I never made a conscious decision to begin wearing ugly clothes.
I can remember no watershed moment where I thought to myself, “Today, I will don a shapeless gray sack and scowl at those who thwart me.”
Like so many of life’s great revolutions, my transmutation from American Eagle-wearing preteen to overall-encased adult happened terribly slowly. Hundreds of small decisions brought me to this place, where my closet is filled with dresses my mother would call “ill-fitting” and my shoe rack is stacked with clunky, orthopedic-looking sandals and wooden-soled boots. This collection of items, some of them embarrassingly expensive and others sourced from castoffs at Goodwill, accumulated over the past decade. At first, I didn’t know quite why I was drawn to clothes that my siblings mocked and my boyfriends disliked. But my husband recently made a plea for me to “wear a nice dress, an actually nice one,” to dinner, and it began to dawn on me that I’ve been costuming myself out of spite, dressing out of anger.
When it comes to my wardrobe, there are two versions of the truth, and both have their merits. In one version, I bought these things because I saw other women wearing them. These women were all of a specific type. They made complicated art and wore their hair messy. They were, to use a word I loathe, the polar opposite of “basic.” But there’s another truth, and this one is a bit more hairy. Not only did I want to look like these women (and to make art like those women), but I also wanted to swish my brown polyester skirt and give a jaunty middle finger to people who just don’t get it. People like my patient husband. People like my parents.
My impulse to dress spitefully can be traced all the way back to childhood. My father, a nuclear physicist, hated all things feminine and frilly, and he discouraged my mother from wearing nail polish or makeup. I think my first truly spiteful purchase was a pink velvet thong, decorated with a tiny bow in the front, which I bought during a trip to the mall shortly after my 12th birthday. It was an impractical, cheaply made piece of lingerie, and I knew that if my parents found it in the laundry, there would be questions (of the type that I wasn’t ready to answer). I honestly don’t even know if I liked it (it looked terribly uncomfortable), but I did like owning something my dad would abhor and my mother would never in a million years dream of wearing. I didn’t wear it right away, but I saved money and bought more cheap underwear—leopard-print mesh and black plastic satin. I washed these items by hand in the bathroom sink and let them dry in my closet, where they hung like limp flags, announcing my furtive entry into the nation of womanhood.
Perhaps this underwear was the first time I dressed for myself. I like to think it was, even though the choice itself was not particularly aesthetically pleasing and certainly didn’t peg me as a person with good taste. (I knew, even then, that my underwear was tacky — another word my parents used for a wide array of things, from lawn ornaments and Halloween decorations to cherry red cars or heavy eyeshadow on an older woman.)
As I grew older, I began to learn the power of clothing. I wasn’t interested so much in how clothing can transform the wearer — my two brothers were both LARPers who frequently made themselves into orcs or elves and I had no time for that weird hobby — but rather how clothing can mark a person as a member of a tribe. You could have spotted Michael, my older brother, as a World of Warcraft–playing nerd from 10 miles away, thanks to his long hair, his wire-rim glasses, his gaming T-shirts worn over holey jeans, and his never-fashionable sneakers. I wanted to be pegged as something else, and so I began cycling through personas, from emo mall rat to grunge girl to ultrafemme faux-bohemian hippy.
My style has finally settled down, and it’s not particularly revolutionary — I wear comfortable clothes that obscure the shape of my body, in muted tones that are neither here nor there on the color wheel but exist in the gaps between rusty red and blood orange, beige and mustard, emerald and army. My husband hates jumpsuits (like many men I know), and yet I wear them frequently; sometimes I do it out of pettiness, but other times I wear them because I legitimately enjoy the feeling of being encased in fabric, swaddled from head to toe. Sometimes I wear them precisely because you can’t see the swell of my breast or the nip of my waist. They obscure; they reveal.
Over the past two years, my tendency to lean into androgynous looks and aggressively unflattering shapes has become more pronounced. I know I am not alone in this. I’ve noticed a rash of women who seem to be actively turning away from the prettified norms set forth by mainstream actresses and supermarket magazine covers. Like Tumblr witches and the fetishization of self-care rituals, this is a trend that began before the 2016 election but seemed to mushroom outward after Trump took office.
Among liberal-leaning women, the desire to look ugly seems to be spreading. In December 2016, Jezebel published an essay by Madeleine Davies, “Becoming Ugly,” which directly linked political frustrations to a desire to “offend” the sight of men who cross Davies’ path. “I can’t deny my current impulse to become as ugly and unlikeable as I can, merely to serve as a constant reminder of the ugliness inflicted upon us,” she wrote. In November 2017, Naomi Fry tackled the idea of “modest dressing” and the contradictions inherent in this trend in an excellent piece for the New York Times style magazine. Her article asked more questions than it answered, but nonetheless it felt revolutionary to me even to be considering these issues through the lens of dowdy clothes. Is it liberating to dress in multiple layers of clothing, particularly when “covering up” has been used as a tool of oppression? Is it just a way to telegraph one’s privilege? Is it freeing, or is it another form of social pressure? Or perhaps it’s all of the above. Perhaps so many things are true at once that we can hardly begin to tease out all the implications lodged in that sack dress or this jumpsuit.
Like Fry, I don’t think modest dressing (or spite-dressing or man-repelling) is a panacea to the ills of sexism. It’s a miniature rebellion, one that feels more petty than revolutionary. Yet pettiness can be its own small personal pleasure. When the stakes are high, there is something comforting about reveling in these private choices, these flimsy pieces of armor. I decided, years ago, to push back against the sexism of the literary world by reading and purchasing books exclusively by women. I began to buy women’s books and collect them in piles in my bedroom until I had towers built of paperbacks by Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, and Donna Tartt. No one knew about this resolution, but no one had to. It was a decision born out of frustration, one that railed against men by simply not engaging them at all.
As minor as it is, my ugly shoes and my spiteful jumpsuits feel that same pleasure center, that hungry furred-animal part of my brain that seeks sisterhood above all else. Passing me on the street, you wouldn’t know that my khaki romper contains such a complex message, but you don’t have to. Although on the surface, a pink velvet thong has little in common with a yellowish utilitarian garment, they are both items that speak to my evolving relationship with womanhood. They are the totems I have chosen to represent myself as I lean, like a flower seeking sunlight, toward the imaginary tribe of women who, I like to think, recognize me as one of their own.