Yesterday, King County Democrats Chair, Bailey Stober, resigned.
I wasn’t there, because I was celebrating my most holy of holy days, Pascha, known to western Christianity as Easter. The long and short explanation for why I celebrate Christ’s resurrection on a different day from everyone else is that most of the eastern church is on an old calendar and they refuse to change.
That feels like it should be an allegory for the King County Democrats in this whole saga. Workplace harassment, sexual harassment. You’d think a county that includes the Most Progressive City in the Country™ would have responded better to these issues. Instead they allowed Bailey to drag out this process for a full two months.
It feels fitting that he resigned on Holy Pascha. Sorry to my fellow Democrats who have a gag reflex at religion, but bear with me while I revel in this symbolism.
In the words of St. John Chrystostom, “O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns.”
Wait, his resignation isn’t effective until midnight on Saturday of this week? Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Nonetheless, Stober was found guilty on all five counts of workplace misconduct. We won’t have to have a meeting of the PCOs to vote him out, and the key players can move on with their lives.
There is a lot of work for KCDCC in the coming year, relational and emotional rifts, broken trust, and just plain old financial insolvency. The work, the real work of electing Democrats, still needs doing.
I understand if you are a woman and you feel disenfranchised right now. Your party doesn’t seem to have your back they way you thought it would or the way it definitely should. I have learned something in recent years that has become one my centrally held beliefs: The Patriarchy is not just a poison spread by our political and ideological opponents; The Patriarchy is endemic to every one of our systems and institutions. Voting for pro-choice candidates and funding Planned Parenthood does not undo that. Women can be both victims and enablers. The work is hard because The Patriarchy designed itself not to be overthrown. I know that’s not encouraging, but I hope you’ll stay anyway. I hope you’ll keep doing this work in this party, even in KCDCC, especially now that it’s time to vote in a new chair.
Bailey Stober, Chair of the King County Democrats, still hasn’t resigned. He could resign via e-mail at any time, though he has intimated that he has an important announcement to make at the March 27th meeting, location TBD.
Last night, however, my home legislative district voted on a resolution calling for Stober’s resignation. Unsurprisingly, some of the women at the center of the controversy, Natalia Koss Vallejo and Mona Das, were present, though they are not residents of the 36th. Bailey was also there at the start of the meeting but left shortly after we started.
I have been attending 36th meetings regularly for just over a year. Even though I had project management classes on Wednesday nights for 9 months, I would sometimes skip class to attend and participate in local democracy.
I am an acting precinct committee officer. At first, I was accidentally assigned to two precincts. One of my only interactions with Bailey was over e-mail rectifying this error and asking that he only sign off on one precinct appointment. Thus, I became an acting PCO in precinct 36-3699. This means, I have a vote in our meetings.
The 36th district is known for being the bluest district in the state—encompassing Ballard, Phinney Ridge, Magnolia, Queen Anne, and even Belltown. We consistently vote for democrats up and down the ballot. We are so sure of our candidate’s victories in our own district, that we adopt a district each year and canvas for them. While I would like to see more people of color in positions of leadership, I can’t deny that the executive board is solidly progressive. A couple members even attempted to change our bylaws to be able to endorse candidates who aren’t Democrats, like Nikkita Oliver. In communities of color, especially the Black community, north Seattle has a bad rap, and that’s not wrong. We’re a wealthy district and we live in desirable, majority white neighborhoods where property values are some of the least affordable. I can only afford to live where I do because I have a roommate. I would need to be making 22% more than my current income to afford my below-market apartment on my own (but we can talk about that later).
In the last month, I have been to two KC Dems meetings, and I have written about those experiences, the climate of the room, and the lack of process in place to address the need for Bailey’s resignation. I don’t know what they are like when it comes to less contentious subjects, but I will say that being back in my LD was a comfort. And that comfort was not the familiar faces of my neighbors, but came directly from the top, from the leadership of our chair, Jeff Manson.
I like Jeff. I have always liked Jeff, even when I have paused to ask myself why this progressive district is led by a white man. The answer is in his presentation of last night’s resolution. It is rare for a chair to present on a resolution. The impartiality of the chair is a valued tradition and Jeff adheres to it. However, Jeff broke with tradition last night, and presented on the resolution calling for Stober’s resignation, not before explaining his reasons and giving space for anyone to voice their objections. No one objected.
