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Stephanie Palumbo

1. When do you feel at your most attractive?

When I’m happy. When I feel happy or capable or strong, I seem to like aspects of the way I look, or at least feel like I’m projecting something pleasant, appearance-wise, into the world. At the same time, I can fix my hair and put makeup on but still look awful if I’m feeling tired, sad, lonely, angry, agitated, listless, etc. But if I’m happy, then I think I look good even if my hair is crazy and I’m wearing pajamas. I think it’s something in my eyes that conveys it – not my eyes themselves but the look behind them, what they’re communicating. When I’m happy, I think they relay some sort of confidence that transforms my appearance into something pleasing.

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

I don’t know if I have rules, really. I guess I do, but I never think of them in explicit terms. I won’t wear anything that’s really uncomfortable - it’s just not worth it to me. And I don’t think people look good when they wear things that they’re not physically or mentally comfortable wearing. You can always tell when the clothes are wearing the person. And I don’t wear heels unless absolutely necessary. I think I look better in flats than awkwardly limping around in heels. Plus I feel like heels are kind of an oppressive symbol. I’m probably being hypocritical here because I wear makeup and like nice clothes, but not wearing heels is my mini-rebellion. I wore sneakers to my high school graduation and thought that was very defiant at the time.

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

In 1997, when I was about thirteen, I created a fan website for this band I liked. The internet wasn’t what it is today, so the website was kind of a novelty for the band, and the drummer befriended me and was a great mentor. I wore really baggy jeans – like, really, really baggy – and oversized Nirvana t-shirts every day, because I thought only superficial people wore nice clothes. My clothes were supposed to signify my values and independent spirit, but I think all they really signified was that I was depressed and angry. Anyway, I remember being struck that the woman in this band that I liked dressed in a feminine way but was still really cool. They played at CBGB when I was fourteen or fifteen, and I had a conversation with her about clothes while sitting at the bar. She suggested that I might consider wearing more flattering clothes. It was a big turning point for me, realizing that my outer appearance didn’t have to reflect my inner angst, that I could take pride in how I looked, that I should probably look a little deeper than clothes when judging a person’s values… though I did (and still do) think that the clothes you buy or brands you display often do have at least some kind of association with your values.

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

I took my mom’s Bruce Springsteen tour shirts from the late 70s/early 80s, and an old Les Mis t-shirt she had when I was growing up. I wear it to bed now and it’s so soft and feels luxurious, even though it’s practically worn through – which I’m nervous about, actually. I took a couple other shirts from her, but she didn’t save most of her other old clothes. I kept my dad’s baseball shirts but I don’t wear them. I don’t have any siblings, and I haven’t really taken any clothes from my friends. I did borrow a gray cropped mohair sweater from my friend Allison when we were about 9, and I remember feeling so good in it - it seemed like the pinnacle of fashion at the time - but I gave it back.

16. Please describe your body.

I have nice wrists.

18. Please describe your emotions.

I wish I was in better control of them, but I’m learning.

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

A summery dress from H&M – black with white confetti dots. My hair is curly and messy. No makeup.

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

I think it’s important to at least try to analyze why we do the things we do, to understand the hidden cultural and political messages that inform these decisions and what we communicate through them.

23. Do you think you have taste or style? Which one is more important? What do these words mean to you?

I’m not sure that I have either! I have my own taste, I suppose. I don’t know that it’s good taste, or that there is such a thing as objectively good or bad taste. I think I have a style, in that if you look at what I wear, you can see a pattern or some consistency of styles, colors, etc. But I don’t know that I have style in general – I don’t think I have a great eye, and I certainly can’t match outfits together. I never know how to match a skirt and top, or shirt and sweater. I think some people just have a good eye for pairing colors or patterns or types of material; maybe that comes with time and practice. But I just sort of respond to what I find aesthetically pleasing.

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

It depends on where I’m going. If I’m going to work, then I’m trying to appear competent and professional. But I still want to be true to myself, which I think means wearing clothes that are comfortable, feminine, flattering to my body type, and somehow representative of being different than the mainstream but not strikingly so.

42. What is your cultural background and how has that influenced how you dress?

Three-quarters Italian and a quarter Jewish, but I’m much more connected to my Jewish heritage, probably because I’m very close with my grandma. I don’t think my ethnicity influenced how I dress, but I think growing up lower-middle class did. We didn’t have much money to spend on clothes, and as I got older, I consciously rejected clothes that rich people would wear – the kind of stuff you’d imagine on the tennis court or whatever. And I still think that way, though at times I can be seduced by the power of how expensive clothes can make me feel and the fantasy I can construct around them. The fantasy isn't being able to buy or wear expensive clothes - it's being able to afford them, or anything. The fantasy is financial freedom.

52. Do you consider yourself photogenic?

No. There have even been instances where I've seen a picture of myself looking bad in a certain outfit, and then I won’t want to wear those clothes again, even if I previously liked the way they looked in person.

