Longyi, a Lyric

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

The author in Burma. Photograph by David Rohlfing.

The author in Burma. Photograph by David Rohlfing.

It is not a skirt.

And if it is a skirt, what of it? The Western gaze can be narrow and righteous.

I consider the longyi a masculine garment: the way it’s anchored in a bundle up front, advertising its bulk. Like a flower over the loin.

But I also love how it slims the hips, hugs them not unlike a corset, although it is not as binding or restrictive. Rather, I find the longyi freeing, enabling breathing room. It sits below the waist, elongating the torso. Actually, it isn’t like a corset at all.

In Burma, where it is traditionally worn, my husband and I wore the longyi, a cylindrical cloth that stretches to the feet, held in place around the waist by folding fabric over without a knot. It gained popularity in Burma during British colonial rule. It is similar to the Indian lungi and the Malay sarong.

I’d slipped into skirts before, when I was circumcised at age twelve in the Philippines. A skirt—my mother’s or my sisters’—kept the fresh wound clean and aerated for faster healing without sticking to fabric. Protection and shield, a skirt provided the proper exposure.

In Burma, David, my husband, selected a modest dark purple fabric for his longyi. I chose a thin-lined, tiny-squared plaid with shades of the oranges and browns of leopard skin. The sellers showed us how one needed to put one’s lower arms into it, pulling the opposing sides of the sewn cylinder, gathering the fabric, then crisscrossing the two sides as if folding a blanket fresh out of the dryer.

Throughout the Burmese day, men tie, untie and retie their longyi. A ritual of social propriety. A dance between loosening concealment and the body.

Author and his husband in Bagan

Author and his husband in Bagan

We were touring Bagan, an inland city in the western Mandalay region where over 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries survived from the 11th and 13th centuries, the plains dotted with them. They remained sacred, active places of worship. Although the Burmese are tolerant of tourists wearing inappropriate clothing, we still received occasional disapproving stares, especially from elders.

At the time of our visit in June 2015, Burma had only recently opened up to tourism, and there were a handful of places foreigners were allowed. Yet many do cater to tourists. To be a tourist is to be swaddled, like an infant which makes demands and is also subjected to the demands of others.

As Westerners conspicuously adorned in traditional garb, were we being respectful?

With my difficulties in tying the longyi—I’m equally a dunce at folding fitted sheets—the Burmese men of Bagan were more than happy to help. At a vegetarian restaurant, Be Kind to Animals The Moon, a willing young man—who spoke English accented with a curious mix of British clip and Southern drawl—assisted me. Inside, I burst into C.P. Cavafy: “At beauty I have gazed so much/that my vision is filled with it./The body lines. Red lips. Limbs made for pleasure.” Or “this aesthete of a boy with his blood so fresh and hot.”

CC Image courtesy of Kaj17 on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Kaj17 on Flickr

Due to the infernal heat, men lifted up their longyis as they walked or sat, exposing their toned legs. Or found relief by tucking the lower portion at the top by bunching it in front then passing it up between the legs around back to the waist.  

Tucking leads my mind to drag.

On my 30th birthday, I wore a borrowed Scottish wool kilt, red plaid and heavy, suited for the early December chill. Good friends and I feasted on Mario Batali’s Roman fare in Greenwich Village. In queue for the bathroom, I was astounded when the man wearing a suit in front of me asked if I was wearing anything underneath. Then the same cavalier query was uttered repeatedly as we caroused into the cosmopolitan night. What compelled people to ask outright about my undergarment, or lack thereof? I was clearly not Scottish, so were they in on a preconceived joke? Was I wearing a costume? Was I guilty of appropriating?

The kilt was kitsch to me, partly, yes, but I’d worn it with want and admiration. How warm it made me feel. How free and unconventional. But also, I was then in a state of self-discovery and examination, having recently come out as gay. The kilt acted as an in-between: masculine with its burly feel and heft, almost like an animal’s pelt. Yet it was, still, a kind of skirt. Perhaps I was trying to fuse two sides of me, which of course were not halves at all. Being gay is a totality of self.

