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Christen Clifford

1. When do you feel at your most attractive?

When I'm working. Or have just worked.

When I'm not depressed.

When I'm ovulating. Not sure if that is most attractive- but the most *wanting* to be attractive to someone, anyone, anything else.

2. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?

I admire beauty. Also crazy awesome outfits. I like to talk to strangers about their clothes. I ALWAYS tell strangers if they have lipstick on their teeth, or a dry cleaning tag on, or a kick pleat still sewn together.

I'm ashamed to admit that I give fashion advice to strangers in my head on the subway. Like I'll be thinking, "That shirt is cool, but I wish you'd worn your relaxed jeans instead of the super tight ones." Like I know!

3. What are some things you admire about how other women present themselves?

I have friends who always look slutty no matter what they are wearing, and friends who always look ladylike, no matter what they are wearing. I admire that their sense of self is so complete that clothes can’t change or influence that. They will probably know who they are and get mad at me.

4. Was there a moment in your life when something “clicked” for you about fashion or dressing or make-up or hair? What? Why did it happen then, do you think?

I did a reperformance/mash up of Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" : I made a 12 minute audio piece and the audience cut off all of my hair. It happened because I was now the mother to a daughter and needed to understand my femininity/feminism/femaleness in a different way.

5. What are some shopping rules you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others but which you follow?

Sample sales. I live in New York and I care about clothes. Why not spend $300 at a sample sale a few times a year instead of the same amount at a chain store? I do shop at H&M, and I feel bad. I wouldn't keep a brown child in my basement to make me cheap clothes, but that is basically what I am doing by shopping at H&M. I've probably personally killed 6 Bangladeshi boys. Fast fashion is killing people and fashion. I'm going to 90's minimalism again, and I think I'll probably stay in a version of that for the rest of my life.

Seinfeld made that joke that people stick with the clothes from "their last good year". That's why you see people stuck in the 80's or 90's. He'll be rocking those white sneakers til he dies.

Never shop at Forever 21. As Ed Park says, we need Forever 41.

6. What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn't necessarily recommend to others?

I read something in a fashion magazine that kind of worked for awhile, something like “Always wear a neutral, always wear something shiny or metallic, always wear something red, always wear something black." And when I actually follow this “rule” in general I feel put together. I don’t know that I really want to convey that to other women, but it was advice that somehow worked for me, and balanced out my clothes. Like that Coco Chanel, “Always take off one thing before leaving the house” advice never works for me- because I always have WAY to much shit on to make taking one thing off make much of a difference.

And then there is a part of me that says don’t buy into it! Just say NO. Say NO to unpaid labor of social and sexual capitol that you have to purchase at a store! Feminism and revolution will only happen when we reject our place in the superstructure of capitalist society.

7. What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?

My friend Cassy understands that fashion makes me feel very taken care of. She made me a silk blouse with a twist, from a complicated Rachel Comey pattern. Took me to Mood fabrics to pick out the fabric and everything. It made me feel very loved.

Cassy and I talk about fashion all the time. It's an ongoing transformative conversation.

Fashion makes me feel loved because it is about my mother, who was obese when I growing up. But she had been slim and beautiful as a young woman. She was a stewardess back in the days when they had to have specific measurements. Long story, she almost died from medication that was later taken off of the market, and was a part of a class action lawsuit and came into some money. She had raised 8 children in our small 4 bedroom house.

When she came into the money, I was in 7th grade. In 8th grade we moved into a bigger house. For a few months, almost every Friday she would take me shopping to LL Berger’s, the local fancy department store in Buffalo, NY. We shopped the sale racks, mostly. In the juniors department, I was all about Esprit. When I met my BFF Rachel in 7th grade, one of the first conversations we had we listed all of our Esprit clothes to each other.

