Fashion and Feminism

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Model: Lorna Foran for 2018 Resort Orla Kiely Collection

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.

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This collection is unarguably feminine and strong. Note the poses and facial expressions Foran is captured in. It is a manifesto, In Defense of Beauty: the Fundamental Strength of Culturally Prescribed Feminine Characteristics.

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.

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In the final shot of this collection, Foran is captured wearing a dress with the same pattern as the backdrop, as if to say that tenets of the 2nd wave feminism blend into the broader context in which they were formed. It remains to be seen whether it is the feminism or the context which originated these patterns.

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.

Internal Impressions on a Post-Break-Up Conversation

“How are you?”

“I’m doing… (I don’t think I can answer that question right now. I could lie and tell you I’m doing well in a cheerful tone and my kindest, bravest smile. I could stick with the “pretty good” that I learned from my dad, with all its ambiguity. If I told you I was doing well, it wouldn’t completely be a lie. There are so many things I find to be thankful for, things that help me fully embrace being and becoming.

And yet.

My mornings begin so painfully, with an aching consciousness and the sense that my insides are being slowly shredded into mulch. I miss you, my lover, one of my best friends—the kind that makes me a better person. I miss your body next to mine, even if we aren’t touching; your presence fills an entire room. I miss your voice, the promise of adventure, my deep, deep sense of belonging. I rarely feel like I belong, but I did with you, and that absence is felt at almost every moment, even as I meet men who flirt in the office or at parties, even when I’m laughing at the formation of a new inside joke, even as I dare greatly; I know the daring would be sweeter with you by my side. But you don’t love me. You don’t want to love me, I guess, and this is my ache. This is why I have been sorrow’s companion.

And in this multifaceted, complex, dualistic state of being, I wish to say, “I understand.” I come up with reasons why it would have been broken one way or another. I tell myself your shoes are stupid and your jeans unflattering. I try to convince myself again that your chin is too small and that you slouch too much. I whisper that you’d never give up anything for me or be able to support my dreams, because you don’t understand them. I tell myself you’d rather be comfortable than love.

But these are mere topical ointments. They are not heartbalms. They help me believe less in your glorious, stumbling, faltering, redeemed humanity. They allow me to flatten you into the paper-doll version, where your actions are the puppets of my own pain.

In all of this, I know that I am already alive. I will keep being already alive, keep writing, keep learning, keep crying, keep smiling, keep singing. I will find belonging in the stars and the moon. I will learn that my heart has many rooms, and there is space enough in it for grief and for joy, space enough for every one of life’s adventures, space enough to fall in love again without souring my other loves, space enough for eternity where we will always have life, life more abundantly.)…pretty good.”

There is no Substitute for Elegance

There’s a song in a musical about how you have to have elegance in order to fit in at fancy restaurants; I never could understand the lyrics. Today, especially where I reside in the Pacific Northwest, elegance is considered bourgeois—and the word bourgeois is even too bourgeois.

Once, during a philosophy discussion, I claimed that I like social rules. They put the world in order and have an elegance to them. My professor said that the real reason I like such things as having multiple forks and knowing where to put my napkin and when is because I like to be distinctive. He didn’t go so far as to call me a snob, but that’s what he was insinuating.

I am not a snob, but I do love elegance. I love flowing fabrics, crystal goblets, pearls, and caviar. My favorite designers are Alphonse MuchaErté, and Paul Poiret. If I could put feather accents on the shoulder of every dress and have huge, batwing sleeves on all my coats, I would. Velvet. Silk. Lace. They thrill me.

Of course, I’m a practical person in many ways, so my wardrobe is considerably plainer than any of the prints Erté ever produced. I’ve never worn a turban with a single feather jutting into the heavens. I own no silk bathrobes.

I do, however, own a pair of white, silk palazzo pants; two vintage coats with fur collars; a backless, black velvet, floor-length dress; and a pair of yellow suede heels. This finery could easily lead people to believe that I am completely obsessed with my appearance and have no bearing on the normal world, giving rise to frivolity.