On a motorbike, the longyi funneled cool air. It fluttered like wings, a sense of flight.

Burmese men carried them slung on their lower arms, protrusion of larval fabric, elongated folded skin. Or serpentine over their shoulders, like a sash.

While my husband was touring a temple, I slipped out to use the bathroom. Outside the stall, I was having difficulty re-tying my longyi. Three young men stopped to help me. Limbs everywhere. One stood behind me, the other faced me, while the third watched. It was the friendliest, most chaste orgy, but sexually charged nonetheless. I didn’t tell my husband until two days later; it felt as illicit as a confession.

I stood, arms raised in the air. Brown arms circled my waist, weaving. From the back, groping and tightening at the erogenous torso. I had become his body. We comprised of three rings, if not four, with the electric charge around us. He wound the longyi tightly, then plunged fabric down to the loin. Tucked in the front. Fluffed the flower. I surrendered.

(Joseph O. Legaspi, a 2015 Fulbright fellow, is the author of Imago and an upcoming as-yet-untitled collection, and two chapbooks: Aviary, Bestiary and Subways. He resides in Queens, NY.)
 

Shoes of the Mishpokhe

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

The box was left outside my apartment door the way someone might abandon a child or a kitten at the doorstep of a good Samaritan. It was from my neighbor Achelois, one of the best therapists in New York City.
 
"These shoes need to be thrown out,” she wrote. “I wore them for over 20 years... especially in my purple period."
 
And what New York woman didn't have a purple period?  That color was to some women what botox was to others – a commitment to the ideals of youth no matter what birthday had just happened. Purple was the spirit that could not be quelled.  Purple was when you stopped giving a shit about what color was trending. Purple was the color of the flag we flew as we battled to protect baby seals and drink fair trade coffee.
 
Achelois’ purple shoes were no exception.  Soft suede Oxfords with a fiercely practical wedge that only pretended to be the stylish version of a shoe you might wear on a nature preserve where everyone made their own clothes. The smart company that made these shoes made buckets of money from women who wanted to walk across town while still looking pretty on their own terms.  Their sales were legendary and women wore their wedges to dust.
 
"Could you throw them in the garbage for me?  I can't bear to.  I really loved them...”
 
As she loved her shoes, I loved Achelois.  It wasn’t only because for forty years I had cornered her in the lobby or the elevator for free relationship advice and therapy. It wasn’t even because for four decades we had shared the intimacy of neighbors who knew that no matter what – whether a cup of sugar was needed or there was a death in the family -- we would show up for each other.
 
It was forty years worth of bags of clothes and boxes of footwear left on each other’s doorknobs as our bodies aged and swelled and diminished and swelled and then aged some more. When massive closet purging was necessary, Mishpokhe (the family you might not be related to but that you really liked) had to have first dibs.  
 
That’s why I loved Achelois.  Okay, that and the free therapy.
 
So I understood her request. Tucked away in my own small closet was a box with really ugly Oxfords bought seventeen years ago on my fortieth birthday, for more money than I had, after a terrible break-up. I had clung to them for so long they were now back in neo-retro ‘80’s style.  

Then there are the antique heels I bought at a church jumble sale forty-four years ago at the age of thirteen, that no longer fit, and would probably be buried with me.  After all, they were my first pair of black heels.  I wore them to my first office job defiantly standing out against all the stacked heels from Queens.

laundry-moed-antique.jpg

Or the black boots generously left behind by a roommate and carefully stored in a place of honor even though I have not worn them since I was forty-five because every nerve between every toe screamed when I walked in them.  Yet nothing said Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast like these babies.

And then there was the flushed-with-a real-paycheck recent folly of unwearable, expensive (even with all the discounts Macy’s could offer) platform shoes that failed to bring back the '70s and better toes and stronger knees.

So I understood.  
 
