Noelle McCarthy: Wearing my heart on my T-shirt

It's not a selfie, it's Karen Walker. Picture / Supplied

"Is that a selfie?" The woman had been sitting opposite me for the best part of an hour. She was eyeing up my front. I looked down. Printed on my sweatshirt was the image of a Victorian lady with a hectic black and white print scarf such as Wild West outlaws wore covering her mouth and nose.

"That's not me, that's a revolutionary. It's Karen Walker," I bleated, mortified at being taken for the kind of person who wears her own face on her clothes.

"Who, the woman?"

"No, the label. I don't know who the woman is. She's a suffragette. An emblematic suffragette. The collection was about votes for women ..." I trailed off, aware I was sounding like a tool. Judging by the look she was giving me, it's a lot more acceptable to have a photo of yourself on your jumper than a random women's-libber of yore.

There's a lesson here about trying to be too witty and referential with your sweaters, or maybe just about the increasingly post-modern nature of Auckland dress codes.

As it happens, I've always been a bit leery of iconography on clothes. When I was 15 I used to wear Body Shop badges that said Save the Whales and I got mocked unmercifully for it by the boys at the top of my road. Whenever I'd walk past they'd take a moment's pause from throwing rocks at buses to jeer at me, reserving special scorn for my clothes. This was understandable perhaps; a favourite outfit of this era was a white pirate shirt worn with my father's tweed sportscoat.

It was always the badges that really got them going though. "Save The Whales AaaahaHAHAHA!" they used to screech behind me. To this day, I don't know what is so inherently funny about the campaign to stop commercial fishing of the largest sea mammal in the world. It put me off slogans for a long time, until I bought a "Liberal and Miserable" T-shirt, from Karen Walker's store. I was always afraid to go in there, intimidated by all those $600 party-dresses that only trendy hairdressers could afford.

But as soon as I saw that T-shirt, I had to have it; it's the closest thing to a one-stop Morrissey costume I've ever worn. How happy was I then, when the slogan re-appeared last year, this time on a KW clutch purse? That said, I didn't buy one. It was okay to wear my heart on my T-shirt 10 years ago, but at 36, I don't need to be telegraphing my personal convictions anymore.

I did get the suffragette sweater though, and the "is that a selfie?" call that came along with it. Serves me right, I suppose. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, wearing anything, be it a slogan, an image, or even a logo anywhere on your person, suddenly carries a different charge. Was I the only one who looked at Helen Mirren and Amal Clooney at the Golden Globes with their Je Suis Charlie placards and badges, and groaned? The personal may be political, but principled accessorising at a red carpet gala feels glib and cliched. Not that it's only the stars who are guilty of posturing, I didn't save one single whale, for all those Body Shop badge jibes I bore. Nor do I fool myself that my witty sweater speaks as much to my feminist principles, as to my taste in clothes. Not everybody gets it either, that's the thing about fashion in-jokes.

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