By Aarti Johri
It was over a year ago. A friend and I were involved in a project with some young children that used a tie- dye kit. Our preteen girls were also participating. “Here”, my friend said, “your daughter can also tie-dye something for herself; this would look great in that blue”. I looked at what she was tossing me, a Hanes sleeveless T-shirt. I realized my otherwise brilliant friend had some idiosyncrasies, this probably being an example of them. I politely smiled and scrambled out of the situation, puzzled nonetheless why she would give my daughter an undershirt, obviously purchased for her son.
The next morning she called me. “I’m sorry if I offended you, but I just wanted you to know that the undershirt was unused”, she offered. “That’s okay”, I volunteered, still confused. “I guess you haven’t been out shopping with your girl recently”, she said. “That’s what they wear these days”. “Yeah right”, I thought, “maybe yours”. Putting down the phone, I realized that with all the online shopping I did, I had indeed not been to a mall in a while, in spite of having two preteens-behaving-like-teenagers trying to drag me there. So the following weekend when my daughter pleaded with me, “Mom can we do some shopping, and please no Target or Old Navy”, I quickly consented. “It’s the Abercrombie and Fitch store I want to go to, you know I have gift cards”, my daughter cautiously added. “And we can go to the outlet at Milpitas, no need to waste money at the Stanford store”, her older, wiser brother offered. The desi bargainer in me rose to the forefront and we quickly found our way to the Great Mall of Milpitas.
After the inevitable parking issues, and searching the maps telling us “where we are”, we found ourselves in front of the holiest of holies. The Abercrombie and Fitch store. Certainly different from the stores of a few years ago, we were greeted with smoldering darkness instead of friendly light. As my eyes adjusted to the light I cried out in horror. “What a joke this is, they REALLY sell boy’s undershirts as girl’s clothing”, I exclaimed in indignation pointing to a stack of colorful “tanks” in front of me. My daughter’s doe-eyes turned liquid. “So I can’t shop here?” she asked. Her brother, older by fourteen months, but perhaps worldly wiser by fourteen years, began that all too familiar rolling of the eyes. “Mom, it’s her birthday money, and it’s not underwear, AND we are buying it much cheaper than at Stanford shopping centre”, he argued. I shrugged my shoulders, prodding them on as I waited near the entrance.
Observing this Mecca of the teens for the first time, I suddenly recalled the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The foolish emperor in that story is convinced by a pair of tricksters that he is wearing magic robes, visible only to the wise. He remains clad only in his underclothes for a public parade, until a little boy observes that he does not have any clothes on. I felt a bit like that little boy, realizing that a whole generation of girls and young women is being tricked by designers, media, and fashion icons. Adding pieces of lace, and pretty colors, and of course recognizable insignia to what used to be underclothes has suddenly turned them into grand robes.
It has been more than a year since that first visit. Like other mothers around me, I have also succumbed to the latest fashion trends for girls, and taken my daughter several times to her favorite store. She also gives in to my conservative style, by layering up, and covering all the layers with a jacket. From Abercrombie and Fitch.
As I was paying for the items on a recent visit, my son constantly reminding me of how much I had saved, I noticed the posters all over the store. A young hunk, clad in an undershirt, looking down at us. “Looks like Caesar or Michelangelo’s David”, I thought, observing his perfect profile and muscled torso. I also wondered why his picture, instead of that of a gorgeous female model, crowned the store. Then it hit me. HE’s the emperor, and it’s HIS undershirt that started all this in the first place.