honestly i’ve always been what obnoxious misogynistic people describe as a “girly girl” because my mother banned me from leaving the house without makeup when i turned 10 and raised me to take dressing well very seriously…for her it was cultural (being Southern) but it was also a class thing—she married down when she married my dad, and it was really important to her to convey to the general populace that she was still a “respectable lady”; she taught me to over-invest in clothing & accessories because even when people have no idea that the lights are off at home, they’ll think you are of a higher class than you are when they see you dressed well. hate on it as much as we like (and i do), dressing up (as in, dressing “stylishly” but also dressing UP a class than you are) gets you places—potential employers take you more seriously, you get treated better at school and at service institutions, and people who are higher up than you on the social ladder are more likely to befriend you (one of my mother’s cardinal rules: never underestimate the power of a friendship of convenience—social connections can get you almost anything if you work them right). i realize it sounds like some dumb period film about a poor servant girl working her way up the pyramid or whatever, but it’s the truth—people treat you better when you don’t have holes in your clothes and carry yourself well.
all that said, i was never particularly fashion-obsessed. that all changed when i started getting noticed in academia, because i realized that literally everyone was reading something into my body and my backstory. i’m one of those “underrepresented” students and i have a curvy figure, which pretty much sealed my fate. i’m “too hood for grad school” if i wear big earrings, i’m “militant” if i wear anything in a muted forest green, i’m a “drug dealer” if i wear nice jewelry, i’m “too rez for grad school” if i wear anything beaded, i’m “too sexy” if i wear anything fitted, i’m “too matronly” if i wear anything dowdy, i’m “lazy and unprofessional” if i wear loose-fitting comfortable clothes, etc etc etc. most of those are comments i’ve actually received. in the midst of all that, i’m also trying to find my way and assert my identity in what is a very hostile environment, where i see a lot of my “underrepresented” peers being swallowed up and spat back out into conveniently brown carbon copies of the same people that are attacking all of us. i’m determined to not let myself be a part of that, and i’m also trying to work thru all the internalized misogyny i learned as a child/young adult re: what a put-together woman is supposed to look like, as well as grow into myself and my own style.
it’s fucking exhausting.
so that’s how i got into fashion. i realized people are gonna read into me whatever the fuck they want, so i might as well wear what makes me feel happy and good about myself. i get nasty comments and harassment on the regular, but that’s just part of being me in this place, and i’m learning to be a bitch about it (in a good way). if you take a look around university campuses, you’ll see that overwhelmingly, the faculty of color (particularly women) are pretty much always dressed on point, and usually have managed to work in day-to-day stylistic elements that represent their cultural identity. so that’s who i’ve decided to take my cue from, and one of the major reasons why i love Native fashion so much—i feel like in order to just survive this institution and the soul-grinding that is being a Native woman in academia, i *have* to dress well for others, but i’m not gonna sacrifice my personal style or cultural heritage in the process. gross comments aside, i AM too militant, too sexy, too rez, for grad school, and i’m proud of it! :)
Freja Beha Erichsen by Tim Walker for VogueItia March 2010