All our shoes—the black boots, the little heels, the loved-to-tattered purple shoes—
were not just protection from the broken glass-filled, urine-soaked sidewalks of a city we both grew up in, her in Harlem, me on the Lower East Side.  Those shoes let us walk our history as we went from youthful confusion to senior citizen discounts, as we watched our neighborhoods go from the most dangerous to the most expensive.  
 
We were the real Cinderellas and this was no fairytale.   Each time we slipped our foot into our unbreakable glass slippers, we returned, via vivid memory, to dates with boyfriends briefly considered and sometimes married; parties celebrating babies;  holidays filled with thanks and hope; long marches protesting the Viet Nam war, the nuclear armament war, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Climate Change War, the war against terrorism, drugs, assholes....  
 
In those shoes, we stomped towards love and we ran for help.We stood our ground in those expensive risks and those second-hand treasures, as we challenged governments we knew to be immoral.  We faced off relatives we knew to be teenagers.  In our sturdy shoes, our boots, our sandals, our too-high stilettos, our comfy flats, we strode into the world, insisting that we be seen fully and wholly as the extraordinary women we suspected we were. With just the slip of our foot into a beloved shoe, all those moments, otherwise lost in the fog of memory along with misplaced keys, came running back
 
What we put on our feet was never an afterthought.
 
Achelois’s box of purple shoes stayed in that box on the bench in my foyer for weeks.  It was like a Catholic wake. I was viewing the body and paying my respects (even though everyone involved in this matter was Jewish).
 
Then one day, all felt said and done. Another good-bye would not make it better and could not make it worse.  It would just make it longer.  So, before the building woke up, I packed up Achelois’ purple shoes and sent them on the next leg of their journey.  Perhaps to be taken apart and made into something else like a bag or a coat or perhaps to be carefully repaired, and loved back into something another amazing woman might want to walk in.
 

(C.O. Moed grew up on the Lower East Side when it was still a tough neighborhood. She chronicles the heart and soul of a disappearing family and a city in the throes of extinction and evolution on It Was Her New York. The rest of the time she writes, shoots, works a day job, and lives with her husband, fellow writer Ted Krever and two cats in New York City. She tweets as @comoed.)

Photographs by the author.

Luxury Tax

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

A Versace shirt became the first in my collection of favorite clothes that I don’t wear. It was striped, brown and black, made of a cotton blend with some stretch to it. My reverence for the shirt was directly proportional to my unwillingness to wear it. That would run the risk of sullying it in some way with stray pen marks (the writer’s burden) or food spills.

I’m not sure that I ever even washed it; it was too delicate for that—the machine would be brusque with it. And taking it to the dry cleaners would have been too proletarian for such a shirt. I would wear it for a day here and there--for special occasions when I wanted to look particularly smart and stylish--then let it air out. Cosmic rays, indoor drafts, and the shirt’s inherent divinity (derived from its proto-Italian luxury heritage) would get it clean.

The cut, along with the tightness of the stretch fabric, was very unforgiving. The perfectly proportioned stripes were vertical, a solid backdrop of black broken by thin groupings of golden brown lines. Replacing the standard single seam along the shoulder was a rectangular swatch joining the back and front sides. The detail would function almost like a general’s epaulet but for anatomical emphasis; it showed off my shoulders to good effect. The handfeel was gloriously soft, as all such fabric blends are. On the inside, the label Versace Jeans Couture, with the Medusa-like icon of a woman’s face.

I always wore a shirt underneath it, hoping that the lines of the undershirt wouldn’t show—the male equivalent of panty line anxiety, I suppose. But wearing it without an undershirt—indeed donning any top but a T-shirt without that extra layer of something underneath—was too risky. The underarms might stain, rendering the shirt an embarrassing totem of my body’s unworthiness of such luxury rather than a reflection of my modishness.

Eventually it wasn’t my body or motor skills but the Versace that betrayed me: a thread on the bottom seam came undone. Like all threads in such plot lines, it further unraveled as time passed. Though I had sewn a stuffed football and owl in high school home economics, it would be years before I took the sewing class at FIT with a friend, so I was yet a sewing novice. I could only watch the unraveling occur, no more believing that I could intervene there than I could in the impending doom of a horror movie.

