Not too long ago my friend Kiki and I were sharing an impressive order of fries and hashing out the long-held divide among feminists about the frivolity vs. importance of fashion in general, and personal style specifically. Always an expert with the killer one-liner, Kiki managed to skewer the notion of fashion as frivolity with, “First humans clothed themselves, then they started drawing on cave walls.” Meaning that “fashion” is in fact so integral to our sense of self, of personhood, it preceded all other forms of expression short of, possibly, language.
Sure, to call the clothing that enabled early humans to migrate out of Africa 170,000 years ago “self expression” might be a stretch, especially since we wouldn’t evolve the high order thinking skills that led to “art” for another 130,000 years, but still. Let’s just say our ancestors married form and function.
Either way, in the intervening centuries fashion has evolved as a form of language in and of itself–an aspect of personal visual culture that can be “read” with all the subtext, narrative arcs, and suspense of a good book. The stories of our “selves”–our bodies, our fears, our aspirations, our successes, our interests–are the stories we tell with our clothes.
The superficiality of trendcasting, that chattering face of fashion, is neither here nor there. Black is always en vogue and floral patterns come and go, but the thousand dashed hopes and grand successes archived in the well-worn lines of a pair of sneakers…well, that’s the substance of style. Were you wearing those sneakers when we entered the never ending war that’s defined a generation? Did they walk you out of one city and into a new one, all shimmering horizons? Was their purchase a kindness you granted yourself when you found out your mother was sick?
It’s these kinds of intimate moments that Arielle Greenberg explores in her new book Locally Made Panties. Equal measure lyric personal essay and poetic style treatise, Greenberg interweaves humor, sass, and loss using her relationship to clothes–and her own body–as the binding thread. In a quick 85 pages, she manages to delve deep into the dynamics of body image, identity, feminism, war, global economies, stillbirth, and motherhood. No piece is more than two pages long and some are no more than a wisp of a paragraph or a hint of poem.
Moving through Locally Made Panties is a bit like hanging out over cocktails with your oldest friend as she goes through her closet. Memories as clothes. Clothes as possibilities and alternate lives. Clothes as friends and enemies and snapshots of a woman striving for comfort in her own skin even as she wrestles with ideas of being a good feminist; a responsible consumer; a mom; a writer. Even as she wrestles with the grief of a stillbirth and the frustration of wanting a body that looks good in the clothes she wants to wear. Setting the tone, she opens the book with a wry declaration you don’t often get outside of the most intimate of circles like a relationship, a best friendship: “I had to go buy some new bras because my old bras were all stretched out. Also, my old breasts were all stretched out.”
Underpinning nearly every piece is Greenberg’s ever-changing, complex relationship to her body, and to her postpartum body especially. She manages to explore this with a poetic heart and dry humor, countering searing vulnerability with irreverence. In “Let’s Get Right Down to It,” she nails the complicated relationship many women have to feminism and their own bodies with a mix of sincerity and “oh well, what the hell” bravado.
Fat is a feminist issue.
It’s deep. Really. Think about it.
I came to no conclusions.
I am a feminist.
I would like to be thinner.
This combination of vulnerability and no-nonsense directness is alternately disarming, hilarious, and sometimes pretty emotionally confusing. Single passages can take you from benign, humor-filled descriptions of ideal outfits, to “Then that baby died and I went to Weight Watchers and cried and felt very sorry for myself, with a deflated cream puff body again and big old leaking breasts and no baby to nurse.” You don’t often see stillbirth or miscarriage stories peppered with “deflated cream puff body” and “big old leaking breasts.” The absurd reality of grief. How do you react? I gasped, then laughed, then felt like a bad person. Locally Made Panties requires a certain amount of resilience.
She also takes on some of the heavier universal realities of being a woman, like the experience of street harassment. With the expert precision of a surgeon or a comedian, Greenberg annihilates the mewing, faux-ignorance of misogyny’s, “Why can’t you just take it as a compliment?”
Women don’t say “nice tits” to each other on the street.
Women say “nice top” or “cute skirt” or
“where did you get those fabulous shoes?”
I have myself sometimes given other women street attention
by saying things like “Your. whole. outfit. totally. rocks.”
It usually has been received in a way that makes
me guess that it is not unwanted.
Throughout, Greenberg makes it clear that there is no difference between self, body, clothing, and politics. We sit with her she as recounts her favorite looks-as-identities, as she fights feelings of guilt over caring so much about what she wears and how she’s perceived (“there’s a war on,” after all), as she lists the clothes, lingerie, and accessories that would make her feel at home in her own body, and as she moves through writing conferences and vacation towns admiring other people’s style.
By blending the personal and the cultural she manages to create a self-portrait that mirrors so many women as we strive to live authentically in a world that demands superhuman acts of integration from us. How do you retain your individual identity, separate from and together with motherhood after having kids? How do you balance the politics of feminism with the human need to feel desirable? How do you define who you are for a world that constantly wants to define you for you? And how do you become an adult without succumbing to the oppressive homogeneity of normativity?
For Greenberg the answer lies, at least in part, in clothes that will help her “go out into the world feeling confident, pretty, interesting, comfortable. The Real Me.”
Locally Made Panties will be available in July, 2016.