Friday, April 24, 2015

Here and Now: Oliver Twist, the Newsboy Cap, and Child Exploitation

Rainy days are not conducive to dressing well, especially if I'm using my mobility scooter. But, if I can't pull off  a decent outfit in the rain, I'll seldom get to dress up at all from about October to June. So I do what I can.

Yet again, this outfit was, primarily, influenced by late 70s, early 80s fashion. But, as I looked at these photos, my mind wandered from Sherlock Holmes, to Oliver Twist, to Brooke Shields, to child labour. A simple outfit sent me on a twisting road to some upsetting truths about child exploitation, including the sexual exploitation -- the slavery -- that I endured as a child.

My mind has always made odd associations between ideas. When I was first put into a gifted program as a child, I was told that this is a classic sign of giftedness. I've had to learn to censor myself a bit, because people often don't see the connections that I see; they think that, instead, I'm just rambling from topic to unrelated topic. They find it annoying or confusing or both. Just ask my college students. I really have to reign it in for them!

But here, for your edification and depression, dear readers, I present an example of how the wandering of my wandery mind works, taking me from high-waisted jeans to child abuse, from literary mysteries to the Charles Dickens.

Jeans: Reitman's; Boots: Ecco; Cap: ?; Earrings: Jessica; Right hand ring: Burks; Cape, blouse, vest, and brooches: vintage
First, the outfit. If it's raining, this cape a necessity on my mobility scooter. It keeps my knees and arms covered and dry. It's pretty stylish too, if I do say so myself.

People often say it reminds them of Sherlock Holmes (here played by Basil Rathbone).

Who wouldn't want to be associated with such brains? Speaking of brains, that building towering above me is the downtown campus of one of the universities where I studied and, later, taught, many lifetimes ago. So: Sherlock and university, two reminders of brains.

The funny things is that, as far as I can tell, Holmes has never actually been depicted wearing a full cape, yet everyone remembers him as having worn one, from the original illustrations to today. This is the closest I found to a cape and it's just a robe.

(It's possible that's opium in his pipe. Yes, in the original stories, he is depicted as a hard drug user, though only a "recreational" one, as if that's possible. The American television show, Sherlock, picks up on this in a more realistic way, with Sherlock being a recovering heroin addict.)

It's easy to forget, over 100 years after the fact, but, when Doyle wrote the stories, he meant Sherlock to be the very most modern of modern men, in part because he always valued hard facts and science over things like intuition, religion, superstition, and commonly held beliefs. I'm all for truth over beliefs, but more on that later. Here, I'm trying to look like Holmes in spirit: imperious, logical, self-confident, and modern.

When this bizarre structure behind me was built in the early 80s, it too was the most modern of modern, though it seems entertainingly dated today. It seemed a fun "space age" back drop and setting for my own late 70s and early 80s inspired outfit. The shirt and vest are the most obvious markers of the period. I think both were actually made at the time.

I've always quite liked this type of blouse, with its gossamer fabric and puffed sleeves. It seems very sophisticated to me, probably because it's attractive without being showy or revealing. The woman who wears it is not interested in impressing people with her body or even her good looks. Her good taste is impressive enough. This is a woman with a bit of money, which she earned herself, in her professional career. As someone who was trafficked for years, my only value being that of the saleability of my body, I'm all for a woman's achievements being more important than her appearance.

Against a hell of a lot odds, I managed to get an education and build a career for myself and I enjoy dressing accordingly, so I like the blouse. As was common in the early 80s, I paired it with a man-tailored vest.

I think the vest is handmade, probably sewn from a pattern such as this one. I do so wish I could sew! I would have a huge wardrobe made from vintage sewing patterns. But I know that, with my back injury (actually, injuries, plural, I learned about a year ago), leaning over to sew would cause me a lot of pain. My plan is someday to be able to have "my seamstress" to sew amazing confections for me.

As with many inexpertly sewn clothes, the vest doesn't fit perfectly. The women in the second hand store where I bought it said that I was the first one whose chest was large enough for the vest but, still, it feels a bit "off" somehow, constantly riding up and buckling.

I have to tug it down a lot.

But that's kind of fun because it reminds me of Jean-Luc Picard, who had to pull down his top every time he stood up or shifted position -- for how many seasons? Many. But he did it with dignity, didn't he, so I'm in good company.

Plus, of course, there's this. Tell it, Mr. Stewart! I try to tell it, over and over, and so should you. But, let's face it, he's right: people will listen to him more than they'll listen to me. So he tells it over and over, loud and clear.

Gotta love the Patrick Stewart. I'm proud to wear an outfit that even vaguely reminds me of him.

Feminist men are so hot.

Back to the vest. It's also appealing because I'm a complete sucker for tweeds and woollens, as you may already know. They're not as easy to find as you might think, especially in women's clothes.

(Yes, these two brooches do go very well together. Thanks for noticing. They're both designed by Boucher, who's one of my favourites. The one on the left is probably from the 40s, while the one on the right is probably from the 60s. I wear the spiky one when I want to feel tough, which is often.)

Tweeds and woollens were popular for women in the period I'm emulating, which may be part of why I find myself repeatedly gravitating toward it these days.

Of course, for Sherlock and Watson, such clothes were pretty much all there was. Denims, jersey knits, tennis shoes... these things were of the future still.

