Fashion is for everyone 

  • How Sri Lankan fashion fits in with body positivity and gender norms

By Nethmi Dissanayake

Fashion is everywhere: It’s a form of art that transcends what is merely in your closet or in clothing stores. It’s in the roads, in restaurants and cafes, in parks and forests, in our music and our art. If you look at the thousands of people who pass you by every day, they will each have their own unique style, from the people wearing clothes that are “in” or the “new style” to those wearing their own creative, interesting styles. 

Just like music, people can be inspired by fashion. Through someone’s fashion and sense of style, you can interpret how a person feels, how their day went, or get a glimpse into their lifestyle. People believe that fashion is art; it delivers a theme and represents what we wish to be and how we see our own identity. Each person’s taste in style is different, but it all comes down to the idea of wanting to stand out, feel confident, and embrace their true selves. 

For a long time, fashion was dominated by the beauty standard of the waif-thin woman and the lean,  athletic man. But of late, society has begun to evolve, strengthening its voice and provoking discussion on more acceptable (and attainable) body types. This positive discussion encourages women and men to own their bodies and curves of every size and even the multi-billion dollar fashion industry is listening, improving their offering of plus-size fashion and working towards a more size-inclusive market. 

Brunch reached out to some personalities involved in the local fashion industry for some insight into their perspectives on how the local industry has changed in terms of inclusiveness over the years and why it is important to break traditional gender norms in fashion. 

Fashion belongs to everyone regardless of size: Dominique Sedra

Makeup artist Dominique Croos Sedra shared that when it comes to fashion, the only rule that should be followed is to wear what you feel good in, saying: “Fashion belongs to everyone regardless of size. We all deserve to look and feel our best and fashion definitely helps us achieve this confidence. I love that there is a plus-size industry, though it is sadly still quite new in Sri Lanka, but at least it’s progressing in the right direction. I think the few negatives would be that the brands that I have seen catering to plus sizes don’t make anything fun, the clothes are usually made with the intent of hiding/covering fat, and while this is understandable, as many bigger people aren’t comfortable wearing clothing that would make these things visible, the brands I have seen usually offer few, very standard, basic patterns which they use for all their garments, and plus-size people deserve better than that. There’s no shame in being big. The other thing would be that the industry tends to focus on models with the stereotyped hourglass shape, usually toned with a flat stomach and little to no rolls – and this is not solely in Sri Lanka. The irony is that this is actually hardly inclusive, as most plus-size women have big bellies and rolls.”

She also shared how some agencies and designers have asked her to look a certain way or lose weight. “They have often said I either need to tone up or lose more weight or something along those lines. It gets pretty frustrating to hear, especially if I get asked to model for plus-size clothing. It baffles me that I am asked to look a certain way if the point is to be inclusive. Regrettably, I have not spoken up about it in the past, but I would definitely say something about it now. Plus-size people do not have to conform to a standard (read: hourglass) shape to be considered worthy, or deserving.”

When being asked whether she has any styling tips to share, she mentioned that she is not the biggest fan of offering styling tips for plus sizes, as these usually focus on shaping the body to be more hourglass shaped, or hiding fat and rolls. Wear whatever feels good to you, there are no rules, she concluded.

Fashion is a form of expression; you get to feel good about yourself and empowered: Ranjula Herath

Ranjula Herath, owner of the brand and body positivity platform, spoke to Brunch about the importance of portraying body positivity through fashion. “Globally, the industry is very progressive and inclusive. This is so not only in terms of body size, but also diversity, skin colour, those who are differently abled, and other aspects as well. Locally, we have a long way to go. What’s interesting to see is that now, more and more brands are receptive and progressive in terms of representation. The biggest positive I see is some brands, which were scared to add the bigger sizes to the size charts, are now changing.” 

However, Herath shared that companies are scared to represent the plus-size industry because of the unrealistic beauty standards that are set. “People tend to perceive a certain kind of body image as being ideal, but this has been changing with the younger generation. I think we mainly have to thank social media for that. Young men and women share their struggles and advocate for others on what true beauty is on social media platforms. I think with all the social change happening, with attitudes and mindsets changing, brands have also realised that they need to cater to these changed consumers.” 

