A few years ago, I read a profile in The New Yorker about Eileen Fisher, the company that employs me as I write this. It was written by Janet Malcolm and titled “Nobody’s Looking at You.” I chewed on the phrase for several months before figuring out what appealed to me so much about it: the power of clothes to both cloak and reveal.
Of the brand aesthetic, Malcolm wrote, "words like 'simple' and 'tasteful' and colors like black and gray come to mind along with images of women of a certain age and class—professors, editors, psychotherapists, lawyers, administrators—for whom the hiding of vanity is an inner necessity." As a writer in my early thirties, I understood the need to be taken seriously. But it wasn’t a vanity I wished hide so much as a shame I needed to conceal.
The way I felt about my body, and by extension my clothes, was directly connected to the fact that I'd been raped in my early twenties. Barely out of college and living in the Midwest at the time, I wore low-slung denim, midriff-baring tops, and stiletto pumps that accentuated the delicate curvature around my ankles. Before going out for the night, I’d flip my head upside down and spray the back of my blonde head with aerosol hairspray—for volume. I was only just beginning to explore my sexuality, and my clothes made me feel powerful. But it was a power that would eventually turn on me.
The night I was sexually assaulted, I lay curled up on the bed of a male acquaintance, hoping to catch a quick nap. I was wearing light blue jeans and a cotton tank that fades in and out of my memory as either black or white. The room was dark; an ashtray sat next to the bed. When I awoke, he had slipped his hands inside of my jeans. I froze as he continued to violate me. I later thought maybe I’d been unclear in my actual intention to sleep. That I’d somehow presented myself as pliable or easy. Or worse, that I was precisely those things.
Afterwards, I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I tried to escape the difficult emotions by changing my appearance, my job, and even my location, all symptoms I later learned of rape trauma syndrome. I dyed my hair dark in an attempt to make the body I had previously occupied as unrecognizable as possible—at least from the neck up for when I looked in the mirror.
I eventually moved to New York City to work in fashion, where I stopped wearing denim all together for almost a decade. Instead I donned pants, a concept that sounded foreign to me at the time—like how gilet, the French word for vest might sound to an American, or blouse, the adult word for a woman’s shirt might to a teenager. I liked how far these grown-up clothes felt from that dark scene plaguing mind; the one with my jeans clinging to one ankle, heart pounding, frozen in fear. I couldn’t imagine it taking place with me wearing trousers and a smoking jacket.
Around the time of my sexual assault, I saw the video of a conceptual fashion show by the British Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan, in which models deconstruct a set of furniture and wear the pieces as garments. Upholstery is transformed into dresses, leather chairs folded into luggage, and end tables turned into briefcases. The show was inspired by refugees from the designer’s home country, forced to leave their homes with only a few possessions during the Turkish occupation in the 60s and 70s.
I was struck by the connection it forged between trauma and clothes. How people could be forced to relinquish a basic need in the face of political turmoil. At the end of the video, a woman steps through a hole at the center of a round coffee table, which then glides upward forming a pyramid she latches onto her belt. It is a dramatic moment, and the audience is left to imagine her wearing this object, once intended to occupy a private space, like armor out into an unknown world.
I credit this video as what interested me in working in a notoriously difficult and low-paying industry—fashion—and why I then moved to Italy for a year to study it. I was drawn to the artistry, the cultural value, and the ubiquity of personal expression it grants free citizens everywhere. And maybe I too wanted armor—something beautiful to hide the ugliness I felt festering beneath my own surface; the private parts of me that had been unlawfully occupied.
In the short term, living in Italy made me more nervous. I suffered my first panic attack in Milan as a student in a small class led by an Italian teacher, a short bookish man in his mid-thirties with glasses who didn’t speak any English. There was something about the way his eyes lingered on me, the corners of his mouth ticking upward ever so slightly. It wasn’t threatening, yet everything inside of me was screaming, “run.”
“Scusate,” I offered to the group, my left hand up, fingers spread wide apart as I hightailed it past the smoking terrace and the espresso vending machines to the bathroom, where I crouched in a corner of a stall crying for nearly an hour, the cool grey tile under my fingers. Sirens faded in and out in the distance, a welcome distraction from the smell of toilet water wafting up, urging me to vomit. But my stomach, perpetually running on empty, would not comply. After class, I went home to the apartment I shared with a Paraguayan design student.
“Everything okay?” He asked, before going out for the night.