My mom took me to the designer sale rack upstairs as well. Not just the regular grown up clothing, but serious designers, from the small room. Christian Dior, Norma Kamali, Flora Kung. This would have been maybe 1985. The rack was circular. Norma Kamali grey boxy sweatshirt fabric tops, with giant shoulder pads and tulip skirts in same fabric. A silk watermark Flora Kung dress, taupe and black wide stripes with red and blue patterns over that, and then the jacquard on the silk. A black wool Christian Dior circle skirt. Donna Karan wool bodysuits. This time with my mother was super important. She was reliving her lost beauty through me, I think.

And I can totally see doing this with my own daughter someday. I save clothes for her. A faded silk Diane Von Furstenberg from a sample sale that I was gorgeous in, in the 90's. I can't wait to see her in that someday. Maybe with combat boots or sneakers. I wore it for my 28th B-day party that I threw for myself at Galapagos in Williamsburg when I was first dating a writer/performer/cad that everyone in NY dated in the 90's and I remember sitting on his lap in that dress, his hands on my hip. “You’re not wearing any underwear.”

“Of course not,” I answered, thinking about panty lines. He thought it was for him.

On a tangent here.

My friend and colleague, the costume designer Melissa Schlachtmeyer, just died at 41, and I will miss the conversations we had about clothing. Tribalism, influences, politics, beauty, comfort, appropriateness- we saw everything through the lens of clothing. Those were really transformative conversations.

9. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?

Plain black underwear. I like it.

13. Have you stolen, borrowed or adapted any dressing ideas or actual items from friends or family?

I used to steal my friend Rachel's clothes. She knew it, but she hated it. When my mom got ill, I would spend a lot of time at Rachel's house. She had way more nice clothes than I did. She had these solid color 3/4 dolman sleeve T-shirts from Benetton in the late 80's, with a burnt out flowers pattern that I loved. One time, she came into the ballet dressing room while I was in ballet class and took her shirt back. She stole it back from me! I remember being livid, "How dare she! Now I have to wear my leotard on the bus home!" But she was clearly in the right.

In high school my friend E and I once went to a fancy local dept. store, and we stole tons of fancy underwear. We took tons into the dressing room and walked out wearing it all: pairs of silk panties, tap pants, bras, camisoles. Natori, Christian Dior, black silk. When I lost my virginity I wore this stuff. Ugh. I’d like to think he was impressed, but he probably didn’t even notice because he was about to get laid.

My friend Dana has amazing style and all the new clothes. She owns Shoemarket in Willamsburg, which is one of the best show stores in the city (not just me being her friend, they've won awards from NYMag and the Village Voice etc and were one of the first stores to carry Rachel Comey!). I have totally mimicked her style at different points. The long brown hair with layers and bangs in 2005. When she wore charms, I dug out my old charm bracelet. A few years later, leopard print pants, check. She had an arm party? Then every bracelet I own was on my wrists. But lately I feel like I’m doing my own thing.

14. Was there a point in your life when your style changed dramatically? What happened?

I moved to NY in 1989, went to Domseys (clothes by the pound in a warehouse near the Domino Sugar Factory) and bought a bunch of old 40’s housedresses. All of the sudden I just wore them all the time. With bustiers underneath. And orthopedic shoes. I was wearing the same clothes as my neighbors on Devoe Street, except I was 17.

15. Is there anything political about the way you dress?


16. Please describe your body.

Twenty pounds too heavy. Most people would say I look good. But I am not quite thin enough to look good in my clothes, so I want to lose a little. I go up and down. I'm 43 now, so some of it is perimenopause hormonal bullshit. I have a few things I don't fit into right now which pisses me off.

However, my body is awesome. I'm a strong, swam around Governor's Island and under the Brooklyn Bridge, birthed 2 children vaginally (one at home), breastfed for 4 years total.

17. Please describe your mind.

Ha! Hilarious question.

18. Please describe your emotions.

Again, you with the crazy questions! I feel great when I’m ovulating, super sexy and attractive, and then want to go all Medea on the day before I bleed. I have a great life even with myNone of your beeswax. issues. I tell my kids, “Mommy is crazy in a good way.”

