Self Care Style

“overperforming the everyday” : a conversation on style with helena bassett

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How do you think about style? What is it doing? Why dress a certain way and not another? What is style doing in the world?

Helena: Most of my thoughts on style that I recognize as such are because of Mimi Thi Nguyen and Dean Spade. Both argue that nothing of what we wear is politically neutral, and have a conflicted sense about clothe: on the one hand, as having the potential for excavating alternative ways of inhabiting the world through style; and on the other hand as congealed norms (of race, nation, gender, economic status) and embodied extensions of dominant power.

In Dean Spade’s essay “Dressed To Kill, Fight To Win,” he thinks about the way that leftist/queer/feminist critiques of violent systems of domination and how they become crystallized in our aesthetic practices can lead to an anti-fashion stance, a stance predicated on a false notion “that we can be in bodies that aren’t modified, and that any intentional modification or decoration of your body is politically undesirable because it somehow buys into the pitfalls of reliance on appearances.” But this stance also appeals to the notion of a “natural” body or fashion, “a way of dressing or wearing yourself that is not a product of culture. Norms always masquerade as non-choices.”

But he wonders (as do I), “Does this mean we should give up resistant aesthetics? In my view, there is no “outside”– none of us can stand fully outside capitalism, racism, sexism. Instead we stand within, and are constituted by these practices and forces, and we form our resistance there. So of course, our aesthetic resistance should do the same.”

Dean ends his essay with this utopian note about the look of radical possibility: “So a part of this fashioning we’re doing needs to be about diversifying the set of aesthetic practices we’re open to seeing, and promoting a possibility of us all looking very very different from one another while we fight together for a new world.” And yet, Mimi warns us that “especially because of the increasingly pervasive cultural authority of fashion and style bloggers… it’s critical that ideological categories as well as corporeal configurations of race, gender, sexuality, et cetera, are subject to ongoing contestation at these sites. What other sartorial experiments and experiences demonstrate to us that such categories and configurations are not simple, singular, or self-evident? For whom is “self-expression” through clothes or style difficult, unavailable, or even undesirable? What other gender presentations, sexual identities, and embodied states can point us suggestively toward alternative ways of inhabiting our clothes and the uncertain stories they tell?”

What is the property of clothing that you focus on – color, form, texture?

Helena: I think about form the most, and then pattern or texture after that. I am most interested in the way that different pieces talk to each other through form and shape (my first thought was to say “structural relations between pieces” and lol’d at myself). So when I see something on the runway or someone at an event wearing something that feels magic, my memory of it is less of the specific color play, and more the interlocking, emptied out outlines/impressions of events (pieces) that I can then recreate at the thrift store. It’s very spatial. (I’m gonna be a total dweeb here and tell you to check out my style board for more, lol.)

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(clockwise from top left: helen price, victoria beckham fall 2016, westminster university graduate fashion collection, fenty x fuma fall 2016 rtw, vingi wong ba, hayley grundmann).

Are you ever torn between wearing things that you think are cool versus things you know will be well received?

Helena: In the past, I’ve listened to my friend’s faces when we thrift together – if their face gets all scrunchy/ confused/ disgusted, I would put the piece back on the rack. I’ve been trying to do more of a personal evaluation with the clothes now. I close my eyes, picture wearing the garment, and if it works – if it sparks excitement, if it makes me nervous – I hold onto it. Henry Urbach talks about the ante-closet — the place in front of the closet where you change in and out of clothes — as a space of transformation, and I definitely feel that. Often, the most creative/ speculative part of my day is when I’m trying on clothes.

How has your style changed over time, and where is it going?

Helena: I’ve always had an obsession with the aesthetic, but the world that I’m trying to inhabit and imagine has changed significantly over time. I had a phase in which I 100% couldn’t manage the collision of color, form, and all of the demands that came with it and decided to reconcile this with an idea I had that all the hottest people I knew wore only black, and so I would wear only black (this is obviously not everyone’s relation to wearing only black clothe!). To me, this intense minimalism obscured/ minimized a lot of my gender and body anxieties (drapey things covered up my curves), and let me try out forms without other people really noticing. I also think my own experience of style has been influenced by class in a pretty real way — the risks I’m able to take now are at least partially open to me because I’m white and go to an elite university, which means I’m pretty much guaranteed an office job even if I “fail” my expected public gender, race, and class performance. In high school, when all of my life was oriented toward a “getting out” (that never really happens) based on a performance of potential upward mobility through standardized intelligence and “quirk,” I was operating under a set of limitations that, if I was in excess to, would have real consequences in terms of access to patronage and money. These are different than the consequences other people face for their distance from the (fantasy of a perfect) norm.

When you’re creating a new outfit, where are you drawing inspiration from? In other words, who are your icons & inspirations?

Helena: the inspirations that I’ve gathered say something exciting to me about how I can change, about how I can inhabit the world differently. Here’s who I’m looking at. clockwise from top left:  @telana11,@gweelos,@steventaistudio, @ashish_uk, babe simpson and barf troop in general, @velmarossa

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What’s an aesthetic object that represents your style?

Helena: In January, I went to Miami for a week for a poetry workshop and ended up meeting the MOST amazing humans. The aesthetic of Miami was really working for me — the light made all sense of perspective pressurize onto one flat scene that then got bright and reflective and in friction against itself. And this pressure oozed out into this sense of joy in “artifice,” in “overperforming” the everyday (and not just one person! Everyone was doing it!). I saw a lot of what I’ve been trying to do with my style reflected in Miami, where everyone was playing with the class-based disgust that emerges when there’s a refusal of realism about what clothes are “supposed” to do. The last night, we went to our favorite Walgreens and looked for Miami things (a 100 dollar bill towel was one of the finds. This key fob is the perfect perfect aesthetic for me: shiny gold, weirdly heavy, with a revolving sun and a self-reflexive, hyper femme font — a hilariously useless object.

 

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thanks for reading! if you ever want to go on a hunt for useless objects, we’re here for you.

love,

e + h

 

 

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