If Your Clothes Could Talk

Closet attack
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Original Air Date: 
March 16, 2019

Whether you know it or not, your closets are filled with personal information. About your identity, your values, your personality. And every day, you wear it all right out the door for the whole world to see.

Do you think about what are you saying with your clothes?

The many Angelo styles
Photo Gallery

Choosing what to put on your body is more than just taking something off a hanger and praying it fits. When you get dressed in the morning, you’re constructing an identity. That’s complicated, as producer Angelo Bautista discovered.

Avery Trufelman

Avery Trufelman hosts "Articles of Interest," a six-part podcast from "99 Percent Invisible" about some iconic items of clothing — from blue jeans to Hawaiian shirts to pockets. Anne wanted to know how that work connects to what she wears every day.

Carolyn Smith

Could you trade the convenience of instant-purchase online clothing stores for a wardrobe you made yourself? Carolyn Smith went for an even bigger challenge: only wearing clothing she made by hand for a full year.

Girls in pink, boys in blue

Historian Jo Paoletti speaks with Shannon about gender's ever-changing relationship with fashion.

agnés b

The most iconic designers have always done more than invent new looks — they help re-imagine our lives, our world. As Steve Paulson discovered when he met designer agnés b.


Show Details 📻
March 16, 2019
October 19, 2019
May 30, 2020
January 09, 2021
December 04, 2021
December 03, 2022
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. How far do you go and how hard do you look to find the clothes you wear? You can shop online, browse thrift stores, or visit the mall.

Angelo Batista (00:32):

This is a nicer version of the mall in Bloomington.

Anne Strainchamps (00:38):

But choosing what to put on your body is more than just taking something off a hanger and praying it fits because even the most anonymous black t-shirt says something about who you are and maybe even more about who you want to be. So when you get dressed in the morning, you're constructing an identity and that's complicated. Meet our new producer, Angelo Batista.

Angelo Batista (01:04):

The first time I made a conscious decision about my clothes, I was in a wheelchair. It was sixth grade, and I had surgery on my ankles to fix my flat feet. My family and I were at the mall and I asked my dad, "Hey, can we go into that store?" And he pushed me through the gritty metal arch way of Hot Topic. Here it is. If you aren't a parent whose little punk dragged you into the store, let me explain. Hot Topic, catered a lot to emo and scene kids in the mid two thousands, early 2010s. Being a scene kid, it was a lot about the music, emo, screamo, electro pop metal core, or my favorite pop punk. All Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. Hot Topic is where you could get the look, your black skinny jeans, studded belts, black and neon hair dye for your bangs. And the very essential My Chemical Romance band tee. Seventh grade me thought that this would be my luck. I also decided for some reason I would have a girlfriend. Her name was K

Katie (02:14):

I don't actually remember asking you out though. I don't remember that at all.

Angelo Batista (02:19):

I do. It was during a passing period and I remember where it was in the hallway and I think you came up to me. And you were like, "Do you want to go out?" And then me, not really thinking the bell's about to ring, I said, "Yes." And the rest was...

Katie (02:38):

The drama.

Angelo Batista (02:39):

... The drama of it all. I really did like Katie. She was cool. No one else in school had bright yellow patent leather Dr. Martens, but we were both still try hard scene kids.

Katie (02:51):

I wanted to fit in and appeal to a certain group of people,. Fashion wise, I think at that time it was a lot of, well, this is what the people that I think are cool are doing. So I'm just going to kind of go with that.

Angelo Batista (03:05):

I feel exactly the same way. And I know what group of people you're talking about. And I remember... And maybe you remember this too, but there was this hooded sweatshirt that I bought that was white and black. It zipped up all the way to the hood. I don't know why it did that.

Katie (03:22):

Yes. I remember that!

Angelo Batista (03:24):

It was such a big deal to buy that hoodie, but I bought it because Daniel had a hoodie that looked just like it and I really wanted to impress Daniel. And he actually did say, "Hey, that's a cool hoodie." And I was like, "Thanks."

Katie (03:41):


Angelo Batista (03:42):

I had such a huge crush on him.

Katie (03:44):

I did too.

Angelo Batista (03:44):

Oh, we both did. And we were dating each other at the same time. It was so weird.

Katie (03:49):

Oh, yep.

Angelo Batista (03:55):

Clearly things were not going to work out with Katie and me, but we stayed good friends. And I learned to love fashion because of her. Going to fashion exhibits at the art museum, reading [inaudible 00:04:07] magazine, watching Vogue documentaries together. Going into high school, I became obsessed with men's wear. I got it in my head that I wanted to design it myself. So I was the only boy to sign up for first period, fashion and textiles with Mrs. Trinkle.

Mrs. Trinkle (04:24):

Okay. So I remember you being very creative yet, very classic. It's hard for me to remember that far back, but I feel like you made a tailored shirt.

Angelo Batista (04:36):

I did. I did make an Oxford shirt. That was a challenge.

Mrs. Trinkle (04:39):

Those are not beginner projects.

Angelo Batista (04:42):

I even remember, I made a white Oxford shirt and after I made the shirt, I also remember dip dying it in some black dye as well.

Mrs. Trinkle (04:52):

That's right. I love the fact, now that you put your own twist on it by dying it and making it uniquely yours, and then you modeled it in the fashion show.

Angelo Batista (05:04):

Your class was the first class of the day. And it was always really nice to go somewhere that was really quiet in the morning. And I could just be creative and sewing was very meditative really. And I was kind of going through a hard time with my parents. So I really think of that as honestly, a safe space for me to be as creative and as weird as I wanted to be.

