It was All Hallow’s Eve in 2016 and I sat upon a slightly damp seat on the District Line, with the intention of changing at Bank so I could make my way to my old house in the South of London. It was like any other night, plus the shimmering creativity of many young Londoners preparing for the night ahead. I walked past young men sprayed in glitter, and queers with blood dripping from their eyes. The underground was alive tonight and I settled down to be entertained for 23 minutes. Halloween brings a time where the capes drop down, and many embrace their shadow selves in the form of costume. It’s a drag show, a pantomime, and it’s unabashed. I feel comfortable in what I am wearing because I like to dress up a lot, too. Everyday I am at least 2 characters.
However, this particular All Hallow’s Eve introduced a jarring realisation within me as my theatre ticket was revoked and I was once again shoved onto centre stage. Almost every other Halloween I would indulge in the cartoonish sinful delights of dressing up as our darkest fears we have locked away for 364 days. Like a skeleton who dances and jokes, going home with a vampire who’s a pro at drinking a jaeger bomb, not to suckle on blood of any sort.
That day, I had sat there wearing the clothes I was told to wear. Bemused, nodding in a semi-approval to one woman’s artfully constructed scar sitting next to a man with grey eyes and a top hat, I began to unpack my own costume bag. Out would come hair bands, a head wrap, a loose satin scarf, and a thick double breasted jacket which would fall below my knees. I have become the master of concealment and turning virtually any bag into a Tardis whilst a poker face had inexplicably painted on.
As I lifted my arms high to twist my hair into a bun, Dracula would ogle and the sight of a half naked femme dressing themselves within the vacuum of interpersonal transportation.
As I slid the bandana down my forehead a drunk werewolf would snigger at the show, the punchline: that’s a Muslim. How absurd, someone applying a headscarf on a train on their thickly padded head. I wondered, is every day Halloween for me in which I’d clamber into a new outfit for the next party, the next prayer meeting, the next family gathering, the next date. 5 years ago I wouldn’t hesitate to slip out of my baggy trousers to reveal a skirt and bare legs underneath. Now, if possible, I stick to my de-robing to ironically public bathrooms. Perhaps, the underground is my natural dressing room and the audience pay a £1.85 minimum fee to get through the doors. Call it in-flight entertainment.
Distant cousins would look upon me with fascinated disdain, like a drama. A man would look to me inquisitively, is he excited? That’s the beauty of art, I suppose. The audience complete me.
This is a constant transition within transit. And whatever I am transforming into, I am mid performance. Sometimes there’s only one other sitting across from me as I partake in this high femme, consumptive drag. Other times I have the most diverse audience, the commuters of London. The stereotypical, neurotic, and shy rat-racers with an urge to look at something different from the hair growth adverts. I go down the steps into the tube wearing baggy, nondescript clothes with my tight fitting and non-normative outfit underneath as my make up clinks in my bag and jewellery tinkles away. I think I look like a shit-show before I settle down and get my dressing table ready on my lap. I wear anything to conceal what’s underneath before revealing it to complete strangers. I feel more of an intimate connection with them than with the most tender lovers. This is not to say that Purdah for me is “ugly,” the mosque where weddings and meeting are held is a 10-minute walk from me. I can do that particular performance in my closet, my bedroom. It’s when I move through London, through people, and different experiences, the only way I can ensure my outfit is correct is when I do it in a tunnel under the city. I submerge into the unknown, and then I rise, elated, as my true self. Well, in that moment anyway.
I rush to undress in front of thousands of strangers everyday and defiantly stare them down as my autonomy overpowers their disbelief that the veil could ever come off. I have always heard that fashion and clothing expresses the wearers identity, but what does our fashion and our expression say about the identity of others?
This isn’t a rejection of Desi fashion or Islamic dress. It adds another layer of its cultural influence on fashion. I can look just as fly at the local mosque as I do in a club in East London, regardless of my unstable dressing room. Sometimes it’s important to see the vulnerability back stage, along with the pain and energy to be naked in front of thousands of strangers who consume bodies on a daily basis.