Talking Style

Still from "A Burning Hill" by Mitski.

I’m sitting down at breakfast with Mafalda von Alvensleben, BC ’22. I’d forgotten about this article until I saw her walk into the Branford dining hall. She was wearing a navy blue wrap-around dress, its shoulders a little puffy, in a fine, thick fabric; two necklaces; large earrings. The outfit looked like something that Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt, might wear.

Von Alvensleben’s grandmother used to take her mother out of school on occasion — she’d call the office and say the two of them had a very important appointment to attend, and they’d sneak out and go shopping together. It’s been a tradition for the women in her family to care about clothing, and when her mother moved to a big city — from the “German equivalent of the South” — she took advantage of this practice. “Through clothing, [my mother] was able to fake her way through the social structure in the city,” says Von Alvensleben. “She could look the part, so she was able to establish herself in that community and that world.”

What’s difficult about clothing is that one can’t “opt-out.” Perhaps, if we could, we’d all have more brainspace; we could be naked all the time or mindlessly wear a single uniform. But in our current world, even if you don’t spend time on it, every clothing choice is a form of communication. We can’t opt out from being seen. So why not use all the channels we possess to say who we are? “I think I feel warm and connected to my body when I’m able to create and share the image I had in my head to the outside of my body,” says Beatrice Greeson, a friend of mine from Washington, D.C. We used to work together at a vintage clothing store, where we would try on dresses from fifty or a hundred years ago, take pictures in them, and enjoy the feel of the fabric.

“The same way that you should be careful about the words that you choose, you should be careful about the clothes that you wear,” says Ismael Jamai Ait Hmitti, SY ’22. We talked about how men are not always asked to be so conscious of what they’re wearing. “You could just walk around in the street and get the same amount of respect [no matter what you wear],” he tells me. Hmitti believes that, as a result, fewer men choose to take control of this form of interaction. “Men are cut off from that form of communication,” Ismael says. We both agree it’s kind of sad: a missed opportunity to express oneself, to talk, and to listen.

Clothing can be a positive means of engagement with others, and a way to construct oneself. “I find a lot of joy in it all being a Costume!” Greeson wrote to me. But how people perceive others is heavily influenced by external, potentially harmful, structures. “So today I will wear my white button down / at least I can still be neat / walk out and be seen as clean,” sings Mitski in “A Burning Hill.” For Mitski, the white button-down is a way for her to limit the racialization of her body and existence. Clothing is also heavily gendered: “If women want to access power in, say, an office scenario, their options are often to either dress like a man, in a pantsuit, or dress like an ‘archetypal’ woman,’” says Rachel Calcott, BC ’22. Caring about what people think of us, and therefore editing our image through clothing, is often necessary in order to operate in certain spaces. For some, clothing loses the freedom of creativity and instead becomes camouflage.

Perhaps clothing, in its best form, can be a way to communicate with oneself. Nyeda Sam, PC ’22, is another woman who puts care and an enormous amount of creativity into what she wears, talked to me about her recent lingerie party. She played a lot of Solange Knowles, and the party was only open to women and non-binary people. “Imagining a lingerie party that was opened up to straight men would just give such a different experience. I know myself. I would subconsciously, even, be appealing to those men.” She called the party a “holistic, worthwhile experience.”

After her party, Sam posted a few pictures in the lingerie, just for close friends, but quickly took the pictures down. She felt that there was no need for anyone else to see them: “I felt fucking sexy, and that was an experience for myself and for my body.”

At the end of my breakfast with von Alvensleben, we discussed the idea of clothing as a means of communication not just with others, but with oneself and one’s body. She described the body as something you can care for and treat well, like a person — someone you can speak to. “Clothing has helped me heal my relationship to my body in many ways, too,” said von Alvensleben. “Maybe I don’t like the way I look stark naked in front of the mirror or something, but if I put something over it that I love, it almost feels like I’m caring for my body. That’s another way of showing your body that you love it. And sometimes I struggle to do that with feeding it properly, and I struggle to do that with exercising in an appropriate way, but I know that with clothes that’s one way that I can definitely show it that I care.”

It can be fun to construct ourselves in the outside world, to communicate through this creative and complicated channel. But when we speak to others, we’re also speaking to ourselves. What a lovely opportunity to be kind.

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