What Do You Become When You Can’t Be Yourself?

A look at the role of clothing in the struggle to shape one's identity in the film Pariah


Something stuck with me after I finished watching Pariah for the first time, but I couldn’t quite put it into words. The film is strong, emotional, and surprisingly realistic compared to other lesbian films I’ve seen over the years. It took a second watch for me to realize what was really moving me throughout the pain-laden plot: the clothes. I have never seen a life so ruled by clothing as the main character Alike’s. For her, clothing can mean fear, strength, punishment, or acceptance. It’s all about the timing.

Pariah opens in an all-ladies club, and Alike (or Lee as most of her friends call her) sits in awe of the women dancing on poles in front of her. She’s accompanied by her best friend Laura, who appears to be much more experienced in the scene. The two complement one another perfectly: Laura with a diamond stud in one ear, an Afro, and a red plaid shirt, and Alike in an oversized striped polo, do-rag, and cap.

But when the pair separates on the bus ride home, Alike starts to strip. The hat comes off and a bun of corn rows is revealed. Under her polo she wears a tight pink t-shirt with sparkle embellishments that spell out “Angel,” and small hoop earrings are added to complete the look. Her old clothing, along with her lesbian identity, is tucked out of sight into a small army-print bag.

At home, it becomes obvious why Alike needs to hide. With an extremely religious mother and absent father, she is constantly pressured to look like a normal, pretty, teenage girl. Her mother, ruled by the fear that Alike is in fact a lesbian, constantly urges her to go shopping, and makes a point of commenting on clothes that “really complement her figure.” Like her hidden bag of boys’ clothing, Alike stuffs the truth beneath layers of fear and uncertainty, and continues lying to her parents. Meanwhile her mother continues buying tight pink clothing in too-small sizes and complaining to her friends that, “For some reason Lee just doesn’t like anything I pick out for her anymore.”

Upon arriving at school the next day, she rushes to the washroom to change again, this time swapping her feminine attire for a tight white undershirt, a large graphic t-shirt, and a cap. Although she’s in clothing that mirrors her friends, she still seems uncomfortable and detached, miserably drifting through the day alone. When school is out, she switches back and heads home where she’s pressured about what boy she’ll take to the homecoming dance. The switches continue back and forth, over and over. Just watching it is exhausting.

From “strapping” with a dildo in her pants to look “harder” to impress a straight girl, to softening and finding a middle ground between who her friends think she is and who her mother says she is supposed to be to try and find happiness, Pariah covers every step of Alike’s transformation and every layer of clothing she pulls onto her body and off again. When she finally realizes there’s nothing wrong with the person she’s been hiding, she breaks and the truth she has been piling under bedazzled t-shirts, cardigans with pulling buttons, and skirts is revealed. She finally gives herself permission to stop changing, and settles somewhere between the two extremes she’s been trying to dress for. With her hair uncovered and tied in a loose knot, earrings in, and fitted sweatshirts where massive polos were once donned with shame, she is no longer Alike or Lee: She is simply herself.

Pariah puts the importance of dress into perspective for us. Not only is dressing important to how we feel about ourselves, or how others perceive us, but it has the power to change our lives, for better or for worse. In Alike’s case, one poorly timed outfit swap could crumble her entire life, her family’s love, and her friendships. It made me realize although clothing has always meant freedom for me, it can be the opposite too. Some people are trapped in their clothing, and there’s no simple zipper or button solution to release them.

Think Pink!

Alyssa Wornette shares her favorite set of ultra-girly internet snippets

Lately I’ve been floating around on fluffy pink cotton candy clouds, sipping pink tea in a lavender bath and sporting pink mittens with my new knitted cat ear hat. It seems everywhere I look, I am left helplessly fawning over whatever cutesy, fluffy, object-with-a-face meets my eye. This existence trapped within rose-tinted glasses has of course bled into my cyber activity, and inadvertently, into my link roundup:

Kittens, Unicorns, and Puppies, Oh My!
Cats riding rainbow unicorns on a pink heart background ON A SCARF? Yeah, do I need to say more to communicate the brilliance of Silken Favours? If you need to hear more to be fully converted, read this great interview with the creator, Vicki Murdoch, and learn why she thinks everyone should own a scarf.