On the contrary, I am not obsessed with my appearance. I care very little for it. That is what makes it so easy to change it. I do care about fun, and it is fun to wear a gigantic, floppy hat out to dinner. It’s fun to shave your head and wear dreamcatchers for earrings. It’s fun when your boyfriend can’t keep his hands off you in your satin jumpsuit despite being so skeptical about it on the hanger. I can be a Greek goddess or Edith Piaf or a ’30s film star just by putting on an outfit or doing my hair a little differently. And then I can go right back to being your typical Seattlite in riding boots, leggings, and a sweater.

However, I would like to state unequivocally that these things are, indeed, frivolous. They are not, however, a frivolity that I intend to take seriously, ever. The real problem of frivolity is when it is taken too seriously. That is how a good time turns into snobbery. And snobbery is merely upper class exclusivism. The rules create order, but being flexible enough to eat a corn dog while wearing elbow-length suede gloves also has its merits. A generous spirit is essential, and you simply must have absolutely as much fun as possible. Elegance and dignity are not the same thing, after all.

A Bit of Fiction

He sat alone in the darkened living room, the blank tv glowing. The sun had disappeared while he had watched the movie and aimlessly wandered the threads of the internet. The film, despite its title and promise for action and adventure, with unrivaled style and cinematography, had been a romance, another tale of high ideals, of sweeping gestures, of perfect moments that had lit up his now empty screen.

In the darkness, his consciousness slowly resurfaced, and he found himself comparing his own life to that of the film’s hero; who had somehow found the perfect moment to say the right words. Perfection: was such a thing possible?

He had struggled over perfectionism before—that need for a controlled, pristine environment at all levels. It’s what made him so good at his job, at least when he needed to be. Focus, attention to detail, artistry even, idealism—a better word than perfectionism, even if only marginally, he thought. Yes, these things allowed him the be so creative in his self concept. He could imagine an ideal world, an ideal self, just as the film had done.

But the glow of the tv screen and the quiet of his apartment reminded him that he hadn’t achieved it.

She had been magnificent, beautiful in ways he had never seen in other women—beautiful to her core, even with her makeup stripped and her hair askew. But he had so often sensed the disconnect between the world he had imagined and the one he experienced with her. They had had their moments, the kinds of things that romantic comedies can’t do justice to in their montages. There were just too many things that didn’t go as planned. He couldn’t make the broken pieces fit, and he couldn’t adjust his ideals to fit the pieces he had.

He wanted to. He wanted to wake up in the morning and just make that phone call or drive too fast at an unreasonable hour of the night just to knock decisively on her door and tell her she was the only one for him. He wanted to, but whenever these desires surfaced into anything nearing articulate thought, a tight knot in his stomach seemed to tether him to his seat. His hands would fill with lead, and a lump would form low in his throat causing him to swallow uncomfortably and breathe uneasily.

He did not fear rejection; she had made herself clear on those grounds, unequivocally so. And even though he had calculated the possibility of her changing her mind, it wasn’t the possible image of her slamming the door in his face that held him there, so inert; it was the memory of what had already been. He could still recall the sobs that came from her bedroom as he left her apartment for the last time, unable to allay her grief until he was out of earshot. Her tears: there was a pang just below his rib-cage as he thought of it. They were the sound of his guilt now. He could only remember his own failings.

There was no redemption for him, and there would be no phone call, no rap on the door. He would watch another movie, instead, and doze off against the glow of the tv.

Maybe he would stumble upon a better story soon, one that could be made better, one that didn’t have missing or broken pieces.

As the next film began, his noticeable sense of loneliness faded, and he let his conscious mind get lost in the flickering lights and familiar sounds unfolding some other reality while he slowly drifted to sleep. His dreams were full of doors; in every one he opened, she was there, or at least the shadow of her, always as if to encourage him, maybe you should go for it anyway. As this idea spread itself across his unconscious mind, he noticed that he was floating instead of being weighted down.