56. What would be a difficult or uncomfortable look for you to try and achieve?

Anything edgy. I just feel like who I am as a person is incompatible with being edgy. I try to be kind and sincere, and I feel like being edgy often involves being aloof and cold. Sometimes I see people wearing clothes that I love, but I know I couldn’t pull them off – I would be trying too hard, and part of the power of the edgy look is not giving a fuck. But then of course, most of those people are trying to appear that way - it's performative, a conscious decision - and underneath the cool exterior, they give just as much of a fuck as I do. So who knows. (Side note: I've used the word "edgy" so much in this answer that it no longer sounds like a word to me.)

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

Jewelry – possibly the ring my great-grandfather gave to my grandmother, with her initials etched on the surface. He was killed in the Holocaust, but she survived, and we are very, very, insanely close. She gave me the ring last year, and I’ve been wearing it every day. I also love a necklace my boyfriend gave me of a key, because he read that Paul Simonon wears a key around his neck while on tour so he never feels far from home, and earrings my mom gave me in the shape of a Sierpinski Gasket, the structure for my favorite book, Infinite Jest. I also love this ring I bought shaped like Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. Clothing – Possibly my mom's old Les Mis t-shirt, because I have an emotional attachment to it. I have tons of old clothes saved because of emotional attachment. Even though I don’t wear them anymore, I just like to know that they're still with me. If I decide to get rid of something that I once loved or reminds me of a particular moment in my life (even a bad one!), I take a photo of it, so I’ll at least have a record that it existed.

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

I moved into the city and started working full-time right after my first year in college, and I was trying to navigate being an adult and budgeting so I could pay my rent and bills, even though I wasn't really mature enough yet. Anyway, I tried on these high-waisted overalls in an expensive boutique, and they fit so well. They cost, like, three or four hundred dollars, but I bought them anyway. As soon as I left the store - like, right there on the street in font of the store window - I burst into tears. I felt like I had acted selfishly and failed at being a responsible adult. After that, I was more conscientious about spending money on clothes.

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

I have a narrow closet that doesn’t fit too much, so I keep most of my clothes in an old dental cabinet that I bought at an antique store for pretty cheap. I try to keep things organized by color but that really only lasts for about a week or two after I organize my closet, which only happens once a year.

77. How and when do you shop for clothes?

I shop infrequently. If I need something in particular, I’ll try to make a trip to a store, but that doesn't happen often. My favorite store is a dress shop a few blocks away from my apartment, and I’ve been going there for nearly a decade now. Their prices are expensive but getting a dress once or twice a year isn't unattainable. Then I get odds and ends along the way if I have time to kill or something in a store window catches my eye. I typically shop alone or with my mom because I’m slow and like to take my time and be deliberate, but I also really like people’s opinions – I distrust my own.

80. How does money fit into all this?

Someone gave my mom a gift certificate to Bloomingdale’s for $100, and she gave it to me, and I went to find something. I ended up in the Theory section and tried on about six or seven things that were way out of my price range, and I felt so good in all of them. I was ridiculously excited, to the point that I nearly felt like I was under the influence of some kind of drug. The dresses were nice, but I think the confidence and giddiness came from the price. Trying the dresses on as if I could buy them was like pretending I was a different person, or stepping into a different life - a life where I’d be rich enough to afford these clothes, a life where I wouldn’t lie awake at night worrying about money, a life where I could choose a career I loved instead of feeling trapped, a life where I could focus on my real priorities – spending time with family and friends; creative fulfillment; meaningful, impactful work – and have a big portion of my anxiety alleviated, almost instantly. That’s probably wishful thinking about being rich, but anyway. The confidence I felt while wearing the clothes and the fantasy I constructed around them that far surpassed the clothes themselves reminded me of that episode of Louie, when he goes to a beautiful brownstone in the city and wants to buy it but can’t afford it, and then just sits outside with his head in his hands. It's not the brownstone itself that's so alluring - it's everything the brownstone represents.

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 usually wear these kind of ugly but very comfortable black flats, though I think they’ve officially fallen apart.

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

September 15, 1984. I was born in New Jersey and live in Brooklyn.

What kind of work do you do?

Documentary film/TV producer / freelance writer

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

I've been with my boyfriend for nine years.

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

This isn't about me, but when I originally filled out this survey, I talked to my grandma about it. She said that when she was nine, before she fled Germany as a Holocaust refugee, her mother had a seamstress make her clothes, but the clothes only reflected her mother’s tastes, with none of my grandma’s input. One day, she was given a wine-colored skirt with a wine-colored bolero scalloped jacket and very pale pink scalloped shirt. And a wine-colored velvet hat. My grandma didn’t hate the clothes, but she hated the hat. So she refused to wear it. Her mother gave her such a beating that she peed in her pants – but she didn’t wear the hat. Her mother was kind of ahead of the curve with clothing – she got her a camel-hair coat one year and no one else had them, but the next year, everyone had them too, and my grandma did like that. But she felt it was worth that awful beating to avoid wearing that wine-colored velvet hat.


Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary film and television producer, a freelance writer, and a former assistant editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. She is currently conducting an interview series with writers who teach for The Believer. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and cat. You can find her work at or follow her @onetoughnun.

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