Photo: Lara Kastner.
It’s fifty degrees in January, and the air in the Garment District smells strangely of pea soup. The building I’ve been directed to is supposed to be an art gallery, but all I can find is an office-supply showroom. I wait outside on a street dotted with FedEx trucks, Pret A Mangers, and fabric stores selling colorful sequined silks and heavy white brocades—the expensive material of saris and wedding dresses. In the early twentieth century, when New York City was still the center of the American garment industry, this neighborhood housed sewing factories where Eastern European immigrants made the petticoats and shirtwaists sold on Fifth Avenue. Most multinational fashion brands have since moved their operations overseas, and the sewing work that is still done in the Garment District is usually completed by newly graduated FIT students working as interns, not by members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
I’m here to meet Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, who will give me a jumpsuit she made just for me that I will wear as my only article of clothing for the next three weeks. Abigail is one of two artists who comprise the Rational Dress Society, a collective committed to what the group calls “counter-fashion”—a critique of fashion and capitalism through political dress. Abigail and her partner in counter-fashion, Maura Brewer, have been wearing only jumpsuits for the past three years—to weddings, to job interviews, to teach their classes at art school, and to visit their families over Thanksgiving. Their closets are nearly empty: they each have three jumpsuits, a few jumpsuit-compatible sweaters, workout clothes, pajamas, and underthings—that’s it. They don’t have to buy new clothes or wonder how they’ll look in the culottes that have recently come into fashion. They never have to choose a new outfit because they’ve already picked the one they’ll wear forever.
My phone buzzes. It’s Abigail, telling me she’s running late, asking if I want a coffee, and explaining to me that the gallery is not, in fact, in the office-supply showroom but on the third floor of an adjacent building. I make my way upstairs to a room full of wires, hardware, half-installed clothes racks, and unpacked boxes. Although Maura and Abigail’s primary project is JUMPSUIT, the Rational Dress Society is an art practice whose components are varied. The gallery’s current show, “Omega Workshop,” highlights other artists working in counter-fashion, including an LA collective who designs dayglow sparkle clothes for queer-crip bodies, an artist who deconstructed and redesigned a high-heel shoe, and the artist Frau Fiber, who will lead a DIY workshop on how to sew a Soviet hippie poncho. Abigail and Maura are also working on a project called “Make America Rational Again”—they are collecting “gently used and emphatically discarded” Ivanka Trump–label clothing to melt down into a polyester slurry, which they will transform into millennial-pink jumpsuits.
The politics of consumer choice are at the heart of the Rational Dress Society’s ideology. By making a single choice and sticking to it, Maura and Abigail are attempting to draw attention to the way that democracy and choice have become conflated under capitalism. Although it may seem as if we have endless choices of what to wear, as if our ability to choose is part of what makes us free, we really only have the choices that the market makes available to us. We can wear a tube top from Hot Topic or a baggy tunic from Eileen Fischer, but we must buy new things, and we must buy more. Abigail and Maura hope that their project will help us see the choices that have been shoved outside of our field of vision: to mend the clothes we have, to halt consumption, and perhaps to opt out of capitalism entirely.
The Rational Dress Society looks to both the future and the past. Their name is borrowed from the Victorian reform movement that, in an era of bustles and corsets, advocated for pants and other “rational dress.” Yet the garment they are promoting is emblematic of science fiction. A portion of the proceeds of all their work will go toward the purchase of a full-page ad in Vogue. The ad isn’t intended to sell more jumpsuits; Abigail and Maura don’t want to replace one consumer product with another. Once the ad is paid for, the project will close up shop.
The Rational Dress Society makes jumpsuits in two hundred forty-eight sizes culled from NASA data to fit almost any body type. Anyone can print the pattern for free from their website or, for a hundred and fifty dollars, order one that will arrive ready-made out of sustainable fabric and hand sewn by well-paid seamstresses. The design was inspired by patterns for work wear, and the finished garment looks like painters’ coveralls. But on the bodies of Maura and Abigail, both hip art-school grads with fashionable glasses and haircuts, the jumpsuits look simply chic, as though there is nothing more sensible or cool a person could wear.
