When Did My Style Become My Identity?

An Interview with Maura and Abigail of the Rational Dress Society

Maura Brewer and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, of the Rational Dress Society, were in New York City for a workshop at MOMA at the same time I was writing a post for a popular women’s lifestyle blog. When I wrote topically and in the blog’s signature style everything seemed to walk a line between Christopher-Guest-styled parody and political critique of the very elements for which I was purporting enthusiasm.  After all, I chose to speak with these two artists, who have for years worn little else but their ungendered monogarment, for a decidedly cynicism-free, what-does-she-wear-in-a-week column.

It’s of course not that the perspective of these women is irrelevant, the opposite in fact. However, their perspective is self-conscious of the lifestyle blogs’ implicit principle that identity resides awfully close, or at the very least, is expressed by the ever-elusive personal style:  . . .my clothes weren’t a distraction or a shield, but a mirror instead — a mirror held up to reflect me, just as I am.   In another iteration: I love being the colors girl. Sometimes the correspondence between identity and commodification is made explicit: “. . . people start to develop personal brands – and brands try to become more human.Albeit this certain genre of women’s lifestyle blog has a liberal, enlightened, and self-determined affect: When I find clothes that fit well, I feel more comfortable and confident . . . when someone looks at me now, I know they’re seeing the version of me I chose. Not the only version I had access to. They duly take stock of the environment, sustainable manufacturing, avant-garde design, small business ownership, support-local, and support-women. Often items are thrifted, or a mix of high and low (which usually feels to me like a nod to a barely-latent class issue.) Finally, they don’t forget to keep at least one eye on all of the gazes (call me Man Repeller!)  They deftly keep their blog-heads above intersectional waters, while still garnering tangible support from sponsors.

They are not wrong. I, too, believe critical enthusiasm for self-styling has implications for identity and one’s psychic life. As one who has not fully given herself over to the monogarment (although I highly endorse it), I know (thank you Stacy London and Clinton Kelly) that what I wear reflects something to someone no matter how I might protest or repress. In a market driven culture not-choosing and choosing are not only effectively the same, but bear a startlingly similar relationship to our awareness of that choice.  (Just think of the billions of dollars in marketing aimed at making those choices for you, while chanting “freedom” in its various forms: free market! free will! Don’t read it here, instead become a comrade in Rational Dress.)

If the dichotomy is false between mind and body then surely, by extension, it is also false between mind, body, clothes, and everything. Why else does a haircut or parting ways with an item of clothing have the capacity for causing pain like a phantom limb?

Believing that costuming oneself for daily life, as it were, is a worthy task, or at the least, an unavoidable one, it’s therefore deserving of our full political engagement and even our informed consent. I follow these lifestyle blogs for their thoughtful musings on the subject. After submitting my application, I left the interview with Maura and Abigail parked in google drive.  Until this week when I read two articles on Man Repeller about finding identity through clothes. (There is a murky ontological area in respect to whether identity sits waiting to be discovered through our material choices or something to be created by them – but that point seems less of a concern so long as identity is won in time for cocktail hour.) The quest for distinction, for getting to wear something that expresses how you feel as a person” allowing that you “never look exactly like someone elsestarts to chafe.  One thought in particular from Maura on choosing clothing everyday has since become the gadfly’s voice: “I wasn’t getting a huge amount of creative satisfaction out of picking out my outfits every single day because I have other stuff that I do.” It gives me pause to consider my life as a style. The world of “other stuff that I do” suddenly expands as it passes through the finite and myopic threshold of individuation.  

I offer their interview here:

A Week of Outfits: Maura and Abigail

Designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and artist Maura Brewer

Designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and artist Maura Brewer happened to be in town leading a workshop at MoMA as I was compiling writing samples to send to a women’s lifestyle blog. As I re-read posts from my favorite “A Week of Outfits” series, I became curious about interviewing them. After all, who better to ask about outfits than these Rational Dress Society collaborators who not only co-founded Jumpsuit, but who have worn the “ungendered, multi-use monogarment” every day for the past three years. They’ve gotten plenty of press on the critical, humorous, and political nature of their activism. Their timely  “Make America Rational Again” campaign collects gently used and “emphatically discarded” Ivanka Trump-branded garments in order to transform them into jumpsuits sold to support fair labor practices in the United States. However, I wanted to find out what it actually feels like to wear the same outfit every day. What happens to the self-revelation and identity forged in a woman’s closet? Maura and Abigail joined artist Cameron Crawford (a comrade in rational dress and jumpsuit wearing) and I for lunch on a bomb-cyclone-cold day to talk about rejecting choice.

             Maura and Abigail

MB: It’s great. I love wearing a jumpsuit everyday. It’s super easy. I don’t think about what I’m wearing. But I think we’re also creative professionally and so I wasn’t getting a huge amount of creative satisfaction out of picking out my outfits every single day because I have other stuff that I do. You know that thing where you wake up and you feel like none of your clothes fit? And whatever hole there is you’re trying to fill, it’s still empty. You try on like seven things before you go out? That hasn’t happened to me in three years. It’s a big relief.