I had prepared a statement in defense of the resolution. As Jeff spoke, passionately and precisely, I felt affirmed. He was touching on all the points I had planned to make. He was saying things that I have said during this conflict, in whispers, between eyerolls, in post-meeting car rides. He was saying those things, not in opposition to power, but as the person in power. I felt my insides melting—trepidation gave way to hope and feeling seen. Jeff stated at several intervals that he believed the accusations of sexual harassment and emphasized that our resolution’s scope only included whether we believed Bailey should resign as chair, making an apt distinction between kinds of due process.
When Jeff finished, we had several technical questions, none of which came across as hostile. Before anyone had a chance for debate (at which point I would have volunteered to make a statement), a member made a motion to “call the question.” For those of you unfamiliar with Robert’s Rules, this is how to end debate on something when you think further debate would not be fruitful or you are in a time crunch. Calling the question needs to be approved by a two thirds majority. Otherwise, debate is allowed to continue. The motion passed handily. Moments later, the 36th LD unanimously passed the resolution calling for Bailey to resign as chair of the King County Democrats, 96-0.
Here is the statement I would have read, had there been any call to do so:
“I was raised in a conservative environment where I saw multiple men abuse their power with no consequences. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I cut all ties with the Republican party, because I knew that my voice as woman would be discounted, not matter my qualifications. I joined the Democratic Party guided by the belief that this was a party that supports, empowers, and believes women. Allowing Bailey Stober to continue as chair of the King County Democrats only sends a message to women that we only believe them if they accuse our political opponents.
Even if we were not in this moment, if the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements were not the focus of our public discourse, King County Democrats is broke. They are not financially viable and will not become viable as long as Bailey is chair.
But we are in this moment in time. The #TimesUp and #MetToo movements are central to our discourse. So, I urge you, if you are inclined to lament to lost potential of Bailey’s leadership, to instead consider the lost potential of the women in the organization who will be disenfranchised if Bailey stays.”
I firmly believe that this passed because Jeff spoke in favor of it and because he so rarely does so. I believe that Jeff and other leaders have built a healthy organization, an environment where women and workers are supported, protected, and believed. Jeff volunteers are chair in service to the party, not so that the party can serve him. The last line of our resolution called for 36th Dems to investigate and put into place the correct procedures for removing our own chair in a similar situation. This is significant, because it signals Jeff’s understanding that his wisdom is not infinite, and that we need transparency and process to protect us from abuses of power.
This is in such stark contrast with Bailey’s behavior since allegations of creating a hostile work environment and sexually harassing his employee surfaced. Bailey has tried to use Robert’s rules and the lack of process to stall and protect himself. He has performed political theater, and all but used the Trumpian line “fake news.” This is abuse. Even if somehow all the allegations against him were false or misleading, his behavior toward the executive board of the KC Dems has been abusive. Culture is created at the top. And the atmosphere of abuse created by leadership is toxic and infectious. It created the mentality that the leaks to media were worse than the accusations being made. It allowed Bailey to draw out this process, further deteriorating the function of the organization.
Last night was a breath of fresh air to me, because I was finally in a room where my leader wasn’t trying to gaslight everyone.
If three weeks ago Bailey had stood before the body and announced he was an alcoholic, that he was seeking treatment, and would step down as chair at least for the duration of the investigation, he would have a future political career. If he had done so on Monday night, he might still have had a future in politics. However, after a 38-13 vote calling for his resignation at last night’s King County Democrats Executive Committee Meeting yielded only contention from him, Stober has forfeited his political future.
I do hope that Bailey addresses what appears to be alcoholism. I hope he learns how to be kind, when so often he has chosen not to be. But the Democratic party is not worse off without a man who abuses his power; intimidates, bullies, and threatens employees, volunteers, and colleagues; fat shames women; and bankrupts his organization.
I attended Monday night’s meeting. This time, Bailey made a motion not to go into Executive Session, meaning, the press and I were all allowed to stay in the room. It was the only motion he brought to the floor that passed all evening. The whole atmosphere had shifted in the few weeks since the last meeting. I sat with the accusers, victims, and allies who did not have a vote or a voice in the meeting. A couple alternates and a voting committee member sat with us as well, and we conferred about each development and how to respond.
