Looking at clothes is a form of time travel. In museum exhibits especially, where the clothes hang on headless mannequins, it’s entirely up to you to imagine the sort of woman who wore the narrow-skirted riding habit in 1880, or the man who wore the elaborately embroidered silk dressing gown—a banyan—in 1822, or maybe the girl who found it in the attic in 1910 and decided to appropriate it as her own.
Or you can imagine yourself as all those people. How did it feel to lace your body into a corset every day and only be able to ride a horse sidesaddle? Did it make you feel weak and helpless? Or did the extra layer of support make you feel protected, like armor? Conversely, how did it feel to wear big leather boots and an enormous frock coat? Did it make you feel like the entire world belonged to you?
Sometimes when I look at those clothes, I want a big pair of boots and an enormous frock coat too, and maybe a hidden layer of armor as long as it doesn’t hurt. I want to stride through the world, tall and terrible, and stomp on anyone—any man—who gets in my way with his groping hands or his belittling comments or his offer of 80 cents for my work when he would offer another man a dollar.
I like looking at new clothes too, in department stores and online. It’s another way to imagine a different version of yourself. There are a lot of new companies that exist only online, and this year they’ve all started popping up in my Facebook feed: Everlane, Cuyana, Frilly, Toast. Somehow they’d gotten the message that I—and apparently every woman who shared my demographic profile—wanted to be tall and terrible in ways that skinny jeans and crop tops don’t allow. There were wide-legged pants and long, sweeping coats and tall leather boots and a cape. Once I even saw chain mail. And one time I saw a virtual replica of my favorite sweater of all time, a baggy crewneck made of navy blue heathered wool that I wore from eighth grade through the end of college—when the elbows finally unraveled—and which always reminded me of one of the periods in my life when I felt most like myself. All summer long, on the train and on the street, I saw young women in their 20s wearing knee-length dresses that looked like enormous T-shirts, a look that announced, “You don’t get to ogle my boobs. And if you don’t like it, fuck you.”
In the New York Times, the fashion critic Vanessa Friedman declared that the covered-up look was the style of the decade. “It’s not about power dressing in the old, battering-ram-shoulder sense,” she wrote, “but in the sense that when you feel secure and comfortable and protected, you feel stronger.”
Did we not want to feel strong and secure before?
I wanted to blame the shift to power dressing on the rage that had overtaken the women of America after Donald Trump was elected president. “Changes in fundamental modes of dress,” the sociologists George Bush and Perry London wrote in the Journal of Social Psychology back in 1960, “indicate changes in social roles and self-concepts of members of that society.” But when I started asking fashion designers and historians about this, they told me that bigger clothes had first shown up on the runways about three years ago, even if it had taken a while for the look to filter down to the average woman on the el.
It’s true that fashion is cyclical. A period of tight clothes will be followed by a period of looser clothes, just because the general public—though maybe not specific individuals—is always looking for an excuse to refresh its collective wardrobe. And fashion designers have begun to realize that there’s an enormous market for modest clothing, especially in Islamic countries. But we don’t have to embrace everything the fashion designers throw at us. And maybe we were angry when the bigger clothes first showed up and hadn’t realized it? What was going on?
One thing designers are really great at is tapping into the zeitgeist before the general population does,” Jamie Hayes, a Chicago designer, told me. “We feel things in the collective unconscious. Sometimes those things come out as overt political statements, and sometimes more unconsciously.”
We sat at a worktable in the front room of Hayes’s studio in Logan Square, which she shares with Gerry Quinton, a corset maker. The space also functions as a showroom for Hayes’s clothing line Production Mode, Quinton’s corset label Morua, and Department of Curiosities, the lingerie brand they work on together; their supplies and collection of vintage sewing machines live in the back. Hayes was wearing a pair of wide-legged trousers she’d made herself: “My legs can breathe!”