Mrs. Trinkle (05:31):

I'm glad to hear that you felt that way. That's awesome.

Angelo Batista (05:35):

Oh, well thank you for teaching me.

Mrs. Trinkle (05:37):

You're welcome.

Angelo Batista (05:43):

School was a refuge, but at home it was much different. If there was anyone that cared about the way I dressed, as much as I did, it was my parents. Just not in the same way. Mom, are you there?

Angelo's Mom (06:02):

Yes, I am.

Angelo Batista (06:05):

Okay. So do you remember how I used to dress in junior high?

Angelo's Mom (06:13):

13, 14?

Angelo Batista (06:14):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). In seventh and eighth grade.

Angelo's Mom (06:17):

Just very casual, skinny jeans. And t-shirts mainly, nothing out of the ordinary. The change happened when you were in high school, beginning of high school.

Angelo Batista (06:34):

So you think I was dressing really drastically in high school?

Angelo's Mom (06:38):

You were more fashioned forward, you wore bow ties to school, right. Or short shorts.

Angelo Batista (06:49):

I know you had a big problem with my shorts because I would cut up my shorts and make them shorter.

Angelo's Mom (06:54):


Angelo Batista (06:57):

Going into high school was kind of a hard time for us, you, me and dad. Because after you found out I was gay, things were really fraught. And I think how I dressed was kind of a point of tension for us. You didn't like how I was dressing you and dad were really disapproving of how I dressed.

Angelo's Mom (07:21):

I guess, because you came out, especially me. I think, I voiced that out to you because not most kids would wear bow ties to school. Because it becomes more obvious basically. So I don't want other kids to make fun of you because you're gay.

Angelo Batista (07:46):

The thing is I didn't need my parents' protection. I needed their acceptance. I tried to tell them that.

Angelo's Mom (07:53):

When we had that conversation that you were fine with how you dress, you didn't mind what other people would say. You were very comfortable in your own skin. And that's when I let go, that's all I needed to know. And I just needed to know that you can stand for yourself.

Angelo Batista (08:14):

That was the changing point? Because I remember the same conversation and it was a lot more tense when I look back on it. And maybe I'm paraphrasing in my mind or maybe I'm just remembering this wrong. But I remember you saying at one point, "What does it matter what you wear? People are going to know that you're gay regardless." And I kind of took offense to that, but I think, is that what you were trying to say?

Angelo's Mom (08:42):

No, it's not. Well, as a human being, I guess we judge the book by its cover. So we look at the way people dress and we judge people the way they dress without even knowing the person deep inside, that's just human nature.

Angelo Batista (09:12):

I told my younger sister, Andrea, that I talked to mom about me and high school and my clothes. And she reminded me of an incident. I almost forgot about we were in the car on the way to church. My mom sat in the front passenger seat, not talking and clearly upset. I sat in the back with my siblings also not talking, also upset. Then I got a text on my phone. It was my mom telling me to take off my bow tie, my lemon yellow, floral diamond tip, bow tie. I didn't respond to her. And I also didn't take it off. I cried as quietly as I could, sitting in the pew. It wasn't because I loved this bow tie so much. It was because I felt judged by my parents. I felt like they didn't want to know me as I am. I couldn't believe it. But as the saying goes, things did get better. My parents became really supportive of me. For my 16th birthday, they bought me my own sewing machine. We even talked about me going to the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Angelo's Mom (10:25):

Yeah. Well, if that's what your calling was, I want to support you. If fashion and clothes was what you love to do, go for it. Be successful in that. We're going to support you the best way we can. And that's what parents do.

Angelo Batista (10:43):

Did you think I was going to be successful?

Angelo's Mom (10:46):

No. That's why... Remember when you say I want to be a designer, it's like, I knew you like it, but I didn't see enough passion to do it.

Angelo Batista (11:03):

I hate when mom's right. I went to school to study marketing and fashion merchandising, instead. Going to college has always been an opportunity for reinvention or new expression. But for me it was like an explosion. I got a nose piercing. The first week of school, my hair was green, then electric blue, then purple and then green again. I wore spike earrings and bracelets, chunky chain necklaces. I wore bright floral button ups and a bowler hat. Ugh. I look like a Filipino boy, George, but the hair dye fades and the nose piercing comes out and we change our major. So what do you think about the way that I dress now? Or how would you describe it?

Angelo's Mom (11:56):

How do I describe it? Remember I asked you one time. I was like, "What kind of look is that?"

Angelo's Mom (12:01):

And you said, "Well, its a grandpa look." Maybe I'm not that fashion forward anymore, Angelo.

Angelo Batista (12:11):

No. I think you have a great sense of style. I like shopping with you. Do you want to see what I'm wearing today?

Angelo's Mom (12:17):

What are you wearing today?

Angelo Batista (12:19):

Get your phone.

Angelo's Mom (12:20):


Angelo Batista (12:21):

Okay. Go to Instagram and go to my story.

Angelo's Mom (12:25):

Oh, I saw that. I saw that. What do you call, Canada tuxedo?

Angelo Batista (12:30):

Canadian tuxedo.

Angelo's Mom (12:31):

Canadian tuxedo. Yeah. It's denim on denim?

Angelo Batista (12:35):

Yeah. What do you think?

Angelo's Mom (12:40):

See, I don't like that look. I don't like that look.