19. What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?

None of your beeswax.

20. In what way is this stuff important, if at all?

It's completely totally important. Not like world peace or the environment, but it's a way of expression of an inner life for some people. Not all, but some.

For some it is their art, their creativity.

Pat Olesko makes wearable political art.

I do sometimes realize, wow, this shit is nothing.

But fashion really can be an artistic expression, and it can be a shorthand for something- like the records in that movie where John Cusack makes those lists and its based on that Nick Hornby novel.

It's a shorthand for- who do you want to be, how do you present yourself- like the ickiest kind of of branding. One person will mock someone who wears all Gucci labels, but it's the same as knowing Suno, Acne, APC, or Tsumori Chisato. (These references already seem dated from when I filled out this survey last summer!) You identify your tribe. Or not- see "normcore" and coziness.

There is an unending cost/benefit analysis of belonging to a tribe, or not.

25. Are there any dressing tricks you’ve invented or learned that make you feel like you’re getting away with something?

A blazer makes me feel put together and ready to face the world even when I'm not.

But by "blazer" I mean Thyskens' Theory.

I have big black glasses and I don't have to wear eye makeup when I wear them because they frame my face. Just lipstick. I hide behind them.

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?

The first time I went to a sex party" I wore fishnets, with underwear OVER them so that my vagina was completely inaccessible to random people. It made me feel safer. I also wore motorcycle boots instead of heels. I needed to feel comfortable and powerful. Not too femme-y for me.

28. Would you say you “know what you like” in the area of fashion and clothing? If so, do you also know what you like in other areas of life, that is, are you generally good at discernment? Can you say where your discernment comes from, if you have it? Or if you don’t have it, why or why not?

I’m *usually* pretty good with clothes. At least I think I am. I am a good shopper. That makes me feel very materialistic. But I can go to a thrift shop and search by fabric first, then fit and find great stuff. Plus, I grew up, um, with only hand me downs for the first 12 years of my life, so I’m a bargain hunter.

Tailoring really works. You always read that in fashion magazines, but it’s true. Because it’s really just poorly fitting clothes that look bad. Everyone's body is beautiful.

I feel like I’m a good judge of character.

Of course this is all dependent. When I have been depressed, I have looked like shit, dressed like shit.

But usually, even when I’m depressed or sad or homicidal, I still look pretty good. Sometimes I feel like the more "put together" I am, the more I'm really falling apart.

The artifice saves me. If I feel like I look good, I can get through the day.

When I was recovering from postpartum depression, I had nothing else going on and I was super frustrated and I just decided that ALL I was going to do was try to look like a rock star. I got Debbie Harry hair from 1979 (platinum top, black ends) and paid a lot of attention to what I wore. It was a simple goal, and shallow, perhaps. But in terms of that “fake it til you make” philosophy, it worked.

29. Did your parents teach you things about clothing, care for your clothing, dressing or style? What lessons do you remember? Or did you just pick things up?

"You look like a slut." - my dad

30. What sorts of things do you do, clothing or make-up or hair- wise, to feel sexy or alluring?

Shave my legs but not my armpits. Very emollient natural cream, shea butter, for my legs. I order a big hunk of shea butter from Amazon, and mix it with a Lush perfume stick in Lust. It makes them soft and shiny. Lighter cream for my body. Brush my teeth. Black eyeliner, curled eyelashes (my mother did it, so I do, and my daughter probably will) and Maybelline Great Lash mascara. I sound like a beauty magazine.

Sometimes fancy black granny panties.

Sometimes a pair of Rodeo underwear with a built in harness for a silicone cock.

33. What is really beautiful, for you, in general?

Anyone naked.

I tell my kids, "Everyone is beautiful naked."

Anyone with self-confidence and a sense of being comfortable in their own skin.

Doesn't really matter what they are wearing.

I realize this goes against everything I have just written. Clothes are important but they don't really matter.

34. What do you consider very ugly?

Poorly fitting clothes.




