BY FRAYLIE NORD
There’s a photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe, her face hung like a moon and her hair pulled in a dark crescent, that has always haunted me. The image pulses with power, attacking the contemporary moment with the timelessness of an icon or a specter.
The image was made by her lover, Alfred Stieglitz, in 1920. While you can’t divorce the photographer’s gaze from the image itself, O’Keeffe’s look is steeled and somber. Her gaze punctuates. It grabs energy back from the camera, back from Stieglitz’s representation. It is a look that states, matter-of-factly, "I endure."
Her face rises from a stroke of black mountains across a pale sky. She wears a black cape that covers her neck, creating the illusion that her entire form has erupted, volcanically, from the landscape. Below her lunar features, her body has become mountain and air, and because the image locates her body nowhere, the image, more profoundly, locates her body everywhere. A window of pale skin, or perhaps it is white cloth, punctuates her shape like a small anchor to her body.
To obscure something is to render it unknowable. A shroud dares the world to project its fears and desires onto a covered object; it’s an invitation to name the open signifier. And in the infinite capacity for re-imagination, the covered body becomes a mirror. In this multitude, the body is unbound–if it is everything, it is also nothing. One could argue that the body is free.
In her lover’s image, it is O’Keeffe who wields the power to name herself–a definition we, as onlookers, will never know. It’s that power, in returning the gaze from within a certain obfuscation, that chills and delights me.
It’s a strange thing to consider when getting dressed for the day. My closet is stuffed with stretched sweaters and billowing frocks. I gravitate toward dark shapes that puddle my body in fabric, long hems and wide-legged pants that smudge my contours. I relish the flutter of slack linen over my abdomen, like a creature who has migrated into a newer and bigger shell, a creature who knows it is safe.
Since the dawn of time, I realize women have been told to "cover up" for the sake of modesty or to signify (male) power over her body. But adjacent to that, the veil as choice contains multitudes when considered on the bodies of women: the veil as religious embrace, as spiritual drapery, as virginity, as protection. A veiled woman holds the power of transmutation. For me, I embrace this cover as sartorial and secular. At its plainest level, I am a woman who enjoys being hugged by her layers. In loosening my wardrobe, I’ve found safety and power within fabric cocoons, as I declare to myself this body beneath is for me, and for me only.
I recently told a friend that I had worn "a bag on top of a bag" to work that day. In her infinite wisdom, my friend assured me, however, that bags were IN. And she was right: clothing, at least as I’ve seen it on display in New York City, seems to have collectively loosened. We’ve traded skinny jeans for culottes, dresses and frocks for one-size-fits-(some) schmatas. As we’re approaching winter, I’ve noticed more cloaks and shapeless overcoats cradling the bodies beneath.
Perhaps it signifies a turn inward, open shapes meant for housing self-care and self-reflection. That we’re making more space for our bodies in the world. Or maybe I’m projecting myself too far onto the boomerang of fashion trends–and loose is simply a trend.
While I have laughable memories of stuffing my ass and my thighs into elastic-laced jeans, I’m grateful to eschew this habit for a less anxiety-inducing routine. Now, I think of it more like draping myself. Like my wide pants are an afterthought, that my body may exist beyond the need for pants, as the fabric orbits my calves in a sort of laissez-faire manner. My body is empowered to move freely in its wrappings. And I feel more intimately located to it, knowing that whatever gaze comes from the outside is, at best, an approximation. I dare the gaze to think what it wants, but I know the gaze will be deflected, and it will be wrong.
Maybe it’s natural for an introvert to use clothing as a way to merge her physical being with her environment. I’m the type of person who leans into corners with such intensity that you might think I’d be more comfortable as a wall than as a person. And I wear a lot of black. It’s not only because I live in New York or because I’m a reformed high school punk (though both those things are true), but because dark colors blend, deflect, and confuse. Talk to me about my extra-extra-large black sweatshirt, the hand-me-down that drapes to my knees, and I’ll tell you about the boundless joy of my body and the reverie of merging with what’s around me.
Like O’Keeffe’s representation, I harvest power in the slippage between body and space. Wrapped in a wool sweater, I am supernatural. Plunged into a floor-length coat, I am heavenly. And in the space I have cracked opened for my body, its topography and its contours are mine to chart. I know I can’t erase the gaze through my fashion choices, (nor should women be burdened with this task), and I know that men will stare and catcall whether I wear a bikini or a blanket. A naked woman is not an invitation. Nor is a draped woman. It behooves men to change their ways, to check themselves, to rein it in.
But here, in my loose shapes, I find power in my cover. Dare I say that I’ve discovered an alien elegance as I move throughout this unrelenting city. And in looking back, in attacking the gaze that may fall on me, my eyes shine brightly against the shroud that covers me. In this alien elegance, I render those attacks powerless in my wake. In these open shapes in this open space, I feel, on occasion, eternal.
Fraylie Nord lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in Armchair/Shotgun, Tin House Flash Fridays, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Oblong Magazine, and elsewhere.