Angelo Batista (12:40):

What? I'm getting a lot of good responses from this look.

Angelo's Mom (12:45):

From that look?

Angelo Batista (12:46):

Yeah. A lot of people really like it.

Angelo's Mom (12:49):

Well, I guess that's not my style, babe.

Angelo Batista (12:53):

I'm not really sure what my style is anymore.

Angelo Batista (12:58):

Looking back at closets past, I see what I was doing. With every outfit, I thought, oh, this is me. Yeah. Well, at the moment. Being a scene kid was me, but it was me trying to fit in. Wearing bow ties and short shorts was me, but that was me looking for acceptance. Being loud and colorful was me, but I was just trying to be something new. So dear listener, you and your Eddie Bower sweater and your Dockers or old Navy jeans or whatever you're wearing. You may be thinking to yourself. Oh, well my style doesn't mean anything, but it means something. If you think about it long enough.

Anne Strainchamps (13:45):

That's Angelo Batista, the newest member of the TT book team. Thanks to him, we are all paying more attention to what we wear.

Anne Strainchamps (13:56):

So if clothes simultaneously conceal our bodies and reveal ourselves, how do we learn their language? I mean, when did you start thinking about clothes?

Avery Trufelman (14:11):

So when I was 16, we went to the de Young Museum. They were hosting this Vivian Westwood retrospective.

Anne Strainchamps (14:19):

Public radio producer, Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman (14:23):

I had never heard of Vivian Westwood before. And I didn't know that she invented punk. I didn't realize that someone had to make that up. But this is what fashion designers do.

Avery Trufelman (14:42):

Someone decided to add tartan to some t-shirts decided to put really bombastic sayings on people's chest and spike up hair. And that this was a movement that came from music and really came from clothing. The Sex Pistols was a band created by Vivian Westwood and her boyfriend at the time, Malcolm McLaren out of people who hung out in this shop, where they sold these clothes. Over the course of time, it's affected everything. You see everyone in leather motorcycle jackets now. The life that the leather motorcycle jacket has had from actual motorcycle gangs to Vivian Westwoods hand to punks in London to punks in New York to punks across the country. And that the style was cross pollinated by touring bands. It kind of became a grassroots movement. Realizing that when I was 16, that blew my mind. And I swore ever since then that I wanted to talk about it more.

Anne Strainchamps (16:00):

Coming up, Avery Trufeleman, host of the Articles of Interest podcast, tries to talk me out of my wardrobe of perennial gray. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin, public radio and PRX. This hour, we're talking about clothes and identity. And about that elusive thing called personal style.

Avery Trufelman (16:25):

I think everyone knows that feeling, when you're dressed in an outfit you really like, and you look good and you feel good. That is an essential power of clothing. Aside from covering your body or keeping you warm. It has the power to give you confidence.

Anne Strainchamps (16:41):

Avery Trufelman is the host of Articles of Interest, a six part podcast about the history and meaning of some iconic items of clothing, from blue jeans to Hawaiian shirts to pockets. So when she was in town for a visit recently, of course we had to start by talking about what she was wearing.

Avery Trufelman (16:59):

Ah, I love that you asked this question. That's what I try to start asking everyone. Okay, what I'm wearing. I am wearing a turtle neck that belonged to my grandma. I wear mostly her clothes.

Anne Strainchamps (17:12):

It's the most beautiful color of green.

Avery Trufelman (17:14):

Yes. Emerald green. She had great style. She was always wearing turtlenecks and slacks. She wore pretty much the outfit I'm wearing. Now I'm wearing slacks that I got at a Salvation Army.

Anne Strainchamps (17:25):

They look like slacks that Katherine Hepburn would've worn.

Avery Trufelman (17:27):

Exactly. They've got a pleat and everything. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (17:33):

So now I have to confess that I was going to say, I don't think about my clothing, but that's obviously not true. Nobody can get dressed in the morning and not think about their clothing, but I dress defensively. So I dress to conceal what I perceive as the flaws in my body and the older I get, the more flaws there are. So my clothing is becoming less and less interesting.

Avery Trufelman (17:56):


Anne Strainchamps (17:57):

Yeah. But I mean, well, this gets into how we choose clothes and why, which I find so interesting. So have you always cared about clothing?

Avery Trufelman (18:06):

Yes I have. And it's funny that you talk about dressing defensively because I think we all know the feeling where you dress up nice one day, you have an event or something to go to and everyone goes, "Whoa! Look at you." Or you get a haircut and people, people comment on it. And I think a lot of people resist dressing up because they don't like that attention.

Anne Strainchamps (18:29):

It can make you feel vulnerable. Like everybody's looking at you, paying attention to you.

Avery Trufelman (18:34):


Anne Strainchamps (18:36):

You comment about dressing neutrally or assuming you can, think Mark Zuckerberg's and the ubiquitous great t-shirt. That's a form of privilege. Can you unpack it a bit?

Avery Trufelman (18:49):

To assume that you can just not stand out? I'm going to not stand out today. Not everyone gets to not stand out. If you're a person of color, there are politics involved in wearing a hoodie, there just are. And God forbid, if you put the hood up, you are putting yourself at risk, unfortunately in this world. Clothing is political, some people don't have the option to just blend in and not be seen. We as women also know this problem well. There's a huge controversy around what is acceptable for women to wear in the workplace. Is it too short? Is it too loose? Is it too tight? It is too flirty...

Anne Strainchamps (19:28):

Too revealing, too low cut?