I felt assured that we had reached a turning point when Bailey’s second attempt to make a statement in his defense was voted down. He was trying to amend an approved agenda and had indicated that he had evidence to present (presumably against his former employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo). However, this was not a trial, the agenda had been approved, and they had set a specific end-time. He didn’t get his six minutes or his 15 minutes. All he could do was stall the inevitable.
About 2 hours in, we were less than a third through the agenda. Miraculously, though (or because of the presiding chair), we made it all the way through every agenda item, including setting a deadline for calling a special PCO meeting, a motion calling for Bailey’s resignation, and a motion preventing him from chairing the next meeting.
These are big wins for women, and they signal the end of Bailey’s tenure as chair. I don’t want to overstate this success though. The victims don’t get what all victims want, need, and deserve: a heartfelt apology. Bailey has upt to this point continued to deny any and all wrongdoing. While some form of justice will eventually be served, it will be justice delayed.
I need to talk about something equally contentious, but having noticed it, I cannot unnotice it, and I feel like I need to say something.
I observed that some of the most vocal defenders of Bailey were Black. As a community, that is a reality we need to attend to going forward. I think Bailey needs to go, but I am worried it will alienate people whose voices I value—people whose voices are too often silenced and overlooked. I can’t tell a black woman that something isn’t about race. If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that pretty much everything is about race. The victims and accusers don’t have to feel a racial motivation for race to be involved. I acknowledge the racial history both of this country and of this county. Bringing down Bailey feels like yet another way that white folks and non-black POC make it impossible for black folks to thrive. That is a sentiment that makes sense to me and is valid for a lot of reasons—not the least of which include losses by candidates such as Erin Jones and Nikkita Oliver. I say this knowing that many witnesses and allies are women of color, and I know there is a diversity of opinion on this, even among Black members of KC Dems. I want to acknowledge the tension I observed here, and not minimize those natural and justified feelings. If I need to silence Black men and women to justify my position, then my position is wrong.
I know this piece might leave me looking conflicted about the way forward for KC Dems. I am not. There is ample evidence that Stober has behaved problematically, and the narrative here has reached a critical mass. KC Dems will not be a viable organization unless Stober steps down or is removed. I do care about relationships, and I do care about the message being sent and to whom. I do genuinely care about achieving the intersectional ideals I espouse. One comment I hear repeatedly in arguments calling for Stober’s resignation is that we are sending the wrong message to women and workers, the message that we will not protect them or believe them. That’s not the message we want to send or should be sending. Let’s be equally cognisant of what message ousting Bailey sends to our Black members.
In case you haven’t heard, King County Democrats Chair, Bailey Stober, has been accused of harassment, creating a hostile work environment, and misappropriation of funds. He is currently under investigation and refuses to acquiesce to demands that he resign.
Last night there was a King County Democrats meeting. I attended, but was not allowed in the executive session, which is always closed to the public. From what I gathered from hallway gossip, most of the two or so hours we sat outside consisted of people inside asking questions they knew the answer to in order to make a point.
I enjoyed myself in the hallway, meeting other PCOs and learning about how things work at the county level. At some point some committee members who identified themselves as serjeants-at-arms were sent into the hallway to make sure no one was standing too close to the door, in case we were listening in. Of course, we were listening in, but we couldn’t actually make anything out and had begun chatting instead. They should have been more concerned that everyone inside the room had functioning cell phones (aka recording devices) on their persons.
Later, one of the same serjeants-at-arms came out to tell a PCO not to leak sensitive information to the press. This was a bizarre admonishment, because the PCO wasn’t in the meeting and didn’t have sensitive information to leak. He said as much. By now it was ten at night, and we were all slumping a little. Maybe this why I was so incredulous about the rest of the evening.
The serjeant-at-arms came out again and told the reporter that they needed to monitor interviews. The reporter did not like this and refused to be monitored. The most absurd moment in this utter circus was when the serjeant-at-arms said to a committee member (whose voting credential had fallen out of his pocket and onto the floor without him noticing) “Do you pinky-promise not to leak sensitive information to the press?” I think this serjeant-at-arms knew that what they were being as was absurd, yet there was a self-seriousness about everyone’s tone and demeanor, but none of the training or actual professionalism required to make it believable. I imagined that what was going on inside the meeting room was equally farcical and more upsetting.