Luxury is supposed to last. And so my wishes for this totem to be eternal translated into a heightened unwillingness to wear the acquisition; it remained unworn and out of sight, sitting on the top of the pile of clothes in my closet or sandwiched between other shirts that were worthy of it. The stretch fabric presented a conundrum about how to preserve it best during those ever-longer interstices between wearings—to hang it would have been disastrous, and yet folding it entailed similar if less dramatic alterations. Even with my particular methodology of folding, there were some lingering traces of a crease: Stretch fabric has a memory that cannot be ironed out. If I had known at the time that there were such museums as the Costume Institute, I would have called the archivists to ask their recommendations.

The most recent shirt I favorited but did not wear is also of an Italian pedigree—a Massimo Alba, again a striped shirt, this one an oxford in light and dark tones of gold, the fabric pleasantly but not overly soft. A minimal abstract shape, presumably Massimo’s logo, is threaded in an off-center location on the left side: a reassuring dimple of tangible form against the otherwise smooth sheen of cotton. In its architecture, the shirt has frills like the inner lining along the front providing extra reinforcement and structural form. A colleague gave it to me, having himself visited Alba, who let him choose from his personal collection whatever he wanted.

Upon returning from Italy, my coworker offered this shirt to me, telling me it was my color and size. I was skeptical that it was right for me, yet it fit perfectly. Putting it on gave me a thrill, the exhilaration of someone who could never himself afford such an item, particularly with any regularity, but who nevertheless finds himself in possession of it. Or possessed by it, as if by some kind of enchanted mask that transforms the wearer when worn.

When I brought the shirt home, it hung in my closet for several weeks. As with the pauper who must be judicious about taking out his solitary suit, its rarity figured into the calculation of not promenading about in it. Instead, I would pause every so often to admire it. The Alba has a patina, a subtly inconsistent coloring to the fabric that my colleague told me was because Massimo “paints” it to render this effect, an artisanal technique that gives it a distinctive look, ensuring no two shirts would be exactly alike. What occasion would be suitable for my wearing it? Finally, I realized  that to leave the Alba hermetically sealed in my apartment would be like robbing it—and me—of the life we might have together. I wore it to the office one day, feeling resplendent, as though it were a raiment.

I’ve worn it multiple times since then and even washed it. Perhaps I’ve begun to accept that luxury can attain a certain normalcy. But I don’t anticipate many further such additions to my wardrobe, since the high-end stores that sell them are unapproachably out of reach.

The Versace shirt remains unworn and tucked away somewhere, a museum piece of when I cared about the perfect preservation of that kind of clothing. Perhaps now I’ll dig it out and wear it with abandon, cut off the sleeves, sew it into something different. And like its threads, allow those vestiges of another time, place, and fashion sensibility to continue unraveling.

(Jeremy Lehrer is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.)

Remembering Syria in a Jewelry Box

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

Start near the citadel of Damascus. With the Barada river on your left and the walls of the citadel on your right, walk through streets that smell of history and spices. Just before you reach the Umayyad mosque, you will see the entrance of Souk Al-Hamidiyah, where the sunlight, coming through the latticed roof, falls in intricate patterns on the ground.

This is where my favorite jewelry shops are, these narrow alleys full of artisans who have spent years at their antique craft. I have spent many delicious hours here, talking to jewelers, listening to their stories, asking them to make me this kind of ring, that kind of necklace. Giving and receiving jewelry is an important ritual in Syrian life. I loved ordering a special piece of jewelry as a gift, choosing the right gemstone for a loved one. I was mesmerized when I watched the jewelry take shape in the clever, precise hands of men who had learned this art from their fathers and grandfathers. They are all clustered here in this corner of Damascus, near the ruins of the Jupiter temple, where the doves circle the skies.