Bubble Pop
I love K-pop. I am NOT ashamed to throw this love in others’ faces, switching the playlists at parties to my friends’ shock and dismay. Too bad. Just look at their sets, their dance moves, and most importantly THEIR STYLE! From the adorable flower crowns and cat tails of AKB48, to the yellow braids and tiger-print pants of G Dragon, this piece by John Seabrook captures a great tasting of K-pop style and sound.

“I’m the Mary!”
Growing up, Romy and Michele held the keys to my heart. Aside from their hilarious date ditching tactics (“Will you please excuse me, I cut my foot before and my shoe is filling up with blood”), they had the most fearless fashion sense and lived on a candy-filled diet. I got a 15 out of 16 on this quiz, and I’m celebrating with candy corns.

Cattoed, if only for one day
Ever thought you loved cats so much that you wanted to cover your body in them? Well, thanks to illustrator Harriet Gray, you can! These temporary tattoos are so adorable they are almost fluffy on your skin, and bonus: once your cat craze is over (if it ever is) they’ll wash right off!

Call on Me
I recently visited Pacific Mall for the first time. I walked in with a basic iPhone in an Etsy-ordered case. I walked out with a pink iPhone, complete with 3 different new cases and several accessories, like a popsicle plug for the headphone jack. I never realized phones could change with your outfits, but NEWS FLASH, it’s totally possible! The Cute iPhone Cases Tumblr validates this new obsession.

My Teenage Dream
No roundup of mine would be complete without a Katy Perry reference. We can all haggle over Katy’s upbringing, her choice of lyrics, and her politics, but when it comes down to her style and HAIRSTYLES, no one can really debate her genius. Case and point, this Glamour UK photo collection of KP’s 58 best hair days.

The Stories We Tell

Five Wornettes revisit the fictional characters that inspired their closets growing up

Moon Prism Power!
When I was about 10 years old (pushing the limits of an appropriate age for a cartoon obsession), I loved Sailor Moon. She was my moon goddess of style. Though my love may have shifted from Sailor Scout to Sailor Scout, it was the idea of a sassy uniform only put on through an intense and magical costume change that I found most appealing.

The fantasy driven schoolgirl fashions had me acting like a fool as I begged my parents for the whole kit and kaboodle of consumer products marketed to my tween self. I remember the tense Christmas morning phone call between a friend and I as we discussed who had gotten what under the tree that morning. It was as if we thought it made us better people to have added to our growing collection of imported plastic accessories that made us “feel” like we really were “Super Sailor Scouts”—stylish schoolgirls with badass super powers.

As I got a bit older, my obsession stuck in the back of my mind. I couldn’t bear to part with the dolls, t-shirts, and plastic wands that hung around collecting dust in my closet. The cool punk girls I met in high school shared my secret love. We regularly discussed how awesome our animated hero and her friends were.

How did this totally fanciful, junk-food TV show fit in with my new found, anti-consumerist, teenage feminist rants? I began to reposition my fascination, turning my old Sailor Moon nightgown into a hot butch muscle tee and mixing the cutesy Sailor Moon-inspired pigtails of my youth into a riot grrrl-inspired statement. Perhaps the rumours of a lesbian love affair between Sailor Neptune and Uranus had even had an influence on my queerness. Even though I’ve more or less retired this obsession, I still get giddy every time I see a Japanese school uniform, excited at the thought of the magic that the girls who sport these get-ups possess. // Jenna Danchuk

Ten Points for Slytherin
I was obsessed with Harry Potter as a kid to the point that I managed to convince myself that a) I was his sister and b) Voldemort was stalking me. Okay, I’ll admit—I’m still obsessed. I couldn’t watch the last part of the last movie because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the series was ending. Before, when I identified as Gryffindor, I was partial to their house colours of red and gold. I was really big on wearing men’s ties as accessories (eat your heart out, Avril Lavigne). I used to carry a wand around until I was, like, 12. My mom claimed it was just a stick and told me to grow up. (Muggles, am I right?) Unfortunately, I haven’t. I still have the wand (yew, dragon heartstring core, inflexible), lying around somewhere.