37. What is your process getting dressed in the morning? What are you considering?

What I'm in the mood for.

More importantly what I am doing.

Am I teaching that day? Or staying home with the kids? Do I have an audition or studio visit? Am I performing later that night? Uptown or downtown? Do I want to look young and cool or mature and like I can be trusted?

I'm all over the place, and love it.

38. What are you trying to achieve when you dress?

Cover my flaws. Feel sexy. Feel good. Cover my ass, literally.

50. Do you ever wish you were a man or could dress like a man or had a man’s body? Was there ever a time in the past?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

My contribution to Women in Clothes is about this.

I have strapped down my small chest, worn T-shirts and jeans.

Dresses up as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Wanted to be Nick Cave.

I have recently started wearing a mustache. I bought it on a lark, but I love someone who looks neither male nor female. I like feminine men and masculine women. I had a huge crush on JD Samson, especially when I used to see her in a cafe on Graham Ave and my son was an infant. She would be all masculine and cool with her sexy mustache and I was all milky and leaking.

54. Are there any figures from culture, past or present, whose style you admire or have drawn from?

For a few years it was Lucy Sexton, which is kind of funny because I doubt she would consider herself someone that would be mentioned on a survey about clothing. She's a dancer and performance artist -DANCENOISE- I'm friends with and for a few years spent a lot of time with, and her pared down short hair inspired me. She lives in a commune in NYC and I had my postpartum depression and would go to parties at her house she would take my baby and I would get drunk and say I wanted to live with her, if anyone moved out I wanted to move in. And then when I got my hair short and blonde and was still saying this- it was a little like that movie "Single White Female.” I felt like such an asshole.

But she's someone who inspires me to live with love instead of fear.

Makes me think of Chrissie Hynde. "Gonna use my style, gonna use my sidestep." - I'm special, so special.

Debbie Harry. I loved Blondie, I loved how she looked. When I had my midlife crisis at 38, I decided what the fuck and dyed my hair to look like hers in 1978. Platimun on top, black ends. I went to Mudhoney in NY. But I couldn't keep it up. I wound up with my hair in a ponytail and lots of breakage.

I feel like every woman was influenced by Sex and the City and SJP in the 00's, whether they know it or not. If you were alive in those years you couldn’t escape from it.

55. Have you ever had a dream that involved clothes?


57. If you were totally comfortable with your body, or your body was a bit closer to what you wish it was like, what would you wear?

Slip dresses. They are a thing for the youthiness.

58. Is there anyone that you are trying to attract or repel when you dress?


60. What do you think of perfume? Do you wear it?

It usually sucks, but occasionally is amazing. I like to smell people's sweat, which also usually sucks, but occasionally is amazing.

61. What are some things you need to do to your body or clothes in order to feel presentable?

Be clean.

62. How does makeup fit into all this for you?

I tried to do the liquid liner again a few years ago, with the whole Amy Winehouse thing, and a friend was like, “I like your eyeliner! I like how you put it right between your wrinkles.” I have not worn liquid liner since.

PORE MINIMIZER, baby. After 38, with this new stuff, slap that silicone on. Benefit “The Porefessional.” Then a little concealer, mascara, MAC lip glass or Matte Nars Lip Pencil, in Dragon Lady. BB cream. That shit works.

Or, dark eyes, black eyeliner, sexy smoky eyes and nothing else.

63. Is there a certain look you feel you’re expected to like that you have absolutely no interest in? What is it? Why aren’t you interested?

Girly. I'm just not anymore. Girly, that is. No interest.

64. Can you describe in a basic way what you own, clothing and jewelry-wise?


65. What is your favorite piece of clothing or jewelry that you own?

My potato necklace.

67. Looking back at all your purchases over the past five to fifteen years, can you generalize about what sorts of things were the most valuable to buy?

Weird classics.

69. If you had to throw out all your clothes but keep one thing, what would you keep?


70. Building up your wardrobe from nothing, what would you do differently this time?


72. Was there ever an important or paradigm-shifting purchase in your life?

My mustache.