Naked

I like to sleep naked. This might surprise some people, scandalize others, and allure still others. Maybe I inherited it from my mom, who would try to make breakfast, wearing just one of my dad’s white undershirts, before the rest of us got up. Maybe I learned it from my older sister, who takes nudity on as a personal challenge.  I think I’ve seen her breasts more times than I’ve seen my own.

I didn’t always sleep naked. In fact, I was the one in my family who insisted on changing where no one could see me, who never let anyone in the bathroom with me, who would wait to get out of bed in the morning until my sister had already gotten up, so she wouldn’t see me strip down to my underwear.

The first time I slept naked, I was in France. It was the first time in my life that I had my own room. I remember slipping into bed. The covers felt cool and comforting. From then on, I slept naked as often as I could. I struggled with my self image, though. Over the course of about five months, I gained about 20 lbs. I had never considered myself pretty, regardless of my weight. But I learned to enjoy the vulnerability of nakedness, of waking up in the morning and seeing myself in the mirror without any clothes on. No one knew, and I didn’t tell anyone, but I was slowly learning to accept that I am a body as well as a soul.

In January of last year, I moved into a new apartment after sleeping on a friend’s couch for four months (if at all possible, avoid being homeless, but if you must, be sure to find a couch that belongs to people who love you).  I didn’t have any private space for four months. The first night I slept at my new place, I made sure to take off all of my clothes before getting into bed. I had a couple of weeks before my roommate moved in so I spent even more time naked, naked dish-washing, naked laundry, naked writing, naked everything. I do draw the line at cooking naked, because you will always regret naked bacon.

Then, something terrible happened. I got dumped. I felt torn in two, heartbroken. I could feel a pressure on my chest as I went about my daily routine, and getting ready for bed started with morose sighs and ended with me crying in the fetal position, clutching my Bible to my chest. But I couldn’t take my clothes off. I didn’t want to be naked. I wanted to be swaddled, safe. I wanted to reject the freedom that comes with letting my body into open space without any edits (even if no one else sees it).

Because, you see, I had learned to be vulnerable, and vulnerability costs something. Sometimes, it costs friendship. Sometimes it costs a job. Sometimes it costs a lover. However, refusing to be vulnerable is more costly. I may be able to avoid all the drawbacks like shame, and heartbreak, and fleeting moments of feeling worthless. Conversely, though, I cannot partake in the joy, peace, wholeness, contentment, connectedness, and love that vulnerability leads me to.

We don’t get to have any of the good things that we risk losing in the first place if we refuse to be vulnerable. And vulnerability, a lot of the time, feels quite a bit like being totally naked.

This is why I have decided to be naked, even though it is hard. I want to be vulnerable, despite a completely turbulent year, especially because it feels scary. Where there is vulnerability, there is beauty. Where there is beauty, there is strength.

 

In case you are wondering, I did write all of this whilst in a state of total undress.

The Philosophy of Fashion

When I was about twelve years old, I began designing clothes. Before that, I drew aliens in beauty pageants, and before that, I drew women in hats. Before that, I drew potato people on hills. I also remember doing a portrait of my dad and desperately trying to remember if his mustache was above or below his nose.

Draw

Women in Hats & Potato People

 


Dolls & Dress-Up


I am not quite sure why I started designing clothes. We had a picture book about the history of dress. They had everything from early Mesopotamia to the Roaring Twenties. I would spend hours flipping through the drawings. I was fascinated by how sheer the Egyptian dresses were and in awe of the bare-breasted Minoan women.

My mom had taught me a basic stitch and I began making Barbie clothes, first for my dolls, then for my sisters’ when I got older. One year, for her birthday, I made a Barbie wardrobe for my younger sister, Jane, out of an old cereal box along with about ten dresses. I used rags and some of my mom’s old clothes.

I was also just enthralled with playing dress-up. There were almost no games I played as a child that involved wearing my normal clothes. Part of preparing for a game was changing into the appropriate garments: gypsy, princess, fairy, 1940s Jew trying to escape the Nazis, Heidi. These often included second-hand prom dresses. For my tenth birthday, I had all my guests dress up. I went to Salvation Army with my mom and picked out a beautiful, blue dress made out of some kind of horrible synthetic fabric that I believed to be the height of decadence and sophistication. We ate Chicken Florentine and had a fainting contest, falling dramatically onto piles of pillows and blankets in our finery.