AG-L: I thought I would miss it. Miss clothes. Because I’m a fashion designer! I love clothes. I just love clothes. You know? It’s not about not loving clothes.

MB: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just you don’t have to consider it everyday.

 

Getting married in white Jumpsuits

 

AG-L: The only time I had anxiety about wearing a jumpsuit was when there was a couple we know that was getting married in jumpsuits and I thought, what do I wear to the wedding? I wore a polka dot jumpsuit! I wouldn’t have thought about it if it weren’t a wedding. Now I sort of think, how beautiful? In another 13 years if Dave and I ever decide to get married, (26 is going to be our number), I mean how beautiful would it be if there were an entire room full of people wearing the same jumpsuit? That’s lovely. That’s beautiful. I like that idea.

MB: I hate doing laundry. I really hate doing laundry. I have a bunch of jumpsuits. But it’s just one garment. I mean how many t-shirts and jeans do you go through in a week? You can just hang them and shake them (she says stinking!) You don’t really have to wash them that much. The people I know that wear jumpsuits everyday, I think they have three or four.

 

Abigail with student at the Jil Sander Showroom, Chicago

MB: There’s less anxiety. As an artist, a lot of times, what you’re going to wear to an opening or to a dinner is a difficult question because you don’t have any money and so many people do. And so it eliminates that problem totally.

AG-L: The jumpsuit is a chameleon. The current one is really basic. It’s very intentional that it walks a line between casual and formal. It’s supposed to not be flashy. I can teach in it and then go to an opening. People don’t really respond unless they already know what it is. A bunch of my colleagues have them and my students will come bursting into the classroom saying so-and-so is wearing your jumpsuit and they’re so excited!

MB: Sometimes people come up to us and ask if it’s a “Jumpsuit” jumpsuit. Generally people are really nice. It’s lovely. People are really sweet.

AG-L: Social interactions are typically so awkward and if I’m introduced as Abigail-who-makes-jumpsuits and I’m a wearing one, it’s almost rehearsed, it’s an easy thing. There’s something nice and easy about it. It actually puts everybody at ease. People are very positive. Dave gets more compliments when he wears his than I do. But I get compliments, too.

 

Maura with two members of the Rational Dress Society

CC: I get negative comments. There’s the person who said: “What is he wearing that for, he’s never worked a day in his life.”

AG-L: Wow.

MB: Really?

CC: Because they think I’m wearing coveralls, but like I don’t work hard enough to wear coveralls, or I’m wearing them with dress shoes or something like that.

MB: In what context?

CC: On the street.

AG-L: I feel like men’s fashion is way less permissive. I feel like you guys police each other more.

Maura reading from Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success

AG-L: I would have thought I’d get into really accessories. Jewelry, brooches. I like to get my glasses from Lab Rabbit Optical in Chicago, and Fabulous Fanny’s or Surreal Optical in New York. I have two pairs that are in regular rotation. We both have a deep love for Fabulous Fanny’s.

MB: I got my glasses at Society of the Spectacle in Los Angeles.

AG-L: Neither of us really wears lipstick on a regular basis, but we do have matching tubes of this stuff in bright orange. We both thought we were going to get more into accessories than we have.

MB: It’s the opposite. Yeah. Don’t care. We do spend a lot of time talking to each other about haircuts, though.

AG-L: We do. We do.

CC: I remember that day we went to five stores to find the right black bucket hat for you.

MB: That’s right. That was a good day. I still have that hat. That’s a good hat. But you have to go to five stores. You’re not just grabbing anything. It becomes more important.

AG-L: Sweaters are the thing I have to think about. Because the jumpsuit has a structured sleeve so it has to fit over the sleeve.

MB: We love nice looking things; we’re artists. I’m a totally acquisitive materialistic person. It’s not about pretending that doesn’t exist. It’s just about eliminating a major element of it and it feels more manageable. It’s also way cheaper.

AG-L: It’s incredible actually. You save a lot of money. Especially in my line of work! In my line of work the clothes aren’t just clothes; they’re expensive clothes and I don’t have that.

 

The official Rational Dress Society patterns for JUMPSUIT are currently being digitized and will be available to download as an open source document in the coming months.

MB: Women’s garments aren’t made to fit them. Almost ever. Abigail did all of this work. She’s really super talented. So much mastery and technical facility. She looked at real sizing data, from the government, from NASA, from uniform companies, anthropometric studies. If you look at people’s body measurements it doesn’t make sense to have male/female measurements.

 

                 

Comrades in the Rational Dress Society

AG-L: The way the patterns work it’s a ratio between your chest, waist, and hips. Jumpsuit embraces the physiological differences between bodies, tall and short, round and narrow. The  patterns fit the individual while still maintaining visual uniformity. It’s just practical for having a garment that fits you. It’s a truly well-fitting garment, customized to the individual form. It’s really available to all, regardless of body type. So the first jumpsuit I made, the crotch was too low, and I made it shorter and thought it was beautiful; then I went to get on a bicycle, and so it turned out it was just a beautiful “stand” suit.

 

Photos courtesy of the artists.

P.S. (What is the difference between rejecting choice and having no choice?)

 

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