Today, I think we see wool as for the wealthy and cultured but this was not always so. Rich or poor, wool was common, as evidenced by this heart breaking mug shot of a young boy arrested for stealing food.

We'll get back to the plight of impoverished and exploited children soon. Just hang on.

I wear hats in our rain, so I have a lot of them. They're much easier for me than umbrellas which hurt my back and, if I'm using my cane, leave me with no free hands at all. This hat is a tweedy one so, naturally, I like it.

It's perfectly okay to pile tweed upon tweed and wool upon wool, no matter what others say!

Don't listen to the doubters. What do they know?

Again, I'm in good company.

From Roman Polanski's adaptation of Oliver Twist
But this cap does not bring my mind first to Patrick Stewart. First and foremost, it makes me think of poor little Oliver Twist in Dickens's novel of the same name.

I really identify with Oliver Twist. Like me, he was used and abused for others' gain. Like me, like too many children, he was forced to do things that were not in his nature, and had to learn to become tough and spiky just to survive.

He became tough out of necessity. That happens when you've had a gun to your head. And yes, I've had a gun put to my head, more than once. It's not pleasant. Such things do happen in real life, to real children.

I so identified with Oliver Twist that I could not read it through the first time I picked it up. When I got to the part where he's shot and left in a ditch to die, I just could not go on.

Such things are not merely the stuff of fiction, as much as people try to deny it. They happen in real life, though both the perpetrators and the victims are kept in the shadows by our culture's efforts to deny it.

Want to know why we call caps like "newsboy caps"?

This is why!

And this.

And this.

And this.

See the little boy with only one leg, hobbling on his one crutch, carrying his heavy bundle of newspapers? I wonder what happened to him.

I know something about being crippled by child labour. In my case, the brutality of the rapes I endured permanently injured my back. I was about ten.

This age. Ten. Little. Like Oliver Twist. Like the little newsboy with the lost leg.

(Yes, I've always liked caps like these. I tucked my hair up under them to keep cool in the summer.)

Child labour is not a thing of fiction. Nor is it a thing of the past. It's not even "merely" a thing of impoverished countries. It happens right here, right now, wherever your here and now and happens to be.

It's odd, but it wasn't just my newsboy cap that reminded me of child labour. My jeans did too. Part of why my vest doesn't fit well is because it's meant to go with higher waisted jeans. As I searched for an image of high-waisted jeans to illustrate my point, dear reader, I came across perhaps the most iconic image thereof.

Remember this image? This is Brooke Shields modelling for Calvin Klein. She was 14. If that's not child labour, I don't know what is. It is made all the worse by how extremely sexualized she was in this campaign. In the popular television ads for the these jeans, Shields is posed in all kinds of "sexy" positions, with her butt high up in the air, saying things like, "If my Calvins could talk, I'd be ruined."

Ruined? Ruined?! What could a 14 year old girl possibly have done to ruin her reputation?

It's those who controlled her whose reputations should have been ruined! People like her mother, who'd been exploiting her and allowing photographers and cinematographers to sexualize her for years. Man, I know a thing or two about mothers like that!

When she was 12, Shields was in a movie called Pretty Baby. In it, she played a 12 year old girl raised in a brothel. Her virginity was auctioned off to a high bidder, and she was literally served to him on a platter, like a tasty meal, not a human being. I know that feeling!

I remember this magazine cover. It was the first time I'd seen the issue addressed publicly, drawn out of the shadows of secrecy and right onto the magazine rack at the supermarket. I remember looking at it and thinking, "That's what happens to me. So it is normal after all. I guess it must be okay then." It was not okay.

Note the language used. "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs up a furor over child porn in films." Brooke Shields did that?! No, she did not! Her mother did it. Those adults who made the film did it, not this innocent 12 year old girl!

Notice too that I haven't called her character a "child prostitute."  A girl auctioned off at 12 is not a prostitute. She is a slave. I was a slave.

Can any child consent to selling newspapers on corners in all kinds of weather, or posing for photographs such as these? (In looking at photographs of the very young Shields, I came across ones far worse than this one but I simply could not bring myself to disseminate them, even for illustrative purposes.)

Can any child consent to such things? I couldn't.

It always amazes me: people look at this photo of me and say, "Aw, you were so cute!" Is that really all they see? I don't see a cute kid. I see a miserably unhappy, bemused, exploited child, like Oliver Twist.

Sometimes, when I look at photos of myself today, I see exactly the same tired, stressed face.

Horrendous exploitation of children is not fiction, it's not past, and it's not "elsewhere." It's here and now, no matter how much it's obscured by secrets and disbelief. It's time to stop the secrets and to start believing.

So the next time you wear a newsboy cap in a jaunty way, or see someone with a cane, look at yet another extremely young model in a fashion magazine ...

... or meet someone who seems too spiky ...

...think. Make the connections. And, if it's called for, speak, and act. The onus is on every adult to end child exploitation, here and now. If not you, and you, and me, who?

(I'm sharing this with Style Crone's Hat Attack, and Patti's Visible Mondays.)


  1. Amazing post... You are definitely gifted and deserve the love you get in your life.

    1. Thanks so much. I figure, if I really am gifted, and I'm somehow still alive, against all the odds, I'm going to use my gift of the gab to speak out about difficult issues.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your gifts and your headwear with Hat Attack!