What they say about women

Clichés and couture are an audio-visual documentation of trends and ideologies down the ages.

Published: 27th January 2018 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th January 2018 05:21 PM   |  A+A-

Clichés and couture are an audio-visual documentation of trends and ideologies down the ages. Two of Mineke Schipper’s books look at sayings about women from around the globe and their clothing: Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet and Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World. Both address the gender imbalance by pointing out drolly how it was and how it is.

The first book is filled with proverbs on women from 245 languages, and go from baby girls to old women, from marriage to death, while taking in love, childbirth and occult along the way. The aphorisms relate to limbs, eyes, nose, hands, feet and morals. Countering the sexism of ‘a woman without a veil is like food without salt’ (Pashto) and ‘a curly-haired woman is amorous’ (Japanese) is ‘I got married in order to dye my eyebrows, not to sew patches on worn clothes’ (Persian).

Schipper harks back to when small feet were a sign of beauty, of submissiveness, of femininity, dating back to the tenth century CE in China when foot binding was all the rage. ‘The smaller the foot, the more erotic the woman, it was thought. Bound feet were on a par with sex organs—women would reveal them to their husbands only.... For admirers, a tiny foot was an erotic plaything, being viewed as a special sexual organ and possibly the most forbidden zone,’ the author quotes Alison Dakota Gee.

On widows comes the surprisingly empathic: ‘Cold rice is still rice, a widow is still a woman’ (Khmer). ‘The daughter of a good mother will be the mother of a good daughter’ (English, USA) lays it a little psychologically. ‘Look at the mother rather than (at) her daughter’ (Japanese) is more bald while ‘lascivious mothers, strumpet daughters’ (Dutch) is plain insulting.

‘You do not how to cry until your mother dies’ (Ovambo) eulogises moms, as do ‘A fatherless child is half an orphan, a motherless one a whole orphan’ (Finnish/Bulgarian/Estonanian) and ‘If the mother dies, the father becomes an uncle’ (Tamil).

Truisms like ‘Friendship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law only goes as deep as the teeth {of the smile}’ (Portuguese, Brazil) are balanced out with respect for ageing women: ‘Wives and pots and kettles are better when old’; ‘In love, a mature (older) woman is best’ (both Japanese).

The marital bond brings us to ‘Husband and wife are like tongue and teeth’ (Burmese) and ‘What the yam feels, the knife understands’ (Yoruba). If lesbian love is taboo—‘Butter with butter is no sauce’ (Scottish)—so is the extra-marital—‘Don’t place your spoon where your bowl is not’ (Abkhaz) and ‘Don’t place your foot in someone else’s shoe’ (Karachay-Balkar).

All these folk observations bring us back to attire, what women wear and what men think about that. From the African tribesman who only has to wrap a string around his hips and tuck his genitalia out of sight to the devout woman whose uncovered head renders her practically naked, covering up has different fig leaves for either sex.

Bikinis and burkinis, suits, khadi, knitwear, a cowboy hat—all bare the whims of the wearer. The dress is not just a dress and Schipper picks it all apart in Naked or Covered, going under layers, from silk to cotton to bark. Drapes reveal much: morals, caste, politics, status.... Scanty dress or a state of undress in themselves are more than just dishabille; it’s a stand, a rebellion. Schipper blends research with a chatty style, letting the dos and don’ts do their own talking. What is said about them and what they wear tell us where women are placed on the planet.

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