ClaireAndFriend

My tenth birthday party. Left to right: Heidi (childhood friend), me.

Whatever the reason for designing, I began. I was getting a little old to play dress-up, so my costumes came to life in drawings. My proportions were terrible: heads too big, bodies too thin. And drawing hands might as well have been my undoing.

It did not take long to decide I wanted to be a fashion designer. In my social circle, this was unique. The adults I knew didn’t design, and none of the girls I knew were interested either. It seemed to me, at the time, to be quite a unique aspiration. I now know that it is highly common for girls to go through such a phase. This miscomprehension resulted in my being territorial when it came to others with a shared interest. I remember despising a girl in my 8th grade math class when she told me she wanted to be a designer too. She had either never actually designed, or I hated her designs when I saw them; I don’t remember which.

I continued to design through high school, even attempting a few sewing projects with little guidance. It is one thing to know how to follow a pattern and quite another to try to teach someone how to bring her imagination to life. My informal instruction lacked inspiration, to say the least, and I found the speed of sewing machines stressful compared to the calming, therapeutic process of sewing by hand.


A Theology of Fashion


Despite my frustrations about apparel construction itself, I began to develop a framework of beliefs about clothing. I found plenty of opposition to my interests at my church, where women were supposed to be simultaneously beautiful at all times and never put effort into their appearance (loving Jesus makes you beautiful, not makeup). There were plenty of Bible verses that supported this aversion, not the least of which can be found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “28′So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” (Matthew 5:28-29).

This I took as a personal challenge, despite the admonishment against worry (and seemingly of taking an interest in clothing); I dreamed of designing something as beautiful as the lilies of the field. I even used lily of the valley for inspiration in some early designs. I figured if God created people in His image, why shouldn’t I create, too? What’s more, why shouldn’t His creation be my inspiration, even my aspiration? Where some people saw limitations, I saw liberation. My best explanation for the confusion on this subject is that some people see no difference between worry and attention, because they have learned only to pay attention to that which worries them.

I kept designing and began collecting bridal magazines. Once, while flipping through one and explaining my love of clothing to a woman from church, I pointed out a model and commented on how beautiful she was. The woman from church looked at me as though with pity. She smiled and said, “You know, you’re beautiful, too,” with just a little too much encouragement in her voice. I was annoyed that she assumed I thought I wasn’t pretty just because I thought a model in a magazine was. As it happened, I didn’t really care if I was pretty just then. I cared about the clothes being made all the more beautiful by the person who wore them. She was captivating in the flowing, white dress and blue sash. Her blonde hair and large, brown eyes displayed a kindness and a joy I rarely saw in the other photos. She looked like she could actually be a bride.

Other women from church told me what to design: more modest clothing; more functional clothing; more clothes for teens. For some reason, these church ladies all seemed to be under the impression that it was impossible to find clothes that would adequately cover their bodies and still be flattering (but not too flattering). I have never understood this. I have read so many Christian articles about how horrible fashion trends are and how impossible it is to find clothes that are appropriate for teenage girls or women. This has never been my experience, not once. I have always been able to find suitable clothing for my desired level of body coverage (I may dress boldly, but I don’t often show a lot of skin).

I would later learn that in the broader culture, many of the same objections to my interest in fashion and dress would arise, but couched in non-religious language. Women who invested in their appearance were shallow or bitchy (rather than vain). They were easy or slutty (rather than lacking in purity). But the message was the same: if you’re a woman, your body is bad, so your fascination with what covers (or fails to cover) your body is also bad.

I instinctively took issue with problematizing women’s bodies, but continued to focus on becoming a better designer.

There are some people who should not go unnoticed here, people who encouraged my love of clothing, people who saw passion as an asset and creativity as a gift. They live in a big universe, and they invited me into it. Those people have my undying gratitude and love.