She shared her inspiration behind the Flabulous brand: “It all started with my purpose, and my mission of wanting to create a body positive movement in Sri Lanka, to talk about realistic body standards for women and use style as a mode of communication and empowerment. Also, because as a teenager I struggled a lot with my body image and even now, I sometimes struggle with my body image. Back then, I didn’t have anyone to look up to and sometimes I felt as if I didn’t fit in. So, this clothing line is my attempt at normalising various sizes on that size chart, and promoting confidence.”

For Herath, fashion is an integral part of feeling confident, so much so that she believes fashion is an invaluable form of expression. “You get to feel good about yourself, empower yourself; it adds so much value to your character, your life; with fashion and style, you can’t just narrow it down to the designer clothes or the accessories you have. It has a deeper connection to an individual.” 

A rising wave of gender-neutral or unisex clothing undeniably growing across the world: Asif Faiz

Clothing also has an influence on the social structure of bringing everyone together despite their gender or how they identify themselves. In an era of gender fluidity, all bets are off. Though French linguists might disagree, clothes have no gender attached to them anymore. Skirts, dresses, and jeans are for everyone who decides to wear them. Celebrities like Billy Porter, Harry Styles, Zendaya, and Yara Shahidi can probably vouch for that.

Writer and content creator Asif Faiz shared his opinion on breaking gender norms through fashion. “Fashion and breaking gender norms is quite an interesting topic. What’s interesting is how what we consider ‘breaking the norm’, was the norm at some point in the past. This goes to show the ever-fluid and evolving nature of fashion itself, and expression to a certain degree.” 

He further added: “I’d say that culture, pop culture, mainstream media, and celebrities, all play a part in what we decide is today’s norm or even what ‘breaking the norm’ is. Men wearing nail polish, skirts, crop tops, high-waist pants, dresses, oversized, flowy shirts, having long or coloured hair, accessorising or even wearing makeup, is what we consider to be breaking gender norms today. However, if you look at it, these have long been happening throughout time with varying degrees of acceptance and sometimes were even celebrated. David Bowie’s wardrobe, Johnny Depp’s crop top from the 1984s film A Nightmare on Elm Street, the many men who adorn nail polish, Jaden Smith’s Louis Vuitton skirt, and say the Harry Styles of it all, are examples.”

Faiz concluded by saying: “While celebrities have the luxury of adopting these ‘norm-breaking’ trends, you might ask whether the everyday average person can. Well, they can. Yes, there is hesitance; yes, society and culture may dictate what’s accepted, but there is a rising wave of gender-neutral or unisex clothing that’s undeniably growing across the world. You may have even unconsciously partaken in this movement by simply borrowing your partner’s t-shirt. At the end of the day, fashion is about expression, it’s about showing your authentic self as being comfortable, versatile, static, expressive, rebellious, etc. This becomes more evident as you see how much fashion is now influenced by the rising GenZ population or even the LGBTQIA community that has long used it as a voice and a major outlet of expression. If you ask me, I’d say wear what you love, what feels mostly and uniquely you, as long as it brings no harm to anyone including yourself.”

I define fashion as a form of self-expression: Darshi Keerthisena

Buddhi Batiks Owner and Designer Darshi Keerthisena spoke to Brunch about how she defines fashion and what has changed over the years in the local fashion industry. 

“Fashion is style expressed with the aid of external objects such as clothing, footwear, accessories, living spaces, lifestyle, etc. I define fashion as a form of self-expression. “

Keerthisena added: “In the local fashion industry, within the last decade, there have been many new designers. The availability of good fashion and design programmes, privately as well as in government-run universities in the country, has been a big factor for this. More designers are using local inspiration and craft to create unique designs. More competition has pushed the industry to do better. Hence, I have seen some very talented designers emerging and evolving.”

She also mentioned consumers’ appreciation for locally made craft, and how local fashion has been growing; and that it has become almost a trend to buy from a local designer, which is a positive change.

Years ago, the way an individual dressed may have identified their social class, political standing, or maybe even their respective age group. However, fashion has evolved so rapidly over the years, from the zoot suit in the 30s, to the bell-bottoms and afros of the 70s, to the mohawk and skinny jeans. Fashion never stays the same; it is always changing. There are new things every day in the fashion world, and many things that cause it to change. Fashion trends always change and come back years later in a more modern way, she said.

Society is the biggest critic of fashion. You wear something different from everybody else and you get judged because of it. If people like what you are wearing, then they are going to start wearing similar clothes as you. All in all, Fashion has always been used as a way to establish individualism and set a person aside from others.