"Temple of Jupiter in Damascus, by the Entrance to Al-Hamidiyah Souk" by Alessandra Kocman, licensed under CC BY 2.0

"Temple of Jupiter in Damascus, by the Entrance to Al-Hamidiyah Souk" by Alessandra Kocman, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Except – these smiling faces are not there any more. And neither am I. Many of the jewellers have left and their shops are now shuttered. The few who remain have stopped making new designs. Some have started selling cheap trinkets to survive. In many other Syrian cities, old streets such as these have been completely destroyed. I, too, left Syria, in March 2014 and now live in Istanbul. I was one of the few lucky ones. I left while I still had a choice whereas millions left because they lost everything. Today, there are around 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and 4.5 million Syrian refugees around the world. Host countries are rapidly changing colors, imposing new restrictions. Razor–wire fences have come up to prevent Syrians from entering various European countries. And most recently, the Danish government enacted a law to seize jewelry from Syrian refugees to pay for the costs of hosting them.

The Damascus of my childhood is now just a colorful fairytale.

So begin instead here, in my little room in Istanbul. On those days when I cannot pretend to myself anymore that the street outside could be a street in Syria, that around the corner could be the jasmine-scented home of my childhood, I sit in my little room and open my secret box.

First, there is my birth jewelry,  golden gifts from family members and their friends to celebrate my arrival. There are blue stones, glass and turquoise, set in gold – in Arab culture, these blue eyes are given as blessings to protect the infant from evil eyes. My first ear-rings. The first letter of my name in gold. S for Sana. S for the person I used to be and the country that I left behind.

My mother used to hide this jewelry in a secret drawer. I was only allowed to wear it on special occasions. When she opened the drawer and allowed me to glimpse the jewelry and sometimes wear them, I felt like a little princes with a secret treasure.

As I grew, so did my collection, and each rite of passage came with a new piece of jewelry. The gold and pearl bracelet I got for doing well in school; the bird-shaped ear-rings for my fourteenth birthday; the necklace with my father’s picture inside the locket, to celebrate my high school graduation. Then there came the day my jewelry graduated from my mother’s secret drawer to a special box inside my own closet.  I was finally an adult, and I started exploring my own taste in jewelry. My jewelry box now included silver and gemstones, especially in the antique Arab style.

Of all these, my favorite is the necklace, with purple amethyst stones set in silver, that my mother gave me, five years ago, while I was undergoing chemotherapy. Today, this necklace reminds me that I am a fighter, a survivor, someone who will live to tell the tale.

This is not just a jewelry box, it is a map of my childhood. It reminds me that I used to belong to a place, that I am alive now to hold it in my heart forever. Perhaps it seems unreasonable that someone who has lost much already will hold on to their jewelry. But our jewelry is also our memory and history. They may be covered with the dust of the continents we traveled through, but when you are far away from home waiting for an ID from another country to define who you are, your necklaces and rings tell stories that remind you of who you were. And as futile as it seems, they offer the promise of someday returning, of walking down a street in a souk where even the stones on the ground seem like precious gems.

(Sana Aljendi is a doctor who specializes in general internal medicine. She also writes children’s stories. Sana was born in Damascus, Syria and now lives in Istanbul, Turkey. She will never say no to a dance class, from tango to ballet.)

 

 

Aladdin Sane at the Salvation Army

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

 

"Everyone here wants to sleep with you."

Two months into my first year of grad school, I was at my first actual Halloween party since maybe middle school (I didn’t get out much in college, whatever, shut up). I was dressed as Aladdin Sane: full lightning-bolt makeup, ruffled shirt, my girlfriend’s leggings. The news about everyone wanting to sleep with me came from Franke, a poet in my year whose introversion was so deep that it often worm-holed inside out and exploded as inappropriate extroversion (I mean, the dude once brought a jug of liquor to a writing class.) In other words, the line could easily have been a joke at my expense that I am still too dense to recognize. Half the battle of being a graduate student was figuring out which insecurities to take seriously. But at that party and at that moment, it was exactly what I wanted to hear. I raised my hand and tried to point to the whole room at once. “I accept!” I said to him and everyone.