Once executive session ended, we were allowed back in the room. A few things happened that I think are important. First, confidential materials had been distributed during executive session that needed to be returned. However, rather than ensuring that they had all been returned before opening the doors to the public, they attempted to do so afterward. The acting chair announced that two copies were still missing and that if any committee member was found to be in possession of one they would be risking a charge of misconduct.
Second, when a motion was set forth to further the investigation into Bailey’s actions, the acting chair announced that there were no rules of debate in the bylaws. That’s right. King County Dems have no established rules of debate.
Third, the body decided they needed to form a new investigation team—the vice chairs who had done the preliminary investigation had been deemed too biased. Unfortunately, no such team existed, and they had no formal process at hand to appoint one. Rather than, say, draw names out of a hat or go through a strikethrough process, they agreed that the vice chairs could appoint two investigators, that Bailey could appoint 2 investigators, and that those four investigators would come to consensus on the fifth investigator. I don’t know of any investigation where it is considered ethical for the person under investigation to be allowed to choose any of the people conducting the investigation. The conflicts of interest seem self-evident to me, and I was disappointed that no one stood up to cry foul.
Finally, an amendment was made to the motion which ultimately passed that called for the investigation to include discovering who leaked a confidential memo to the press. This is not a bad amendment per se. What was bad was the framing. I confess that I had to leave the room for a moment when this amendment came to the floor. Few things make me more angry than miscarriages of justice. The woman who introduced the amendment said that the worst thing about this entire conflict was the leaked confidential memo. She has been presented with everything that Bailey is accused of, sat in the same room as the victims, and decided that where the organization is most vulnerable is due to an as yet anonymous whistleblower and not the reason for the whistleblowing. Her proposed amendments was met with applause. As a sexual assault survivor, as someone who spent years being ignored on this subject, this was triggering. I left. I walked down the hall into a different room, closed the door, and for the first time since I was a child, I screamed. I breathed, and then I went back inside in time to see the amendment pass. I have never felt more helpless.
What all of this highlights is that a lack of process is dangerous. For the sake of expediency, the body just allowed the person being investigated to appoint his own investigators. I urge Legislative Districts and other counties to put processes into place about how to investigate your chairs or other leaders in your org. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have shown us that abusive men in power don’t get to stay in power anymore. While it is inconvenient, even painful, for the organizations that go through public accusations, it is made more inconvenient when you don’t have a way to sort through it. It’s painful for the victims most of all who, rather than feeling heard, safe, and affirmed, are part of a drawn out faux-trial. The longer this goes on, worse it is for everyone and the more likely it is that Bailey will continue to do harm. The best thing Bailey could have done was say “I’m sorry; what can I do to make it better?” and then gone and done those things.
Full disclosure, I think Bailey should resign immediately. He has said he wants due process, but if I learned anything last night, it’s that KC Dems don’t have one to offer, and it is partly Bailey’s fault as their chair. I fully believe the victims in this situation, but even if I didn’t, the accusations and the financial situation Bailey has put the organization in have reached critical mass. Bailey’s continued presence is a hindrance to fundraising efforts, fuel for our political opponents, and alienating to anyone who identifies as a victim of sexual harassment. Further, Bailey’s behavior since the accusations has been categorically unprofessional and childish.
My final anecdote from last night took place at the start of the meeting. Bailey, rather than opening the meeting by announcing his resignation, brought up the treasurer to give a financial report. She did so, painting a dire picture. KC Dems would be in the hole $3,000 if they paid all their outstanding bills. That doesn’t include pending litigation that is likely to result in a yet to be determined fine. A member of the Executive committee took this opportunity to pay his dues. Bailey also took the opportunity to perform a piece of theater. He handed over a check made out for $5,000 to the treasurer. He did not say where it had come from. This was met with applause. I cringed and rolled my eyes. Great. He is the reason they are in this financial situation to begin with, and $5K hardly addresses the $163K in funds he has depleted. In this moment Bailey proved his interests lie in himself over the wellbeing of the organization, that his is a politics of theater and not of substance.
Edit: The check for $5,000 has since been rescinded. It was the fulfillment of a 2017 pledge from Dow Constantine, according to the KCD treasurer.
