How to Style Your Hair

At age four, let your mother take you for a short haircut. It will be a wedge in the back with a middle-parted bob in front ala Dorothy Hamill after the 1976 Olympics. Done.

But your hair will grow quickly. By first grade it will be very long. Do not wear it down; never let it flow; do not let it brush your shoulders as you play. Your mother will plait tight braids against your head. The braids will be so snug that nary a stray hair will escape for at least two days. If braids are not pleasing, or your mother feels a change of pace is necessary, pigtails or a high, secure pony tail will suffice. At night it is important to massage your scalp with your tiny fingers to relieve soreness. 

Beware, the middle school years will be awkward. Cut your hair in seventh grade. The celebrity styles you see in your mother’s People magazine will encourage you. Try a short style with short, feathery sides and just a bit of front fringe. It may not be quite what you expected.

Get a perm.

Get the perm straightened after Ernie Fierro and his cronies laugh at you in school.

High school. Seemingly overnight your hair will become lush and long. It is truly amazing what hormones can do. One day you will look in the mirror and see a young woman with thick, straight, shiny brown hair past her shoulders. There is power in this. Never wear your hair back in a ponytail or braid if you can possibly help it.

Prom, of course, is an exception. French twists look good on you, so go for it. Tease your bangs.

Don’t worry too much about changing hairstyles until college. Right before you move into the freshman dorms, chop your hair right to your chin. Let go of the mile-high bangs. It’s okay if you feel a little less pretty, a little less powerful. By the end of the first semester it will be quite a bit longer. One thing the women in your family do well is grow hair.

When you are in your twenties, you’ll be an archaeologist working in the hot Virginia sun. Really, now, there is no choice but to sweep your hair off of your sweaty neck. Your best hairstyle will be a simple bun. Do this: grab a pencil from the site’s tool box. Twist up your long hair and use the pencil to secure a tight bun. Be surprised when the site supervisor, a fellow graduate student, tells you years later―when you are his wife―that he saw you do this and  found it alluring and beautiful and seductive.

A few months after your wedding, go ahead and chop it all off. It’s okay; just do it. Now doesn’t that feel good? It certainly won’t be as scary as you anticipate. Everyone is shocked and asks “why” but be assured that you look pretty cute. 

In your second year of marriage, take a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. There you will find a room filled with human hair representing all the hair shaved off the heads of Jewish women in concentration camps. Let it stop you cold. Let it remind you of what the world thinks of women, their hair,  their bodies. Excuse yourself so that you can cry in the public bathroom.

Your hair will fall out by the handful after your first child is born. Do not be alarmed. Even though the shower drain is clogged and clumps of hair are everywhere, your hair will grow back. It will never be the same, though. It will be thinner, not nearly as shiny, and rather limp. Make peace with that.

Your second baby will nurse while holding a long strand of your hair in his hands. Because of this, it is important that you do not cut it, though it is in your face. The moments you share with this child are precious. Your hair is part of your bonding experience.

When the first baby turns thirteen, you’ll begin to find gray hairs on your head every single day. At first it is funny, but don’t laugh too hard. Soon you will have so many that you cannot count them or pluck them. Your mom and sister will laugh when you tell them you will not dye it or hide the gray in any way. Ignore them. But do consider readopting that Dorothy Hamill bob with a modern twist. It will likely be more flattering at forty-one than it was at four.

This time, instead of going to your mother, find a brand new hairdresser, one in the city, one whom none of your friends know. In the waiting area stare at all the hair on the floor: blonde, purple, black, and brown locks, all ready to be swept out with the trash. These will remind you of an old folk belief that warns people not to throw hair from a brush or a hair-cut outside.  The birds will gather it and use it for nests. They’ll wind your hair in and out of twigs and grass, and this will make you go mad. You’ll be helpless. Powerless. Insane. When you sit in the chair, ready for your dramatic new do, think of those birds and the hair on the floor.  Think of the baby twirling your tresses between chubby fingers, the lover watching you untangle your thick mane, your mother twisting perfect braids. Each strand is a page from your past. Tell the hair dresser, “Only a wee bit off the ends, please. I want to keep it long.” 

(Christine Green is a freelance writer and newspaper columnist in Brockport, NY. She also organizes and hosts a monthly literary reading, “Words on the Verge”, at A Different Path Art Gallery. She is a Californian at heart and dreams of once again living near the beach.)