University, Fashion, and Philosophy


When I took my first fashion courses in college, I was very disappointed. I had hoped for something spectacular, but found myself disliking my classmates and even some of my professors—I have rarely disliked any of my teachers; I have been less kind to my classmates. There was no spark, no setting of lofty goals, only fractions and vocabulary terms. When anyone did attempt to grapple with the abstract fundamentals of dress, they used vague vocabulary often borrowed from sociology and psychology, assigning articles written on the subject at least 80 years prior. Still, I willed myself forward, despite being unsure whether my professors even wanted me in the program or thought I had any talent whatsoever.

In the spring of my sophomore year, I took a course in logic, intending to obtain a minor in philosophy. I had enjoyed my first philosophy class so much that I decided I would enjoy another 25 credits of it.

My logic professor was a charismatic, sharply dressed enigma. He was known throughout campus for his Prada suits and bold style. He had flair, dressing better than any of my fashion professors.

He told us all on the first day of class that he loved us. I believed him.

On the third day of class, he asked me to stay after. In the hallway, away from the other students waiting to ask him questions about the homework, he told me that he had rarely had a student with my intelligence. He told me that some simple comment I had made during class picked up on a nuance that he did not think even the textbook’s author had intended. I am sure I blushed. Then, after I told him he was third professor that year to try to get me to change my major, he asked me to consider double majoring in philosophy. I don’t know that I believed his compliments, but I did start thinking about it. I couldn’t help it.

As I became more engaged in my philosophy courses, my dissatisfaction in my fashion courses became increasingly apparent. My list of complaints got longer and longer. That spark that I couldn’t find in fashion classes; it was in my philosophy classes. In fashion, my mind felt numbed, stifled. In philosophy, my mind was alive, growing. In fashion, I felt creatively, intellectually, and relationally bored. No one talked about how to design well. They reinforced the cultural stereotypes of vapidity and self-involvement. I felt that I could not relate to the other students. At the time, I thought they lacked intelligence, which may have been true for many of them, but what the program lacked—and thereby its students—was gravitas.

Added to all of this, my stylish logic professor would talk to me about design. He was intrigued by my use of color and liked to talk about predicting trends. It wasn’t fashion itself that was the problem; it seemed to be the people.

By the end of that quarter I had declared myself a double major, intent on finding a way to combine my two passions and excited to have a major that wouldn’t make guys treat me like a bimbo. There was a marked difference in people’s reaction to me when I said I was majoring in philosophy and fashion, instead of just fashion.

By the end of the next year, I had dropped fashion as a major and decided to minor in it. I could no longer pretend to be enjoying myself. I still had a couple required courses, but I was done; not done with fashion, never done with fashion. I was done with the program, the people who lived in small worlds, a professor who publicly shamed me when I came to class without makeup one day, insisting that we talk in the hall while all my classmates gawked. This was not the universe I had imagined. Lacking the influence and authority to affect any change, I needed to get out.

So I left it for costuming—taking all the tools I gleaned from fashion classes with me (which turned out to be a great deal more than I had realized). By the time I graduated, two theaters had offered me contracts for their summer musicals. I ended up designing for four shows in five months. Costuming was glorious but hard work for little pay. After four years at a private university, I could not afford that life, not with student loan repayments looming ahead. So, I set out on my own, not knowing what would come next, but applying to every reception or administrative assistant position I could find, a far cry from design or philosophy.


Elements of Design


 

A friend of mine recently told me that I bring fashion design into everything that I touch. She had been enjoying my cooking at a dinner party I was throwing. This is, in a sense, true. Rather, I am always designing. If it is not a dress, it is a meal. If it is not a suede tailcoat, it is a book. If it is not a summer ensemble, it is a birthday party. I love to design. Design is, in its best form, a way to do more than tell a story. It is through design that you can become the story. How grand, I have often thought, would it be to create a universe. That would be wonderful. With design, I know I am not creating matter or quarks or nebulae or star clusters. I have only this corner of a vast universe. With design, I can add a layer to reality in which my imagination becomes tangible. No, we cannot design morality or matter, but we can curate them.

