by D.L. Mayfield

photography by Krispin Mayfield

The following are my select answers to a survey put out by the editors of Women in Clothes, a collection of essays and vignettes exploring our relationship to clothes and how we present ourselves to the world.  To find out more about the book and to read other responses (or to fill out your own survey), please click here.

1. What is the most transformative experience you have ever had in relation to the subject of fashion or style? 

Around eight years ago, I bought a coat. I hardly ever bought brand-new clothes, and this was a real splurge on a Bible College-student budget. The coat was from Target, and it was a bright-orange corduroy plaid. I loved how it made me stand out admit the sea of black pea coats in the dreary Pacific Northwest winter. I loved how it made me feel special, and different, and colorful.

A year or so after I bought the coat, I watched a documentary about labor practices around the world. For the first time, I started to understand the systems of oppression that modern American fashion is based around. Horrified, I swore off buying new clothes for good. I committed myself to second-hand shopping, to making do or doing without. I started reading and learning more and more from people who were loudly opting out of the “Empire.” I got a button with a famously acerbic quote from my new hero, Dorothy Day: “If you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor.” The button was large and I wore it prominently on the lapel of my orange corduroy jacket. I took perverse pleasure in watching as people would lean in to read my button, then register their shock and unease as they slowly backed away from me. I was a little bit radical, and I loved making others feel uncomfortable in their own malaise.

I wore that coat, my one and only, until I moved to the Midwest. Here, in the -14 degree winters, the wind cut through my orange corduroy coat making me feel as if I was wearing nothing at all. I went to a thrift store and bought another coat—a marshmallow dark gray no-nonsense piece of winter utilitarianism. I now blend in with the sea of people struggling to survive the dark winters here. I still keep my orange coat, but it is only good for a month or so in the spring or the fall. The button fell off a year or so ago, so I cannot be reminded of my moral failure anymore.

2. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire? 

I live in a very diverse neighborhood, home to many sorts of immigrants and refugees—the majority currently being from East Africa. I admire the women of my community who dress with confidence and color: gorgeous headscarves, brightly patterned dresses, heads held high, commanding the space they inhabit. I envy them, the ones who outwardly value both beauty and their unique contribution to the world. But not for one second do I believe that I could dress like that.

3. What are some things you admire about how other women present themselves? 

I love confidence. I love it when women don't look American. I love when women rock their hijabs and their scarves and their mis-matching patterns. I love a good bizzaro haircut.

4. Was there a moment in your life when something "clicked" for you about fashion or dressing or make-up or hair? What? Why did it happen then, do you think?

I live in an inner-city context, and live and work primarily within conservative Muslim communities—so I am constantly wondering how I can be inoffensive, how I can escape notice, how I can blend in, how I can protect myself. I never think about beauty in regards to my appearance, but as a way to keep myself from being noticed, which is a way of protecting myself. I don't like much of my clothing, and when I look in the mirror I am always dressing for somebody else. I am dressing for the men that I want to avoid interacting with on the street corner. I am dressing for my students and friends, who are extremely gratified when I wear modest, Muslim-appropriate clothing. I am dressing for a world in which I am a continual stranger, where I am formless and void, where I surround myself with loose and ill-fitting clothing, where no matter how hard I try I don't end up fitting in regardless.

5. What are some dressing rules you wouldn't necessarily recommend to others, but which you follow?

I try to be as non-confrontational as possible. I am unbearably practical, I distrust all frivolity.

6. Do you address anything political in the way you dress?

My thrifted clothes do tend to send a message that I am opting out; my careful attention to modesty (out of respect for Muslim friends and neighbors) also seems to be a bit jarring to some. But I do believe in the value of giving up personal rights and preferences for the sake of the community, which is a political action.

A writer and activist I greatly admire makes his own clothes out of burlap (in order to escape the oppressive systems in our world). He likes to tell the story of Mother Theresa's feet, which were badly deformed by the end of her life. It turns out that she would always pick through the donations for the Sisters of Charity and choose the worst pair of shoes for herself, which she would wear until they were in tatters. It ruined her feet, and no doubt caused her great physical pain. I think it is such a beautiful, horrible story. I can't stop thinking about it, even to this day.

7. What is really beautiful, for you, in general?

Diversity. I mean true, spotty, uncomfortable, weird, deeply religious diversity.

8. In what way is this stuff important, if at all? 

I come from a place of believing it isn't important at all. The larger Evangelical culture routinely rejects the body and adornments as unholy, as distracting, as weirdly sexual. But if you believe in God you must believe in beauty, and it must go hand-in-hand with neighbor love. So my current struggle is this: in the ethical, political, fractured environment we live in--how can my clothing choices reflect a love of God and of my neighbor?

In my neighborhood women express their personalities and their cultures with their clothes, and I admire them for it. There are wars, there are famines, there are labor abuses and justice issues, there are predators on the street corner, there are ever so many reasons to shut ourselves off to the wonder of color and fabric and complexity. And still, day after day, women everywhere choose to pursue beauty, blessing me with their own forms of prophetic imagination.

While I still believe that St. Dorothy, in all of her spitfire wisdom, was right in regards to possessions, I think I misinterpreted her directive. Because my friends and neighbors, many of whom would be classified as poor, have taught me something else: beauty, they are telling me, helps us transcend this broken kingdom that we live in.

They are telling me: go ahead. Have your one coat, and make it as colorful as you can.

a version of this article previously appeared on Good Letters.

D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest. She has written for McSweeneys, Geez, The Toast, and Image Journal, among others. She has a collection of essays forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. You can find her at dlmayfield.com or @d_l_mayfield.





Krispin Mayfield

Krispin Mayfield is a therapist by day, makes music in the basement at night, and takes pictures on weekends. He loves capturing scenes from every day life in his community, and getting to know his neighbors. See more at bloomingtonave.wordpress.com and hear more at themaidenname.bandcamp.com