All photographs courtesy of the author.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Black Hair

(Off the Cuff brings you opinion and essays on current events in the appearance universe)

CC Image courtesy of chandlerchristian on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of chandlerchristian on Flickr

As the daughter of a Black man and an Asian woman, I have always been more than my hair, but I didn’t always know it. My mother, who is Filipino, didn’t know what to do with hair that was so radically different from her somewhat wavy, mostly straight hair. She never explicitly said that my hair was ugly, but she pledged loyalty to the flat iron. If I didn’t want to straighten my hair that particular week, she would ask, “Why not? It looks so pretty when you straighten it.” I took this to mean: You look so much BETTER when your hair isn’t curly.

CC Image courtesy of Clemens v. Vogelsang on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Clemens v. Vogelsang on Flickr

Growing up in a multicultural household in a sleepy, all-white suburb in New England automatically cast me as an Outsider. My hometown believes racism and discrimination are evils only limited to states below the Mason-Dixon line. If I dare mention the racism I’ve experienced, white people take it as a personal attack. I’ve been called "racist" just for recounting my lived experiences. I may have been the daughter of two different races, but I was still black enough to be coded by the color of my skin and thus, dehumanized. My hair, with its impressive ability to break combs and brushes, has always been an easy target for small-minded bigots, from loud-mouthed, entitled white schoolgirls to oblivious older white men and women who seemed to have only seen Black people on TV.

When I was around eight or nine, my family went to Disney World during my summer vacation. I was standing near our airport gate when I felt two pairs of hands combing through my hair, tugging at the roots. Frightened and angry, I turned around to face two non-black women of color. Ignoring my distress, they reached out again for my hair. They would have continued to feel my hair if my father hadn’t appeared, mouth tugged into a frown. When whiteness is the default standard of beauty, blackness is cast as its unworthy opposite, as though one is Cain and the other, Abel.

As a child, I was made in my mother’s image of beauty. My father, considerably protective and a follower of old-school, traditional masculinity, didn’t have much to say about makeup and beauty. Meanwhile, the images from teen magazines that warped my influence were always available to discredit the mirrored reflections of my nuclear family.

I did not grow up insulated by the familiarity of blackness. Unlike my classmates, I didn’t have a large extended family. My father is estranged from most of his family and others passed on before my parents married. My mother’s family lives in the Philippines and I don’t remember the one trip we took to her home when I was three.

So at my mother’s suggestion, I began dying my hair in middle school. As the years progressed, I went blonder and blonder. I wanted my hair to be reminiscent of what I saw everyday in the media, the type of hair I saw on the white girls at my school. My mother and I brainstormed ways to tame my kinks and frizz into pitiful submission. The few times that we went to a local hair salon always ended in resentment and frustration. The white hairdressers never knew what to do. They’d stare at my hair as though it would jolt to life. One hairdresser actually turned us away.

CC Image courtesy of Dionysius Burton on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Dionysius Burton on Flickr

Eventually, we grew so tired of these reactions that I allowed my mother to trim my hair. Looking back, I understand that the incompetence and ignorance of those hair stylists has nothing to do with my value as a person. But at the time, my hair was a constant source of agony and personal shame. I hated (and still hate) the assumption that a Black girl or woman with natural hair should graciously bask in their supposed Otherness: the assumption that the Black girl in question doesn’t mind if you invade her personal space to dig your hands in her hair. White people, even non-black people of color have done this to me throughout my life. Without the slightest hesitation, they put their hands in my hair. They’re surprised that their stereotypes don’t hold up, that the texture of my hair “doesn’t feel like wool.” They write off their rudeness and ignorance as curious flattery. Such disrespect has never read as a compliment to me.

Upon entering middle school, I felt irreversibly, internally shaken by the negative attention that my hair attracted. I wore my hair in a tight bun most of the time. Friends and classmates couldn’t help but add their two cents: “Do you ever straighten your hair? Why don’t you straighten your hair more? It looks so good (read: better) that way!” By the end of high school, I claimed defeat. There’s nothing I can do, I thought, I just don’t have good hair.

If I had not gone out of state for college and graduate school in Boston and New York, I would have carried this mantra without knowing that there is no such thing as “good hair.” What is the concept of good hair without its relationship to whiteness? Still a superficial system of worth that shames genetics and heritage. By escaping my monolithic hometown, I was no longer the token minority everywhere I looked. In those environments, I was allowed to be more than my hair. Free of my mother’s beauty preferences, I began to trust my own taste. I saw beauty that defied the rigid standards of Connecticut townies. I was awakened to the fact that self-love did not have to be conditional.

