Read Surveys (By Author)
1. When do you feel at your most attractive?
After I have had a few drinks with friends, I go to the bathroom and glance in the mirror while I’m washing my hands. I like seeing myself in that first glance before I’m aware of the mirror; occupied, unconcerned, but also knowing what others will see when they look at me. The warm glow of chemicals helps, too. Well, this is off to a weird start.
5. What are some shopping rules you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others but which you follow?
1. Consider the butt first. What does it need today? Who is going to be looking at it?
2. If it would look out of place in a photo of Patti Smith, don’t wear it.
3. Wear a color only as often as it occurs naturally in a forest. For example, infinite browns and blacks, greens in moderation, blood red for special occasions, and as
much sky blue and yellow that would peek through the branches, depending on whether or not you could picture yourself in a clearing that day.
7. What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?
It probably went some thing like this:
My mom and I are in Kohl’s, a discount department store in Topeka, KS, the only place
where she would buy my clothes that wasn’t a second-hand store. I am 12 or 13.
ME: I want to get this spaghetti strap tank top.
ME: Because everyone wears spaghetti straps. And I like them.
MOM: Spaghetti straps send people the wrong message.
ME: What message?
MOM: That you want them to see your skin.
MOM: Do you want people to see your skin?
ME: I don’t know.
MOM: My mother always told me that if you can’t wear it to church, don’t wear it all.
ME: Fine, Mom. Whatever. They’re just clothes. Not messages.
MOM: You’re getting older. They’re messages.
When we got in the car, I was soaking in this ‘clothes are messages’ idea. I think a light went on somewhere that illuminated ‘style’ as more than just clothes assembled in the way magazines and peers tell you to assemble them; like style as a process of curation and expression, rather than following a set of values.
8. Do you have a unified way of approaching your life, work, relationships, finances, chores, etc.? Please explain.
Not yet, I don’t think. I’ve quit, like, eight jobs in the last three years. Somedays I write twenty pages, sometimes I don’t get out of bed and watch Gordon Ramsay cooking shows all day. I wish I was more steady. I guess all of these fits and spurts could be considered a unified method.
9. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?
I own three pairs of high-waisted skinny jeans with zippers on the cuff. They’re the only kind of pants I wear. I think the high waist emphasizes the curved line from my ribs to my backside better than low-sitting jeans. Now they all have holes on the inner thighs
from walking, holes I’ve tried to patch many times.
Also, half of my clothes are enormous long sleeved button-up shirts.
12. Can you say a bit about how your mother’s body and style has been passed down to you, or not?
My mother was the only other woman in the house growing up, and had no particular fondness for beauty and fashion. Though she had a naturally lovely face and a better than average body for her age, she wore practical, unrevealing clothes, and discouraged me from wearing mascara and dark lipstick she occasionally wore for work or church.
I think I inherited her fondness for browns. Especially brown-ish lipstick. I still wear the old blazers she wore back in the late 70’s, when she was becoming a CPA. She wasn’t always as conservative as she was when I was growing up, and I often wish I could have seen her then. The only remnant of that time I found was a open necked, white, embroidered cotton blouse from Mexico that she got on her honeymoon. She gave it to me when I was 18, on my way to college, and I wore it out.
She is very short, so we don’t have have similar body types. I have her eyes, her nose, her smile, and her thick hair. As for the rest of it, it appears I got the neck down from my dad and his sisters.
13. Have you stolen, borrowed or adapted any dressing ideas or actual items from friends or family?
My grandmother, First Lady of Kansas in the 1960’s, whose Jackie-O pencil skirts, long necklaces, silk caftan, and deep red, triangular, faux fur-hooded coat I have taken from her closet. My friend Lucy. You wouldn’t know Lucy, but if you saw how effectively she interprets 90’s crop tops and platforms, you would know what I mean. She also got me into wearing flow-y, transparent stuff long before it was everywhere.
I also stole both of my college roommates’ clothes all the time. They couldn’t be more different than me--one is very boutique-y with high heels and flouncy skirts, the other is a Vermont hippie--but I couldn’t help it. It made me feel closer to them, and allowed me to draw from their confidence, especially with their more form fitting
This is me in Emma’s sparkly dress at a David Bowie party our junior year. Emma’s next to me, in the pink wig. As you can see, she is more bold than I. I was feeling a little stiff and self-conscious in the dress, and
really only did the twist the whole time. But it was a big step. This is me in Mandy’s pink, flow-y, form-fitting dress. Looking back, I’m like, damn! Why didn’t I wear stuff like that all the time? But I didn’t.