I have never looked simply chic—for me, fashion has always been a chore. I can’t quite keep up with the churn of the seasons, and if I get rid of clothes before they are threadbare, I am racked with thrifty guilt. I believe in the power of dress to communicate something to the world; it is in many ways the first thing we say about ourselves, the threshold between our private and public lives. But the messages available to me have always felt predetermined, the choices hollow. So the promise of Abigail and Maura’s jumpsuit appealed. My message would be provided not by corporate America but by two artists. The message would be a rebuke to the system that had long brought me frustration and shame.
Abigail arrives at the gallery in a smiley flurry—she is perpetually cheerful and excited. She is wearing a white jumpsuit and black glasses with saucer-size lenses and carrying a tray of coffees. She points me toward an enormous duffel bag on the floor, full of jumpsuits, and then pulls out mine—a perfectly folded denim rectangle.
That night, I pull my jumpsuit out of my bag with excitement and slip it on. It fits oddly—too long in the crotch and too loose in the legs. My small waist, the part of me about which I am most vain, is obscured by a swath of dark-blue denim that falls straight from my shoulders to my hips. Nothing cinches my middle, and I feel fat. I will learn later that this style is called a “drop waist” and was popularized by flappers in the twenties, women whose ideal body was straight and androgynous—two adjectives that definitely do not describe my figure.
I pull the jumpsuit down so that the bodice is taut, but then the crotch is low—nearly down to my knees. I take another tack and pull the jumpsuit up so that the waistband is at my natural waist, and a poof of fabric emerges at my chest. I look in the mirror and see a figure I don’t quite recognize—I look unfeminine and the wrong size, bulky and overstuffed. But this garment had been made to my exact measurements. I had imagined it fitting my body perfectly, flattering my figure and making me look magically thinner, stronger, better. Had I been given the wrong one? The problem with subverting the tyranny of choice is that you arrive at sameness, and bodies are not the same. Even with two hundred forty-eight sizes, there aren’t enough for the body I have.
Maura and Abigail have invited me to watch a sewing workshop they are running the next day at MOMA, where they would teach fifteen strangers how to turn several yards of fabric into a sleeve and a bodice. I show up in my normal clothes, but my jumpsuit is wadded in my bag.
The museum has set up six sewing machines on large gray tables, which are arranged in a semicircle in an open space between galleries. The group is almost all youngish white women, with the exception of a man in his late twenties with a scruffy beard and curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. One woman is wearing a hijab; another is wearing a non–Rational Dress jumpsuit. Several older women are wandering around wearing white sashes with RATIONAL DRESS printed in bold black sans-serif type—expert seamstresses here to help the novices thread bobbins and cut out patterns. One of them, Joann, tells me that when she read the email from MOMA about the program, she called the front desk to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. The notice had mentioned the Rational Dress Society’s anti-Trump project, and she couldn’t believe the museum would do something so overtly political.
The sound of a triangle rings, and Maura steps up to a microphone. Maura and Abigail are, of course, both wearing jumpsuits—white ones this time. Maura wears red, white, and blue Converse; Abigail, sensible black boots.
“I’m comrade Maura.”
“I’m comrade Abigail. Together, we make JUMPSUIT, the open-source, ungendered monogarment to replace all clothes in perpetuity.”
“All of you will be able to go home, and based on the information you receive here, combined with additional guidance from our online instructional video, you will be able to sew your own jumpsuit from beginning to end. After you have completed your monogarment, we invite you to throw away all of your clothes,” Maura says.
The women go back and forth describing the rationale of their project, a speech they’ve clearly memorized from a script. It’s a performance, but it’s also a workshop. It’s art, but it’s also a sewing lesson. H&M, they tell us, purposefully designs their clothes to fall apart after ten washings. And in their Cambodian factories, the workers don’t have sick leave. They are discriminated against for being pregnant, they are fainting en masse, and they are very often children. The politics Abigail and Maura describe are of radical consumer choice. By making a choice not to buy any clothes at all, to instead wear a long-lasting garment that can be repaired, the jumpsuit wearer is not participating in a boycott—they are rejecting the underlying system that caused the need for the boycott in the first place.