73. What item of clothing are you still (or have you forever been) on the hunt for?

Yves St. Laurent Le Smoking. Have been scouring consignment shops my entire life for one.

74. What are your closet and drawers like? Do you keep things neat, etc?

I have a small closet full to the brim. I also have two sections of a huge Ikea wardrobe. And a small wardrobe in the storage space in the basement of our apartment building for out of season clothes. Plus some things in plastic boxes with mothballs in them.

I want it to be more organized. I am putting things in deep storage for my kids.

75. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched you?

My partner gave me a pendant by the artist Jacqueline de Jong. She was one of the French Situationists in Paris in the 50's, hanging out with Guy Debord and that crew. My partner Ken interviewed her for a book he wrote, the Beach Beneath The Street. Now, she lives in the south of France, and grows potatoes in her garden. She then puts a stick through them, and dries them out, so they collapsing in on themselves and grow shoots and strange tentacles. Then she dips them in copper first, and then gold or platinum.

It looks like life and death, a skull and a continent, a root and a shining star. It is abject, elemental, rotting and luxurious.

And the fact that it was made by an older female artist- I am desperately trying to connect with feminism in many ways- and have so much to learn from other women, and one that he has a connection with as he wrote about her, and it all just came together as a perfect gift for me.

I felt understood. Like it’s fancy because it’s made of platinum, and it makes me feel worth it because it was expensive, and it is a root vegetable which connects to my love of nature.

I was like, dude, you don't need to get a present right for like 10 years after this one. It can just be books and dinners for awhile. It just felt like, "Oh, you *know* me." It’s perfect.

I LOVE it. My kids hate it because it pokes them. And I have to swing it behind my back in order to give anyone a proper hug. But it's perfect.

He gave it to me last year. We were in a hotel in Philadelphia, where we had gone for only our second mini vacation without our two kids. (9 and 4).

76. Did you ever buy an article of clothing without giving it much thought, only to have it prove much more valuable as time went on? What was the item and what happened?

At the Commes de Garcon Event- it wasn’t even called a sample sale because it was a "once in a lifetime" event- one that I brought my crawling baby to, and let her out of my sight on more than one occasion, and also lied to my friend about the reason I was so late to pick up my other child from her- I was in line, and already had $300 worth of clothes. The older women behind me had a crumply looking black skirt. “Where did you get that?” I asked, and she pointed to nearby pile. I picked it up and bought the same one, without trying it on. I usually try everything on. This skirt was $200, it would have been an expensive mistake. It has one side in black nylon, the other side is a deconstructed patchwork of neoprene, what they make wetsuits out of? But it looks pretty normal. It has an elastic waist. I wear it *all the time*. I can wear it with any top, a T-shirt or a nice sweater, and I always feel like I look kinda cool. Cuz, you know, it’s Commes des Fucking Garcons.

77. How and when do you shop for clothes?

Sample sales.

79. How does how you dress play into your ambitions for yourself?

I started buying more expensive weirdly classic clothes in the last few years. Commes de Garcons sample sales. Asymmetrical. Ageless. But then a friend was like, "You could still just be pretty for a few more years. You don't have to fall into that artsy lady style just yet." That depressed me.

I *am* an artist and performer and writer and professor. So I am trying to be a little more grown up.

80. How does money fit into all this?

When I was in my 20's, I would spend all my waitressing money. I would spend my whole paycheck on clothes. It's the only thing, other than rent, and food, that I know how to spend money on. My mom taught me how to shop for fashion, but not how to invest or save or anything else you can do with money.

I remember going to a furniture store in Williamsburg, Two Jakes, maybe, in the mid 90’s and I said, “Oh, I can’t afford that vintage filing cabinet” and the guy was like, “How much did that dress cost?” “$120, but I got it on sale.” “You won’t want to wear that dress in 2 years, but this filing cabinet you’ll have for the rest of your life.” But still, I never bought furniture until much much later.

