Read Surveys (By Author)
1. When do you feel at your most attractive?
I used to have a gay roommate who loved to see me in my black lace bra and panties. He would say, “Ames, show me the blacks,” and I’d lift up my dress. “You’re gorgeous,” he’d say, and I knew that he meant it disinterestedly, as a matter of pure aesthetics.
22. How do institutions affect the way you dress?
One example. Before I left for Yale, a family friend gave me some pearl earrings, so that I would “fit in.” Nobody I knew had been to an Ivy League college and this was their idea of the Ivy League – women walking around in tailored clothing and pearls. What they didn’t realize was that many of these Yalies deliberately dressed down to conceal how rich their families were. Aside from a tiny, conservative, and mostly male Old Guard, hardly anyone Dressed Up or wore designer logos. Being rich was embarrassing. The women I hung out mostly wore old flannels and jeans, and I was always surprised to learn that their parents were oil executives or lawyers for tobacco companies.
26. Do you have style in any areas of your life aside from fashion?
From Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction”:
“The most important thing in life is style. That is, the style of one’s existence – the characteristic mode of one’s actions – is basically, ultimately what matters. For if man defines himself by doing, then style is doubly definitive because it describes the doing….Happiness is a learned condition. And since it is learned and self-generating, it does not depend upon external circumstances for its perpetuation. This throws a very ironic light on content. And underscores the primacy of style.”
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?
For a few weeks, when I first moved to New York as an adult, I had a terrible temp job at a real estate office, where I was completely invisible except to the openly sexist boss. I coped by adopting a fake persona. I wore ugly slacks and button-down shirts (“professional clothes” that my mom had forced me to accept as hand-me-downs from a friend of hers, in case I ever “needed to look professional for a job interview”) and I bought dorky non-corrective glasses for five dollars at CVS. I decided that if I looked not like “myself” but like an uninteresting temp, then it would be the uninteresting-temp-girl-character who did the job, not me. I felt I was putting one over on everybody.
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?
My mom’s idea of ideal little-girl style involved sashes, pinafores, and old-fashioned hats. Mine ran more towards neon leggings, clashing patterns (plaid! Zebra stripe!) and oversized T-shirts with giant multicolored animals on them. To her credit, she did not try to force anything on me, even when my choices might have reflected poorly on her (“Oh,” our neighbors would carefully say in the elevator, “I see she’s dressing herself.” “She sure is,” my mom would reply, and leave it at that.)
I came to appreciate my mother’s tolerance of my early sartorial choices more and more as I learned how she had grown up -- in the South, with the dictum “You can tell a lady by her hairbrush.” Though she escaped most of the trappings of her upbringing, she continued to carry the idea that it was some kind of moral failing to look slovenly. The idea was: it’s inconsiderate to dress sloppily, because it’s other people who have to look at you. One day, after a trip to an upstate New York K-Mart, I remember her turning to me and saying, quite seriously, “If you ever see me in a purple jumpsuit, please take me out back and shoot me because I have clearly lost my mind.”
31. Many people say they want to feel “comfortable,” or that they admire people who seem “confident.” What do these words really mean to you?
I think of what Barbara Kingsolver says in “Life Without Go Go Boots” - “Now, there is fashion, and there is style. The latter, I’ve found, will serve, and costs less. Style is mostly a matter of acting as if you know very well what you look like, thanks, and are just delighted about it.” Her definition of “style” is what I think of as “confidence.”
But I feel ambivalent about this kind of confidence. My former roommates and I had a refrain when we saw somebody particularly schlubby walk down the street – say, a person in an oversized T-shirt, cargo shorts and fanny pack: “Vanity/dignity. Vanity/dignity.”
75. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched you?
When I was working in Thailand, teaching English and Social Studies to Shan refugee women from Burma, my students invited me to an ethnic festival with them. I was concerned about dressing appropriately, but they told me not to worry, and one of them took my measurements. The day before the festival, a package arrived: a special outfit made for me by one of the girls’ mothers, who lived in a refugee camp. The skirt and shirt (longyi) were beautiful, and I was blown away by the gift, but the most touching part was that she’d sewn a zipper into the skirt. Longyi don’t have any kind of fastener; they’re held together by a process of folding and knotting that all Shan girls and women know how to do. She knew that as an American I was unschooled. I wore the outfit and did not have to worry once about my skirt falling down.
80. How does money fit into all this?
My parents were actors who then became a community college teacher and a social worker, so we never had tons of money, but we dressed like we had more than we did. Some of this happened through hand-me-downs from richer friends, or from sales at the outlet mall. Some of this happened with scarves.
What’s your birth date? Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, NYC and now I live in Brooklyn.
What kind of work do you do?
I am a writer and university teacher.
I am a fiction writer and educator living in Brooklyn, NY.