There’s something absolutely liberating in the anonymity of large cities. They let you be whoever you want to be. When I first moved to London four years ago from a small town in Australia, I was in awe of its too-loud, too-cold, too-bold attitude. This manifested most obviously through fashion; a visual ‘fuck you’ to patriarchal expectations, especially for those that refuse to conform to gender stereotypes. It was a revelation that I embraced wholeheartedly. I took the tube to the end of the line just to see the people on the streets there and raided charity shops for clothes I would never have dreamt of wearing at home. I bought a vintage fur coat. It felt like the city was daring me to wear my heart on my sleeve, so I did, and it made me feel real.
At the start of this year I found myself living as far away from London as I could possibly be, in Mexico City. A combination of geographical distance, Anglo-centric media and economic factors mean this city is unimaginable, it can’t be described by metaphors because it is like nowhere else. It has more museums than any other city in the world, but around 40% of the city’s population still live in poverty. There is food and colour and life being lived in every street. However, relatively high rates of crime mean that there is also an incentive to blend in and not draw attention through the way you look.
I arrived in Mexico with a backpack full of practical travelling clothes and two pairs of shoes. As I adjusted to my life here, I wore jeans and a grey t-shirt most days and tried to tell myself that my clothes didn’t matter so much anyway because I was still learning Spanish and how to use the public transport and where to buy toothpaste. Like any new city, I had (and still have) so much to learn. I loved clothes and craved self-expression, but I didn’t want to be stared at the way I usually do. One day, as I passed the metro station near my apartment, two people emerged from the underground tunnel like punk rock angels, dressed in black sequins and platform boots. I envied their self-assuredness.
After a couple of weeks here I visited La Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera that also includes an exhibition of Frida’s personal wardrobe. She is one of Mexico’s most famous cultural icons, known for her self-portraits that explored the way she was perceived by the world and compared this to the way she perceived herself. As well as being an artist she is equally known for her instantly-recognisable fashion, which evolved from her mother’s Indigenous heritage combined with her own visionary style. Frida wore flowers in her hair, emphasised her eyebrows with a Revlon pencil and painted her nails red. The back brace she wore due to her physical disability was covered with sketches and symbols that helped her to reclaim her autonomy. “Beauty and ugliness are a mirage,” she said. “Everyone ends up seeing how we are inside.”
I have never believed in beauty, either. Instead, I believe in authenticity. I believe there’s no such thing as a bad tattoo or a bad outfit, as long as the person wearing it loves themselves with it completely. I would rather be complimented on an interesting piece of clothing than my bone structure, because my physical attributes are outside of my control. I know what my body looks like, and I know that some parts of it are more in line with traditional beauty standards than others. But that is not what makes it valuable. Instead, I value my body for what it can do, how it can make me feel and what I can communicate with it. By presenting our bodies in a certain way, we mark ourselves as unique, but at the same time, we send signals to those around us that say, ‘ I am like you.’ We seek out the other brave hearts and minds. So, paradoxically, my boring clothes made me feel safe here because I looked like everybody and nobody.
Recently, I think Mexico City and I have finally reached a compromise. We have both accepted that appearances are an important part of the way we present ourselves to the world. I still wear jeans because everyone else does, but mine are black. I walk the streets hidden inside a baggy denim jacket, and I have sewn patches onto it in a small act of defiance. I wear my favourite sneakers and cheap jewellery. As I get to know the city better I am beginning to realise we are all just trying to reconcile what is expected of us with how we feel on the inside. Fashion is our daily rebellion.
Words: Molly McLaughlin
Images: Hatti Rex