dresses with a childish abandon, is somehow also incompetent, not serious about her job and clearly has something to hide.  She dresses like a child!  Ergo, she runs her company like a child.  She’s attention seeking!  Even though her role requires her to be in the public eye in order to fight for funding in an already tough sector.  She’s self-absorbed!  Arrogant!  Meglomaniac!  All of this deduced from the colours of frocks on a woman, who dares to speak out on the behalf of those less fortunate. 

One commentr recognises that Batmanghelidgh was a “formidable speaker” despite the fact that her dress sense “reminded me of some lurid 60’s carpets and curtains sewn together.”  Why can’t one be formidable in their speech and simultaneously be dressed in 60s carpets and curtains sewn together?   

Some have even used the same language levied when Jimmy Saville was being exposed for who he was.  “I have always felt that Camila Batmanghelidjh has been hiding in plain sight!” one person cries out, alluding to the similarity between Saville and Batmanghelidjh – that they both have distinctive dress sense and therefore use their clothes as a mode of disguise to then perform wicked deeds. 

I’m not here to judge what Batmanghelidgh may or may not have done in the running of Kids Company.  I just found it baffling that the way Batmanghelidgh dresses should be used to indite her below the line, whilst at the same time discounting and discrediting anything positive that she might have achieved in the past.  It speaks volumes about how society at large would like people in power and influence to behave and dress.  The subtext is if you’re not in a conservative attire, you’re not fit to run things.  Instead we prefer to have our eccentric and eclectic characters resigned to soft power creative circles.  Iris Apfel – a wonderful elderly muse!  Zandra Rhodes – how lovely that she pops up in the party pages of ES Magazine every now and again with her shocking pink hair.  Vivienne Westwood – oh look, there she goes harping on about climate change, how sweet!  Batmanghelidgh may well be found to have committed wrongdoing further down the line.  But that will certainly have nothing to do with the way she dresses.