One of the guest editors in our Youth Issue, Frankie Cosmos (aka Greta Kline), hosts a 'digital salon' and invites six people she's inspired by to chat about the roles beauty, style and gender play in their lives.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how and why fashion, style, and beauty play a role in my life. I think many people experience these things differently, and whether or not we think through them, there are reasons for our choices about how we present ourselves. I had never really thought much about how I dressed until very recently, when I started to feel like I should care more (or less?) about it. Being a performer has definitely had an effect on the way I view myself and my style, and I wanted to hear other people's experiences and ways of dealing with the concepts behind style and beauty. As a result, I decided to take the opportunity to invite a few interesting people with varying perspectives to discuss! -- Frankie Cosmos
Elaiza Santos is a musician and artist from Queens, NY, who can be heard in her solo project, 100%, as well as in the bands Crying and Real Life Buildings. Now delving into performance art, Elaiza's currently exploring YouTube and live performance “vlogs."
Michaelle Present is an artist, writer, and transfeminist from New York City. She is currently working on an exploration of "the body in potentia" through poetry, prose, and video in a project called "Spook Diary," which can be found at spookdiary.blogspot.com.
Originally born and raised in Cameroon, New York City-based Lætitia Tamko is a musician who performs under the name Vagabon and also plays guitar in the band Real Life Buildings. You can find her on Tumblr (vagabonpizzaparty), where she talks openly about appearances, performing, and thinking critically about social constructs.
Maya Laner is a musician and visual artist from Oakland, CA, who now lives in New York City. She makes music as True Blue and plays in the band Porches.
Max Chrysanthemum Jansons is a queer, trans 15-year-old musician and artist who recently penned a poignant post on Tumblr about the difficulties of not being able to express himself the way he wants to through fashion due to feeling like he needs to use clothing to present as male.
Lauren Martin is a brilliant textile designer, illustrator, animator, painter, musician, and more from New York City who also makes almost all of her own clothes. This May she will graduate from Fashion Institute of Technology and become a full-time member of the Frankie Cosmos band. Her work can be found at LaurenMartinNYC.com.
Some topics I sent to spark the conversation:
•How is fashion/beauty/personal style affected by expectations from the outside world? Is there a way to avoid these standards, or do we all participate?
•How is beauty defined for us, and how would one go about re-defining it (personally or on a broader scale)?
•When/why do we feel uncomfortable dressing the way we want to? Are there strategies to combat these feelings?
•Are women looked at differently from men in fields where physical beauty is maybe not relevant (e.g. making music)? Is physical presentation inherent in being a performer (does it have to be)?
•How do you "perform femininity," and how does that make you feel?
•Do you feel there are ways we can use classic women's styles as tools instead of barriers?
Here are some pieces of the conversation that ensued (ellipses mine):
Greta wears a jacket by Arthur Arbesser, a jumpsuit by Gian Kamal, pants by Giamba
Maya: I think that when people accept to wear any clothes, no matter what they are, they are participating in fashion/personal style. Whether they want to or not! I recently watched the Devil Wears Prada with my grandma and this one scene really hit this idea home to me. Anne Hathaway's frumpy character “Andy" who thinks fashion is DUMB scoffs at Meryl Streep's powerful bitchy fashion editor character “Miranda Priestly" when she is asked to choose between 2 ridiculous fashion-y belts that look almost exactly the same. Miranda Priestly whips around and rips Andy a new one by explaining that even though she thinks she is sooo above high fashion and has nothing to do with it, the fugly blue sweater she is wearing is actually a very specific shade of blue (cerulean) that was first popularized in high fashion by Oscar de La Renta, then a bunch of other designers started making clothes that color for their lines, then it fell out of vogue and trickled down into department stores all the way down to thrift stores, which is probably where Andy picked it up. Miranda sums it all up by saying “that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room." (The people in this room being fashion editors/ tastemakers.) It's a scary idea but I think it holds some truth. What do you guys think?
Max: Really good point! I definitely think everyone has a personal style, doesn't have to be expensive or whatever to look nice. And for whatever reason you choose to wear what you wear, whoever it's influenced by, it's all an important expression of style.