CC Image courtesy of Victor Tondee on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Victor Tondee on Flickr

Of course, my existence deems that I can’t completely escape the far reaches of racism and white supremacy. My hair still elicits rude comments and violations of respect. In professional settings, I’ve had people ask if my hair is “real” or what do I do to “make it look like that.” While out to eat at restaurants, I’ve had men put their hands in my hair, unapologetic and entitled. I’ve had potential romantic prospects exclaim surprise upon discovering that my hair is “actually soft.” Yet I no longer worry about conforming. I no longer yearn for pin-straight locks. I haven’t chemically relaxed my hair in years. If the height and volume of my hair offend you, mission accomplished.

 

(Vanessa Willoughby is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared on Book Riot, Vice, Hazlitt, The Hairpin, and The Toast. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine.)

True Blue

(Off the Cuff brings you opinion and essays on current events in the appearance universe)

Photograph: Rollo Romig

Photograph: Rollo Romig

I was playing with my hair at work when I felt a smooth patch on my scalp, in the back of my head. Since I couldn’t look in the mirror, I lifted up my hair and asked my colleague Lauren to look at it. Lauren gasped. “There’s a bald spot there.”

I had just been promoted at work and was feeling utterly unprepared. The responsibility I was given was crushing me. I had to supervise a larger team of people and prepare reports. My lunch hour was given over to meetings and I had begun to take work home with me. I kept telling myself that this was what I wanted.  I refused to acknowledge the stress. But while I was able to suppress my anxieties intellectually and emotionally, the wisdom of the body was beyond my control.

The size of a golf ball, the bald spot on my head was diagnosed as alopecia. My immune system had begun to perceive hair follicles as foreign agents and was attacking them.  My body was under assault from within. The hair loss was my stress made physical. 

My hair has always told me the truth. When I am unhappy or stressed, my hair picks up the hints and insists that I take care of myself. The alopecia diagnosis was a warning bell that I had to heed. I slowed down. I delegated. I took the vacation I needed. I started meditating. My hair grew back.

Photograph: John Taylor

Photograph: John Taylor

Then a few years ago, I decided to cut off my long locks completely. The last time I had had such a drastic change of hairstyle was when my father took the scissors to my hair. I was five and traumatized when I saw the choppy results in the mirror. There were a lot of tears that day! Even decades later, I felt a great deal of trepidation giving my stylist the license for a pixie cut. What would my face look like? Who would I be at the end of this haircut?

I didn’t realize it then, but what I was summoning up was the courage to live outside my usual limits. After I gave my stylist the green light for a pixie cut, I was able to quit my job, take a break from work, and return to a new, more fulfilling workplace. 

My hair grew back. I went back to work. I bought an apartment. I dated. My meditation practice deepened. I started studying yoga.  Life was good. Then I started thinking of blue hair. In fact, I had been thinking of blue hair for a long time. But as you can imagine, there had never seemed to be a right time for blue hair. But I now had a stylist I loved, Autumn Whisman at Parlor Salon in Brooklyn. Autumn took her job and my hair seriously.  I brought it up during an appointment and Autumn was encouraging. It was February and after watching the Oscars, I emailed  Autumn. “Did you see Liza Minelli at the Oscars?”

At our next consultation, I told Autumn I was worried about the permanency of it all.  I wanted to dye my grays and the ends of my hair. That way I had an exit strategy, if it turned out horribly.  Autumn experimented with a demi-permanent color to oblige my request for temporary color, but when we tried a test strip, there was no sign of blue anywhere. It was either permanent or nothing. 

I made the appointment for two weeks later, silently debating with myself if this was a good idea.  “Are you worried about how people will perceive you?” A colleague asked me, since my role at work was outward facing. That’s when I realized that I didn’t care.  My hair was my palette and I wanted to express myself. I emailed Autumn my favorite stone, lapis luzuli, to give her a sense of the color.

Photograph: Rev. David B. Simmons

Photograph: Rev. David B. Simmons

I walked into the salon, smiling nervously. Autumn had gone through several test samples on human hair to give me a sense of the range of color that was possible. Four and half hours and several bottles of blue and bleach later, I emerged with exactly what I wanted—a deep blue that was not only vibrant but also sophisticated. 

