“Appearance” has a different meaning to everyone. While so much of our identities are viewed through the perceptions of ourselves, another weight we carry is how we are viewed by others. Our perception of ourselves (and others) shifts based on the physical and psychological spaces we occupy. The stylistic choices we make through the way we dress are ones that come with consequences. At times, we dress ourselves to assimilate to a particular space or culture. And other times, our outfits represent a desire to be noticed or respected. The aesthetics we create are much more than superficial. At any moment, our fashion decisions can convey confidence, determine credibility, or even manifest power.
On a gorgeous, late summer afternoon in Ivy City, I sat down with Desiree Venn Frederic, a commercial real estate placemaker, historian, and vintage culture expert. I asked Desiree, “How does fashion inform the way people are perceived?” She responds, “There’s a lot we convey based on our dress. The choices people make are often subconscious. I meet more people now who are a lot more aware of how they dress and the impact that has on their day — whether from a functional standpoint or from the perception of space and how people perceive them to be. There’s a lot to unpack there.”
Take red lipstick, for example. It can be traced back to 3,500 BC, to the red lips of Queen-Schub-ad of ancient Ur. At the time, her red lips represented an elite social status. Red lipstick was very fashionable throughout the Egyptian empire. Icons of that era such as Cleopatra used carmine as a dye to flaunt a deep-red lip.
As Desiree explains, “It’s not even a contemporary creation. Red lipstick was produced because when people are aroused they blush. There’s a warmth of the skin, the lips, the cheeks — that happens, and it highlights sexual attraction. It can communicate a cue, that I’m into you. I use red lipstick intentionally. I want the attention. I want to assert power in whatever the dynamic is. And it makes me feel beautiful.“
Although lipstick color does not seem like a socio-political issue, our capacity to be outwardly expressive in appearance does come with consequences. In ancient Greek culture, red lipstick was highly regulated because of its power to entice men. Today, the socio-political consequences of our dress play out differently. There is a need to broaden informed dialogue and critical exchange around fashion. To address this need, Desiree and Joelle Firzli founded Agents of Alternative, a cross-disciplinary think tank and consultancy. Agents of Alternatives hosts a diverse set of forums, including intimate salons in people’s homes, based on memories in fashion to drive discourse and understanding. Sometimes these conversations are prompted by a particular garment, such as a cultural item or a common wardrobe element, like denim. The purpose of the salons is to encourage discourse on aesthetics in a way that wrestles with contemporary social, economic, political, and cultural conditions. Through these conversations, varied identities of individuals are illuminated.
“As a woman, as a Moor, as a professional woman, there is a lot to consider when it comes to fashion that we don’t talk about,” Desiree says.
When I asked Desiree about a fashion memory that sticks out in her mind, she took me back more than a decade ago, to a time when she was in and out of federal immigration court. During those moments, Desiree recognized that the way she dressed affected her engagements with prosecutors and federal judges. She observed other immigrants who were not granted the same consideration because they were not able to present their best selves, and the judges responded to them differently.
“In my circumstance,” Desiree expounds, “my appearance provided me considerations that otherwise wouldn’t have been extended.” She thinks back to the vintage jumpsuit and vintage mink coat that she wore. “The outfits were not what courtrooms were used to, it confused everyone in the courtroom because I didn’t look like I belonged there, allowing a moment of pause to question, why in fact is this woman in this situation.”
The judge would ask her, “Ms. Venn Frederic, why are you dressed like that?”
As she explains, the ensembles she wore were true to her experience. This was her authentic, weekly wardrobe, which happened to be appropriate for a high-fashion editorial spread. Generally, people in court or on trial are perceived as undeserving of the agency to choose what to wear. Despite this narrative, Desiree showed up each month, for years, as herself. She dressed in bold snakeskin booties, beautifully pleated skirts, and in eccentric hats and suits. The way she showed up was true to her family history. Her grandmother always raised her to uphold formalities, traditions, and proper aesthetics depending on the circumstance.
“You get to dictate how you introduce yourself to the world even in the most destitute circumstances. And you get treated accordingly,” Desiree says. “How you present, in large part, determines how people treat you. No one could guess my circumstances based on how I looked, and it opened so many doors for me during that time.”
Do you have your own story of a powerful memory in fashion? If so, please consider submitting it to Agents of Alternative.