Hayes’s latest collection for Production Mode, which she unveiled in July, features lots of heavy fabrics and boxy cuts. This was, in part, because she wanted to wear clothes that felt warm and heavy and comforting but also strong and tough. “These are anxiety-producing times,” she explained. “I wanted a blanket. Cloth is the first thing that replaces your mother: a security blanket or a teddy bear, soft tactile things that make you feel safe. I wanted that feeling in a way I haven’t wanted it for some time.”
The clothes had a boxy shape for a practical reason too: the fabric she’d been using had been custom-made by the Weaving Mill, a textile studio in Chicago, in collaboration with the artist Nuria Montiel. It was beautiful and expensive, a labor of love, and she didn’t want to waste any of it by cutting out intricate shapes. Instead, she used simple rectangles to create robes and tunics. The clothes had a gender-neutral aspect that she liked, like kaftans and kimonos and other traditional garments that had been worn for centuries. “If you go back far enough,” she said, “everyone was wearing a dress.”
The fashion historian Valerie Steele wrote in Men and Women: Dressing the Part, “There is rarely a single meaning attached to each article of clothing. Instead, its meanings depend on the context—Who wears it? When? Along with what other clothes? What was the history of this garment? . . . The sociologist Fred Davis suggests that at various times in history certain social ambivalences become prominent and may be expressed sartorially.”
A few months earlier, I’d seen a notice about a lecture given by the Rational Dress Society, which consists of two artists, Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer. The RDS was founded in 2014, and its main project is a unisex jumpsuit, designed by Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer, that can be worn by anyone on any occasion. It comes in 248 different sizes, based on individual measurements and body type and whether the wearer wants it fitted in the chest or not. (Each size has a delightfully random name, like “quark” or “ooloi” or “jairzinho.”) Though production is stalled on the jumpsuit at the moment, Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury plan to resume taking orders in the near future. They also plan to make the pattern available as an open-source document so anyone with sewing skills can create their own jumpsuit.
This isn’t a new idea, they told me when we talked. We were skyping; Glaum-Lathbury was in Chicago and Brewer was in LA, and both of them were wearing jumpsuits, as they do every day. “We didn’t want to act like our idea was the first time anyone had ever done this,” Brewer said. “It’s important for us to establish our relationship to other artists and designers who used clothes to think through social change.”
The history of protest fashion, or antifashion, began during the French Revolution, when the revolutionaries rejected the knee breeches of the aristocracy and began wearing long pants in solidarity with the peasants. They called themselves the sans culottes. Nearly a century later, in 1881, the original Rational Dress Society was founded in England and dedicated to the proposition that no woman should have to wear more than seven pounds of undergarments at one time. Society members distributed pamphlets that showed the difference between the Venus de Milo, with an ideal “natural” body, and a contemporary woman whose body had been “deformed” by a corset. They focused most of their efforts on women’s clothes because, in its founders’ opinion, men’s dress—having permanently adopted the long pants of the sans culottes—already was rational.
Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury’s jumpsuit was inspired by the TuTa, a costume developed by Italian futurists just after World War I as a protest against having to buy a complete wardrobe in a precarious economy. Like the Rational Dress Society jumpsuit, the TuTa was intended to be worn by all people on all occasions, thereby obliterating class differences, and the pattern was available to everyone. Unlike the jumpsuit, the TuTa was gendered: the male version had pants, while the female had a skirt.
Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury think their jumpsuit is aesthetically pleasing—they like its long, clean lines and futuristic look—but it too is a protest. “It was motivated by a desire to have a critical conversation within the space of fashion design about the way clothes are produced and disseminated,” Brewer said. “Fast fashion is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s a human rights and environmental disaster,” she said of the business model exemplified by retailers such as H&M and Zara, which quickly manufacture and push to market styles that mirror runway trends. “People are able to buy massive amounts of cheap clothes that are made in sweatshops and are bad for the environment. I don’t think it makes anyone happy, but it’s addictive, a hit of adrenaline. The clothes are meant to last ten wash cycles.”
