Chicago Manual of Style—11/3/2009

When fear imposes on fashion

By Jessica Hester

A few weeks ago, I was mugged and assaulted outside of my friend's apartment in the late afternoon. The police, my parents, my friends, and the deans all told me it was normal to feel nervous afterward, and I did. That much I expected. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that the experience would change the way I got dressed. Now, I find myself thinking about the relationship between clothes and vulnerability in a way I never did before.

I’m still trying to figure out what I could have done differently, and whether it would have made any difference. I know this mentality is futile and probably even detrimental, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I wish I could have out-run the three young men who surrounded me at the time, but I remember thinking that in my strappy heels, I never would have been able to. Now I’m afraid to wear heels at all, for fear that if I need to sprint, I won’t be able to move quickly. When I look through my closet in the morning, I eliminate anything even remotely constrictive, because I’m preoccupied with the thought that I might have to dash away from someone. I hate having to select my clothes based on how conducive they are to this fight-or-flight response.

I’m upset that I no longer feel comfortable wearing some of the clothes I own. But really, as much as I love strappy pumps, I’m not actually sad about the shoes: The real problem is that I feel unsafe and insecure in my environment and am unsure of what to do about it.

Well-intentioned family members accustomed to living in the secluded suburbs have always cautioned me against wearing clothes or accessories that flaunt my figure or bank account. Some people think that staying safe is as easy as not carrying a purse with a designer logo. But in addition to the numerous ideological qualms I have about this notion, such as the incredibly offensive implication that someone who dresses provocatively “has it coming,” it’s just too reductive.

Safety isn’t as simple as not wearing clothes with prominent designer labels or not carrying expensive-looking bags. I was wearing a non-descript, baggy, department-store trench coat and carrying a plain, black canvas tote bag with faux-leather handles. On the one hand, it probably is wise to be wary of parading designer goods indiscriminately. On the other hand, if you happen to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, it might not matter whether you’re carrying Prada or a paper bag.

It might be easier for me to think about what happened if I believe I can do something to possibly prevent it from happening again. I generally choose to wear more modestly-cut clothes and less ostentatious accessories, but this has previously been more of an aesthetic choice than a calculated safety precaution. Now I’m thinking of my entire wardrobe in terms of safety: Can I run in this? Does this have pockets where I can keep my house keys in case someone steals my purse? I just want to figure out a way to feel safe again. Right now, I don’t feel comfortable in my own neighborhood, let alone in my own shoes.