This is my project, my lifelong aim. I cannot merely create a budget and a line sheet or spend hours adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying fractions. I will do them because they are part of the process, but they are not the goal. To design, I must always do so with the intention of presenting more than commerce. I am engaging in an idea. Either that idea contributes beauty to the world, or it does not.

This search for beauty, not merely to find it but to create it, is a lofty one. It is lofty because not enough people attempt it, and even fewer attempt it more than once.

In an age of knockoffs, failing retail, diminishing haute couture, and the near extinction of home-sewing (no, DIY pictures on Pinterest do not count), it is imperative to me to continue to strive for this lofty goal, to present the world always with something beautiful.

For a long time, we have been led to believe that for some reason beauty is shallow, especially when it comes to fashion. However, I am of the opinion that bodies are not bad and that, if anything, there are people who are shallow, and cannot properly value exterior beauty due to their own lack of interior beauty. Perhaps we have allowed their voices far too much reign on the matter.

Today, I am a designer. I do not work for a clothing company. None of my designs make their way down runways or are mass-produced. In fact, most of them will never experience the incredible transformation from the page to the garment, or even reach beyond my imagination (that might be impossible in any case). However, I am a designer because right now there is a dress draped on my dress form that needs to be finished. It needs to have a chance to offer its beauty to this corner of the universe.

Beautiful Dress

On Ferguson and an Unparalleled Hug

When I was in sixth grade, I met a woman who would change my life. She was powerful. Her words and actions were weighty and significant. I did not hesitate to both cower in awe of her and to throw myself into her magnificent, unparalleled hugs.

It was not only that she was large and soft, or that she would sing while she hugged me, her voice resonating in her chest, reverberating off of mine. Her hugs had been carefully crafted through suffering and sorrow turned to joy. She carried heaven in her embrace. It did not take long before I would miss her hugs. The longer it had been since I had last seen her, the more I looked forward to the next one. It was hug therapy.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know when I knew Mae. I didn’t know stereotypes about angry black women or large black women. I didn’t know that food could be racist. I didn’t know that the black body that I sought out for comfort and healing lived a life of problematization. I didn’t know that the reason she could sing the way she did—from a place deeper than lungs—or hug with arms more than matter was because both had been tempered by a world bent on making her less human.

Still, she had infectious laughter. Still, she indiscriminately became a mother to anyone who needed one. Still, she danced. Still, she sang.

She transcended.

Perhaps, I have painted her as too much of a myth. It is possible that time and distance have caricatured her in my memory. I did dream once that I was jumping on a trampoline with her and Abraham Lincoln.

Mae is not and never has been perfect (she has her own story to tell), but I am wholly convinced that on more than one occasion, she has embodied love. It is for this reason, as a recipient and witness of Mae’s unbounded ability to love and give, that I consider the events of Ferguson, Missouri (and other similar events) the way I do. The media provides no shortage of images of thugs and potential criminals. But I think of Mae. I imagine if Michael Brown’s mother were Mae, someone I know and love and trust. Then I know that indictment or no indictment, hearings at the UN, audiences with the president, and press conferences are insignificant next her loss, next to what has torn inside her.

I am grieving that justice for Michael Brown is only a hashtag, not something being acted out by the justice system.

I wish that mine could be the arms that hold the grief and fear and rage, encircling them in love and hope.

I wish that hugs could undo the damage that bullets and pepper spray and tear gas do.

I wish that I were not sitting safely behind a computer screen, but standing face to face with you. I’d look you in the eyes and echo the president’s words last night: your experiences are real, and your emotions are valid. You are not making this up.

I am indebted to Mae. She saw my pale skin, and she didn’t pretend I wasn’t white. Instead, she wrapped my white body in her black arms and held me. No amount of fear mongering can change that.