Mandy is the one in the refrigerator with the tattoo. It
was her birthday that night, so I wanted to be fancy. We went to a strip club called “Gentleman’s Choice.” Emma ended up crying in the bathroom there, and we got kicked out.
Also, you can see how very little attention and care I give my hair. The whole back of my head was covered in dreds by the end of the year, because I was having sex a lot and I never brushed it. I had constant sex hair. I had sex hair so bad, that when I finally went to the salon, the stylist’s brush couldn’t even get through the strands. They had to chop it all off.
14. Was there a point in your life when your style changed dramatically? What happened?
For the first eighteen years of my life, I put clothes on my body that were made to sweat in, and to disguise any sensitive parts of me that couldn’t get pushed or scuffed on the basketball court. I understood anything than other jeans and t-shirts as an empty pastime for girly-girls, and a sign of mental weakness.
And yet, I wanted the same things as any teen girl. I had a boyfriend, I had been to prom, and I had squeezed into sparkly or form-fitting clothes for one or two nights at time, but I always felt I was playing dress-up. I think my initial approach to fashion could be summed up in what my brother said the first time I tried to do my nails: “It looks someone tried to paint a shed pink.”
Everything changed when I left Topeka for the first time, at 18. As I started to consider Minnesota my home, my politics began to shift. I realized that I was a feminist, and that gender and all the practices that went with it didn’t exist on either side of a thick wall.
My exposure to art expanded. I began to understand the origin of representation, and was introduced to women who fought against the norm by using their bodies as art. I remember sitting in a stadium-like, dark room, watching a slide show on the first day of ‘Feminist Art History.’ Berthe Merisot. Frida Kahlo. Maya Deren. Marina Abravomic.
They were women, they were so very adorned or naked, or conventionally beautiful or not, and all of them were strong and smart, just like I wanted to be. I re-examined everything I thought was for ‘girly-girls,’ or girls like me, or men, because everything had been shook up around me.
I quit playing basketball to concentrate on school and let’s face it, to go to parties, and suddenly there was no longer a practical place for cotton t-shirts and tennis shoes, and there were so many places for skirts and low cut tops. Like basements, and lofted beds. It wasn’t quite me, and it still isn’t, but I was ready to experiment. I saw the way my friends made rituals out of putting on clothes before we went out at night, and I wanted to be a part of it, to make up for the years of practice I had missed. I started wearing mascara, wearing dresses and tights when the weather was nice enough, and, hell, I even painted my nails. It was a different road from then on.
Though I’m still most inspired by ‘menswear,’ I think the best part of this transformation is that I was able to find a way to show my body as a woman’s body, and to love it for it’s womanliness. I now pay close attention and become inspired by the way all my fellow women present themselves, because I realize no matter how they do it (‘girly’ or not), it’s important.
Me at fifteen, wearing a t-shirt I made (as a tribute to
Britain)? This was my idea of dressed up. We were at Panera Bread for my friend Elise’s birthday. Most of our wardrobe consisted of t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with sports teams’ logos, or fictional businesses, like “Larry’s Ski Lodge.”
Then here’s me six years later, my senior year of college. To go back to the timeline of the whole thing:
First, basketball clothes. Complete disconnect with whatever was under them.
Second, sex hair. Wearing my roommates’ clothes and trying to find validation through many men and how often I could get them to bed. Minimal connection, but at least there were attempts.
Third (and final?) stage, wearing a
spandex catsuit in the middle of the woods
at a writer’s retreat.
16. Please describe your body.
I’m 5’10” and some change. I wear D-cup bra and somewhere between a size 10 and size 12 in jeans. My height is mostly in the legs, which are comprised of hamhock thighs and long, thin calves. My stomach is fortunately stretched flat, but not fatless. My formerly
muscular arms have sort of atrophied into enormous, plantain-shaped things, with wiry, veiny forearms. I have what could be classified as a bubble butt. In high school, they used to call me “crescent moon.”
19. What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?
I’m wearing a long, flow-y, dark blue dress from Goodwill whose straps I sewed into a razor back so I could wear it with a sports bra. I’m also wearing my Roberto Bolaño jean jacket. My hair, still a little damp, is clumped up on the top of my head in some sort of formation. The bun sort of leaning to the side now.