Avery Trufelman (19:30):

... Too conservative? Or too Manish? Too feminine? Because what you wear on your body is the way you exactly mediate. It's the frontline of our internal worlds and our external worlds. It's how we meet our needs and the needs of other people. In some ways it's more comfortable to be naked, but we have to wear clothes. It's about making other people feel comfortable and at ease, but it's also a way of expressing what you want the world to know about you.

Anne Strainchamps (20:01):

Have you ever been to a nudist colony?

Avery Trufelman (20:03):

No, I never have.

Anne Strainchamps (20:04):

Neither have I, but I was struck by you saying, in some ways maybe we'd be more comfortable nude. I went to [inaudible 00:20:13] famous earlier this year, the famous used to be new age colony. Anyway, they've got these famous hot spring baths, no clothing. And the weird thing was when everybody's naked, I feel like I was much less self-conscious about what I look like. It's almost as though, the clothes that we put on to try to make ourselves look better, somehow make us feel more self conscious. And I don't understand that.

Avery Trufelman (20:39):

Yeah. It's something that I think about. I thought about this a lot when I was working on the episode about pockets. Towards the end of the episode, we start talking about this idea of utopia and a world where no one has pockets and what pockets mean. We have pockets in a world where we need our house keys. We need wallets. We need these tools to engage with the world around us and to keep our things safe and to make sure we can buy things. And my friend who I was interviewing for this pockets episode, he was talking about how he went to a nudist colony. And he was wondering if there they didn't have any pockets.

Avery Trufelman (21:13):

If it was just this beautiful land where, no one was worried about their possessions, or if clothing and our pockets make us more protective and more defensive, but no, they still have pockets. They wear these purses in nudest colonies apparently to keep their things secure. But yeah, I think about that all the time, because clothing Ru Paul said, "We're born naked and the rest is drag." We are putting on a form of drag every morning when we wake up. And in some ways I totally understand why you would've felt more comfortable just being naked, just being a bunch of human animals, not having to deal with the stickiness that all of our external identities impose on us.

Anne Strainchamps (21:55):

Why do we have this idea that thinking about fashion and clothing is frivolous or trivial?

Avery Trufelman (22:01):

Well, here's my theory about it. Think of the people we historically associate with clothing, right? We think about women and young people, people of color, queer people. These are the people who care about fashion. And these are groups of people who have been historically marginalized, who don't have this uniform, of a suite and tie or a Heather Gray t-shirt and jeans, where they can just blend in and be a neutral party. These are people who have found great power and storytelling and community in the ways that they style their hair, get dressed up to go out.

Anne Strainchamps (22:49):

And many of the groups you're talking about have been owned by other groups in the past. So women as possessions of men, how a woman dressed was part of, she was literally a trophy.

Avery Trufelman (23:02):

Exactly, exactly. And in doing research on indigo and blue jeans, I found these amazing stories of American slaves on plantations. Many plantations were used for indigo dye before cotton was the big cash crop, it was indigo. And they would make beautiful patterns on their horrible itchy, scratchy, poorly made slave clothes, which were kind of like sacks, but they would draw and design on themselves. And there's another example of slaves who ran away, giving themselves pockets, sewing in pockets, into their clothes to give themselves autonomy.

Avery Trufelman (23:39):

There's this way that taking control of our clothes and what we wear and how we present dressing to be the person that you want to be, this kind of aspirational thing. And a really easy way to dismiss that. The incredible power that has, is to say that it's vain or it doesn't matter, or it's a waste of time. And I think that's so untrue.

Anne Strainchamps (24:02):

Have you ever changed your personal style? I assume it's evolved as most of ours do, but have you ever deliberately said, I want to change something about the way I dress, what I wear, how I look.

Avery Trufelman (24:15):

Well, so when I was in high school, I was a very outlandish dresser and I shopped at thrift stores and I really made great pans to try to look like I didn't care that I didn't fit in. And this carried on to college, I remember I was wearing like fur stoles on campus and lame dresses and just ridiculous stuff.

Anne Strainchamps (24:35):

No judgment.

Avery Trufelman (24:37):

Well, there was this horrible secret online message board at the school that I went to and people were talking about me and the way I dressed and saying, who does she think she is? She thinks she's better than everyone else. Oh my God. And I remember I started crying and I realized that what I thought I was doing, which I was trying to remove myself from the dialogue of fashion, which is nearly impossible to do. It's a form of communication and I wasn't getting the right message across. So I remember that day, I went to the Goodwill and I bought myself some black t-shirts and I just decided to parrot all the way down. And actually it wasn't until I did this series that I really started trying to find myself again and realizing that there's so much pleasure and wearing something that makes you just a little nervous. When you wonder, can I pull this off? Is this a little strange? And this too is also a privilege. Absolutely. To feel comfortable enough to be able to take a lot of risks.

Anne Strainchamps (25:50):

Well, but one other thing that I think you're saying is that it can also be a form of generosity. And in that sense, going back to the Mark Zuckerberg and the gray t-shirt, that's about being very closed, very private. Nobody can tell anything about you from your gray t-shirt. So there's this whole how openly? Yeah. How open am I to communicating with other people?

Avery Trufelman (26:14):

And I think it makes the people around you feel more free to try things out, to try to express themselves. And it's just a fun dialogue to have.

Anne Strainchamps (26:24):

Avery Trufelman, Articles of Interest was named one of the best podcasts to of the year. If you haven't heard it, there's a link on our website at ttbook.org, check it out.