They wished to say I was an intellectual,
equipped with always a book and an idea,
and so many uncomprehended words.
They wished to say I was an evangelist,
a prayer or a verse uttered often
in places they said God doesn’t belong.
They wished to say I was poor,
unable to find a job, homeless,
in an unscalable wall of debt.
They wished to say I was dumb and easy,
investing in my wardrobe and loving fashion,
accepting and accentuating my curves.
They wished to say I was an artist,
pages of doodles and imaginings in stacks
and paint stained hands.
They wished to say I was a girl,
smaller and weaker,
with my long hair and dresses.
They wished to say I was a writer,
filling pages of one notebook after another,
forgetting my purpose, getting lost in a new couplet.
They wished to say I was a prude,
as I championed the memory-old code,
not letting their lips touch mine.
They wished to say I was secure,
unaware of my bank account,
seeing only skin and height and composure.
They wished to say I was a pagan,
loving and accepting science,
and dancing naked in the moonlight.
They wished to say I was an academic,
with my teaching tone and studies to prove,
and always dreaming of the Ph.D after my name.
They wished to say I couldn’t.
They wished to say I should.
They wished to be the experts.
They wished I would be just one thing or nothing at all.
Dear SPD Officer Couet,
We’ve never met. That’s not exactly true, but during the 10 or so minutes I stood centimeters from you on Sunday, August 13, as you propelled me backward with your bike, we never really got formally introduced. I was standing on a public sidewalk, and someone, not you, someone you take orders from, decided I was in the way. I wasn’t the only one corralled off a sidewalk we pay significant sales taxes to freely walk down. In a very technical sense, I wasn’t even part of the extremely valid, anti-fascist, anti-racist, peaceful protest. My heart was with them, but you blocked my body. Indeed, had you and your compatriots not decided I was in the way, there would be no record of my participation in Sunday’s march, no further evidence of SPD’s continued and blatant use of excessive force. But now I have bruises up and down my thighs where you pushed your bike into my body. You were wearing body armor and dark sunglasses. Your name and badge number were written on a piece of duct-tape, stuck to your chest piece. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a crop top. I wasn’t really prepared for the protest. I have been recovering from mono, so I just wanted to be a body for 30 minutes, before I got too tired. I wanted to stand in solidarity and denounce the very same Nazism you protected on Sunday, not let my illness overcome my convictions. I knew my gesture would be small—the absolute least I could do. And considering the arrests and pepper spray that others endured at SPD hands on Sunday, considering the recent murder of Charleena Lyles, my gesture was small.
When you told us to move, I just knew, I wasn’t going to help you. I looked at my boyfriend in silence, and we both knew. We would practice non-compliance. I put my hands in my pockets and I faced you. Why did I do it? I just did it.
You pushed me. You stepped on both my feet, causing me to momentarily lose a sandal. With each push, you yelled “Move Back,” and made sure your orders were followed. During those ten minutes, you never met my eyes. I looked, and I looked, silently, gazing. You were wearing sunglasses, but I could still catch the light off your irises, never looking me in the face. As you pushed and pushed, I thought to myself, even here, even now, you, officer Couet, are human. I will give you humanity by looking you in the eyes. Why did you never meet mine? You would not afford me the same courtesy I was affording you. Maybe you just haven’t read enough Levinas.
I want to be absolutely clear about one thing. What you did, if you had been anyone else, would be assault.
I said one thing while I stood across from you. A debate had begun between the officer to your right and the men to my left. The other officer tried to get out of being accused of upholding a racist system by saying that America is racist, so doesn’t that make us (the people being pushed) racist too? Of course, to him, being called racist is an insult, so he thought we’d be mad to hear him affirm the very reason we showed up in the first place. I have no delusions about how racist I am. Of course, you didn’t know that. You didn’t know that the only difference between my racism and yours is that I acknowledge and fight against mine. But you wouldn’t know that, because we’ve never really met.
