Aladdin Sane at the Salvation Army

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)


"Everyone here wants to sleep with you."

Two months into my first year of grad school, I was at my first actual Halloween party since maybe middle school (I didn’t get out much in college, whatever, shut up). I was dressed as Aladdin Sane: full lightning-bolt makeup, ruffled shirt, my girlfriend’s leggings. The news about everyone wanting to sleep with me came from Franke, a poet in my year whose introversion was so deep that it often worm-holed inside out and exploded as inappropriate extroversion (I mean, the dude once brought a jug of liquor to a writing class.) In other words, the line could easily have been a joke at my expense that I am still too dense to recognize. Half the battle of being a graduate student was figuring out which insecurities to take seriously. But at that party and at that moment, it was exactly what I wanted to hear. I raised my hand and tried to point to the whole room at once. “I accept!” I said to him and everyone.

I lost my David Bowie virginity decades after just about everybody else. It happened in college, by accident, via the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic. It’s not that cool of a story except that it was electrifying to hear Seu Jorge’s mournful acoustic cover of “Life on Mars” in Portuguese rub elbows with Bowie’s original “Queen Bitch.”

Later that year, my father asked me whether I actually liked Bowie or just listened to him ironically. A fair question: my parents knew me then (and probably still know me best) as my high school self, who was unabashedly and unironically in love with nü-metal. Like, I owned Godsmack albums on purpose. Even so, I didn’t have the guts to quite commit to a metalhead look. Aside from some unfortunate hair gel and JNCO jeans decisions, I wore the 00s straight white guy uniform: New Balance sneaks, t-shirts with words and/or dragons on them, and cargo everything. Utilitarian and baggy: default clothes for a default guy who wanted to be wanted and didn’t know how to say so.

So no, I didn’t listen to David Bowie ironically. I listened deliberately, enjoying the way he clashed with my previous self. He ushered in a series of infatuations with musical heartthrob waifs: Patrick Wolf, Owen Pallett, Andrew Bird, Zach Condon; I was in college. The sludge of double-bass pedals and drop-tuned guitar washed away in a tide of ukuleles and synths and violins and glitter. I went hippie rather than glam: shoulder-length hair followed by a soul-patch. But still, my clothes were more about concealment and fitting in than anything else, and my idols were men who had found a wardrobe that was outlandish, surreal, and performative bordering on vain.

I got into grad school on the last day of the last month of the acceptance deadline. Some guy had decided at the last minute to attend Cornell instead of Michigan, thereby scooping me out of the waitlist and dumping me into a pool of real writers. I was a small fish in a small pond full of big fish. Some of my peers had books out already. Some already had successful careers in other disciplines. Many were a decade or more older than me. Workshops were full of straight-up good writing. Meanwhile, I tried to feel like I deserved to be there. I submitted my buttoned-up little poems about floorboards and fireplaces, the emotional content always oblique, always mediated by images rather than revealed by them. They received polite, buttoned-up feedback in return. But then the Bowie costume happened. For the rest of the year, people talked about the costume in a way they didn’t talk about my writing.

I’d cobbled the costume together from the Salvation Army thrift store across the street from my apartment. The big finds were a faux-snakeskin jacket and a yellow satiny blouse with ruffles that went on for days. My girlfriend at the time helped assemble the rest of it: she administered the aerosol hair dye, the face-paint and makeup, and loaned me the leggings.

Could I have dressed up as Aladdin Sane had I been single? Could I have walked into a party full of near-strangers wearing tights and makeup if I hadn’t been firmly partnered? I want the answer to be yes. I’d like to be the anchor for my own masculinity. But I haven’t really dressed up for Halloween since we broke up.                

The image of Ziggy Stardust I held in my head as I rifled through the women’s clothing racks at Salvation Army, and the image of him I have now, is neither timid nor oblique. He is bleached and vivid, wearing the goofy red mullet, the silver circle stamped on his forehead, the jumpsuit that’s half-Star Trek and half-kimono, the bare chest underneath. Not androgynous so much as transcendently sexual.

For me, the “starman” is a fantasy of escape and return: to escape my boring poetry and return with something resplendent; to escape the heavy masculine anxieties of my adolescence and return transfigured and alien and actually, publicly sexy.

And it worked for a minute. I walked into the party, and everyone knew who I was supposed to be.

(David Ward teaches writing classes at the University of Michigan, where he once upon a time received an MFA in poetry. He’s been published, but not often or recently. He’s excited to write about David Bowie, but feels a little weird that he’s used Bowie’s death as an occasion to write about his own life. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is his favorite album, because obviously, but Low and Hunky Dory are close contenders. Next costume: Goblin King.)