I lost my David Bowie virginity decades after just about everybody else. It happened in college, by accident, via the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic. It’s not that cool of a story except that it was electrifying to hear Seu Jorge’s mournful acoustic cover of “Life on Mars” in Portuguese rub elbows with Bowie’s original “Queen Bitch.”

Later that year, my father asked me whether I actually liked Bowie or just listened to him ironically. A fair question: my parents knew me then (and probably still know me best) as my high school self, who was unabashedly and unironically in love with nü-metal. Like, I owned Godsmack albums on purpose. Even so, I didn’t have the guts to quite commit to a metalhead look. Aside from some unfortunate hair gel and JNCO jeans decisions, I wore the 00s straight white guy uniform: New Balance sneaks, t-shirts with words and/or dragons on them, and cargo everything. Utilitarian and baggy: default clothes for a default guy who wanted to be wanted and didn’t know how to say so.

So no, I didn’t listen to David Bowie ironically. I listened deliberately, enjoying the way he clashed with my previous self. He ushered in a series of infatuations with musical heartthrob waifs: Patrick Wolf, Owen Pallett, Andrew Bird, Zach Condon; I was in college. The sludge of double-bass pedals and drop-tuned guitar washed away in a tide of ukuleles and synths and violins and glitter. I went hippie rather than glam: shoulder-length hair followed by a soul-patch. But still, my clothes were more about concealment and fitting in than anything else, and my idols were men who had found a wardrobe that was outlandish, surreal, and performative bordering on vain.

I got into grad school on the last day of the last month of the acceptance deadline. Some guy had decided at the last minute to attend Cornell instead of Michigan, thereby scooping me out of the waitlist and dumping me into a pool of real writers. I was a small fish in a small pond full of big fish. Some of my peers had books out already. Some already had successful careers in other disciplines. Many were a decade or more older than me. Workshops were full of straight-up good writing. Meanwhile, I tried to feel like I deserved to be there. I submitted my buttoned-up little poems about floorboards and fireplaces, the emotional content always oblique, always mediated by images rather than revealed by them. They received polite, buttoned-up feedback in return. But then the Bowie costume happened. For the rest of the year, people talked about the costume in a way they didn’t talk about my writing.

I’d cobbled the costume together from the Salvation Army thrift store across the street from my apartment. The big finds were a faux-snakeskin jacket and a yellow satiny blouse with ruffles that went on for days. My girlfriend at the time helped assemble the rest of it: she administered the aerosol hair dye, the face-paint and makeup, and loaned me the leggings.

Could I have dressed up as Aladdin Sane had I been single? Could I have walked into a party full of near-strangers wearing tights and makeup if I hadn’t been firmly partnered? I want the answer to be yes. I’d like to be the anchor for my own masculinity. But I haven’t really dressed up for Halloween since we broke up.                

The image of Ziggy Stardust I held in my head as I rifled through the women’s clothing racks at Salvation Army, and the image of him I have now, is neither timid nor oblique. He is bleached and vivid, wearing the goofy red mullet, the silver circle stamped on his forehead, the jumpsuit that’s half-Star Trek and half-kimono, the bare chest underneath. Not androgynous so much as transcendently sexual.

For me, the “starman” is a fantasy of escape and return: to escape my boring poetry and return with something resplendent; to escape the heavy masculine anxieties of my adolescence and return transfigured and alien and actually, publicly sexy.

And it worked for a minute. I walked into the party, and everyone knew who I was supposed to be.

(David Ward teaches writing classes at the University of Michigan, where he once upon a time received an MFA in poetry. He’s been published, but not often or recently. He’s excited to write about David Bowie, but feels a little weird that he’s used Bowie’s death as an occasion to write about his own life. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is his favorite album, because obviously, but Low and Hunky Dory are close contenders. Next costume: Goblin King.)

Photographs by Caitlin Joseph