For When Grace is Gleeful

I had had a miserable day, sleep deprived and anxiety ridden. I had broken down in the kind of ugly crying you hope no one ever sees you do when, after fighting to be brave all morning, I realized I had just missed a meeting (despite the 15-minute reminder that had popped up on my screen an hour before). I sobbed and sputtered, closing my office door and grabbing the Kleenex. It wasn’t the meeting that was so hugely important; it was the final straw on what had been a miserable few days. After some strained, deep breathes, that made me sound like I had nearly been suffocated, I was able to pull up a rendition of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” on my computer. I slowly regained my composure as I shakily sang along, my voice cracking every other word and tears welling up again. By the end of the song, I had stopped crying, though my heart still pounded in my ears.

By the end of my work day, I was feeling braver, as if the crying had actually done me some good. Heading out of the office, I prayed the prayer I had been glued to for the last 18 hours: Lord, thank You for being bigger than my fears. Thank You for being bigger than my pain, and for turning my fear into hope in You.

When I got home, I was almost glowing. I noticed an e-mail from an army recruiter. Reading the message, I laughed; I would be a terrible soldier. I have an arrhythmic heartbeat and foot problems that make running an enormous effort and a pain. Not to mention, my sense of style would be grossly offended by wearing a uniform—that uniform.

Nonetheless, my mind is as susceptible to suggestion as anyone’s. When one of my best friends called to catch up, I had to ask him if he’d ever considered joining the army. He had and we launched into a scheme to join the army together, go through boot camp and eventually become spies. We would both be great spies. I would be the charismatic one at state dinners in a slinky dress and a tiny concealed weapon; he would be the one in the shadows, doing all the back alley dealings and sitting on rooftops in black turtlenecks. Before I knew it, I was on the floor in my bedroom, rolling from laughter. The idea was absurd, yes (although, maybe not so much for him, an athlete with medical training), but I actually found it appealing. After all, my interest in combining textiles and technology would be well funded in a military setting, and my hopes for making smart clothing commercially viable could become a reality through such efforts.

“I’m going to army,” said my friend. I laughed again at his irregular use of the noun.

“I could go Kara Thrace it up,” I said, as though heavy drinking and a deeply suppressed, embattled relationship with my crazy mother was possible.

“We can get our heads shaved together!”

“Women don’t have to shave their heads!”

“Well, we’ll do an obligatory selfie,” he rejoined, with sheer mirth in his voice.

I finally insisted that I needed to get ready for bed, but we talked for another ten minutes, and I hung up the phone overcome with belly laughter still. As I settled into bed, filled with a sense of joy I hadn’t experienced in months, I looked over at my icons, remembering my plea the night before as tears streamed down my face, when I had reached a hand out to Christ in some kind of desperation, touching the cold, hard surface of his figure painted on wood, asking that salvation come quickly. I needed a miracle. Now, peering at the unchanging face on my wall, I knew my prayers had been sweetly and gleefully answered.

(Im)possible Standards: Part Two

I recommend reading Part One first.

In high school, I refused to date. This might have been just as well, because I don’t know if I could have had I tried—I was just really weird in the there-aren’t-a-bunch-of-other-weirdos-just-like-me kind of way. For inspiration in my commitment to singleness, I relied heavily on Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, fully equipped with witticisms and snarky quips. However, as is the case with Beatrice, this was all posturing and had little to do with how I actually felt. I liked boys just fine and definitely wanted to get married some day.

However, there is a kind of power in being flippant and biting. You insert yourself into the human hierarchy this way. Those less equipped at wit must take their place lower than you and remain quiet onlookers to your verbal sparring, during art class when the teacher leaves the room for more than twenty minutes at a time. Anyone who ventures into this foray had best be well prepared, lest she be forced to creep back into sedges and tend her wounds.

Unlike other people who just have a mental list of desirable qualities, I actually wrote mine down and would refer to it if there was a boy who struck my fancy. And contrary to Beatrice’s catch 22, my impossibly long list of essential qualities that a man must possess in order to be worthy of me was made in complete sincerity. Most of the things that made the list were in the interests category: Shakespeare, fashion, poetry, language, dancing. Then there were other things regarding values and the number of children he’d prefer. This list took up pages.