20. In what way is this stuff important, if at all?
From the moment we begin to perceive the world, we are told that the way present our bodies is who we are. No matter how much or how little each individual is conscious of style, these concepts fuel, comprise, and code every aspect of society. Every action committed by the human body is a performance of identity, and clothes are our costumes.
21. With whom do you talk about clothes?
With other women, whether they are best friends or strangers. I especially love complimenting women I don’t know on their style. I feel an immediate bond if they
respond with the story behind their clothes or shoes, because most of the clothes that strike me have one.
23. Do you think you have taste or style? Which one is more important? What do these words mean to you?
I think I have both. No, rather, I don’t think anyone has them. People talk to taste. They talk to style. They are words that mean ever-morphing things that people jump in and out of, like a pond that swells and dries.
Taste is not a fixed standard, it is a gathering of ‘cultural capital,’ or knowledge about a particular type of representation. And, like any currency, different types of knowledge have different values in different places.
The values associated with ‘taste’ can change as rapidly as crossing a state line or entering a different room of a house. There is no universal ‘good taste’ or ‘bad taste.’ There are only tiny conversations among persuasive people, and those conversations spread to other, larger groups, and then pictures are taken and pasted everywhere. That’s where taste comes from, but first, the persuasive people have to have something to talk about. That’s where, I think, style comes in.
Like taste, style is not universal. Whereas ‘taste’ is the outcome of conversations, I think ‘style’ is conversation. Like a sentence, style is the act of piecing together existing forms to say something more engaging than if the forms existed by themselves. Like pants, for example. A pair of jeans. They can exist on their own, but they begin to say something different when they are paired with a blouse. Then, they say something different from when they are paired with a blouse than if they are paired with a plaid jacket. Once assembled--let’s say we picked the blouse--the statements change once again depending if the wearer is at an Applebee’s in Topeka, or at an art auction on the Upper East Side of New York. The difference between their statements, in their
outcomes, in the thoughts that occur in the heads of people who look at them--all of it is ‘style.’ Everyone has it, but not everyone gets noticed for their choices. Those that do get noticed are the ones who make choices that are distinctive from those around them, no matter who they are, where they got their clothes, or how much they paid for them.
Then, as I said, the persuasive people having tiny conversations try to point to one set of choices and say ‘good,’ and the other, ‘bad.’ Because they are persuasive, because they have enough ‘cultural capital’ (and real capital for that matter) to distribute their ideas widely, we decide what they say is law.
I would like to be a person that talks about ‘a style.’ Where it comes from, who wore it and for what reason, and why people are having a conversation about it in the first place. Then, I would like to decide whether or not I like it, based on my own little pond of cultural knowledge. That, then, would be ‘a taste.’ My taste. Is it ever truly mine, or just ideas I have absorbed from all those trying to persuade me? Either way, it shouldn’t
take the fun out of picking out an outfit.
24. Do you remember the biggest waste of money you ever made on an item of clothing?
A gray beach cover-up from Free People. I don’t remember what I paid, but it was too much. More than a week’s worth of groceries. It was the only thing I could afford from this little boutique when I first moved Brooklyn, but the thing is, I never go to the beach. I only bought it because I was feeling insecure.
25. Are there any dressing tricks you’ve invented or learned that make you feel like you’re getting away with something?
I wear a lot of black so I don’t have to do laundry.
26. Do you have style in any areas of your life aside from fashion?
I’d like to think my prose has a similar style to my fashion: basic, without many embellishments, and often a clear homage to those who came before me. I also pride myself on my sense of rhythm, both on the page and, ahem, on the dance floor.
27. Can you recall some times when you have dressed a particular way to calm yourself or gain a sense of control over a situation that scared you?
In certain neighborhoods, it’s common practice to yell at women on the street. My ass, as I’ve mentioned, has a life of its own, as well as a peculiar relationship with men who yell at women. My ass calls to them, apparently. It has parties with them while I am just trying to walk. My first (and only) year in Brooklyn, living in Prospect Heights, I found it easier to walk unnoticed when I wore the same white, stained baggy sweater that belonged to my older brother, and some men’s jeans on sale on Target. It just wasn’t worth the catcalling to get gussied up. If I really needed to, I would bring a change of clothes in my bag; probably some gray tights, this black, 90’s looking floral dress, and busted leather riding boots with tall socks. Then, I would change in the bathroom of Under St. Mark’s or Union Hall or Soda Bar while taking sips of cheap gin that I had put in a Sprite bottle so I didn’t have pay for drinks.
