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


"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. 

10 Replies to “Seeing in Plain Sight”

  1. This is a great post! I wrote my dissertation about the ‘eccentric dresser’ (you say that eccentric is a box-putter and perhaps it is but I mean it very respectfully I think people of an eccentric persuasion are the best kind of people) and wrote a lot about what this means to society and the reasoning behind people’s reactions to it. It is very interesting to see these kinds of reactions when we have a society that is obsessed with the individual and being unique in your sense of self but reviles anything that is truly ‘Other’

    It makes me to sad that people are so conservative in their ideas of visual identity; apparently if you dress differently then you’re incompetent. I think people assume that someone who dresses differently is mad, as opposed to what I think actually happens: an individual perfectly understands the ‘rules’ of dress and rejects them for being outdated, repressive and boring and so decides to have a little fun and joy in what they wear and often their home.

    While dressing up and my visual identity is very important to me, and is to many people I think that it’s importance in how it is a reflection of one’s self and characteristics is massively overstated. There is so much wrapped up in how we try to show ‘who we are’ in our clothes and the way we put things together but we can never properly show that, there is no top that actually says “I am a great worker” “‘I am kind”, etc. There are signs and symbols – a office shirt or a suit might seem to signal competency in work – but all they really do is say ‘I understand the rules’, and while you can try to adorn yourself with their ideas they don’t really mean anything, you can change them every time you change, what matters is your actual personality underneath.

    People who dress as Batmanghelidhjih does deserve a lot of respect for doing it, it requires a lot of chutzpah to dress differently and ignore the societal dress code. I’m sure you understand this! I truly wish more people would dress ‘over the top’ ‘eccentrically’!!

  2. Very interesting read, thank you for exposing this to us. I agree, have always had a problem with the comment of someone dressing “eccentric” followed by a stereotype that they are not to be taken seriously. When in fact a deep level of confidence and fortitude goes with it.

  3. The masses in the UK seem to hate everyone and everything at the moment, whether it’s asylum seekers running away from ISIS, young teenagers being brainwashed by ISIS, someone in bright print, or even a nice woman in a baking a contest (remember how much people slagged Diana off online).

    Great post.

    I also wonder on an unrelated note have you read Vogue’s ‘elevated to porcelain skin’ copy in the September issue? I think you always write honestly about fashion in your blog and I’d be interested to know your thoughts on whether they are being old-fashioned and offensive, I can’t believe nobody spotted it:

    1. To expect Vogue to resonate with any modicum of reality is just wishful thinking. That’s not its role. They’ll go on in their privileged bubble. And we’ll lap it up because that’s how we (not necessarily me) – the masses – want our fashion served up.

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