A few months later, I would quit my job again. I would travel to a small Mediterranean town in France to learn French. Meditating in the 5th century  cathedral in the heart of this town of terracotta roofs, I would begin to understand that yoga was not just a hobby but a way of life for me. But that day when I left the salon with my blue hair swinging freely in the Brooklyn breeze, I didn’t know all that. My hair knew it but I didn’t. 

Photograph: Vandana Singla

Photograph: Vandana Singla

(Jess Geevarghese is a meditation and yoga instructor in New York City who focuses on stress management. She holds a BSBA, an MBA and an MSW from Washington University. Jess has fully accepted her gray hair and loves to get blowouts. Her website is www.thelongtimesun.org.)

The Spring Collection

(Real Wardrobes is a photo essay series exploring personal sartorial styles.)

On a sunny morning in Brooklyn, New York, the Cherry Esplanade at the Botanic Gardens was packed with warriors, sailors, princesses and monsters, all picnicking under a canopy of pale pink blossoms. Taiko drums sounded, kimono-clad women sashayed across a stage synchronizing fans and cherry bloom sprays. It was the first day of the 35th annual Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, a rite of spring for which Brooklynites and visitors lined up around the block. Inspired by “Hanami” parties to appreciate the blossom in Japan, this weekend celebrates traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The art of cosplay--in particular, dressing up as a character from Japanese history, anime or manga--has become one of the most popular aspects of the festival. On this bright Saturday, festival-goers in pastel kimonos twirled parasols in line for beer. Samurais swaggered, scabbards on hip, for the awed benefit of toddlers clinging to their mothers. Villains posed for selfies amidst the new lilacs.

 

Anna

...for costumes, it’s not really worth wearing unless I made it

This is Senbonzakura Miku, basically a cherry blossom version of a normal character. She’s a vocaloid, meaning she’s an animated singer. This brings out more of an outgoing side of me--in normal clothes, I’d be a bit more sheltered, I guess.

I bought the wig on Amazon.com, but the clothes I mainly altered off pieces I already owned or things I bought from thrift stores or fabric stores. I feel like, for costumes, it’s not really worth wearing unless I made it; personally I enjoy making things myself.

 

Danny Chen

I’m not a warrior, but when I put this on, I can take on anything.

When this costume started, it was based on an actual Samurai armor; Tokugawa Ieyasu’s armor; I got a little creative with it. I’m just fascinated with Japanese culture and I love Samurai and I love the color gold too, so his armor naturally drew me. I like to make things so I decided to give it a shot.

As much as I could, I did it very traditional: hand-lacing, hand-drilling, hand-sewing, everything by hand. I’m not a warrior, but when I put this on, I can take on anything.

There’s a certain place for a certain costume. The best place to wear this one is Matsuri, everything fits together well; people will recognize this as part of the culture. The fashion accessory I would take to a desert island? A sword.


Sometimes you have to mix patterns to stand out from the crowd.

This is a character of my own design: a mix from an American-made anime called Rwby. She’s one of my favorite villains. Villains get a bad rap! But they always look so fashionable to the point that you feel a little jealous of them. Like the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn. So I have to represent sometimes the villain, even though I’m always for the good guys.

I put this together myself from the clothes I had and this wig that I’ve had forever. I bought this hat at the last Sakura festival. I didn’t have all the fittings but this was as close as I could get.

My mom is not an anime fan, but when I got out of my room after preparing for this, even she’s like, “not bad.” This is a new thing for her, but now when I show her pictures from Sakura festivals, she knows. And now that it’s really integrating, it’s really good to see people paying homage to Japanese culture. The best fashion advice I’ve ever gotten is to always match, but not match too much. Sometimes you have to mix patterns to stand out from the crowd. Keep your posture up and that sells the dress. Even if it’s a cheap dress, you can make it look good if you have confidence.

 

Rai

The idea of transformation in general makes you feel kind of different and more powerful.