“When was the last time you stared into your closet and said, ‘I have nothing to wear’?” Glaum-Lathbury added. “What are the problems? Your clothing isn’t signifying what you want it to signify. People are going into Forever 21 and thinking they’re expressing themselves through clothing, when really it’s Forever 21 expressing themselves through you.”
After Donald Trump was elected president, the Rational Dress Society connected its work more overtly to electoral politics. Both Trump and his daughter Ivanka, Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury felt, epitomized the problems with the fast-fashion industry: in their stump speeches, they urged people to buy American, but they put their names on clothing that was manufactured as cheaply as possible in sweatshops in China and Bangladesh and Mexico. The garments themselves were made out of polyester and other synthetics that would just sit in a landfill forever.
So they started an adjunct project for the Rational Dress Society: Make America Rational Again. They’ve issued a request for the women of America to send them their used Ivanka Trump-brand clothing, which they will recycle into special-edition jumpsuits, millennial pink with gold accents. The project received a fair amount of media attention and the initial response, they told the Huffington Post a few days after the project launched, was “tremendous! Huge!” They’ve also been collecting clothes on their own, in thrift stores and used clothing piles and on resale sites like Thredup (which, Racked reported, saw its listings of Ivanka Trump merchandise increase by 223 percent in 2016).
“Professional women noticed that these clothes had been in their wardrobe,” Glaum-Lathbury theorized when we talked. “It was a thing that needed to be purged immediately from their homes and their bodies.”
Now phase two, the recycling, is under way. They plan to work with the Weaving Mill, the same collective that made Jamie Hayes’s fabrics, and they’ve been raising funds by selling tote bags and special-edition posters printed on paper recycled from Ivanka Trump’s books. (The promo video shows Glaum-Lathbury smiling beatifically as she feeds a copy of Women Who Work through a buzz saw.)
Since the Rational Dress Society is rooted as much in the art world as it is in the fashion world, the Make America Rational Again campaign exists as much to make a point as it does to create recycled millennial pink jumpsuits—though those would be nice too, and so would profits, which they intend to donate to the Garment Workers Center in LA, the only garment workers’ advocacy organization in the entire country.
Rational Dress, to Brewer and Glaum- Lathbury, is really about democracy and equality, not just equality in terms of style, but equality for the people who make the clothes. Which, ironically enough, is the same line fast-fashion companies use to sell their designer knockoffs. “Democracy is agency and inclusion and an ability to have an active voice in something,” Glaum-Lathbury said. “What you have at the end of buying a Peter Pilotto for Target sweater is less money and an ugly sweater that’s a facsimile of something else that’s going to fall apart. How is that democratic?”
In order to learn more about clothing democracy and protest fashion, I went to the library, or rather the Fashion Resource Center at the School of the Art Institute. It’s a wondrous place, with one room filled with books and a century’s worth of fashion magazines and a second room, equally large, packed with vintage clothes, organized by designer. It feels like the world’s most fabulous closet—or it would if you were allowed to wear any of those clothes, which you are not. During one of my visits, a professor spent some time instructing her class on how to fit a garment onto a display mannequin without ripping it.
Alex Aubry, the director of the Fashion Resource Center, had pulled a pile of books for me to look at. He also gave me a Post-it note to stick on my laptop that read, “Identity by definition is protest.”
“The relationship between clothing and identity becomes even more complicated in the context of a younger generation that doesn’t necessarily want to be placed into a neat box, because their sense of being is both complex and nuanced,” he told me. “As a universal medium, fashion can play a role in engaging in these larger conversations surrounding identity today because everyone can relate to clothing on some level.”
One of the books Aubry had given me, Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, contained an account by an art historian named Kate Luck of fashion in the various utopian communities that sprung up in America in the 1820s. Most of these communities had been founded by men, who established the ideology and rules, which usually involved abdication of personal property and sharing of the labor and profits. (Somehow, though, the women still were in charge of all the housework.) Some of them also established dress codes that, for women, required a knee-length skirt over a loose pair of trousers. John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community, thought that this costume would make women more like men and protect them both from sexual assault and from displaying the sort of excessively feminine behavior that women use to attract husbands. In Oneida, everyone practiced free love (and also birth control).
