Afro-Caribbean writer Maxine Beneba Clarke on fashion, self-expression and storytelling

Maxine-Beneba-Clarke-Fashionista

Growing up in white middle-class suburbia, Afro-Caribbean writer Maxine Beneba Clarke was bullied for being different. She shares how she turned to fashion as the ultimate form of self-expression and now the mother-of-two has created a picture book that shows kids the power of standing out.

Maxine Beneba Clarke for Vogue.

I never thought I was particularly stylish, which isn’t to say I never had my own kind of style. I suppose I just always mistook stylish to mean ‘in fashion’. I often wear enormous or oddly paired earrings. I rock an extremely short razor-sharp afro. I own an upcycled collar necklace fashioned from demagnetised fridge magnets, a skirt cut from a vintage patchwork quilt, earrings that used to be toy soldiers, and floral printed nine-hole Dr Martens. I own a thin, black rubber necklace that gives the impression a giant butterfly is stencilled across my clavicle. But I can just as easily wear tracksuit pants while working from home, and wouldn’t feel awkward opening the door in them.

There’s something powerful for me about standing in front of the wardrobe, choosing something to wear and choosing how to wear it. Even if all you have is one T-shirt, you can self-express through it. Wear it backwards. Tie a knot in it. Cut it off at the bellybutton. Draw or paint a pattern on it. That’s what fashion is about for me now: self-expression and individuality.

I still remember, as a small child, the struggle for autonomy. When they’re young, we tell our children what to eat, where to sleep, what to watch, what to read. Is it any wonder they will emerge from their bedroom in the morning as a triumphant three-year-old wearing yellow gumboots, a purple ballet tutu, a striped black top, their Fireman Sam hat and blue jeans? Except that it is a wonder. Because something made them reach for what they’re wearing. They chose. Even if you don’t want to walk down the street with them like that, what they’re saying is: “Today, this is me.”

European runways often feature exquisitely dramatic sculptural creations that hark back to this early time of playfulness, self-expression, imagination and possibility – high fashion references self-expression and storytelling. Yet as parents, our cringing and immediate default can often be: “You can’t go out like that.” It’s this conundrum that led me to the creation of my new picture book, Fashionista. Illustrated with watercolour pencil and bespoke hand-cut collage from high fashion magazines, it aims to bridge the imagination gap between the high fashion we see in print and the ludicrous and wacky child-compiled outfits we battle back into the wardrobe some mornings. I want kids to learn that it’s fun to dress up, to step out and show off looks they love. As I write in Fashionista: “Wear your wardrobe however: home-made, hand-me-down or brand new. Fashion your feelings: happy, flowery, or blue …”

Growing up in 80s and 90s Australia, the schoolyard was all about fluoro rubber bracelets, knee-high socks that we scrunched down around our ankles like legwarmers, and hair-sprayed fringes that curved high above our foreheads. On the weekends, we wore baggy brightly coloured happy pants and hypercolour bodysuits. Though wild by today’s standards, there was a same-sameness about our giant silver hooped earrings and the expensive high-top sneakers we all coveted. But there are some fashion moments of my own that are carved deep into my memory.

I grew up a brown-skinned afro-haired girl in a white picket fence ruralfringe suburb of Sydney. Nobody in my class, or on my street, looked like me. In preschool, the resident bully followed me around incessantly like she was the appointed archer and there was a target glued to my back. One morning I decided I’d had enough, that I would finally confront her at the preschool gate and tell her she was a big bully and to stay away from me. I remember deliberately selecting my red Mickey Mouse T-shirt to wear that morning. I knew I was going to need it. Because red made me feel powerful. Red made me feel strong. Wearing red, I could do anything.

Some Sunday nights, Mum would plait cornrow braids into my tightly curled black hair weaved in four straight, neatly parted rows that marched from my forehead down to my neck. These braids kept me from schoolyard hair-taunting, and were also a stunning point of difference from all the other girls. I remember thinking: “No-one else can wear their hair the same way. They can try, but it won’t look the same.” I remember straightening my shoulders a little on Monday mornings, as I walked into the schoolyard with all of the other girls staring after me. The cornrows made me feel smug, beautiful and defiant.

I remember a phase of about a year, in my teenage life, of suddenly and instinctively wearing only neutral colours: mustards, browns, creams, blacks, greys and terracottas. Cheesecloth skirts and cotton tops. Muted tones and muted styles. Looking back, that period was probably an act of fashion disappearance, the time I most longed for camouflage. This, too, was an empowering fashion choice in its own way. I wasn’t wearing what most of the other kids were wearing, but I wasn’t making myself too conspicuous, either.

I’ve seen with my own kids, as they get older, how that gut impulse to reach for what you just feel like wearing diminishes. In the middle- and upper-primary years, it can start to become more about fitting in: jeans, T-shirt and a ponytail. Thinking about what everyone else is wearing, and how your outfit fits in with that. That’s essentially where the idea for this project came about: to put into the hands of lower- and middleprimary kids moving bodies in all shapes, colours, ages and sizes, strutting it out in whatever the hell they feel like wearing.

I hope my book makes kids and adults alike a little braver about whatever it is they feel like wearing. As I say in Fashionista: “Tap dapper in a jacket, fancy suit or bow-tie. Is this you waltzing by, looking mighty-big-fine? Put on your passion. Wear your heart on your sleeve. You’re a fashionista. Work it. Rock it. Believe.”

Fashionista by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette, $19.99) is available from June 25.

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