I have tons more to say relating to the same question: "How is fashion/beauty/personal style affected by expectations from the outside world? Is there a way to avoid these standards or do we all participate?" Personally, what I wear is extremely heavily influenced by standards of masculinity in everyday life because I'm transgender and the way people perceive me is very important for several reasons, sometimes including safety.
My gender is extremely fluid and complex, so I'll put this briefly. Even though I use traditionally male pronouns, I identify strongly with femininity. My personal style is not what others perceive to be masculine and because of that I'm misgendered constantly, which as you can probably imagine, makes me really uncomfortable. When I use a public men's restroom, I'm terrified even if there's only one other person in there. It's difficult for me to dress the way I want when people's narrow standards of what a boy looks like are forced on me. A lot of trans boys are like me, still dressing fem because most of the time it's how we were raised. Trans men aren't raised to be scared of femininity the way that people who are dmab (designated male at birth) are. Yet it's still expected that we conform to masculine standards or else we're not "really trans."
Masculinity is stupid, basically. What's even more stupid is that I feel obligated to conform to it even though I enjoy dressing feminine. Basically because of this I spend way too much money buying "guy clothes" because of my dysphoria. But I mean I still feel good wearing those clothes, I just feel more like myself when I dress more like my personality. Everything I wear, I wear for myself regardless of why. As for a way to avoid these standards, I doubt that I could dress the way I want and not be scrutinized for it, especially when using the bathroom and I know that I wouldn't feel good about myself with that going on. But it's not just trans people that experience this -- I think everyone experiences something like this. I can't tell you how many times, before my transition, where I splurged on a new shirt because I thought it would make me look more slim, or because a popular celebrity or idol wore it.
I was wondering what you all think about this, I'm sure there are certain standards that you feel you have to conform to, what with all of society's expectations.
Elaiza: At the end of the day, "successfully" expressing our [gender/sexual] identities through clothes shouldn't have to be a battle...Now, it's not so much in my interest these days to translate every part of myself at all times through fashion, especially if it means compromising my femininity!
Michaelle: I think the anxiety we have about how our style affects our ability to be recognized for "who we are" ties directly into the fact that fashion is always in the service of creating a certain world, with certain social actors. In regards to gender, for instance, fashion creates a common world of easily readable symbols, garments that communicate "who we are" ... however, in the eyes of Miranda Priestly, most of us aren't actually being "ourselves," rather we are using fashion to imitate masculine or feminine archetypes that we are told are necessary to follow if we want to exist in the world at all! … I think the question becomes, how do we establish a self-conscious, feminist relationship with these symbols that drains them of their ideological power, and create a world in which we NO LONGER BELIEVE that "style" says something about WHO you are, or what gender you are or are not.
Elaiza: Hm, the thing is that style can be empowering and fun to work with instead of underneath! Dressing up is like a non-verbal form of communication except sometimes there's a hiccup -- not in the expression, but in the interpretation! I'mma just share some words by Julia Serano cos this shit is so reassuring to read:
"Specific identities and bodies, and expressions of gender and sexuality, do not have any fixed values or meanings -- their meanings can vary from place to place, and from person to person...Some may assume that by wearing a dress I am signaling the fact that I am docile and demure, whereas I may personally feel defiant and badass when wearing a dress. In other words, the act of wearing a dress does not have any fixed or inherent meanings built into it -- like all aspects of sex, gender, and sexuality, it is essentially a blank screen that other people will often project their own values, meanings, and assumptions upon. It is one thing to acknowledge our own personal likes and dislikes, but that act becomes entitled and nonconsensual once we start believing that our own preferences represent fixed meanings or values that must hold true for all other people."
Lauren: I think that it is almost impossible to dress in a way that is not affected by the expectations of others. Humans are social animals, and clothing allows us to outwardly, without speaking, give an impression of who we are, which makes it easier to socialize and attract like-minded people. The same goes for beauty standards. Different features are considered attractive depending on the community you are in. Maybe this isn't true but I think that a part of our decision on how we want to groom ourselves is based on what we believe a potential mate would find desirable and what is considered attractive in the community that we want to be a part of. Although all of what I just said makes it seem that what we wear is a super important decision, really fashion and beauty are supposed to be fun! Dressing in a way that makes you happy is one of the joys of life. Everybody wear whatever you want!!