Abigail and Maura finish their speech, ring the triangle again, and the sewing begins. Maura puts on the Rational Dress Society playlist, which includes songs about worker solidarity, revolution, and jumping. Abigail walks everyone through the first stage of the process—cutting out the pattern for the sleeves. She peppers her descriptions with technical language: seam allowance, control notches, belt-loop positioning, drill holes, selvage edge. These are the words that she uses in her everyday life as a teacher in the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she delights in teaching them to the group.
“I don’t like choices,” the bearded man, Aaron, tells me as he waits his turn for a sewing machine. He’s come with his fiancée, Lizzie, who wants to learn how to tailor clothes she buys at thrift stores. Aaron believes in the politics of the the Rational Dress Society, but part of the appeal is not having to pick out his clothes every morning.
Buthaina, who sits at the machine next to Aaron and Lizzie, grew up in Milan, where she says everyone is a shopaholic. She’s been moving from one country to another for three years, and she’s had to get rid of the clothes she’s accumulated. “Moving makes you conscious of your life priorities,” she tells me.
After the group cuts out their sleeves and they begin taking turns at the sewing machines, a woman with a Russian accent emerges from another exhibit and sheepishly asks me, “What is this?” I try to explain that these are artists who make jumpsuits and that this group has gathered in the middle of this famous museum to sew. “Yes, but why are they playing the Soviet national anthem?” she asks. I’m not quite sure how to answer. Maura and Abigail offer the aesthetic of “the worker” with unrestrained delight, but it seems suddenly tone-deaf in the presence of a woman who has presumably grown up in the shadow of Stalin. The Rational Dress Society’s critique of choice is meant to be a critique of American late-stage capitalism. But the aesthetics of that critique seem to hearken back to a time and a place ruled by a different tyranny: one of scarcity and political oppression.
Maura and Abigail have been accused of fascism before. Americans are primed to equate lack of choice with lack of freedom, and the aesthetics of the project, from the cut of the jumpsuit to the music on the playlist, look and feel decidedly Soviet. When I ask Maura about it, she tells me that people forget the project isn’t about forcing people to wear the same thing; it’s about encouraging them to end their participation in a harmful system. “JUMPSUIT is not a mandate,” she says. “You have to choose to reject choice.” Maura and Abigail are unabashedly influenced by artists of the early Soviet Union, who had aesthetics very different from the harsh socialist realism of the Stalinist era. Early Soviet artists designed clothes for ease of work and play rather than for opulent display. “The Soviet artists realized that the transformation of society would have to happen not just through direct political action but also through a transformation in lifestyle, facilitated by art and design,” Maura and Abigail tell me.
At the end of the day, I go to the bathroom, step out of my shoes, and peel off my skinny jeans for the last time. The jumpsuit is a mass of fabric, a whale of a thing bulking up the bags I’ve been carrying around the city. I pull it on and walk out of the stall, feeling like Superman but also like a child in a costume.
When I come back to the gallery, Abigail and Maura fuss over the jumpsuit a bit but assure me that it’s definitely the right size. Abigail tells me she wasn’t so sure about the fit at first either but that she grew to love it after a few days. Out of earshot, I ask Joann, the expert seamstress, what she thinks. I get the feeling she’s the kind of older New York lady who would tell me the brutal truth. “Do I look fat?” I whisper. I know it’s the wrong question to be asking, but I can’t help myself. Joann just laughs.
I give it a try. I want to see what changes when I wear the same garment every single day. Abigail and Maura have been doing it for three years; I can do it for three weeks.
The next morning, as I walk to work, I realize that it’s the first time in years, maybe decades, that I am wearing such loose-fitting clothing in public. Sure, I’ll wear a baggy sweater or a swing dress, but there is always a bit of Lycra or a constricting band in there somewhere—a pair of tights or skinny jeans, a too-tight sleeve or an uncomfortable armpit. Abigail and Maura tell me that clothing companies make everything tight and stretchy so they can make fewer sizes—it’s cheaper to cut three sizes than six.
As I walk up the stairs to my office, no fabric grips my skin, and I feel unencumbered. Although I have been worried about how I look, the truth is I’ve never felt less fat. The garment does not constantly remind me of my girth; it does not threaten to bust at the seams if I move too quickly or eat too much. I’m not just thwarting the tyranny of capitalism—I’m thwarting the tyranny of tightness.