Anne Strainchamps (26:35):

So finding things to wear has never been easier. I mean, these days you don't even need to get up off the couch to go shopping and you probably didn't have a hand in making anything you have on your body right now. But what if everything you wore you made yourself?

Carolyn Smith (26:51):

Oh, the very first thing I made, I think I made a dress for myself when I was about 11. It was white t-shirt fabric and it had pink seagulls printed on it. I was going to a school dance. Tragically, I have no... Or maybe not so tragically, I have no photos of myself wearing this dress. Maybe it looked absolutely terrible, but I do have a strong memory of the fabric. What they say about a true addict is that they remember their first drink very strongly. And suppose if I can remember this fabric so strongly, that must be on the true edit.

Anne Strainchamps (27:29):

Carolyn Smith has been sewing her own clothes for years, but in 2016, she decided to go hardcore. She spent the entire year wearing only things she, herself had made. And yes, that included socks, tights, underwear, and even shoes. Charles tracked Carolyn down in Perth, Australia to ask about her year of handmade.

Charles Smith (27:57):

So what were your rules? What rules did you set for yourself for a year?

Carolyn Smith (28:00):

Just that all the clothes and shoes I was wearing had to be made by my self, and I wasn't going to touch anything that I hadn't made by myself for one year. It seems pretty hardcore. And there were times when I was just like, what the heck am I doing? This is just so crazy. But I've been sewing for myself my whole life anyway. So I had pretty much a full wardrobe of clothes that I'd made for myself. And it was really just the shoes that I sort of had to work on.

Charles Smith (28:27):

Well, we were looking at your blog, we're all talking about it. And everyone asked the same questions. Right. They were like, what about the shoes? What about the shoes? How did she make shoes? How about the shoes? Like how? So, let's just get right into it.

Carolyn Smith (28:35):

The shoes are definitely the most challenging part of the whole year. I didn't have much to go by. We don't have any shoe making classes or anything like here in Perth, we're kind of a bit dinky that way.

Charles Smith (28:47):

I can't envision well, how the hell a shoe is made? Can you run through the process of how to make a shoe?

Carolyn Smith (28:53):

It depends on the shoe. So it's fairly easy to make a pair of clogs, just get a piece of wood and carve the bottom part of the clog, make it like a wooden soul. And then just nail a couple of strips of leather over the top and you have a shoe. To make a pair of boots, you pretty much make the upper first. You'll make the part that will go around your calf, stitch all that together, attach it to a sort of bottom piece that you will shape around your shoe last. You know what a last is?

Charles Smith (29:21):

Nope. Not at all.

Carolyn Smith (29:23):

So last is like a fake foot and you will mold your leather or add material around this fake foot, glue it all in place and glue a sole underneath and [inaudible 00:29:35]. You would attach the heel last of all, nail it in from the inside. And yeah...

Charles Smith (29:41):

That's it. I can make a shoe, in what? 35 seconds. [crosstalk 00:29:44].

Carolyn Smith (29:44):

There's a lot of glue involved, lots and lots of glue. I've heard about really hardcore people who would be like, I'm going to make a shoe and there'll be no glue in it. They'll just be 100% hand stitched. And I would say that's an extremely challenging prospect. I always used massive amounts of glue in my shoes.

Charles Smith (30:04):

Why did you do this?

Carolyn Smith (30:06):

It was a challenge in, could I trust my own craftsmanship to wear it every day? And I felt like I pulled it off, which was surprising to me. I mean, for me buying clothes, I haven't bought clothes for a long, long time. But even when I did used to buy clothes, I'd go in and, and be like, oh no, I like this, but I just wish it was a bit longer. Or maybe I wish it was green instead of blue, or there'd always be something wrong with the thing that I saw. I'm too particular, I suppose. I'm way too fussy. I have a very firm idea of want to wear and I hardly ever see what I want to wear in the shops. So I'd always try and give it a go at making it myself. I don't think I've worn a ready to wear item of clothing. Even since I've finished the year, I'm still wearing my own clothes.

Charles Smith (30:48):

When did you finish the year?

Carolyn Smith (30:49):

It was back in 2016.

Charles Smith (30:51):

Wow. So you still haven't bought another pair item of clothing since then?

Carolyn Smith (30:55):

No. No, I haven't. I still wear my own clothes every day.

Charles Smith (30:58):

Are you wearing your own clothes right now?

Carolyn Smith (31:00):

Yes. Yes I am.

Charles Smith (31:01):

What do you have on?

Carolyn Smith (31:02):

I have on a long blue dress, it's a Vogue pattern. A friend had an indigo VAT. So I did an indigo dying day...

Charles Smith (31:09):

Oh, that's fantastic.

Carolyn Smith (31:10):

... Dyed our own linen with indigo. And I made a dress out of my indigo diet linens. So I'm wearing a blue dress and I'm wearing a pair of lilac shoes that I just made fairly recently. If you've looked at my blog, you probably would've seen them in the past couple of days.

Charles Smith (31:23):

A bunch of people in the office were certainly inspired by looking at what you made.

Carolyn Smith (31:27):

Oh, that's very nice. Thank you.

Charles Smith (31:29):

So I assume there's a number of listeners out there who feel the same. Like what would you say to our aspiring shoemakers or clothing makers? What would you say to them?