When I was 10, I got glasses for the first time, and I didn’t feel like a Horrible Nerd Dorkasaurus as I might have had I got them at an earlier stage. I felt like this further confirmed my assumption that Harry Potter and I were related and I was actually a witch. The reason I wasn’t accepted to Hogwarts, I told myself on my 11th birthday, was because it is in England, and I lived in Canada, and Hogwarts Express doesn’t cross the ocean. Obviously. Anyway, Harry Potter made me feel cool about my glasses. I was in good company.

As I got older, I started to get into Harry Potter from a different perpective. I realized that I was cleary a Slytherin, and that green and silver were the way to go. I still like red and don’t hate Gryffindors, but I avoid gold clothing if I can help it and wear silver instead. // Sofie Mikhaylova

Here. Swear. Swear on Chanel.
I can’t remember being obsessed with anything other than dalmatians as a child, but in Grade 10 I fell under the spell of Carrie Bradshaw. The obsession spilled over to Sarah Jessica Parker (does anybody really differentiate between the two?) and I can remember going to school wearing my Great Grandmother’s broaches as fasteners on an asymmetrical grey cardigan, an homage to her Gap campaign.

My all-time favourite outfit during this phase was based on a dress from the final episode of the series. It was a sea-foam green tulle skirt which I made myself and layered over a structured black halter dress, meant to emulate the dress Carrie runs across Paris in, eventually reuniting with Big (gush). I wore it to our high school’s drama and dance awards.

I think the only problem my obsession with Carrie’s fashion might have caused was that it was so different from what everyone else was wearing in my high school, and so I sort of stuck out like a sore satin-gloved thumb. While everyone was showing up for class in jeans or sweatpants, I was wearing chiffon floral skirts and oversized fake flowers pinned to my cardigan. // Casie Brown

“Whoever said orange is the new pink was seriously disturbed.”
Growing up, I always got the idea that my peers didn’t think I was very smart. No matter how high my grades, my optimistic attitude combined with my affinity to wear pink matching outfits and my blonde streaked hair made me an easy target for dumb blonde jokes. I felt destined to be intellectually downtrodden until the day I saw Legally Blonde. Elle Woods was just like me: fun, girly, and smarter than she looked. I faked an eye exam and got cute glasses, paired knee socks with heels, and began telling everyone I would go to McGill, to which one boy said, “Alyssa, you’ll never be smart enough to go to McGill.” But, like Elle, I studied hard and tried to be best friends with everyone regardless of their judgment. The climax of my Elle Woods phase involved a head to toe hot pink Betsey Johnson corduroy outfit, complete with hot pink knee boots my mother acquired in Las Vegas, accessorized with a pink basket full of pink cookies which I spent my high school day handing out to students. After that I started dating a drama guy and went from Pretty in Pink to Checkerboard Ska. It was a rocky transition.

I never did get to McGill, but only because they didn’t offer a program as well known and successful as the Ryerson School of Journalism, where I am currently finishing my degree. I do, however, still wear pink with pride, and sometimes when I get to class and take out my floral notebook and rainbow pen set, I smile to myself and silently thank Elle for helping me find my smart self. // Alyssa Garisson

All I want is a dress with puffy sleeves.
Anne of Green Gables was a really important book for me as a child. I just liked how she was so herself, even though that self was a little weird and loud and prone to unfortunate accidents. I’ve never dyed my hair green (by accident, that is), I’ve never gotten my best friend drunk (by accident, that is), and I’ve never floated away in a lake and been rescued by a mischievous, handsome boy from school (not yet, that is). I might not have had flaming red hair, but I did have big, bushy, brown curls—I stuck out in the sea of sleek blonde hair that was the style for all the pretty girls in elementary school.