“Yeah, just don’t feel good,” I mumbled.
I didn’t leave the house for three days, due to a sudden and inexplicable fear of the world. At the time, I hadn’t yet linked the panic attack to my sexual assault, which had happened the previous year. My newfound state of hyper-vigilance did eventually lead me to change the only thing I felt I could control: the way that I dressed. It was simply easier to hide in plain sight than risk being looked at for a second too long.
Many years later, when I finally accepted I’d been the victim of a crime, and that it had affected me profoundly, I went through a phase where I would fantasize about reporting it to the police. In the fantasy, the older adult version of me was called on to make a statement that could be used as evidence of a prior bad act toward another pending charge against my perpetrator.
A question that came to my mind: What does one wear to report a rape? Since it turned out that I would never actually have a reason to do so, I mentally settled on an impeccably tailored white suit, like the one Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Nessa, also a rape survivor, wore in the BBC series An Honorable Woman; and incidentally, not unlike the one Hillary Clinton wore to accept the democratic nomination for president. The goal would have been to project a carefully plotted combination of agency and femininity—to prove that I was a woman who deserved to be taken seriously. Because whether or not anyone else required that proof, I certainly did.
The feeling of needing to prove myself extended beyond the fantasy realm. For years, I selected my daily wardrobe as if someone else were judging my choices. It was only after the immense national scrutiny on the Stanford rape case that I experienced an important revelation: I was my only adjudicator. In the Stanford victim’s impact letter, she cited a beige cardigan that her sister had teased her about wearing to the frat party they attended, where she was later raped next to a trash receptacle.
Because her attacker argued she had consented, the frumpy fashion choice was emphasized in her defense, despite the fact that she was not the one on trial. A beige cardigan placed her squarely outside of hookup culture, dismantling the persistent and repulsive idea that a woman who dresses a certain way forgoes her right to withhold consent. Clothes are such powerful constructs of identity that we rely on them to serve as character witnesses.
The truth is that I own many symbolic versions of the beige cardigan. A ribbed cashmere turtleneck the color of oatmeal that matches the only skin it reveals around my face and hands. A charcoal merino poncho that shields my body from both wanted and unwanted glances. White cotton shirting that, when buttoned all the way up, seems to have eliminated catcalls for good.
A part of me thinks, of course, I simply grew into these clothes. Another part wonders whether I’m still putting myself on trial. Turning the evidence over and over in my head—trying to uncover some hidden fact that will prove my innocence, or if not, at least allow me to atone for some of my guilt.
Fashion critic Kennedy Fraser wrote in The New Yorker that the act of wearing a garment can seem "almost furtive" or "too trivial for debate." My experience says otherwise.
I got my first job in New York with the independent designer Maria Cornejo, after being drawn to the tension in her work. Her pieces embodied the subtle contradictions of womanhood: utilitarian yet feminine, architectural but not sterile, striking and still wearable. Twenty-six at the time, I loved the way her printed silks camouflaged the emotional turmoil hiding beneath my surface. By wearing them, I became part of a fashionable herd of zebra, migrating across lower Manhattan. The only gaze I drew was that of design aficionados, much more likely to ask about an amorphous shape or abstract pattern than how I was feeling.
Since my new digs were better suited to an older, more affluent woman, clothing-wise I felt I’d skipped a grade or five. The drastic change in dress helped widen the gap between the fun-loving girl that I’d been—just out of college a few years before—and the serious woman I’d since become. Later, I would begin the painful process of reconciling these two selves.
I finally entered therapy a decade after my sexual assault. There, I learned that when you experience traumatic event, the younger part of yourself gets stuck somehow, holding all of the pain, and that in order to heal, you have to extend that part empathy and love. On my thirty-fourth birthday, I embraced this younger version of myself when I bought a sexy designer dress on sale. It was black, skin-tight, and backless with shoulder pads; the front hand-embroidered with tiny, jewel-toned sequins.
“It’s too tight,” I told my husband, cautiously opening my dressing room door in a dimly lit luxury department store. He also works in fashion, overseeing production to ensure garments are made correctly.
“I think that’s how it’s supposed to fit,” he said, when I finally let him in.
Maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to wear it—and actually take my jacket off. Deep down, a part of me wants to be desired; to be looked at with lustful admiration once again. But for now, that piece remains buried in a shopping bag at the back of my closet, under a stack of grey and beige sweaters. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever stop hiding. Other times, I think it’s my own way of being seen.