I chose Shaymin from Pokémon, because I thought it was really cool that Pokémon could transform. The idea of transformation in general makes you feel kind of different and more powerful. But I really love cosplay because it makes me feel more like myself. I’m always wearing different outfits and my hair is always different. So it makes me feel free; I can express myself. I chose a Pokémon that I already knew would be gender-queer because it fits me a little more. Something that is a little feminine and a little masculine. My Pokémon is a grass-type, I thought: cherry blossoms, grass, wings, I thought it would be perfect for the sunlight and the weather here, and the theme of the Japanese garden. I was supposed to have a parasol and staff but I didn’t finish it in time. The wings took so long to make! I took foam board and traced them together. The funny thing is, we had a power outage so I did it all in the dark.


...people do this and they don’t have to wait until Halloween?

This is from a visual novel-esque, fashion-esque rhythm game called Love Live! The [related] costume line is called Seven Lucky Gods, which takes Chinese regal style and mixes it with fantasy. We thought that the wood accents and the bamboo walls, the stalks, the trees here would be the perfect backdrop for this costume. Going out in costume, it’s very hard to be “in scene.” This is almost ideal for us. Sakura Matsuri is so beautiful; I love how it joins so many tourists together to celebrate Japanese culture, from how to draw a manga, to how to correctly wear a kimono, to traditional tea ceremonies. I think in our society, we need ways to make our people more culturally diverse because everyone wants to stay in their same box.

I’ve been researching cosplay since I was 14, I would go and look up pictures of my favorite comic book and anime characters. I would see people doing cosplay and I’m like – people do this and they don’t have to wait until Halloween? I realized there was this whole subculture around it, encouraging other people to get out there, be creative, intuitive and improvisational. I thought it was the perfect place for me as an artist.

Apart from making costumes, I also make armor that’s also an extension of my costumes. But I’m also a graphic designer and an illustrator. I like the challenge of becoming other characters, but at the same time, I pick characters that have some characteristics similar to mine, so I don’t have to completely betray my personality. I’ve always liked acting. In a way, it’s live action role-playing, or traveling theatre. You are a new character that you are not.

It’s my first time wearing this costume, but I’ve worn others. Right now I’m waiting on a cheongsam in the same style, it’s a bit shorter, very cutesy, pink with lots of petticoats underneath. You can do more playful poses in it. Rather than this, in which you walk slow, like a princess, basically. Best fashion advice? You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to fall down. It’s all a matter of picking yourself back up, brushing yourself off and taking pride in everything that you do. Whether you’re walking a catwalk, going to a photoshoot, going to an event, find something that you know is going to help you end with a smile on your face. At the end of the day, it’s just about having fun.


DSCF2529.jpg
fashion advice... Be comfortable.

This character is Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon. A lot of people in cosplay do like to dress up and pretend they’re that character; it’s real fun.

I pieced together this outfit; my brother helped me. Some of it we found it in the attic. I ordered the eyepiece from a store.

I’ve never gotten any fashion advice yet, but advice I’d give someone? Be comfortable. Especially now, I wish I were more comfortable. I’ll remember for next year.


As told to Roohi Choudhry, with photography by Shiva Muthiah

The Dress of a Thousand Secrets

(Subject profiles artists, designers, craftspeople, and others who are engaging with fashion as work and art.)

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

The first time I saw Suneet Sethi, she was wearing words that simultaneously defined and reduced her: secrets. A tall, buttermilk-skinned woman with slim shoulders and masses of dark hair, she emerged from backstage, in a long gown made entirely of paper envelopes, each containing a secret. The gown was strapless, shimmering in more colors than I could count, and it trailed behind her as she approached the spotlight, where she waited, silent and unmoving in her paper dress, held together with pins.

Sethi, a Sikh-American raised on Long Island in New York, was performing her piece, “Dress of a Thousand Secrets,” at a benefit in 2005 for the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective at Gallery Arts India in New York City. Audience members were instructed to approach her, pick out a note from any of the one thousand envelopes stitched together into the dress, and read it aloud.

The first intrepid audience member came up cautiously, chose a secret and read: “The razor is an object of taboo. I keep my pink one hidden in the pocket of my robe.”

Together, we re-examined Sethi, puzzled, all of us new voyeurs wanting more. Audience members began to line up to reveal truths--some mundane, some tragic, some provoking laughter, some awkward silence.

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

“I don't know what alcohol tastes like.”

“I was once misdiagnosed with bipolar depression and prescribed a magical drug called lithium. I was sleeping beauty for a year.”

“Once, I fed my baby sister jelly beans from the pocket of my knapsack. They were coated with colored pencil shavings.”

“Sikhs believe that the body is a temple of god. I believe it’s a prison.”