Also: when I was going to meet with the aforementioned ex-boyfriend for the first time since we broke up, I wore the combat boots. I also wore the shortest dress I could find, hole-y tights, and over the top of it all, I wore a huge, baggy camouflage jacket. I dressed this way to so I would appear like I didn’t give a shit; untouched, unfeeling, machine-like. In my mind, at least, it worked.
37. What is your process getting dressed in the morning? What are you considering?
Lately I’ve had to consider how to appear professional enough to be taken seriously in a classroom full of undergraduate students who are only a few years younger than me, but remain true to myself, to feel my age and present my body as such. It’s been hard to do all this while wearing enormous black combat boots. I’ve been too broke to replace the high-heeled boots I wore out by walking, and I have to wear some sort of boot because it’s cold and wet in Minnesota most of the time. I found them in the hallway of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment building. I’ve come to hate these boots
because they seem to make everything look sort of hostile and confused, and they have many memories attached to them, but they were free and they look shiny and clean. I try to lighten them up with tights and dresses and blazers and some sort of lipstick.
40. If you had to wear a “uniform” what would it look like?
What? Awesome. I totally anticipated this
question. As I said earlier, my oversized
chiffon button-up, and black, high-waisted
pants. And ankle boots with chunky heels.
This is me in London visiting Mandy last year,
wearing my uniform of choice.
42. What is your cultural background and how has that influenced how you dress?
Topeka, Kansas is a socially and religiously conservative city. It is, for the most part, racially and economically segregated. I grew up in a religious, white, middle class family, but I also lived in the middle of the city, near downtown, where people from every creed, color, and income level lived in a few square miles. In the summers I was kicked out of the house until dinner time and allowed to roam free. Because I liked playing sports and had two brothers, most of my companions were boys, and many of them couldn’t afford new clothes all the time. I didn’t want to be a boy, but I wanted to be included, so I wore what they wore. I wore t-shirts I had gotten free from basketball camp, shorts that went down to my knees, and my brother’s hand-me-down tennis shoes.
When I got older (around middle school age) I resented
my God-fearing, frugal parents for buying me second hand, frumpy clothes. Because my mother wouldn’t allow me to wear short shorts and tank tops, even when I was a little girl, I was uncomfortable and
disconnected with my body. Many of the clothes I seek out now try to both acknowledge and move away from that time. But I’m grateful for it. When I complained, my mother always asked me if that’s what I wanted to be known for, my clothes, and the answer was always no, no matter how upset or alienated I felt. Now, though I’ve learned to appreciate their art, I do not really seek out designers or name brands (aside from, you know, some Chloe perfume).
While I’ve learned how important it is to me to present myself well and feel attractive, I’ve also learned to be resourceful and creative with what I can afford. The less I spend on clothes, the more I can spend on the places I wear those clothes. I get compliments on my dresses from Goodwill all the time, so in the end, it all works out.
52. Do you consider yourself photogenic?
53. When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?
The answer to this question has changed often and in dramatic shots upward and downward over my lifespan, especially in relation to the volume of photographs of me that now appear. Photographs have come to be, like, 50% of the American young person’s personhood, myself included. When this first happened, I dove deeply from narcissistic pleasure into pure disgust, to the point of trying to change (read: harm) my body in order to appear the way I wanted it to in photos. My first year of college was the first I had Facebook, and I remember seeing for the first time an visible shift in my body, the way many women’s bodies do under that kind of stress, lifestyle, etc. More than I remember my reaction to the photos, I remember all that surrounded them: the
dread and self-loathing that occurred when a camera was pointed at me, the resolution to appear different in the next one that was taken, wishing briefly to slice off protruding parts with a knife.
I can’t say I have completely eradicated those thoughts, but they are no longer dominant. I have begun to savor photographs for their value as historical objects rather
than efforts to capture whatever amount of standardized female beauty I possess. I think, “What was I doing? I was having a pretty good time. It shows.”
54. Are there any figures from culture, past or present, whose style you admire or have drawn from?
Patti Smith--her simple button downs, menswear, and boots. Ruth Morley's costume designs--tailored, all American, neutral colors.