I regret breaking my silence to speak. Not because I was wrong or unsteady. But because you weren’t hearing anything that was said. What I wish I had done was sing. I have a good voice. At my birthday parties, every year, my friends push me into singing “La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf. I did once on a boat on South Lake Union, so now they want me to do it every year. I kill at that song. But that’s not what I wish I had sung on Sunday. I wish I had sung “Down by the Riverside.” My boyfriend and I have been practicing. I heard a version of it that I loved at a church service in college, so when we started building a repertoire of protest songs, I added that one to the mix. Maybe you’re familiar with the lyrics, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside and study war no more.” Of course, swords are really passé, and you didn’t have a shield. You had body armor and a bike. But you get the point. It would have felt really good to sing in the middle of being afraid that the officer behind you, strutting around with his pepper spray out and unpinned, was just itching to use it. It would have felt good to make something beautiful while you were using force, violence, and threats to prevent us from peacefully observing a protest. And you see what you did right? When you pushed. We stopped being the observers and became the protesters, separated from our march.
I want to say a few words about the people who have suffered (not just been pushed around) at the hands of SPD, those who have been pepper sprayed, unjustly arrested, murdered. Charleena Lyles, Che Taylor, John T. Williams. They are, more often than not, people of color. The people on the south side of the street on Sunday, the ones who were more vocal than me, the Black people, they knew that they were already risking so much more than me by being there. I didn’t get to hear from them whether your fellow officers pushed harder or used stronger threats. I know that I had an easier time for being white, that your final statement before you rode off on your bike so recently weaponized against me, “No hard feelings,” may not have been uttered but for the color of my skin. (Also, of course you had no hard feelings. You had all the power and all the protection. Why would you harbor hard feelings for us?). All of this is to say, I know that there are people risking more, people who stayed with the march longer, people whose trauma will outlive the tape I have on replay in my head of you pushing me backward. I know that what I do is little, that I’m opting in with my whiteness when I work toward anti-racism. I know I can leave when I get tired, go through most of the world as if it were made for me (yeah, we’ll a put pin in how you handled rape allegations against Sheriff John Urquhart, and how I can’t escape sexism). But I will keep putting my body on the line, even if it’s just to create a little breathing room between you and the people of color I’m showing up for.
This part isn’t for you, Officer Couet, but I hope you read it anyway.
I know I can write these things because of my whiteness. I know that the potential for white outrage is higher because of my whiteness. I hope anyone who reads this, who finds themselves angry about the idea of a white woman and her white boyfriend being pushed around by riot police infuriating, check yourself. How mad were you when you found out Charleena Lyles and her unborn child were killed? What are you doing to make it possible to prosecute a police officer in Washington state? How will you put your body on the line? Have you paid a Black woman today?
See you around, officer Couet. Next time, I hope I have the presence of mind to sing while you assault me.
For anyone who has ever been confused about my combined interests in fashion and philosophy, please read this from Vogue’s Luke Leitch about the 2018 Resort Orla Kiely collection.
For anyone who has never been confused by the connection between these two interests, this will be an affirmation of all you believe to be true and good.
“Around the time she started incubating the colors, shapes, and ideas for this third edition of the capsule collection, L’Orla, produced alongside Orla Kiely, stylist Leith Clark was transfixed by the Women’s March on Washington. This, Clark said in Kiely’s London showroom, made her connect the dots between the fixedly nostalgic filter through which Kiely envisions her world and the radicalism of second-wave feminism that emerged from the 1960s counterculture. ‘I was thinking about the way that women chose to stand up for peace: outside the Miss America pageant, or when Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar,’ Clark said.
As Kiely watched, Clark expounded on her theme and Lorna Foran modeled the pieces. A black velvet and guipure-trimmed dress of a weight Clark had specified she wanted to swoosh ‘in slow motion,’ some micro-corduroy bell-bottoms with matching trucker jacket in soft pink, and a synthetic-shot organza smocked check dress were some retro-woke calling cards. A complementary embellished and piped corduroy weekend bag was perfect for packing those marching outfits.
Kiely’s brand of embellishment-rich retro-femininity predates the recent surge in demonstrative resistance to mainstream misogyny. There are lots of thorny questions to ponder when it comes to contemplating the relationship between fashion and feminism; without real thought and soul and consideration, you run the risk of careless Kendall Jenner/Pepsi–style crassness. This felt true through a subjective reflection of the fourth wave cast in a mirror customarily bent to reflect a time that coincided with the second.”
This is the second designer I’ve come across in the last two days explicitly referencing our current political climate as their inspiration. For one designer, it was naming her dresses after powerful women in government. It’s important to me that the clothes we wear are not disembodied from our experiences. Often, fashion designers are accused of being too insular, referencing only their own industry.
