This essay is part of Fashion in Isolation, a special issue on the intimate, contradictory, and ultimately inescapable relationship we have to what we wear.
When I left Jamaica at five years old, the fashion my mother laid out for my older brother and I had one goal: to make sure my clothes didn’t betray how poor we were. But, our bodies were a giveaway. We were too skinny—our spindly legs and knock-knees screamed to the world that she wasn’t working hard enough to put food on the table. She was feeding us enough, but we still wore loose-fitting t-shirts and supplemented our diets with protein shakes. Shorts were rare, and sometimes we’d wear tights—and even sweatpants—under our jeans to make us “look full.”
In middle school, still flat-chested and insecure about my gangly limbs, I continued to hide my body. I’d buy counterfeit Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts on Jamaica Avenue, and the rich boys from my Manhattan prep school would ask me if they were real. By ninth grade, I’d finally gained twenty pounds. I started wearing more feminine, barely form-fitting clothes to show off my changing body. I thought my mother would be proud, but instead, she was convinced I was pregnant. To her, form-fitting clothes on a poor black girl stank of promiscuity.
I began to see a stark contrast between the Jamaican womanhood of my mother, who was born in a country that was still colonized and pledged to the British Queen, and what I caught glimpses of when I stayed up late to watch dancehall artists like Patra. When I saw the movie Dancehall Queen in tenth grade, my mother’s version was obliterated. Released in 1997, it became the highest grossing film in Jamaican history. The hero is Marcia, a struggling street vendor who has to suck up to the sleazy, gun-toting, and ultimately pedophilic Larry for help paying her bills. When Larry withdraws his support because Marcia’s teen daughter rejects him, Marcia creates an alter-ego, The Mystery Lady, to rival the longstanding queen, Olivine, for her title and a cash prize in the dancehall.
When Marcia first enters the hall, she watches the women around her gyrate, dutty wine, and simulate sex on the dancefloor in batty-riders, pum pum shorts, fishnet stockings, halter tops, and go-go boots, as if they’re hoping that their pearl-clutching colonially-educated sisters are watching aghast. The Jamaica I knew through my mother was suffocating for women, regressive, repressed, and afraid. The Jamaica in the dancehall was sexually charged and fearless.
Later in the movie, dressed in an electric blue wig and what I can only describe as a blue thong over fishnets, Marcia proceeds to do her own provocative dance on stage with dancehall artist Beenie Man, and seizes the attention of everyone in the room. When her identity as a street vendor is revealed, just before her final showdown with Olivine, Marcia has stage fright—until she realizes that she’s the people’s champion. She’s a poor black woman like them, who dares to be seen.