Several women compliment me on the first day—“I love your coveralls!” one coworker shouts casually across the room. Two others tell me that while they think I look great, the garment would never work on their body. It’s a constant refrain I’ll hear during my time in the jumpsuit. We all seem to think our bodies are impossible—too fat or thin, too long a torso or too thick a waist—to be accommodated.
Not choosing an outfit really does save time. But more than time, it saves a kind of emotional labor that I hadn’t realized I was doing. I spent so much time wondering, What should I wear? The answer seemed to lie in discerning what other people would expect, how I could impress them, what would look cool. But after a beat of contemplation, I’d remember I already knew what I was going to wear. I was going to wear a jumpsuit. I could move on to other things. I began to sleep in a little later. I actually sat down to eat breakfast and got some reading in before heading off to work. But the real freedom came from not starting every day thinking about all the problems with my body or my wardrobe.
As the days passed and the novelty wore off, a different set of truths settled in. Two weeks in, I sat in a work meeting across from a woman with beautifully blow-dried hair, perfectly applied makeup, and a colorful pencil skirt. I felt, by comparison, like a manly baby wearing a onesie and work boots, and I was distracted by my need to prove both my femininity and my professionalism. I realized how much of my sense of self as a woman was wrapped up in how the world sees my body. There were days when I put on too much makeup to compensate for not wearing dresses and tight jeans. Other days, I wore no makeup, feeling like my plain face suited the outfit more. I realized I was afraid people wouldn’t find me sexy—that if they couldn’t see my waist, my curves, my ass, they wouldn’t know that I was attractive. And I began to question that fear.
But then I was also grateful to be able to hide in the looseness of the garment, to feel like my worth would have to be found elsewhere. I didn’t miss the choices in the morning when I picked out my clothes, but I missed the identity the clothes give me—the costume of “woman” or “professional.” It was unsettling to feel that those identities came from the outside rather than the inside—that I convinced myself I was an adult by wearing a pencil skirt, that I convinced myself I was a woman by wearing high heels.
On that afternoon three weeks ago, when Abigail first gave me my jumpsuit, we sat on the enormous windowsill of the gallery loft. The sun was setting, and a melancholy pink light filled the room. The garment industry invented lofts like these—the high ceilings were tall enough to accommodate the enormous machinery, and the windows let in light, which cut down the owners’ electricity bills, and let in air, which was supposed to reduce illness among the workers. At the turn of the twentieth century, consumers were afraid that epidemics of typhoid and tuberculosis were being spread because ill sweatshop workers were infecting the clothes.
In a loft across the street, backlit with blue light, women were sewing. I hadn’t noticed them, but Abigail pointed out the oak-tag patterns—manila-paper shapes used in industrial production. There are still factories here, likely high-end manufacturers making clothes for expensive designers, she explained. “The garment industry is the birth of capitalism,” Abigail reminded me. “The industrial revolution was about making cloth.”
For Maura and Abigail, Utopia is a party where everyone is wearing the exact same thing. It’s a place where consumers choose to reject choice because they see that choice isn’t always linked to freedom, a place where laborers are paid and treated well. But like most Utopian visions, it surely will never be fully realized. Most people probably won’t switch to a jumpsuit-only wardrobe. Even the culmination of the project—the purchase of an ad in the pages of Vogue—will almost certainly stay forever out of reach.
JUMPSUIT promises to subvert capitalism, but what it really does is make you aware of it. I felt it in the looseness of the garment, in the chafe as it rubbed against my thighs, in the compliments, and in the odd stares that seemed to say, You’re wearing that again? And I felt it when the three weeks of wearing a jumpsuit were finally up. I stood in front of my closet, exhausted by the choice of what to put on. I needed to triangulate the weather conditions, the various tasks of the day, my level of bloat, and my desire to feel beautiful or cool or sexy. It was only through being momentarily freed from it that I noticed the comical constraint of tight clothing or the way that my identity had become so deeply bound up in consumption. Capitalism is so omnipresent that it can become impossible to identify. Both in a jumpsuit and out of it, I could feel something on my body that had long been rendered invisible: a set of restrictions that had once felt like freedom.
Heather Radke is a writer, curator, and audio producer who lives in New York.
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