Every day of the year, Meiling dresses in black: casual black pants, a black T-shirt and flat shoes. She may allow herself wooden bangles and pointy shoes with red piping. Her black top may have white stripes, or long sleeves.
But whatever the variations, the basic theme is always plain black, always with the same diamond stud earrings.
She describes it as her uniform. “It doesn’t change much when I’m going out,” she admits, adding with no visible concern, “I’ve heard people say I’m boring.”
Why does she always wear black?
Obviously it’s not that she’s not interested in clothes, or that she wouldn’t look good in her own designs. She’s as slim as a woman decades younger: she exercises, eats sparingly, and describes herself as vain. She indulges in accessories for her basic black. “I like beautiful bracelets, cuffs, red shoes…”
She cares about how things look. She keeps some of the clothes she’s made, and buys vintage garments when she goes away. But not to wear: she only takes them out sometimes to admire their beauty, or the skill with which they were sewn. That’s a little perverse: a beautiful garment is wearable art, best appreciated when it’s worn—as a #designer knows better than anyone.
She’s cagey about why she dresses as she does. Dressing all in black is easy, she says. “It makes life much simpler.” True, it avoids what she called in a newspaper article she wrote in 1969 “that lifelong, most horrid and nagging question, ‘What shall I wear?’” She’s careful with her time, and over the years has eliminated from her life many things she doesn’t consider essential.
She hasn’t always worn black. But she feels safer in it. She remembers walking to work in a red suit one morning many years ago, when she lived on Abercromby Street, Port of Spain, and her shop was nearby, on upper Frederick Street.
“I never wore it again, because I felt everybody was looking at me. It’s about being inconspicuous.”
She says her fitting room is small, and she doesn’t want to compete with her clients when they come to try on clothes. They don’t need to worry about what she’ll think of what they’re wearing—look what she has on.
Being a woman designer must put a lot of pressure on you to look stylish at all times. Meiling has dealt with that problem by sidestepping it altogether. The sameness of her clothes is the opposite of #fashion, which is driven by change and renewal.
But there’s more to her wardrobe than meets the eye. As Alison Lurie writes in The Language of Clothes, an outfit, like a sentence, can have more than one meaning. Meiling’s “uniform” isn’t a uniform in the sense of being a costume worn by a group of people. Hers makes her different from everyone else. In this tropical climate, many people adopt the bright colours of the landscapes that surround them, and against such a background, stark black – the wilful negation of colour—stands out more than any peacock hue. Dressing in it from head to foot, day in, day out, is an extreme measure. If Meiling really wanted to be inconspicuous, she could have adopted the uniform of all ages and genders, a T-shirt and jeans.
Fellow designer Robert Young sums up her approach to dressing in modern terms when he says, “She’s a brand—that hair, those clothes.”
Ah yes, the hair. Over the years, it’s become both shorter and wilder. It suits her, but Meiling doesn’t wear it that way because it’s suitable. Her hairstyle is not the hairstyle of a middle-class grandmother—which is one of the things she is. At 50 she wore a sleek bob, smart but unremarkable. A decade later, her hair is hacked into an inky, spiky crop that stands up straight like the crest of some exotic bird, in an Edward Scissorhands shock.
As Young’s comment suggests, the choice of what you wear is not just about looking good. Other people are books that we are constantly judging by their covers. What you wear tells the world who you are, who you would like to be, or who you would like people to think you are. That’s why fashion matters in such an intensely personal way.
But what can you tell about Meiling from the way she dresses? Little or nothing about her age, her class, her sexuality; perhaps a hint that she’s an artist, because no other profession would embrace such a bohemian approach to dressing.
A uniform is a way of hiding yourself, and a designer doesn’t do that by accident. Meiling has made a careful choice about the signals she sends out—and the ones she suppresses. But her choice of black does let slip certain important things about her. Her guardedness is in itself revealing.
Her uniform is a way of maintaining some of her privacy, an approach that Wendell Manwarren emulates. He admires Meiling not only as a creative artist but also for “her inscrutability – there’s a sexy quality to being mysterious. I don’t think people should know everything about you.”
Mystery isn’t only a matter of keeping secrets from other people; it can also be a way of making them want to know those secrets.
Meiling doesn’t need to dress eye-catchingly to get attention; she’s at the centre of her world. She hated, she has said, the “power dressing” of the 1980s. “The power in a woman isn’t in what she wears,” she believes—although she also says wearing black makes her feel powerful.
She doesn’t describe herself as a feminist, but she behaves like one. A woman’s appearance doesn’t mean the same as a man’s; it’s considered more important, a view Meiling has chosen to ignore. It’s not that she doesn’t care about her looks, but that she refuses to be judged on them. Her way of dressing tells you that her talent matters more, and she takes her work seriously. It’s art. It’s business. It’s not mere self-adornment. Her look says she’s disciplined and ascetic.
And, closest to home, wearing black is also a symbol of Meiling’s independence not only from the expectations of society, but also from her mother. Evelyn Achong was, her daughter says in tribute, “a woman of great style.” Even in old age, when she was confined to a wheelchair, Evelyn would plan her wardrobe, carefully selecting outfits for the occasions when she was able to go out. In her younger days she had a new dress to wear to the races every weekend.
Meiling says her relationship with her mother was close, but admits it was difficult. She feels her mother resented her almost wordless intimacy with her father, whom Meiling took after. In the sewing room, she felt she could never quite meet her mother’s standards. In any case, it was bound to be hard for two strong women working in the same space—literally and figuratively—to avoid conflict.
But by adopting black, Meiling did precisely that. She stepped out of the gayelle. She set her own rules. She dresses to please herself. She settled on her look in her forties, when her marriage was over and once again she lived in the same house as her parents. That was also, she says, one of the best times of her life. That was when she learned to feel comfortable in her skin.