It all started with a Facebook post. Mikela Koressi came across a message in a Facebook group for Amsterdam University College (AUC) students: Carmen wanted to lend out her coat. Not sell, but to have somebody else wear, make better memories in it, and then return it. The simple reason being that she was sexually harassed while wearing the coat, and thus, didn't really wear it anymore. But if somebody made new, happier memories while wearing it, once returned, it wouldn't be the coat she was sexually harassed in anymore. It would just be her coat, once again.
(photos by Mikela Koressi)
As people, we have an interesting relationship to clothes. Mikela admits that while she, as a feminist, thought that you should always wear whatever you want, she hadn’t considered the association between clothing and memories before. „Going through my own fashion choices then, I started reflecting more on my own clothing: Am I really not wearing something because it doesn’t fit the outfit, or is there a deeper reasons behind me not wearing it anymore?“ Was her choice, to dress as she liked, influenced subconsciously by the memories she associated with certain clothing pieces?
In her book ‚Know My Name: The Survivor of the Stanford Sexual Assault Case Tells Her Story‘, Chanel Miller describes sexual harrassment the following way: “Imagine you’re walking down the street eating a sandwich and someone says, Damn, that looks like a delicious sandwich, can I have a bite? You’d think, why would I ever let you eat this sandwich? This is my sandwich. So you’d walk on and continue eating, and they’d say, What? You’re not going to say anything? No need to get mad, I was just trying to compliment your sandwich. Let’s say this happened three times a day, strangers stopping you on the street, letting you know how good your food looks, asking if they can have some of it. What if people started yelling out of their cars about how much they wanted your sandwich. Let me have some! they’d exclaim, driving by with a honk. Were you supposed to say, I’m sorry, no thank you, every time? Would you feel obligated to explain over and over again that you don’t wish to share because it’s your lunch and you don’t know them? That you don’t owe them any of it? That it’s a little unreasonable that they’re asking in the first place? All you would want is to walk down the street eating your sandwich in peace. Maybe I am making this worse by comparing a woman’s body to a sandwich, but do you see what I mean?”
If clothes are a way of expressing oneself, a fragment of one’s identity, what happens when a feeling of humiliation, fear, anger sticks to a piece? Because that is what sexual harassment, assault, and something as ‚simple‘ as a catcall often feel like. How does that inhibit your self-expression? There’s been a recent new meme, „dress in a way that would make an old white guy mad“. I love the sentiment, but talking with Mikela about her photography project (and maybe it is much more than that), we both reflect on if we are really capable to do so.
„Most of the times we don’t immediately understand why a piece of clothing makes us feel uncomfortable or why we tend to avoid a specific item. Whenever I don’t want to wear a piece of clothing, I always think to myself “Oh, I’m just not feeling like wearing this today”, which might be the case, but before Carmen’s post I had not really made the connection between clothing and memories“, she tells me.
After seeing Carmen’s post, Mikela reached out to her, proposing a photo shoot. “The idea was, inviting women who have had similar experiences with clothing, to do a photoshoot while wearing them as a way of reclaiming the power they felt while wearing them before the incident.” While being photographed and wearing the clothes again might be difficult, it is also an incredibly freeing feeling – and Mikela wanted to give that to these women. Ordinary women, because most of her and my peers who are read/perceived as women in public have experienced sexual harassment.
The photo shoot itself took place within one day, in Mikela’s neighbor’s garden. Mikela would shoot only one or two persons at the time, with only her present. Working without a team meant more work for her, but “I didn’t want them to feel like I was inviting them into a photoshoot, but that it was a safe space for them”. With a total focus on the person in front of the lens, Mikela asked each of the girls: What are you currently feeling while wearing this piece of clothing? What would you like to feel after taking this power back? In the end, she took a photo of herself: “It was really helpful, it made me feel comfortable again to wear whatever I want”.
At the core of this photography project was reclaiming the power to feel free to be oneself – fashion is but one expression of that. More than being able to wear a piece of clothing again without feeling angry, or humiliated, or disappointed, it was about being free to just express those feelings – as women, when we talk about sexual harassment, about catcalls and more, so often the phrase “But isn’t it a compliment?” comes up. But a compliment is not supposed to make me feel unsafe, uncomfortable, questioning my fashion choices – it’s supposed to make me feel good. It’s supposed to make me feel seen, but not in the way that I would rather have remained invisible. As a teenager, I used to crave catcalls, with the wish I’d finally feel good about myself, that somebody would finally notice me. I had just gotten into feminism, and it was my own personal contradiction: Abhorring sexual harassment, and feeling insecure that I wasn’t pretty enough to warrant it. To my fourteen-year old self, I want to say that there is no such thing as pretty enough. Sexual harassment occurs because of entitlement – people feeling entitled to comment on bodies, and feeling entitled to determine how the ones commented on should feel about that. It does not occur because you truly want a person to feel good about themselves.
Mikela’s intent was simply giving back a sense of ownership, but after the photoshoot had ended, the group of women decided to share the images and the story online. After posting the series of photographs on Instagram, “a lot of people reached out to me and told me they wanted to participate as well”. Damn Honey, the Dutch feminist podcast, even commented on it, sharing some of the photos on their platform.
Following the first batch of photos, a second round is already in the works. Different from the first, this time some of the people photographed are total strangers to Mikela, individuals who reached out to her via Instagram. It’s an open project, with no end in sight – and right now, Mikela also wants to open up the ‘Reclaim Your Power’ series to non-binary, trans, and other people who might be perceived as women in public but aren’t necessarily one. And she will keep going, however long people keep reaching out to her – with memories of clothing and feelings to be transformed.
From Mikela, to everybody:
Clothing and fashion have played a big role in my photography work mostly just playing around with different styles and trends and adapting them to my aesthetic. However, with this project I want to focus on the people within the clothing and the significance of the garment itself.
When I reached out to the women from my university, I knew that there were going to be a lot of responses as a lot of the women I’ve met have been through something similar.
The day of the shoot was very emotional and important. Being able to create a space where everyone is comfortable to share their experiences and be vulnerable to relive moments they are trying to forget was a very rewarding experience. It was just me, the other women and a backdrop. I didn’t want to rent a fancy studio because I knew it would make it less personal and I also didn’t want to have anyone else helping me, especially a man. The photos also aim to only concentrate on the person and the clothing and nothing else, that’s why I chose a simple white backdrop and natural light.
I would like to end by saying a big thank you to everyone who participated and will participate. This project is dedicated to all the women.
From Lanie, one of the participants:
Clothes are one of our most outward expressions of our inner selves, which is why I feel like it stings so much when they become the target of ridicule and harassment. Everyone has a right to feel comfortable with their identity, so by extension everyone should have a right to feel comfortable in the clothes they wear. I’m glad that this photoshoot gave me the chance to embrace a part of my identity that I was made to feel ashamed of once again.