Of course, in the process of growing up and discovering how to be human along with experiencing disappointed expectations, I realized that ideally, it boils down to something pretty simple:

Find someone kind.

If Everything is Awesome, Everything is Awesome

In order for this post to make sense, you must first read this one: If Everything is Awesome, Nothing is Awesome: The Lego Movie, the Death of Resistance & Transcendence, and the Only Way Out (Part 1).

There are couple things that I think matter regarding my own perspective of this film.

The first is that I have a somewhat more human connection to it than I have had to nearly any other film. I’ve met one of the producers. She is young and vivacious, and when I told her how much I enjoyed The Lego Movie, she responded graciously and then dragged her thumbs across each of her wrists in a slicing motion, saying something like, “It was like months and months of just slitting my wrists.” Normally, this would be off-putting and creepy, but she was way too charismatic for that.

In talking to her, I learned that this box-office hit was the brain-child of filmmakers batting in the biggest game of their lives so far (she’s part of a list of 18 producers). This was not pumped out by a corporate machine; Lego resisted making it. Lives were sacrificed, marriages neglected, health forgotten. So, my frame of reference for the making of this film has to do with people, not crunching box office numbers and Lego revenue.

The second thing is that I know a little history. Lego might have ceased to be. They were floundering with their old model of “build whatever you want with this set of bricks.” But cross-licensing was born in 1999 to revitalize the Lego brand and continue making Michael Chabon’s children’s pastiches possible.

There are a couple things I’ve noticed people are really, really good at: creativity and connecting to narrative. I’m not going to get into the nuances of what constitutes art—largely of sanity’s sake—but I think that there are a lot of films that qualify. I also think that The Lego Movie is one of them. What’s more is that I think that sometimes people who build things with Legos are making art. So there’s art.

Then, there are corporations, Lego (actually family owned), to be exact, possibly Warner Bros., too. Corporations are systems. They are chock full of resources and operations that allow those resources to be moved around. They are completely inferior to individuals in practically every way, except that it is these systems that allow for individual creativity, ingenuity, and art to be created and then experienced by other individuals.

They are, at their root, subverting typical toys by delivering them to their customers in the form of interchangeable pieces.

I think there are (for lack of a better term) bad people who run bad corporations whose chief operation is taking advantage of a lot of individuals for the benefit of just a few individuals (insert I am the 99% reference). Maybe this cross-branding and metatization is part of that evil (what an earlier generation would call selling out). Maybe the problem isn’t just that The Lego Movie exists, but that this kind of thing exists in too many areas of our lives.

The truth is, though, that Michael Chabon’s children did no better a job rebelling against the system than the Lego Movie did. The Lego Group knows that people often follow their instructions once and then build whatever they want after that. That is the genius of their toy! They are, at their root, subverting typical toys by delivering them to their customers in the form of interchangeable pieces. They also happen to have a brilliant marketing plan to go with it (connecting people to both narrative and the potential of creativity), one that will last through yet another generation—namely Michael Chabon’s children.

The Lego Movie is not attacking Lego as a corporation/authority. The Lego Movie is blasting individuals (President Business/Will Ferrell) who take such a narrow view of the world as to think that Lego creates instructions intending exclusively for them to be followed. And I think it is meta, post-modern genius, because Lego makes fun of itself in the process. I don’t care if it’s the same circus. I like this seat better.

If you want to actually rebel, you have to stop playing with Legos altogether. You have to go off the grid. You have to stop talking to other people, possibly find a completely different universe. If you aren’t prepared to do that, your idea will be co-opted. Someone who lives in a similar world, with similar experiences, will write about those experiences and they will show up in books, on the big screen, on the internet, and in toys. This is the result of our systems (and our creativity). This is the result of individuals who love to create and connect to narrative. This is the result of individuals who die unless they connect with each other. What is Lego? What is The Lego Movie? They are ways for us to connect.

So, about bad corporations: these are things we should rebel against. Not because systems, operations, and resources are bad things, but because we should create systems that are reflective of our need to create and connect. It’s ok to do as you’re told as long as what you are being told is good or produces goodness.