Some History for You
Coco Chanel basically hid out in the Ritz Hotel during WWII and was lover to a Nazi spy. It has also been argued that she even spied for the Nazis herself. She had made a name for herself in fashion and perfume, so much so that when Americans liberated Paris, GIs lined up outside her shop to buy Chanel No. 5 for their wives and girlfriends. So, no one really cared that she was an anti-Semite who cozied up to the enemy. Other women were publicly punished for their relationships with Nazis when the occupation ended, but not Coco. She became even more famous with her tweed suits, empowering women the world over. I do not begrudge anyone their admiration of Coco Chanel. I cannot help but appreciate her maxims and her role in doing away with the corset. However, I think her complicity in one of the century’s greatest evils is a powerful contrast to the example I present today.
A Little More History
When the housing bubble burst in 2008, and there was talk of the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression, I took the opportunity to design clothes based on the Dust Bowl. During the actual Dust Bowl, designers took the stock market crash as an opportunity to make movie stars more glitzy and glammy than ever. Sequins galore! I understand that impulse, the one where we hide from the mess we made with the glamorous lives of actors and the fictions they portray. Of course, my Dust Bowl inspired burlap skirt was in the minority. In mainstream fashion, sequins and beading took center stage, as we saw dozens of red carpet looks harrowing back to the golden age of cinema and the starlet. In 2012, The Artist, a silent film about the rise of the talkie, took home the Oscar for Best Picture, and I felt the empty void of a culture who refused to reckon with its failures.
Clothing as Revolution
It is also valuable for me to address stereotypes. It is often believed that people in the fashion industry are vapid and dumb. It’s easy to believe that when the craft is presented as fundamentally shallow: a mere presentation of our outward appearance. I contend that it is not. We can read dozens of emotions on a person’s face, whether they are wearing makeup or not. Likewise, we can read a great deal from a person’s apparel, whether they are wearing it or designing it. We expect our artists to be able to make statements about the nature of the world. Art and philosophy go hand in hand throughout history and medium. I often think about the protest music ignited by the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement. There is no ambiguity about the importance of these songs and we accept them both as art and political commentary. Maybe it is because as a society we are so far removed from the production process of our clothing, but every third teenager at summer camp can play a little guitar. Whatever the reason, we put less value on the fact that in the former USSR, wearing blue jeans was an act of sedition, or that in the French Revolution, the revolutionaries were known by their attire, shunning the breeches of the aristocracy for the trouser of the working man. In other words, clothes matter in a political sense.
Was it self-preservation that lead Chanel to hide out in the Ritz and seek the companionship of a Nazi? Perhaps. Certainly, the stakes are lower for Leith Clark at Orla Kiely, but her philosophy remains potent. She is using her collection to look at the stages of feminism and the implications intentionally blending the visual cues of the 60s and it’s 2nd wave feminism with today’s increasingly progressive ideals. It is an undeniably retrospective collection. And so maybe the revolution is not so overt. However, it is introspective as well, in a way that Leitch argues we really need as a culture.
Of course, my question will always be, “does it have pockets, though?” Because for all the visual philosophy, unless we end the pocket gap, it’s just lip service. More on that later.
I confess that these clothes do not resonate with my personal design aesthetic. As many people have commented, I tend to pull more from the 1920s-1940s for my inspiration. But I recognize it as good design, what’s more, as substantive design. There a plenty of moments when our clothes can and even should be frivolous. This is a moment in history where frivolity feels too much like perpetuating injustice, too much like going on a twitter rant, too much like being a 2-year-old in a man’s body, too much like the facade of glitz and glam that have exhausted their appeal for the last decade.
Here is what happens when I look at good fashion.
My heart beats faster. No really. My heart rate increases. I can feel it.
My mind starts to extrapolate new designs based on what I am seeing. This is sometimes immediate, sometimes delayed. Certainly, for the next handful of days, I will imagine and literally dream a variety of new designs, pine after the fabrics, and doodle in the margins of notebooks.