Carolyn Smith (31:37):

I say, just give it a go. Just have a go at it. It can be fun. You might just think, oh, I want a red dress. So you make a red dress. Yeah. So I just love the fact that it's both technical, it can be challenging. It's something you do with your brain, as well as your hands. To me, it's just a whole thing. And then every time you walk out of the door, you are telling the world a story with what you're wearing. You're presenting a side of yourself and saying something about yourself, with what you wear every day. I just feel so proud when I walk out wearing something I've made myself. And even if I don't tell anyone, I might make it myself. In fact, it's more of a compliment. If someone will say to you, oh, well, where did you get that dress? I love it. [crosstalk 00:32:16]. Oh, did you?

Charles Smith (32:16):

What designer made that? Who are you wearing? I'm wearing me.

Carolyn Smith (32:24):


Charles Smith (32:24):

That'd be good.

Charles Smith (32:25):


Music (32:26):

Put on your Sunday clothes. There's lots of world out there.

Anne Strainchamps (32:31):

That's Carolyn Smith. Her blog is called Handmade by Carolyn. And you can see pictures of her truly stunning outfits. And oh my God, her shoes on our website at ttbook.org. And that was Charles Monroe-Kane talking with her.

Music (32:46):

Put on your Sunday clothes, we're going to ride through town.

Anne Strainchamps (32:51):

Eve famously said that fashion fades. That style is eternal, which is why most of us have something hidden way in the back of a closet that we would not be caught dead wearing today.

Jo Paoletti (33:07):

I made a caftan for my husband. He still does own it. I have pictures of him in it too. In the seventies, I made all of my own clothing and a lot of his clothing, he was such a preppy, but he was very amenable to me suggesting that he wear bell bottoms and a cape and stuff like that.

Music (33:32):

She had that camarilla Brillo.

Jo Paoletti (33:37):

There is a pattern. I think I even owe own it. A pattern for caftan. That was unisex. I used an Indian cotton bedspread, which was, I guess the traditional thing to make a caftan for your boyfriend out of. It was the seventies, he was not the only fella I knew who owned a caftan. And you could buy them at Sears. There's a famous line in one of the Mother's of Invention songs.

Music (34:06):

Is that a real Poncho? I mean, is that a Mexican Poncho or is that a Sears Poncho?

Jo Paoletti (34:10):

Obviously we got along. We're still together. He wore it for my book release party a few years ago. Yeah. Because we decided to go with a 70's theme.

Anne Strainchamps (34:26):

Okay. So caftans came and thank God went, but unisex is back. Could the future of clothes be genderless? Stay with us. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin, public radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (34:45):

We're talking about clothes and identity today. And if you walk into pretty much any standard clothing store for kids, even after all these years, the gender differences are pretty clear. Little boys close in blue, little girls in pink. Wouldn't you think we'd be beyond that by now? Well, Shannon Henry Kleiber asked fashion historian, Jo Paoletti, why pink and blue? And who made that rule anyway?

Jo Paoletti (35:12):

Oh, well that's two questions. The pink and blue thing takes several generations, because babies used to just wear white. They introduced pastel colors for babies in the late 19th century. And then it's kind of a matter of fashion and also what looks good on the babies. So blue-eyed babies would often be in blue and brown eyes babies would be in pink or other colors, redhead babies in yellow. I mean, there are all these different rules for what was becoming. And then you start having this idea that you should dress children according to their gender, little children, babies, and toddlers. For example, boys don't wear dresses, like they used to. The age at which a boy is put into some kind of trousers gets earlier and earlier and earlier.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (35:56):

So boys used to wear dresses until age?

Jo Paoletti (36:00):

Until around the time they started school, they'd wear either dresses or a skirted like a kilted outfit, with a pleaded skirt and a long blouse over that. And it wasn't considered feminine. It was just baby-ish.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (36:12):

So what changed?

Jo Paoletti (36:13):

Well, there are some things that happened about the same time. One of them is the advent of modern psychology, especially child and adolescent psychology. And there's a whole lot of interest in sex roles and homosexuality and prevention of homosexuality and what they considered sexual perversion. Up to that point, we look at those babies who are all dressed like babies. The reason they were addressed that way was because children weren't supposed to know about sex and sex differences. They weren't supposed to notice them in one way to keep them from noticing those differences and being curious about them was to address them alike. Well, when you start having psychiatrists who say no, no, no. The right way to do this is to emphasize the gender differences. It takes a while to catch on because there are people who are still a little bit squeamish about the idea of dressing a little boy, like a man.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (37:10):

How does a piece of clothing become gendered? We've talked a little bit about the color of the clothing. How does it become gendered?

Jo Paoletti (37:17):

Wow, that's a fascinating question. The thing that fascinated me about the shift to pink, becoming a girls color is that it took so long. And if you read descriptions of pink clothing, say the turn of the century, it's a pastel version of red and it's a strong color. A few generations later they'll be talking about pink is looking delicate and dainty. Well, it's the same color. So it's a process that happens in the kind of cultural mind over and over and over again of saying pink, feminine, pink, feminine, pink, feminine. But it isn't a light switch. I have lots of people who say, well, wasn't it maybe Eisenhower? Wasn't it pinky and blue boy? Wasn't it the pink triangles and Nazi concentration camps? And it's like stop looking for a light switch. Culture isn't like that.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (38:08):

What about unisex clothes? When did those become really a thing in fashion history?

