A Bettr Series

Image credit: Leila-Aruna Willow

I was first attracted to Aruna’s profile on Instagram (@aruna.banana) when I came across how they passionately share and detail their journey of navigating veganism and the low-waste movement. Besides dishing out practical tips and sharing unreal food pictures, they open up about struggling with their mental health and reclaiming spaces as a Queer, Brown person in Singapore. I was curious to find out how someone like Aruna, with a huge heart for climate and social justice activism, considers their relationship with their clothes.

Upon reaching out, I figured — and I am cheating a little here — for Aruna, wear is multi-faceted. Wear is a mix of activism for the causes they believe in, weaved in with the ongoing navigation of their identity.

 

Please tell me a little more about yourself. It can be anything under the sun from how you see yourself, what you do for a living, how you are feeling right now…

 

I'm a 26-year-old and I identify with the pronouns 'She/They'. I turned Vegan on 1st November 2018 (618 days woohoo!), which coincidentally is World Vegan Day. I was able to turn Vegan overnight and am grateful for that.

Since turning Vegan (for ethical and environmental reasons), I was very much aware of my every little action. This is how I became conscious about other aspects and issues of our environment. I started by following activists and advocates, both locally and globally. I remember following @consciouscollective.co and joining their weekly challenges in February of 2019. The challenge in the 2nd week was to watch the documentary called The True Cost (free on Netflix). That was my turning point. I became properly informed and passionate about the 'Anti-Fast Fashion' movement.

Since then, I promised myself to stop participating in Fast Fashion consumption. I gradually progressed with this pledge:

  1. Stop buying from major brands I used to
  2. Put a pause on shopping for some time
  3. Only to buy second hand or thrifted wears
  4. Buy only when necessary
  5. Educate myself
  6. Share and advocate the knowledge I learnt
    (both on Instagram and in my offline circles)

What are some thoughts that come to your mind when you think about the clothes you wear and adorn?

I find it amazing how my clothes now have stories of their own. How each thrifted piece was once (or many times) owned by somebody else before they reached me. I do wonder about how they were worn, who their owners were and how long have they been circulating in the market.

My clothes to me are like an extension of me, my personality and the cultures that influence me. I believe that we really show who we are by the way we dress for different situations. My clothes give me a boost of confidence and make me feel good. This then manifests into the many experiences and opportunities that I encounter in life as I wear these clothes.

Given its current state, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the fashion industry being nourishing and additive to our lives. But that aside, I believe that our clothes do provide us with joy and comfort through the process of ongoing use. Does this remind you of any instances/encounters with clothing and how so?

I am all for Slow Fashion, thrifting and buying second-hand. But reality is, some cannot afford or have the resources to. This stems from the lack of financial mobility or class privilege, systemic injustices or pure lack of exposure to the knowledge. I learnt that not everyone can afford to go Anti-Fast Fashion immediately. Many fall far from being able to thrift or buy second hand. This could be due to the sizes they wear. I have noticed how many average-sized individuals love seeking out oversized/baggy styles, leaving fewer choices for people who actually need them. This is when such individuals have to turn to Fast Fashion as it is easier to find suitable sizes.

Coming from a typical Malay family background, I was never exposed to such issues and knowledge. Nor did the people around me. It was difficult to relate to or connect with the movement when it is led by mostly females of Chinese ethnicity. I only found and befriended a few brown individuals in the community.

We have a long way to go. I constantly think of the whys and hows of bringing this issue to the community of my racial background. I want to see more average Malay folks being aware, having the privilege of this knowledge and be in reach of resources. There is so much work to be done in regards to our relationship with our clothes if we want to address the problem locally.

 

The psychology of our time is crucial, more so now, in a world where nothing we know stands against the test of reality. Part of me believes that this translates into what we choose to keep wearing. How do you think this has affected the way you view your wardrobe?

Recently I gained a bit of weight due to the drugs I take for treating my Depression & Anxiety. I gained 10kg and stood at a weight I never surpassed in my whole adult life. Now, most of my clothes don't really fit me well. They have become tight and accentuate parts of my body that I am uncomfortable with. It's taking me some time to feel comfortable again. And I have to say that it does affect my relationship with my clothes.

I decided to try and make this a positive experience with regards to my new body. I told myself that I have to adapt and match my clothes to my body size, in order to feel better about myself. I want to go out feeling great, feeling 'fiiinee' like I used to. I've always loved dressing up to go out. I don't want this phase of my 'body's journey' to make me feel terrible and change who I am. I want to adapt, protecc (my self-esteem) and attacc (the negative social judgement of a woman's body image and break the stigma surrounding us talking honestly about it!!).

Could you describe an outfit that you are loving right now and explain why are you drawn to it?

I have a denim dress which I thrifted from an artists residency studio in JB. I bought this dress after a long period of not shopping — I thought I deserved it. I still do. Due to its material and accompanying silhouette, this dress is not too "girly". I love its cute embroidery and how it looks on me.

I consider the dress a steal for my wardrobe. I never used to wear skirts or dresses, ever. But as a Queer person navigating my sense of style and personality, I have become very experimental with how I dress. Most times they turn out really good and I get compliments on numerous occasions. It is liberating, as I break away from my comfort zone and discover a new side of me. I always feel great in this dress. I still do now with my new weight. I cherish it and still love it as much.

If possible, could you narrow down to one piece of garment in your wardrobe that you wear the most often?

Honestly, it will have to be my favourite pyjama tee. But for street cred sake I'll point towards my favourite pair of overalls. I received it as a gift from a friend who thrifted it in Thailand for me. I cuff the bottom of the trousers so they fit me better and gradually spammed the front pocket with enamel pins. I remember feeling really touched when my friend gifted it to me, because it shows that she cares about what I actively stand up for. Every time people comment on it I would bring up this story and for that I love it!

As cliche as it sounds, could you describe your personal style and explain how it has evolved with time?

I have always found it hard to point out my influence and source of inspiration. It definitely evolves with time, largely dependent on my growth as a person. As a Queer individual, I am constantly learning about my identity. I recall the times when I was hiding behind dull, black & white t-shirts and long jeans. When I came out, I realised that I wore more colours and was bolder with my fashion choices — I was braver and happier and it translated into my new sense of style.

Over time, I have grown and learnt from my previous styles and phases of dressing up. As cliché as it sounds, I had a goth/punk phase as a teenager. Right now I would say I am influenced by the stylistic throwbacks of the 80s/90s. I also take inspiration from Lesbian/Queer/Gay icons. They really do look so good, don’t they?

As a cis-het Chinese female, I cannot claim to relate to Aruna’s relationship with wear. I am grateful towards them for graciously sharing about their personal upheavals, alongside their hopes and dreams for a different reality.

I love the way Aruna spoke about how finding the suitable fit and material can make a wearer feel confident, special and electric, despite experiencing changes to their bodies. This is perhaps relatable to most, as we gradually resume mechanised normalcy post-lockdown and have to dress to be seen in public again.

Through wear, the wearer goes through an open-ended exploration of silhouettes and shapes, materials and colours. This symbolises a tangible medium for Aruna to gain autonomy over how they view their body. In tandem with comfort and confidence, their personal sense of style challenges the visual scrutiny and preconceived stereotypes that larger society imposes on Queer bodies and identities.

Aruna’s profile speaks for itself. It is a heartfelt recount of reasons for activism and a continuous journey of self-love and acceptance. Upon publishing this article, I am once again reminded that despite what the free-market wants us to believe, fashion lives beyond opulence and newness. Clothes should rightfully last beyond a season — or, for all that it’s worth — forever.

 

About Xingyun

Xingyun Shen

Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.