I experience a physical and emotional sense of desire. It’s just behind my rib cage. It makes me breathe a little differently, lean forward in my seat. I consume the image before me, details, composition, styling, silhouettes, fabric choice, colors, accessories. All of this happens in an instant, but the feeling slowly spreads throughout my body and mingles with satisfaction. I am both full and hungry.
If this sounds like sex or getting high or falling in love, maybe it is. I can see some similarities there. Maybe that’s why so many artists’ muses have been their lovers. Just remember that when I say that I love clothing, I am not being hyperbolic.
When I was little, I planned on being a fashion designer. I designed clothes, imagined my runway collections, and plotted how I would ethically run my business. I sewed. I read books on design. I thought about other careers, but mostly I wanted to create.
You’ll notice, if you look at my facebook profile, that I am not in a creative field. I am a facilities administrator. I won’t bore you with those vagaries, though. If you pay attention to how I spend my free time, you’ll notice it is mostly activism-based. I volunteer.
Right now I am planning two fundraisers for my all-time favorite nonprofit, Puentes. I’ve joined the Democratic Party and attend monthly meetings in my legislative district. I am an acting PCO (precinct committee officer). I have joined European Dissent, Neighborhood Action Coalition, and Indivisible since November, all of which have regular meetings and calls to action. I’m learning protest songs. I’m teaching Somali refugees how to sew.
None of these things are things I was doing before November. None of these things are things I imagined for myself as a child. I still have all my usual commitments involving work, church, a boyfriend, friends, and doctor’s appointments. Before you ask, yes, I am tired.
I’m sitting at my computer, and I need to make a plan about the fundraiser in May (which I hope you can come to). But my brain keeps wandering. See, I love to plan parties. And fundraisers are sort of like parties. Ideas start streaming when I’m in my creative zone. Am I thinking about the best way to get people excited for my event? Am I planning speakers or food or centerpieces? Nope. Tonight, all I want to do is plan ways to get the attractive, single men in my life to meet my best friend and flirt with her (because she’s wonderful), tell her she writes the best poetry (because she does), and make out with her on a back porch at a party where everyone is wearing their best clothes or no clothes at all (I’ve heard they have parties like that in New York). It’s frivolous, unnecessary, and it’s all I want to plan. Not a fundraiser. Not 2 fundraisers. Instead of a fundraiser for undocumented immigrants, what if I could hold a celebration?
It’s not so different for other activists. Most of the activists I know are women of color. I saw a post from one the other day saying that once she doesn’t have to fight for basic human rights any more, she plans to get caught up on mediocre romantic comedies. Another activist friend says to me sometimes how she’d like to own a fabric store. She takes me to Seattle gems and picks out fabric for pillows she doesn’t have time to make. Instead of creating, though, we are all doing the work. We show up and do the work. We’re there because we have enough time, resources, or skills to contribute and because our consciences dictate it. To be honest, I feel like I sacrifice relatively little. After all, I have the mental energy to luxuriate in the possibility of setting my friend up with men she is far superior to in wit and beauty and hope they can keep up for long enough to be a break in the cycle of singleness she both loves and hates. I can step away from this work at any time and have a relatively safe, happy, successful life. That is not true of all the activists I’ve met. Some are inextricably members of demographics targeted by policies that disproportionately disrupt and damage their lives. They cannot step away, or simply stop following someone on facebook because they disagree. It is important to understand that injustice isn’t invented by the victims or by the activists; It is created by broken systems and the people who perpetuate those systems.
In recent weeks I have been varying degrees of outraged when I read about yet another republican who is not holding a town hall because of the volume of adverse phone calls and emails they have received. Often, these elected representatives cite the anticipated presence of paid activists as their reason for not doing their job, which includes being accessible to constituents. I truly wish that I could pay all the activists for the work they do, but most of us are underpaid or unpaid completely. We are not doing this because it pays well. The very notion flies in the face of every piece of traditional wisdom which says that if you want to make a lot of money you should get a degree in finance, business, medicine, or law. What degree do you get to be an activist?
We would rather be doing something besides fighting for basic human rights. We would rather that everyone’s rights were recognized and protected. We would rather there was no need for our activism.
There is, though. There is an urgent need. So expect more marches, more phone calls, more office visits. We won’t stop until you protect human rights or we find someone who will.
In more immediate terms, I think the solution to my problem is not to set my friend up with handsome, single men, but to ask her to read poetry at my fundraiser.