On a slightly different note -- I had a conversation with someone the other day about why making your own clothes is so liberating. One thing I noticed when I began sewing is that I had a lot more confidence in my body. Since I no longer have to shop, I don't pay attention to my number size or how my number size compares to others. What was once an obsession, is now something I never think about. Does anyone else think that in these days of more body acceptance, number sizes should be abolished altogether? What would be a good alternative to a number? Been thinking about this a lot!
Laetitia: It's hard for me to imagine how to change beauty standards on a broader scale. Speaking for myself, I'm well aware of being in a sub-culture bubble where people have access to language to talk radically about beauty. This isn't to say the sub-culture does not come with its own tropes that exclude so many. Redefining beauty standards for me comes from identifying with my culture. People are very complex, and despite what is considered most beautiful in America, the world is bigger than this place. So when I look in the mirror, I see my mom, I see my sister, I see every Cameroonian woman, I see every West African woman. I see features of history and culture on my body and my face and my skin and my entire sense of self. I'm comforted by my culture, and it makes me feel beautiful. I'm eager to know how you guys redefine beauty standards for yourself?
Lauren: I hope that with time I'll be able to look at myself with total acceptance, but as of yet I find that I do not view myself as beautiful. Of course, I am aware that beauty is in the eye of the beholder blah blah blah BUT I think that it takes an amount of maturity and life experience to look at yourself and truly SEE what you are and what you look like and to be happy with that. I can't help but want to look like everyone else but myself. How do I, and others in the same boat as me, go about finding the confidence to accept ourselves? How do I redefine beauty standards for myself when I'm not even sure what my definition of beauty is??? Ahh!
Laetitia: It is hard to be the question and the answer when it comes to confidence and beauty -- i.e "is this good?" "is this worthy?" and answering yourself "yes", "yes" -- but sometimes I'd say "you're full of shit, Lætitia." Haha if i answer myself does it count? But the truth is that it DOES count. And the days I answer "yes", I believe it to be true, and that energy transcends…
Michaelle: Maybe I'm just being way too pessimistic but beauty is something so outside of ourselves, so constructed by others, that I always feel that there is the risk that my "self-acceptance" is too reliant on a beauty/gender norm that is ultimately oppressive...I guess the question is, how can one be allowed to change one's self, or wear whatever they want, but also hold onto their self and love their self. If I look in the mirror, am I ever looking at myself as me? Or am I also looking at myself through the eyes of another?
"if i answer myself does it count?"-Laetitia (<3)
Elaiza: Regardless of how narrow our participation is in consuming mass media, that shit trickles down, and as Laetitia mentioned, countercultural groups are not immune from perpetuating the hierarchy of hotness ("hot priv" as my friends and i call it). So when certain bodies and certain expressions of gender and sexuality aren't "making the cut," the sentiment that they aren't worth loving or desiring or celebrating continues. That's part of the reason representation matters so damn much! If fewer depictions of ourselves exist, it's pretty rad to trudge on and make space for ourselves and how we choose to look in spite of that. In that way, style can become a threat to the digestible norm.
Maya: A question that I often puzzle over is “how does one determine if they are representing themselves authentically" (when it comes to personal style)? I totally agree with Lauren's assertion that it's impossible to dress in a way that is autonomous from the expectations/influence of others. I LOVE that she makes her own clothes as a form of liberation, and I am totally inspired to do the same!! Dressing is so hard when you're dealing with/thinking about other people seeing and judging you. Being uncomfortable with being seen can be one of the worst things. Especially because it's hard to escape. Because... your body exists!!
Splash photo: Greta wears a sweater by Zadig & Voltaire, a top by Rhoi, necklace and rings by Lady Grey
Stylist: Paul- Simon Djite
Hair by Mohan Jean Mary for Epiphany Artist Group, Inc.
Makeup by Camara Helps for Epiphany Artist Group, Inc.
Stylist Assistant: Cathleen Peters