The women of Oneida hated their costume. It made them conspicuous as members of the colony. When outsiders looked at them, they didn’t think about the beauty of communal living. Instead they just thought about free love and how every woman who lived there must be slutty. Maybe the women also resented that the costume was a sign of how Noyes considered them inferior to men, and that he needed to “elevate” them by making them wear a ridiculous variation on men’s clothing.
About 30 years later, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an early feminist, began wearing a knee-length skirt over loose trousers gathered at the ankle, also known as “Turkish dress.” (A name so evocative of the harem couldn’t have helped its popularity much.) “When you find a burden in belief or apparel,” she declared, “cast it off.” But even people who favored dress reform thought the costume looked ridiculous, and it never caught on; within five years, Bloomer herself returned to wearing conventional skirts. In the 1890s, though, the loose trousers, now referred to as a “divided skirt,” came back yet again (though without the overskirt), and this time they were embraced. Sort of. Women found them useful for riding bicycles and playing sports. But when they weren’t exercising, they went back to regular dresses, corsets and all. It seemed to me that they finally accepted the divided skirt because they could choose whether they wanted to wear it, and they did only when it served the practical function of letting them move more freely.
One of the beauties of modern fashion is that it’s no longer controlled by an elite group of designers, stylists, and magazine editors—or chauvinistic utopian philosophers. Since the mid-20th century, designers have been taking their inspiration—or stealing—from street fashion, but now with the Internet, the parade of new styles is constant and never-ending. Instead of two distinct seasons, spring and fall, stores roll out new items every week. Manufacturers have resorted to using cheap materials and cheaper labor not just out of greed, like the Trumps, but to keep up with demand. This is what led to the fast fashion that the Rational Dress Society is protesting. This is also why H&M and Forever 21 smell like plastic and why I feel depressed every time I try to spend any time there.
But while the Rational Dress Society jumpsuit is definitely a, yes, rational alternative, I also feel it will never be adopted wholeheartedly by the people of America, despite its accurate fit, fair labor practices, and commitment to gender equality. I personally don’t want to wear it, at least not every day. (I’ve always disliked clothing that shows off my butt.) It feels too absolutist. Or maybe I feel that way because it would force me to conform to someone else’s vision.
A few years ago, I read an interview with Michele Oka Doner, a sculptor who has worn variations on the same dress every day for more than 30 years. She started with just one dress, in white. “When I would go to get dressed,” she said, “over and over again it was what I wanted to wear. And over the next five, six, ten years, this was the go-to dress that made me feel so comfortable I never had to think about how I was going to look or what to wear with it.” So she asked designers and tailors to make copies for her in different lengths and fabrics, sometimes with pockets. Now she has 40 of them.
There’s a German word for this (of course there is): Eigenkleid, or individualized dress. Josef Hoffmann, an Austrian architect, designer, and proponent of dress reform, argued in an essay in 1898 that women would be both happier and healthier if they rejected fashion altogether and adopted personalized dresses that were suited to their individualized tastes and bodies.
How wonderful it would be to have an eigenkleid that suited me perfectly! How wonderful to be like Doner and have such a secure sense of style and self and maybe the state of the world to be able to identify your eigenkleid and never waver from it.
But I think most of us aren’t so secure. Or we’re like Jamie Hayes, who did a project a few years ago designing two-dozen eigenkleider for herself and friends and colleagues. Hayes’s own uniform was a Chinese qipao dress inspired by the movie In the Mood for Love. But she couldn’t bring herself to wear it every day. “I found I love clothes too much to wear just one thing,” she said. And her mood has changed in the five years since she created her uniform. “Traditionally I’ve worn lots of dresses,” she said. “They work with my body type. Lately I find myself not wanting to wear them. I don’t want to look like anyone’s little girl right now.”
This reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, perhaps the most famous eigenkleid in modern history. “They made me feel professional and ready to go,” she writes in her memoir What Happened. “As a woman running for President, I liked the visual cue that I was different from the men but also familiar. A uniform was also an antidistraction technique: since there wasn’t much to say or report on what I wore, maybe people would focus on what I was saying instead.”
The Universal Standard clothing line is a bit of an outlier in the history of protest fashion. Alexandra Waldman didn’t start making clothes because of any political philosophy or theory. She started for the simple reason that, as a size-18 woman, she couldn’t find a damned thing to wear. In Tokyo, where she lived for seven years, plus-size clothing doesn’t exist. She got around the problem by buying men’s clothes and hacking off collars and buttons and playing with the fit until she came up with something wearable.
When she moved back to Manhattan, she thought things would be better. They were not. Her friend Polina Veksler, who wears single-digit sizes, didn’t believe it could be that bad. So Waldman took Veksler to the plus-size corner of what she’ll only identify as “a famous department store.” “Welcome,” she said, “to my corner of polyester hell.” Veksler looked at the selection of tent dresses, many covered with sequins, bows, and hideous prints. “This cannot be it,” she said. “It can,” Waldman replied, “and it is.”
Right then, the two friends decided to start their own business producing clothes that were flattering, elegant, well made, easy to wear, and all in sizes that have traditionally been ignored by most designers. Waldman would be in charge of design, while Veksler would handle the financials. They started with eight pieces in sizes ten to 28, a small wardrobe of shirts and sweaters, a skirt, and a dress that could be combined into 20 different outfits. In the two years since they’ve added many more pieces, including jeans and winter coats. They also plan to expand their size range in both directions. The clothes are made mostly of Peruvian cotton and are produced in factories that Waldman and Veksler have actually visited. They’re designed not to stretch or pill or fall apart in the wash, and they’re sized to accommodate a wide range of body types. A basic T-shirt costs $50, which is a lot compared to a fast-fashion outlet, but about the same as a similar shirt produced by Cuyana, a similarly ethically conscious online-only company that doesn’t make anything larger than size 12. (The Universal Standard shopper is a woman who, like Waldman, has a solid income and not enough clothes to spend it on. Even if she were a size two, she wouldn’t be shopping at H&M.)
I met Waldman and Veksler on the fourth floor of Nordstrom Michigan Avenue, where Universal Standard had a pop-up shop the last weekend in October. They were in the middle of a cross-country tour and had lost track of the number of cities they’d visited. Veksler was eight months pregnant. Part of our conversation took place in the women’s lounge, which seemed to emphasize an important point about women and anger: most of our venting happens in the bathroom.
“A lot of women are chronically underserved and discarded, in terms of style,” Waldman told me. “They’re not allowed to participate. The message they get is, if you like fashion, don’t be fat!” According to a 2012 study by Plunkett Research, a market research firm, 67 percent of American women are size 14 or larger. And yet, according to a Bloomberg study, department stores devote less than 18 percent of their stock to plus-size women. (Nordstrom allows about only 8.5 percent.)
“There’s a lot of rage,” Waldman said. “The tide is turning. Women accepted what was given before. But now they’re saying, ‘It’s not my fault. It’s your fault I don’t have clothes.'”
But despite Universal Standard’s wide range of offerings, its endorsements by plus-size models (who, in one of the company’s initiatives, get to design three pieces of clothing they always wanted but could never find in their size), and the ego boost that comes from being labeled a small instead of an extralarge, Waldman and Veksler have still seen women come into their showrooms in New York and Seattle, look at their reflections in the mirror, and break down crying, either out of sadness or rage or a combination of the two.
“They’re not seeing what’s there,” Waldman explained. “They want to see a better self. They say, ‘I’m a 20 now, but I started a vegan diet yesterday and yoga the day before that, so this is a temporary state, and I’m going to get rid of it.’ It’s like living with a bully in your head.”
Which is something else women are fighting whenever they put on clothes, no matter what size they are.