Photographs by Caitlin Joseph


Alice Odhiambo

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

I am a Christian and I go to church regularly. So I am working on seeing myself as God sees me. When I look at the mirror, I don’t see 27-year-old Alice, I see 13-year-old Alice. And I want to tell her, be comfortable in your body. You are not fat. You don’t need anyone’s approval.


As told to Shahnaz Habib, with photography by Jess Geevarghese

The Skein

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

W e—my fiancé and I— were tracing calligraphy onto one hundred vintage postcards. Our fingers grew shaky with caffeine and rebellious at the repetition, as we hunched over our coffee table.  But we had to hurry. Our wedding invitations were overdue.

Merely choosing a font had taken us months. In the spirit of prenuptial indulgence, we had tested many. The pages and pages of options, in hundreds of permutations of size and typeface, might have been a novella. An aimlessly written, belabored, unreadable novella.

After cutting our novella up line by line and testing the cutouts next to one another, and then mocking up the snippets to create a template that would fit a standard postcard, we had a finalist: a combination of two typefaces in three sizes. But each hand-picked postcard came with its own spatial restrictions: lengthy captions in the left hand corners; large boxes to guide stamp placement; a line or no line to separate message space from address space. The template we had labored over was useless. 

(In fact, there were many such time-consuming pursuits. Our far-flung collecting sprees for the postcards [eBay, garage sales, gift shops, childhood drawers]. Our maniacal selection of a vintage stamp for each card, and the personal selection of a postcard for each guest. Our deliberation, in the aisles of assorted and increasingly upscale craft stores, over pen tip and color, scribbling our names, date, and venue all over sample papers until it appeared the store shelves themselves were invited. Or, most intensively, the hundred hand drawn maps my fiancé composed, a cross section of a dozen beautifully-named Brooklyn streets, color-coded to mark the location of parking garages and metro stations, not to mention the venue itself. And all of this notwithstanding the universal rigors of wedding invitations: address collection, obsessive spell checks, never-ending wording and guest list refinements.)

But then came the moment—then did come the moment— when it was all complete: tidy stacks of postcards, maps, and expectant envelopes. We stretched our backs, uncrippled our pen-indented fingers. A gentle growl, the thunder of a September storm, marked the moment. The cool it would bring, the autumn it promised—our wedding season—tantalized. 

And then there was a flash of lightning.

He gestured a high five. I wanted to share in his celebration, but my hand had been stayed. I fought the urge to mention the vision that had presented itself in the flash. But looking into his eyes, the eyes of my soon-to-be husband, and seeing him poised to receive the clap of my hand — to take my hand in his, to take this woman’s hand in marriage— I knew I could not keep this secret-of-secrets from him. 

"They need ribbons," I announced. 
"Ribbons?" he asked, with a hesitant smile. 
“Yes. Ribbons.”
“What ribbons?”
"To tie the maps to the postcards, like little presents." 
It dawned on him. 
"Oh— oh no. We just finished."
“I know, I know." 
"And they’re fine." 
"Yes, they’re fine. They’re beautiful. But like I said – well, the ribbon is missing. They need it. You can just tell."
And reader, he could tell.
"Okay. But. There's a storm, we have no ribbon, and we need to mail these today."
 “There are three fabric stores in the neighborhood..."
"Okay. Will they have what you want?"
"Black, thin, feather-edged."
The lightning struck closer, and the thunder, booming, rattled the ground. 
"You know. The little loops of thread on either side."
"And you are sure the stores have this?"
"How would I know? We’ll just have to look."
"No—No. I will go and look. You’ll do the tying."
"Alright," I gave in, "you go. Go!" 

He left, and I watched the sky grow impossibly gray, and then flash, and then open up. 

He returned fifty minutes later, soaked, nestling a bounty of ribbon, dry and warm, in a plastic bag. An entire skein, which had been offered to him for ten dollars by an eager shop owner. "Nobody comes in for ribbon," he'd said. "Wholesale price. For the happy couple."

I tied a postcard to a map and held back tears. Quickly, despite our kitten’s playful pawing at every piece of ribbon between my scissors, I tied all the cards to maps. Little presents. It seemed a pity to dress them in envelopes but I plundered on, tongue one with the adhesive, a sustaining, gluey fuel, propelling me onwards, faster, towards a hundred. 