Jo Paoletti (38:14):

Well, I think of unisex specifically as introduced in the mid middle of the 1960s. And it's kind of a thing up until the early 1980s where you have these styles that are specifically designed for either boys or girls or men or women. It raised a lot of questions about gender roles and about what was natural as opposed to what was a matter of culture. And I think these are questions we're still grappling with. I have a daughter who's in her mid thirties now. And when she was little, she was at that last tail end of unisex clothing. So she was wearing primary colored overalls and primary colored, long sleeved t-shirts and turtle necks. And she was in a store with me when she was about five months old. And the cashier said, "Oh, how old is he?" And I said, "Well, she's five months old." And I got a lecture about how my child was going to grow up confused because I wasn't dressing her like a girl. And I think those conversations are still going on.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (39:13):

Do you think that'll change is that? [crosstalk 00:39:15].

Jo Paoletti (39:16):

I mean, the thing that strikes me about today's neutral is the idea of what is unisex or a gender or neutral is so constricted because there's so much now that's gendered. There isn't a whole lot of in the middle, what anybody can wear.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (39:32):

So is the future of fashion genderless or gender fluid or blurring lines somehow?

Jo Paoletti (39:41):

I don't think we're going to end up with all neutral clothing because there really are times in a person's life. And there are people for whom highly gendered clothing is very, very useful and is essential to their identity. Someone who is transgender, dressing in a kind of almost stereotyped version of the gender that they are so that they might be more likely to want to wear a neck tie or want to wear a dress because it's helping to support that performance of gender. I don't think you can just say, well, gendered clothing is all bad. Gender entered clothing does have a purpose. I would really think it'd be great. If people could wear what makes them feel comfortable, makes them feel like themselves. And like they belong to the group that they feel they belong to without being punished for it or ridiculed. That's a start, but maybe that's the end game too.

Anne Strainchamps (40:43):

Jo Paoletti, is a retired fashion historian from the University of Maryland. She's the author of Pink and Blue and Sex and Unisex. Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with her.

Anne Strainchamps (40:59):

Have you ever wondered who makes the rules about what we wear? Fashion designers have a lot to do with it, but they usually start by breaking the rules. Think of Christian Dior's new look or Coco Chanel's tweed jackets or NESB's snap cardigan. The most iconic designers have always done more than just invent new looks. They help reimagine our lives, our world, which takes a certain [foreign language 00:41:27]. As Steve Paulson discovered when he met the woman behind the label.

Steve Paulson (41:33):

Agnes B, has an origin story. She was born on [foreign language 00:41:37].

Agnes B (41:37):

My father's name was [foreign language 00:41:40]. So in English you said trouble.

Steve Paulson (41:49):

She was a young Bohemian in Paris, married at 17. And by the time she was 21, she had left her husband and was a single mother with twin sons. And then one day she was shopping in a flea market and a fashion editor from Elle magazine spotted her and loved the way she dressed.

Agnes B (42:06):

I was wearing Western boots I found at the flea market and I don't remember exactly the way I was dressed, but I wasn't dressed like the girls of my age. So she asked me to do a little, some drawings. She liked it very much. And that's the way I started to work for Elle.

Steve Paulson (42:26):

So you basically were hired as a junior fashion editor?

Agnes B (42:30):

Yeah, exactly. A junior fashion editor, but I stayed only two years there because I was bored. And then I met [foreign language 00:42:40], my second husband and we did this shop [foreign language 00:42:46] Paris.

Steve Paulson (42:46):

This was the boutique shop that launched her fashion empire in the mid seventies. And by then Agnes had created her own brand Agnes B.

Agnes B (42:55):

They were talking about us in the press a lot because they discovered us as a very special place. There were many artists coming to see us.

Steve Paulson (43:06):

So this was not just a clothing store. This was kind of a gathering place for certain kinds of people?

Agnes B (43:11):

Yes because we love the music. We always had posters from cinema. There was playing ping pong.

Steve Paulson (43:17):

Oh yeah. I mean you came out of the sixties culture, right?

Agnes B (43:21):


Steve Paulson (43:21):

You had been part of the huge demonstration in May, 1968?

Agnes B (43:31):

Yes. There was a lot in the street at that time because I thought we had to change something in the society at that time. And the society changed. Even the genre changed their way to dress. They were wearing sneakers. Then they were wear sneakers before and jeans. And so it's influenced fashion. The way we were dressed in, we had the scarf like urban bandana around our neck.

Steve Paulson (43:58):

To protect them from the tear gas in those demonstrations. But Agnes B wasn't just marching in the streets. She was hanging out in cafes with artisan philosophers. She had a regular table with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with a sculptor Giacometti. She was close friends with the philosopher, Jill de Luz all while she was honing her style as a fashion designer.

Agnes B (44:23):

It happened by accident.

Steve Paulson (44:26):

But you've all, I mean, I've heard you say that you've never liked being called a fashion designer.

Agnes B (44:32):

Because I hate fashion.

Steve Paulson (44:33):

Wait, you hate fashion?

Agnes B (44:34):

I like clothes, but I don't like fashion.

Steve Paulson (44:36):

But everyone would describe as a fashion designer.

Agnes B (44:36):

Fashion gets UN fashioned so quickly, but real style is different. I think to have a style for people to recognize your style, even if it's very simple.

Steve Paulson (44:53):

How would you describe your style?

Agnes B (44:57):

Young, Persian, elegant. Sensual, not sexy.

Steve Paulson (45:03):

Sensual, but not sexy?

Agnes B (45:05):

Yeah. Sensual, but not sexy. I don't like when the intention is too clear.

