Dear readers, I am feeling uninspired by fashion today. While regularly all it takes is a hand stiched buttonhole or engineered print to light up my face, today even window-web shoe-shopping on the Irregular Choice website leaves me unimpressed. And it isn’t because Danny Sullivan has suddenly become un-genious. It’s because Carrie is stuck in the doldrums with the mean reds.
Since Breakfast at Tiffany’s isn’t an option, I’ll have to cure the mean reds the less glamorous way. Here are the people and one location that have brought me to that magical place of possibility we call inspired. I hope you’ll forgive me for wandering off the fashion farm for a sec. I will drop crumbs of outfit analysis so we can be sure to find our way back, never fear.
This handsome Gibson Girl is L.M. Montgomery, and she is the reason I wrote my first novel in the second grade. It was 20 hand-written pages long and was about an adventure in a cave. Eat your heart out, Plato. I was so enraptured by the dykey adventures of Anne of Green gables that all I wanted to do was write stories. Some of them were about Anne time-traveling into the future where she would become my best friend. All the jokes were about Anne misunderstanding modern inventions like the electric iron and the television.
I love the color contrast of Lucy Maude’s black chantilly on the white blouse, and the contrast between the menswear-inspired collar typical of the time and the delicate lace. Turn of the century ladies dress was all about tiny details you can’t really see from far away – is that ruching on the upper part of her sleeve?
In July of 1990, Aparthied had ended, and a free Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum to speak to an overpacked stadium, and I was there. To this day, I have never experienced anything more awesome (and I do mean that in the more 19th century poet way than the 21st century brohipster way). I was 11, but I had already experienced enough racism that I recognized it was going to be something I would struggle against for my entire life, and I had been educated on the far more extreme racism children my own age in South Africa were surviving – or not surviving – every day. The end of Aparthied felt like a personal victory. I thought the world was saved. Of course it wasn’t, but that doesn’t diminish at all the hopefulness that still fills me when I think of that day.
What I don’t remember is what Mandela was wearing. And of course the event of his release and his words and the mood are all more important things than what he was wearing — but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Clothing is so symbolic, especially in situations like this — did he wear the colors of the ANC on his tie? Did he wear a suit made by a South Asian tailor or a British label? These things are significant in the context of Aparthied, if not paramount. Here are some pictures of the young Mandela wearing wonderful things:
I love the parallel between the collar necklace in the traditional outfit and the wide lapels of the suit.
I’ve always been an MJ fan, but I did not become a superfan until the Dangerous years, when I saw the live broadcast of his concert from Bucharest on MTV. I was in Jr. High, and the performance knocked me right out of my 40-waist Gap jeans. It was the first time I ever remember having the consciousness to really look at art and know why I thought it was good. I remember noticing that every single part of Michael’s body was involved in his movements, his pinky was just-so, the crook of his arm created a shape, the flex of his foot made another. And at the same time that everything was so controlled, it was also fluid and instinctive. It blew my tiny mind that control and instinct could be combined that way.
I did not even care that he was wearing a gold bodysuit over his pants. And it was not until years later that I wondered if this “crotchpiece” top thing maybe wasn’t one of those obscure trends that the general population doesn’t remember but only extra-committed fashion types rocked, because around the same era Parker Posey wore this and this in Party Girl (Also no matter how great it is, that is probably the last time I can ever mention Party Girl on this blog. I am out of mentions.)
In the 8th grade, I went on a class trip to the Marin Headlands.
Standing on a cliff overlooking the sea, I felt God for the first time ever. I know that sounds like the first sentence of an ex-gay testimonial. But never fear, it is pre-gay. Also I am a half baptist 1/4 methodist 1/8 christian scientist and 1/8 Jewish raised by a feminist atheist so the fact that I had an experience at 13 in which I felt that I understood God completely in my own way is kindof a big deal. If you ever feel uninspired, grab your hiking boots and your cable-knit and go to the headlands and stand at the edge of a cliff.
One time in High School, I was playing Raiden on Mortal Kombat for Nintendo 16. I always played Raiden because he had the best warcry of all the characters. (Also his outfit is kinda Watanabe, yes?) I was watching my character and the other character blast each other over and over and over and wishing I knew all the fancy defense sequences that would make me impenetrable to the other guy. And then I thought to myself, Wow, things with lots of defenses are weak, they are weak by virtue of the fact they need defending, and strong things do not need defenses, and that is true emotionally as well as physically.
It seems like a little piece of pop psychology any modern teenager could find written over a soft-focus sunset scene on a sappy tumblr blog, but for me, it was one of the first times I ever got a big abstract idea from doing something as vulgar as playing Mortal Kombat II.
The lady in the minimalist turtleneck is Dorian Brown. She came to a program I was in in High School and spoke. She was from East Palo Alto, which in the mid-90s was in a dead heat with Oakland in the bid for murder capital of the world, but with a population less than 1/8 the size. She started a conflict resolution program at the local high school, which basically means she passed out her phone number to students and put herself on 24hour call. And it worked. Eventually other people started volunteering and conflicts were getting resolved before they turned deadly. Dorian Brown was desperate to address a crisis that none of the official parties could nor would take care of, and she did something about it.
I never even shook this woman’s hand and I saw her speak for maybe 30 minutes, but she affected the entire course of my life. She proved it was possible for a real person to do things that were good for the world. I had seen and been inspired by Mandela of course, but he was mythical almost – larger than life. Dorian Brown looked like someone who’d get on the AC Transit and sit next to me on my way to school. She wasn’t elected by anybody or invoked by any God, she didn’t sing or dance or any of those other talents that can compel people’s attention. She was just pissed off and had a clear sense of justice, two things my teenage self had in abundant supply.
This is Alice Dunbar Nelson. Her dress is amazing and she was gay and femme and a writer in Harlem at the turn of the century a generation before Langston was queering it up during the Renaissance. I don’t even remember how I came across her but I was compelled to find out everything there is to know about her (which isn’t much on the interwebs, but you can buy used copies of her out-of-print diary). Do you see that dress?! The detail is astonishing. It is hand beaded, pleated, and knotted. At any rate, I couldn’t stop thinking about Alice or the dress and I ended up writing an experimental short story that one reader called “gothic lesbian erotica” in a feverish possession by her spirit. Fashion is it’s own character in the story and the era let me write in a Poiret Peignoir. I’m not going to link to it but the enterprising googler could find it online.
At any rate, I feel better. I am all full of hope and possibility. And when I feel all full of hope and possibility, not only do I do good things for the world, I dress better. So here’s to good deeds and good outfits. May your life be blessed with both.