At our recent photo shoot, BLOWN AWAY, Jo chatted to both models involved about their thoughts on class, what it means to them and their background. Here is the interview with the wonderful Meher Babbar. For more, come along to see our models perform at our next fashion exhibition on March 29th.
Where did you grow up; how do you think it (helped to) shape your identity?
I moved around a lot growing up, bouncing from India to Ireland to England and, finally, America, but if I had to pinpoint a place that I would call home, it would be Manchester. When I think of Manchester, the images that spring to my mind are of Salford red-brick, shanty shops littered across Cheetham Hill, and of my own small hometown, a half-hour from the city centre – an unremarkable place that I absolutely hated growing up. If you know me, you know that I don’t shut up about Manchester, so maybe it’s a surprise to say that I found the area wholly stifling.
Coming of age is a process, naturally, riddled with complexities, but the trajectory of life in a small, almost forgotten town made it even more so. I think I was rather unfair in my treatment of Manchester, but time has made me reconsider. In my mind, childhood and adolescence are a collection of memories tinged with sweet embarrassment, dip-dyed in a vat of nostalgia that had made their edges soft. Like a vintage trend come back into fashion, Manchester has had a renewed lease on my affection in recent years. Cold apathy towards my home has now become a badge of pride – I spent years running away from Manchester and all the (class/racial/ethnic) baggage that came with it, but now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
To quote T.S. Eliot: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”
What has changed for you since coming to St Andrews?
St. Andrews is a melting pot, and I’m saying that as someone coming from America. My cynicism led me to think that, in the face of such diversity, the knee-jerk reaction from most students would have been a retreat into polarised identity politics, but St. Andrews has surprised me. The greatest lesson I’ve learnt while being here is that identities are not mutually exclusive – I can (and do) contain multitudes.
The university’s motley nature not only allows for, but, in my experience, encourages shifting between any number of political, religious, and/or cultural markers. I can be as many different Mehers as I want. Accents, in particular, are so intriguing to me at St. Andrews; I love hearing the motley assortment of them in Rectors or the library. The elongation or enunciation of certain syllables, the code-switching between words and worlds – its inherently tied to class, especially in Britain. Some people look at clothing or body language when they first meet someone, but I think for me it’s accents.
Do you think that class is performative or that it exists in a more concrete way?
The performance of class is wholly separate from the actuality of class. The tangible effects of wealth inequality and systematic lack of opportunity exist in a concrete manner, certainly, but the idea of class and what it means to each of us is likely more abstract. The performance of class, I think, exists only in the mind of its beholder. In a bubble like St. Andrews, we are all always undergoing a certain kind of mental gymnastics trying to present our preferred version of ourselves to others. Class is merely another dimension of this act, but, like all performances, this one is as much for ourselves as others.
We learn something about ourselves by differentiating ourselves from others and if you’re someone who’s only lived amongst others from the same class background as yourself, university can be exceptionally eye-opening. The conversations that arise at the meeting place of class/race/religion/politics/etc. – that’s part of what makes university worth it for me.
What did you want to convey through this photo shoot?
When I heard about the idea for the shoot, I was instantly sold. The photos are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but like all satire, it’s all in good fun. Playing up the contrast between ourselves and our backgrounds was a deconstructive take on our central idea, but also a subversive experience. It was a bit absurd (especially if you saw me hiking up my ball gown in the rain so my muddy trainers wouldn’t dirty the glittery edges) and wholly thrilling. If class is a performance, the curtain falls as soon as you stop letting yourself play the role.
What influenced your choice of outfit/style?
The ball gown is my prom dress, which I never thought I’d have a use for again so that’s lovely. When I bought it (for as cheap as possible as per usual for me), it reminded me (perhaps a little ambitiously) of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus because of the colours and how foamy the edges looked. Maybe that’s all in my head, but wearing the dress in the rain did make me feel sort of reborn. The dress-down look is a mix of my (slightly late to the party) take on athleisure and alter ego-esque escapade as the kind of girl I’d love to be. I’m trying to be cool enough to pull off this bomber jacket and, though I’m not sure if it’s happening, I’m having a hell of a time trying.