Steve Paulson (45:10):

And there's some things that have been sort of signatures of your clothes. You did the snap cardigan.

Agnes B (45:16):

Oh yes.

Steve Paulson (45:16):

Which has sold millions, right? Over the years.

Agnes B (45:20):

Because I was always wearing some sweatshirts. And once I imagine it would be better if I can open it in the front, not a zip, because zip existed with much for boys. So I put a lot of little sub buttons in the front, close to each other, like in the paintings from 18th century, you can see all the buttons, very close to each other.

Steve Paulson (45:42):

Her black cardigan became famous and was copied by lots of other designers. And what's so striking about the clothes she designs. They never really go out of style. You can see it in old photos and in Hollywood movies.

Agnes B (45:59):

I think of people when they design, I think of different people. That's why Tarantino.

Steve Paulson (46:05):

Quinten Tarantino, the filmmaker?

Agnes B (46:06):

Yeah. The filmmaker. And he's costume designer. [inaudible 00:46:15]. He took my suit in a alley store where we had a store in alley, at that time. That's why we have these clothes of mine [foreign language 00:46:24].

Steve Paulson (46:24):

And in pop fiction too.

Agnes B (46:26):

And pop fiction too. Yeah. David Lynch loves my clothes too. Always wearing my clothes, white shirt, black tie.

Steve Paulson (46:35):

Oh yeah. David Lynch has this very distinctive style.

Agnes B (46:38):

He wrote to me a note recently saying you have been dressing me for the last 25 years. I guess I said, "It's a privilege for me. I'm happy you like it."

Steve Paulson (46:47):

Agnes B is the most unlikely fashion designer. In fact, she's fairly contemptuous of the big fashion shows with models, strutting down the catwalk, wearing stunning outfits that no one would actually wear.

Agnes B (47:04):

It's to sell perfume. I think a lot of catwalks is in fact to sell perfume or accessories or things like that. I've never been watching any shows. I don't know at all.

Steve Paulson (47:19):

You don't keep up on the what's happening in the fashion world?

Agnes B (47:21):

No, not at all. I keep away from that. I only look at the street. I love to see people in the streets.

Steve Paulson (47:28):

Is it true that you have never advertised?

Agnes B (47:31):

Yes. I've never advertised. It's my old, my '68 culture. It's manipulating.

Steve Paulson (47:39):

Hmm. And yet you have a global brand. I mean, you have hundreds of stores around the world. You're huge.

Agnes B (47:43):

Yeah I have 200 stores.

Steve Paulson (47:45):

Just in Japan. I know you're huge in Japan.

Agnes B (47:48):

Yes. Japan we have like 50. When I go there, they kiss me. They take my hair off. It's crazy. They want me to sign anything. Any jacket, any leather pants. It's crazy. What they like is my vision. In fact, I'm saying, give love, take a hippie for lunch.

Steve Paulson (48:08):

Do you still think of yourself as a hippie?

Agnes B (48:12):

I like the way they were, the music they listened, the way they were living in communities and sharing everything, maybe too much. There was this drama about drugs and then AIDS. So as soon as AIDS come, I've been putting some free condoms in the shops.

Steve Paulson (48:33):

Free condoms? [crosstalk 00:48:34] What you just put them in a...

Agnes B (48:36):

In a bowl.

Steve Paulson (48:37):

And just anyone who walks into your clothing stores. [crosstalk 00:48:39].

Agnes B (48:39):

Nice little, little package with a nice drawing on it. I still do it when I can do something. I do it.

Steve Paulson (48:48):

Well. I mean, one of the things that's so fascinating for someone like me, who's looking from the outside, looking over your career, is how you've straddled these boundaries, you are of course, best known for the clothes that you design, but you've opened art galleries. You have an extensive collection of modern photography. You made films.

Agnes B (49:08):

I have a big collection. Yes. Of contemporary art and photography. For me, art is really food. I need it. I love artists. I love the way they are. They're all different. I like to let them free, to show me new pieces.

Steve Paulson (49:25):

So as I hear you, I mean, one of the themes that I hear coming up over and over, going back to when you were a teenager was how important it is to be free for you.

Agnes B (49:36):

I was not free, because my mother was saying to me, you will go out when you will be 18. So maybe now I'm still doing my youth, maybe so.

Steve Paulson (49:44):

But you got married when you were 17.

Agnes B (49:46):

Yes. Yes. I don't mind age. I think it's a question of personality that connect people together.

Steve Paulson (49:55):

You don't mind getting older. I mean, you're now in your mid seventies that doesn't bother you?

Agnes B (49:59):

No, I don't mind. We will see what's going on. And then what.

Steve Paulson (50:06):

It's an incredible life. It's such a pleasure to hear you.

Agnes B (50:10):

[foreign language 00:50:10]. It's nice. Thank you.

Steve Paulson (50:11):

Thank you so much.

Anne Strainchamps (50:18):

That's Agnes B fashion designer and legend in her own time. I hope you can hear how thrilled Steve Paulson was to talk with her. And that's it for this hour. To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Today's show is the brainchild of our brand new producer, Angelo Bautista. So tweet him a shout out. He had help from Mark "plaid shirt" Riechers, Shannon Henry "yoga dress" Kleiber and Charles "guayabera" Monroe-Kane. Sound designed from the perennially fashionable Joe Hartdke. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. I'm Anne Strainchamps. And you'll just have to imagine our clothes. See ya next time.

Last modified: 
December 02, 2022