Universal Standard is doing its best. It makes a deal with its customers: if they buy anything from a list of 21 items and change sizes over the course of a year, they can trade that piece in for an identical one in the new size. The used clothes will be donated to Dress for Success, a charity that provides work clothes for impoverished women and has a shortage of plus-size items.
But sometimes I would like to fight back against that bully, which I imagine to be the internalized voice of both fashion magazines and the sort of men who watch women and assign them numbers based on their looks. Maybe I could wear a robe that hangs from my shoulders so nobody can see what my body looks like. Nobody could tell how big my breasts are or if my stomach sticks out or my ass is the right shape, and nobody would look at me and make assumptions or judgments about my intelligence or lack thereof. I could just live.
Then I remember how this was the strategy I used to get through grad school. I wore jeans and baggy T-shirts (which weren’t fashionable then; this was the era of the belly shirt) and cut my hair short and switched from contacts to glasses. People told me I looked like Harry Potter. For some reason, I thought my male professors—and all but one of them were male—would respect my intelligence more if I were genderless. I don’t know if they actually did, but I do know that I was one of the few women in my class they never propositioned. A few years later, after I graduated, I grew my hair out and got a job where I had to dress nicely, and then I faced all the grossness that comes with being female again: the condescension, the close talking, the hands going where they have no business going.
It was interesting to me that when I started interviewing people for this story, every woman understood exactly what I meant when I asked them if they felt there was more of a connection now between our collective anger and the clothes we’re choosing to wear. They had no proof that this connection existed, that this was how we were conveying our anger. There’s been no well-reasoned manifesto or call to arms, as there was for past antifashion movements. But they all felt it.
“Clothing can act as a powerful tool for protection physically and psychologically,” said Petra Slinkard, the curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum. “I think of clothing like armor. When I wear a blazer, it’s like going into battle.”
Around the time I started asking these questions, the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and the flood of #MeToos followed. I was one of them, of course, and so was almost every woman I know. We talked about it constantly—in the office, over drinks, on social media, in the bathroom. We didn’t press for details, but we listened if they were provided. We tried to be kind to one another. Sometimes, though, it was hard to keep control of my anger. I found it hard to be civil to men, even men I loved and trusted, even men who told me they’d had their asses grabbed too.
One cold and rainy afternoon, I went over to Nordstrom Michigan Avenue, ostensibly for research, but really because I find high-end department stores intensely comforting. They remind me of my grandmother, who used to take me shopping in Highland Park when I was a little girl, and imparted to me the secrets of shopping the way I imagine other grandmothers taught their granddaughters how to identify a ripe tomato or sew a straight hem. You can always judge a store by its smell, she told me. To me, a department store that smells like expensive perfume represents unconditional love and approval, everything the world of #MeToo is not.
I spent a few hours there, admiring soft leather boots and ingeniously draped coats, stroking mohair shawls and cashmere sweaters I’d never be able to afford. It was like admiring the suits of armor in the Art Institute, except the truth is, armor looks ridiculous and cumbersome now, and these clothes were exquisite. I tried on a military-looking cape made by an up-and-coming young designer and tried to make it swirl around me as I strode across the dressing room. (I could only really get in one stride, but I could still admire the effect.) These were clothes that could make you feel taller and stronger and smarter. A woman who wore them could never be scared away from her career, or made to feel small or stupid or unworthy. When she spoke, it would be with authority. The world belonged to her. She could call down thunder and lightning and make the earth shake just by saying “I AM.”
Oh, hell, maybe what I really wanted was to be Diana of Themyscira in the movie Wonder Woman, who only discovers her true powers when she casts off her cloak, revealing her armor for the first time, and goes marching alone across No Man’s Land.
It feels silly, almost superstitious, to ascribe that much power to a piece of clothing, something that without a human body to give it shape and meaning hangs limp from a hook or slumps in a heap on the floor. But clothes, after all, are our first defense when we go out into the world. We might as well believe in them, because we don’t have much else. v