When I first read Anne of Green Gables, I didn’t fully understand what “puffed sleeves” were—I remember looking in a mirror and holding my sleeves up off my shoulder in an attempt to visualize what Anne was talking about—but I definitely sympathized with Anne’s yearning for trendy clothes that her adopted guardians couldn’t afford. As a child, all my clothes came from the sale section of a local discount outlet store. I always wanted what I couldn’t have: designer purses, t-shirts with logos printed on them, $30 lipgloss from department stores. My mother had a very Marilla Cuthbert attitude towards the whole thing. They’re both very practical women who work hard to balance a small budget and are seemingly impervious to trends or impractical wants. I’m the complete opposite—as soon as I was old enough to work, I worked in the trendiest boutiques and department stores, spending my minimum wage earnings on the latest styles.

Once, when I was working at a law firm and had lots of disposable income, I came across a cardigan that had legitimately puffed sleeves. It was a black button-down sweater with ruched stitching on the shoulders, giving them a raised, “puffed,” look. I don’t know if the designers had Anne of Green Gables in mind when they designed it, but I bought it immediately. I never wore it. It’s not really my style. I didn’t relate to the actual puffed sleeves—I related to Anne’s wanting. I understood desiring what you can’t really have. Besides, buying those items for yourself rarely fills a void. When Anne finally gets her puffed sleeves, it’s because Matthew, her guardian and best friend, knows that puffed sleeves will make Anne happy and sets out to get them for her. I’ll always remember how I felt reading about Anne unwrapping the paper on her beautiful brown dress that Matthew got Mrs. Lynde to make. Anne had someone who really understood her and who would have done anything to make her happy. I like to imagine that Anne never gave away or threw out that dress because it reminded her of how much she and Matthew loved each other. She outgrew the puffed sleeves, but she never outgrew their relationship. BRB, crying forever. // Haley Mlotek

photography// brianne burnell

Three Short (and One Longer) Reviews About Documentaries

We loved Bill Cunningham: New York. We are ridiculously excited for the Advanced Style film. However, we don’t limit ourselves to only critically watching documentaries explicitly about fashion. When Toronto’s Hot Docs fest rolled around a few months ago, the Wornettes took to the theatres. We noticed that there were documentaries on a variety of subjects in which either clothing played an integral role to the subject being explored, or the underbellies of parts of the fashion industry were exposed. Here are a few short reviews—and one longer one—about docs that got us thinking.

She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column
Dir. Kevin Hegge (2012)

Hegge combines present day interviews and archival footage to tell the story of the most badass lady fronted art-punk band Toronto has ever seen: Fifth Column. For those not familiar with the post-punk, pseudo psych group that featured a cast of rotating musicians, as well as three solid members (GB Jones, Caroline Azar, and Beverly Breckenridge), they fused art, music, and zines to create a style that was truly their own. Fifth Column came before riot grrrl, and Kathleen Hanna speaks in the film about what an inspiration the band was to her. Kathleen may have written “slut” on herself, but Fifth Column first insisted that “All Women Are Bitches.” Band members GB and Caroline explain in the film their philosophies on fashion: the faker, the better. The bigger the hair, the heavier the make-up, the more “ladylike” you were. As Judith Butler says, all gender is drag, and the girls in Fifth Column seem to really understand this. // Jenna Danchuk

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
Dir. Brett Whitcomb (2012)

Flower-adorned, dressed in a sequin bikini, and riding in on a horse. No, this woman is not on the beach—she is entering the wrestling ring. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling tells the story of the first all-female wrestling program that aired from 1986 to 1990. Each actress turned wrestler had a persona assigned to her and a dazzling ensemble to match: Americana was decked in stars and stripes and Amy the Father’s Daughter in a crop gingham top, Daisy Duke shorts, and pigtails. They were expected to stay in role 24/7 and developed their character by adding to their original costumes with corsets, accessories, fake accents, and even live animals to reflect their own personal style. When a wrestler of GLOW slipped on her leopard gloves or crimson cape, she took on a persona that gave her presence, confidence, and the strength to dropkick and put her opponent in a nelson hold, and look glamorous while doing it. // Jill Heintzman

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