56. What would be a difficult or uncomfortable look for you to try and achieve?
I’ve never felt at home in bold patterns and lots of jewelry and scarves and hats and things like that. Eclectic doesn’t work for me. More than one ‘statement’ accessory doesn’t work for me, either. I think the whole thing is lost on my somewhat masculine features.
61. What are some things you need to do to your body or clothes in order to feel presentable?
I like to emphasize what I like about my body more in an outline rather than showing skin. I button up my shirts all the way and tuck them into high-waisted pants. If I’m wearing something tight or revealing on the upper half, I wear something loose or flowy on the bottom, and vice versa.
I inherited my father’s thick, long eyebrows, so I have to tame them pretty regularly
with a tweezer.
Last but not least, a spritz of Chloe perfume.
64. Can you describe in a basic way what you own, clothing and jewelry-wise?
Mostly second-hand, mostly unisex, solid colors. Two or three maxi-dresses. Two or three long-chained necklaces. I have many shades of dark lipstick, clunky high heels, and those damned combat boots.
65. What is your favorite piece of clothing or jewelry that you own?
1. A chiffon over-sized button-up, colored ‘maiz’. I would make it and black high-waisted pants into my life uniform, if that kind of thing were more socially acceptable.
2. The jean jacket I bought in Berlin after I finished reading The Savage Detectives. I call it my Roberto Bolaño jean jacket.
71. What’s the first “investment” item you bought? Do you still own or wear it?
The chiffon shirt, actually. Rarely would I pay $58 for a goddamn shirt. But for some reason it called out to me, and considering I wear it probably twice a week, it has
outlived its worth tenfold.
79. How does how you dress play into your ambitions for yourself?
As I’ve said, I wear a lot of black. I get some flack from my lady friends for this choice, but I tell them I’m not doing it to make myself look “serious and dark.” I think I like black (other than easier laundry) because it’s a blank canvas. It can stand out or blend in whenever it wants to, and in my world, gives me confidence to talk to anyone I want in any way I want.
For example, I spend a lot of time at readings in bars. In the same black dress in one night, I can give a reading and appear put-together to everyone, professional with people who could throw freelance jobs my way, flirting, decidedly unsexy to shoot the shit with my peers, and then, best of all, completely disappear into the background and listen to strung-out regulars and bartenders for dialogue.
What’s your birth date? Where were you born and where do you live now?
June 14th, 1988; Topeka, KS; Minneapolis, MN
What kind of work do you do?
I am a writer, and when I filled this out I was a visiting Creative Writing instructor at a college. Now I do a lot of odd jobs.
Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?
I am single. I have no near future plans to change that, or to have children.
Please say anything you like about yourself that might put this survey into some sort of context.
As I filled this out, I tried to stay away from self-pity, but still remain truthful to how completely out of sorts I felt with my body most of my life. I could probably expand every sentence I wrote here into a sweaty, desperate moment.
To top it all off, my body wasn’t even that successful as this so-called basketball machine. I wasn’t even that good at basketball! I was just really lost most of the time.
Clothes helped me connect my brain with my body. I bet they do that for a lot of women. I think of the philosophical theory of Descartian dualism; the spiritual, sort of dated idea that the body and the soul are separate. Descartes said the body acts through a series of volitions sent from the soul, and meanwhile the soul just floats there above your shoulders like balloon. But how do the volitions reach the body? How are we supposed to carry out the soul’s desires? The answer: volitions are sent through what Descartes called the ‘pineal gland,’ this supernatural string attached to the soul, implanted in your brain.
I still wake up everyday a little dissociative--because of my childhood, sure, but also because of the visible difference between my body and the onslaught of images of what a woman’s body ‘should be.’ And then, I put on my uniform. I put on my costume, and I feel ready and whole. Clothes, in that way, are my ‘pineal gland.’ They carry the messages from my soul (whatever that is) to my body. But they are more than a connector; they are a unifier, a glue. I pick them and tell them how to work for me, but there’s the feeling that they pick me, too, an element of the supernatural, outfitting me to fulfill some secret volition towards which I move closer and closer every day.
After all, I’m turning 25 in two weeks. I’ll be a quarter-century woman, and I already know what I’m going to wear.
[I was 24 when I filled this out. I'm 26 now. Not much has changed. I'm a little calmer, I think.]
Lara Avery is a two-time novelist, as well as an editor and regular contributor at Revolver. She lives in Minneapolis, MN.