Sethi did not speak during her performance, the visual impact of her dress making her only statement. At first, her silence subdued the audience who seemed to be waiting for direction, for entertainment. But as that stubborn fourth wall crumbled and audience members shared the stage with Sethi, a palpable connectivity washed over the space. The people who approached the dress to read secrets aloud became, by turns, giddy, nervous and somber, perhaps reflecting Sethi’s own emotions.

In a later interview, Sethi told me, “I felt really close to the audience members who came up to me. Suddenly, these other people embody you; saying things that would come out of your mouth if you could say them yourself.”

She was unwilling to speak during the performance, she said, partly because she was not yet ready to let those secrets loose. She did not invite her parents to the show as they were still unaware at the time of some of the truths revealed. Having her parents in the audience, Sethi said, would have been the ultimate test of her as an artist and as a person, because so much of the emotion behind her art stemmed from her relationship with them.

That dynamic is often evident in her work, which includes images and themes from her family life. She uses both performance and visual art to navigate the duality of her orthodox Sikh Indian family and the suburban American society in which she was raised. “I’m the first generation of Sikh Americans in my family. It’s difficult being the first, because of the conflicts that come from the bicultural environment. Sikh women have to live up to the ideal of an obedient wife, a loving mother: a quiet woman. You’re constantly reminded that you’re representing the religion by your physical appearance--your long hair, your steel bracelet.”

Orthodox Sikhism requires many observances in clothing and daily practice, including a ban on any kind of hair removal. Along with imposing a stringent, traditional lifestyle, Sethi’s parents, a businessman and a stay-at-home mother, also discouraged Sethi from pursuing art. After high school, they pushed her towards a communications program, and later, a computer graphics degree.  Under the swiftly building pressures of cultural conformity and career demands, Sethi became depressed, and was hospitalized for an eating disorder.

“A lot of my feelings stemmed from not having any control over my life,” she said. “I wanted to experience things that I couldn’t. Dating wasn’t allowed. Styling or cutting my hair wasn’t allowed. The secrets started building up.”

During her depression, she expressed her frustration and powerlessness in desperate ways. One day, behind closed doors, she shaved off her hair with a razor blade, the taboo object, cutting her scalp in the process. When her parents found out, they were devastated and also, terrified that the rest of their close-knit immigrant community would discover this blasphemy. They compelled her to wear a scarf until her hair grew out.

But cultural conflict, by now a recurring theme in Suneet’s life, also emerged in her therapists’ reaction. “My therapists were well versed in Western culture; they couldn’t grasp my parents’ traditions, they didn’t take cutting hair seriously,” she recalled. “But, for me, it was like a castration of my Sikh identity.”

The Long Island community where Sethi grew up had its own taboos. In keeping with Sikh custom, she did not shave her body hair during high school, and suffered verbal abuse from her classmates. Even as an adult, she felt compelled to keep different secrets.

“In India, it’s okay to be living with your parents until you’re married. Here [in America], you’re expected to be independent from an early age.” As a grown woman living with her parents, she avoided revealing that. “There’s shame associated with that here,” she said.

The dress emerged as an expression and an exorcism of Sethi’s secrets, accumulated from a lifetime spent traversing these dual expectations. While she has made visual art for years, the dress was her first foray into performance art, and also, the first piece that she feels was “all about her.” The experience was also about evaluating the effects secrets have had on her life.

In some ways, Sethi recognized, the dress itself was an incarnation of the secrets it contained. While she was making it, Sethi’s parents were pleased that she was working on something as innocent as colorful envelopes, not knowing the revelations they contained. Some audience members reacted similarly.

“People found it disturbing because the dress is beautiful but the notes are different from what you would expect. People expect love letters,” she said. “The dress paints a pretty picture, so it protects the secrets really well. Lies protect and support secrets, and the colorful, pretty envelopes are one big lie.”

Since then, Sethi has gone on to complete her Masters in art education. She is exploring new artistic directions, including an MFA in experimental animation, and is interested in integrating animation with live performative pieces. She does not perform the dress any more, but continues to feel its resonance. It was her first realization of the cathartic effects of art, and, specifically, the mutability of performance art.

(Roohi Choudhry is a 2015-6 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Her writing has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Callaloo, the Normal School, and is forthcoming in Ploughshares.)

A version of this article first appeared in the Truth and Consequences issue of Bitch Magazine