81. Is there an article of clothing, a piece of make-up, or an accessory that you carry with you or wear every day?

I always have a bright lipstick- like Nars velvet matte lip in Dragon Girl- AND a light gloss -like Fresh Lip Sugar- with me, just in case. I don’t wear lipstick every day, but I always have it in case I need some Voom. I feel like a magazine.

82. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

“You’ve got kindof an Ann Magnuson thing going on, with the short hair and the glasses.”

"You look like Ellen Barkin/Meryl Streep/Tracy Ullman/Ellen Degeneres."

"Brown eyes. Mommy brown eyes."

“Goodnight, gentlemen.”

“I like your Rock n Roll thing. Really.”

“That’s handsome.”

“You look like a slut.”

“You are more beautiful now than you’ve ever been.”

"You're great looking!"

83. Do you remember the first time you were conscious of what you were wearing? Can you describe this moment and what it was about?

I was in my bedroom that I shared with my sister, in between the giant crib that I slept in and the little table next to her bed. A Barry Manilow song was on the clock radio and I was wearing jeans with an embroidered rainbow. The rainbow was in little rounded V open ended ovals of color all lined up in rows, what I now know is chain stitch. The chain stich rainbow went up one leg, around the back waist of the pants and down the other leg. I was in LOVE with these pants. I knew they were jeans, and that that were a different kind of pants from the stretchy polyester ones my mom wore.

What’s your birth date? 
Where were you born and where do you live now?

Born in Buffalo, NY. Youngest of eight children. Went to NYU for Undergrad Drama. Spent 15 years living in Williamsburg, 1989-2004. Live in Jackson Heights, Queens since 2004. My six-word memoir was “Arrived Manhattan. Partied Brooklyn. Settled Queens.”

Say anything you like about your cultural/ethnic/economic background.

Suburban white girl. Grew up poor, mom came into some money when I was in 7th grade. Scholarship girl. Russian, Polish, Irish. Desperately seeking the comforts of the bourgeoisie.

What kind of work do you do?

Performance artist, professor, curator, writer, actor, mother.

Have been waitress, bartender, life model, model, perfume girl, producer, salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret.

Wow I just realized how “girlie” my jobs sound.

One year as a National Editor at AOL/Digital Cities, during dot com boom of 90’s. Ha.

Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?

Married to partner. Two kids.

Please say anything you like about yourself that might put this survey into some sort of context.

I am 42, and have been home for almost 10 years as a mother, I didn’t plan on that, I had really bad postpartum depression the second time, I often feel like a failure, I’m neurotic, but I keep going.

I think most people aren’t that different from me.

How do you feel after filling out this survey?

I haven’t ever written directly about depression before, and I was surprised at how much of that came out when writing about what I wear. How I used beauty/fashion/clothing as palliative care.


Christen Clifford is an artist and performer and writer. She curates Experiments and Disorders at Dixon Place and teaches in Theatre and Performance at SUNY Purchase. Her solo show about maternal sexuality, BabyLove, was a Critic’s Pick in TimeOut NY and New York Magazine, and is included in The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art (Demeter Press) and Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions at CalArts. Grants and awards include a NYFA Fellowship and Brooklyn Council for the Arts. As an actor, she has performed at The Public Theatre, Joe’s Pub, LaMama, Classic Stage Company as well as on film and TV. She collaborates with artists Alix Pearlstien, Maria Hupfeild, and Douglas Davis. Her multimedia performance work has been presented at Panoply Performance Laboratory, Grace Exhibition Space, Fitness Center for Art and Tactics, AUNTSisdance, Postmasters Gallery and Dixon Place. She was the lead artist on No Wave Performance Task Force ‘s FEMINIST PUBLIC ACTION “We Wish Ana Mendieta Was Still Alive.” Her writing has appeared in Salon, Nerve, PuffHo, Smith Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and Truthdig. She has two children and is working on a long text piece about rape and death and forgiveness. @cd_clifford

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