The thunder calmed, the day smoothed into a pink evening. We took our invitations to the mailbox and twinged, almost parentally, as we sent them on their way.  To be sorted by machines, flown in gray planes, and carried in warm messenger bags. To be handled by postal carriers, to wait in hard mail boxes, to be torn by the hands of our guests. The ribbons untied, the message read, the cards placed on refrigerators and bulletins, in scrapbooks and garbage cans. 

Fast forward. Our first anniversary. The skein of black ribbon now sits in our closet. We've taken small snips from it— to hold back our fire-escape tomato plants, as an impromptu cat toy— here and there, but it remains largely intact. 
We love each other's cooking; the ribbon is there. Evening walks are a mainstay; the ribbon is there. Our kitten’s a cat now; the ribbon is there. It’s a firm, full palm of satin,  dense in its deep black and unknown length. It could cocoon us, and looking down at us from its shelf in the closet, it seems almost inclined to; it seems to know the role it played in our wedding, as fastener, embellishment, crowning touch. An unlikely relic of our wedding, the ribbon radiates from its shelf in our closet.

(Elisabeth McAvoy lives in Jackson Heights, New York, with her husband, cat, and 133,000+ other people. A recent graduate of Barnard College, she spends her working life in the publicity department at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and much of her non-work life observing people on subways, squirrels on fire escapes, and pigeons everywhere.)

Kodaikanal won't

Two years ago, during a long stint in India, my husband and I and our toddler holed up in a tiny cottage in Kodaikanal, a hill station in Tamil Nadu. We spent a lovely month there, writing and walking. I never thought of myself as a nature person, but Kodaikanal converted even me. The flowers! They are just ridiculously beautiful. And they are everywhere. Not just in the gardens, but along the sides of the muddy red village roads, uphill and downhill. They insisted on being seen. I feel exhausted at the thought of describing them because I always skim descriptions of flowers in books. Who could possibly be interested in reading about a flower that looks like a furry purple string, soft and delicate to touch, almost animal-like in its energy? Tiny flowers that would never make it into a flower vase because they are too wispy and delicate. Giant flowers that look like sophisticated bombs, created in a beauty lab. Purple and orange and ruby-red flowers and one that was the faintest, tantalizing blush of lilac. 

 Just a little Kodaikanal flower.  "Dancing Ballerina" by Thangaraj Kumaravel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Just a little Kodaikanal flower.  "Dancing Ballerina" by Thangaraj Kumaravel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Anyway, in short, happy times were had in Kodaikanal. And so, hearing about the Mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal lake, I am especially outraged. In 1982, Ponds moved their thermometer factory from USA to Kodaikanal, because, you know, Mercury poisons. So can't have that in the US. A few years later, the factory was acquired by another cosmetics giant, Unilever. The company was long suspected of not following the correct protocol for pollution control, but things came to a head in 2001,  when a pile of broken glass thermometers (with Mercury in them) were found in the forest. Unilever was forced to shut down the factory.

But the Mercury remains -- in the water, the soil, in the bodies of factory workers. And environmental activists in south India are asking Unilever to make amends and clean up. In a fun fun fun music video, set to the tune of Nicki Minaj's Anaconda, rapper Sofia Ashraf sings: "Unilever has been hiding behind/Their PSAs and fake Pepsodent smiles/They washed their hands off Kodai with Lifebuoy/There's nothing Fair or Lovely about this trial.."

Yes, the same Unilever who also makes the "No.1 selling women's fairness cream." For me, there is a direct line between these dots -- fairness creams and Mercury poisoning. When a corporation is willing to cash in on racist prejudices, it's a short skip, hop and jump to environmental irresponsibility. The skin of the earth is the skin of our bodies.

The watch theory of politics

I have been catching up on old New Yorker articles and this one from 2013 was an excellent read. A diamond entrepreneur from Israel won the rights to operate one of the world's richest iron mines, located in Guinea, one of the world's poorest countries. Within a year, the entrepreneur sold a fity-one percent stake in the operations to a Brazilian mining company -- for 2.5 billion dollars. This at a time when the annual budget of Guinea amounted to 1.2 billion dollars. The current President of the country is trying to strip the diamond entrepreneur's license and protect the rights of the people of Guinea to the profits from the mines. It is a fascinating story about the networks of international corruption and power-brokering, from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to Geneva. This bit struck me especially:

“I practice the watch theory of politics,” a Western diplomat in Conakry told me. “When a minister is wearing a watch that costs more than my car, I start to worry.” During my interviews with officials in Conakry, I spotted more than one conspicuously expensive watch; in the Guinean fashion, the watches hung loose on the wrist, like bracelets.

Those expensive watches, giving away much more than time -- a tiny detail that suddenly illuminates a whole web of corruption.