Cracking the Dress Code

Cracking the Dress Code

Maura Brewer and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury

Artist Maura Brewer (left) and fashion design professor Abigail Glaum-Lathbury are protesting the politics of fashion by wearing the same uniform every day. The duo demonstrates that sometimes humor – and dedication – make the strongest statement.

Jenny Yurshansky

On some mornings, you may feel too tired to make a decision. And yet, if you want to leave your house, there’s at least one choice to make: What will you wear? Nudity – though it’s the natural state of things – is not an option most places. At least once a day, you have to get dressed.

And it matters what you wear. Peacock or mud hen, you’re making a statement. As I was reminded as we put together this issue, clothing is a powerful signifier – of identity, of stature, of savvy.

I remember in my early 20s going with my husband one Saturday at dawn to pick up our friend John for a camping trip. John was a handsome guy, a drummer in a popular local band, fluent in French, with a kind of effortless style. And apparently, as I learned that morning, he came by his style honestly. There was his mother, cooking breakfast for the family – fashionably dressed, perfectly coiffed, with a tasteful hint of perfume. I was awed in the presence of such unexpected glamour.

Then there was the time John invited us to dinner, along with a couple of other male pals. He was dating someone new, someone exciting, and wanted friends to meet her. Anticipating an encounter with another fabulous creature, I scoured my closet. “Aha!” I thought triumphantly, grabbing my most expressive wool sweater.

Years later, what I remember of the girlfriend’s dress were the delicate spaghetti straps and her impossibly porcelain shoulders. It was March. In Alaska. Did I mention we were the only women at the table? And I was wearing wool?

Clothing can change the dynamic between people. It can impress, yes, but also intimidate. It can shift the balance of power. Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, a fashion design professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has noticed something about colleagues from other departments who meet with her: They start by apologizing for what they’re wearing. For many, fashion represents a kind of enigmatic mandate, a specialized and ever-changing canon they will never master. “People have so much anxiety about this,” she says.

The irony is that Glaum-Lathbury, who until a few years ago marketed her own high-fashion line, is now probably less intimidating, style-wise, than she has ever been. Every day, for the better part of a year, she’s worn a jumpsuit she designed in partnership with Los Angeles artist Maura Brewer. Like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and even fashion designer Michael Kors, she’s got a uniform of sorts.

For Glaum-Lathbury, the jumpsuit is both a personal experiment and a protest against the shoddily made, easily discarded clothing that dominates stores today. A creature of fashion, she wasn’t sure about wearing the same thing day after day, no matter how well made. But surprisingly, “the more I wear it, the more I’m interested in wearing it,” she says. The jumpsuit has freed her in profound and unexpected ways; she’s more punctual, she’s more confident.

Navajo people believe you should dress early in the day, “so that the holy beings will take you seriously and give you good blessings,” says designer Orlando Dugi. Maybe you spend an hour piecing together an avant-garde ensemble. Or maybe you throw on a uniform. Either way, know that you’re making a point – before you even open your mouth.