What Should We Wear Now?
The Unforgettable Year Dispatches from 12 months of pandemic. Photo: Peter King/Fox Photos/Getty Images
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Although COVID has brought an avalanche of new stressors into our lives, it has also eradicated a number of minor ones. For example: the anguish of wondering whether you are dressed appropriately for a social occasion. Social occasions — ha! When this is all over (a clause that, by the way, I first typed one year ago for a completely different article), will anyone remember how to iron a shirt, much less affix a cummerbund?
Well, at least one person will. Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History is a new book by Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor who has terrific personal style. This is an irrelevant biographical detail for most academics but a qualification here. Ford is not only a decorated scholar and fashionisto but a Best Dressed Real Man, as we learn in the book’s introduction. In 2009, Ford writes, he entered Esquire’s Best Dressed Real Man contest on a lark. His second child was 10 months old at the time. Family life was a whirlwind of plastic baby toys and diaper changes. It struck him as potentially entertaining to submit himself as “a harried 43-year-old dad versus a bevy of lantern-jawed aspiring actors, sinewy fashion models, and athletic-looking frat boys.” The contest winner would receive an all-expenses-paid weekend in the Big Apple. One of the submission photos, reproduced in the book, depicts Ford in a blue pinstripe suit with a squirming infant in his lap. To his own astonishment, he made it to the semifinals before being eliminated in favor of the ultimate winner.
But the joke is on that guy, wherever he is, because he didn’t go on to write a 464-page survey of Western fashion legislature with full color inserts and sections like “Hip Hijabs” and “Decorative Orthodontic Devices (a.k.a. Grillz).” Ford was also probably the first to offer a detailed analysis of Donald Trump’s “disturbingly long” neckties, which he published a few years ago in op-ed form as a kind of sneak preview of this book. In the opinion piece, he outlined the aesthetic felonies of Trump’s accessory: too shiny, improperly knotted, and misassembled so that the short end couldn’t properly moor in its loop and was instead doomed to flap in the breeze. The piece made strong points. Nothing about a president should “flap.” The overlong tie, Ford argued, might even constitute a sort of fraud; after all, in Renaissance England, a man caught overstuffing his codpiece was forced to march through the streets with the stuffing pulled out as a public admission of stealing penis-size valor.
How we should be dressing now, and how we’ll want to dress when this is all over, is an open question.
The joy of Ford’s book comes from learning about all the things people have historically been banned from doing to or with clothes. And by banned I don’t mean that a gauzy societal opprobrium might have descended if you stepped out in the wrong “payre” of pants but that a Scottish man who wore a kilt in 1746 could be tossed into prison (no bail) for six months. Governing bodies absolutely live to sweat the small stuff.
Those bodies are no longer determinant forces of how we dress. During COVID, the tacit guidelines for dressing — the ones that deal with coolness or professionalism or gender — have disintegrated even further, opening a wormhole into realms of unprecedented sloppiness, eccentricity, discovery, and creativity. There has likely never been a point in U.S. history when the populace has spent so much time being unobserved by the public. You may have experienced this as a relief, or you may have experienced it as a loss.
I know that my inability to observe the self-ornamentation of others in real time over the past months — the stark removal of people watching as an available activity — has turned down all the saturation levels on life. There was a lady in my old neighborhood who was entirely green, for example. Green hair, green clothes, green accessories. Her age: mid-60s? Who knows, doesn’t matter. Nothing about the green goddess suggested that she was enacting Greenness for the pleasure of the world. It was a private quest that only inadvertently revealed itself in the course of her going out to buy milk or hit the ATM.
It is perhaps because I’ve not had access to such people that my own COVID dressing has slipped over the months from adult swaddling clothes into green-goddess territory. In autumn, I transitioned from pants to tights and from tights to sheer leopard-print stockings. In winter, I collected fluffy bits of lichen from the yard and tried to sew them into a wig. (Too crumbly.) Last week, I Googled images of Marie Antoinette with a model frigate woven into her hair and wondered if I could Do It Myself. Without external stimulation, some of us are driven to “be the person you wish to randomly walk past in the world.”
Today, the online Trump Store offers a $125 replica of the tie Ford analyzed. It arrives complete with a “complementary” [sic] gift box. But who is buying ties — jumbo red ones or otherwise — in a pandemic? The past year has scrambled the way we present ourselves. For the nonessentials among us, COVID has done away with dress codes and replaced them with a fashion abyss. We are left with a question that is as peripheral as it is prevalent: What to wear, what to wear? Here, some suggestions:
A Zoom Mullet
Locked Down is the name of a Doug Liman movie that came out on HBO Max in January. The project was completed entirely during the pandemic and, as Metacritic puts it, received “mixed or average reviews” upon release. I liked it. The genre is “romantic comedy/heist,” and though the sum is less than those parts, the parts are fun enough that it doesn’t matter. The film’s triumphs are its documentations of life under COVID, including what we might now term the Zoom Mullet: Business on top, party on the bottom. In one scene, the high-powered businesswoman played by Anne Hathaway Zooms with her team while wearing elegant earrings, a tailored blazer, silk blouse, and loudly patterned pajama pants yanked well north of her bellybutton. What her team doesn’t know won’t hurt them.
The Zoom Mullet adds both a comedic and an erotic charge to routine digital workplace interactions. Is the person on the other end of the line wearing baggy leggings? Sweatshorts? Tighty-whities? Lacy underwear? No underwear? You’ll never know … and they’ll never tell. Here, we have one method of dressing destined to flourish as long as people continue to work remotely. Dance like nobody’s watching, sing like nobody’s listening, dress like your lower body is invisible.
An Outraygeous Payre of Hose
Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images
Until the Late Middle Ages, Western fashion moved at a crawl. The general shape of clothes remained the same for decades, maybe centuries. A rich person’s tunic might have been silk instead of wool, and the length might have gone up or down over the years, but it was otherwise a near-identical sack. Most people wore clothes until they were rags. The idea of discarding a piece of clothing because it was no longer cool, rather than no longer functional, was inconceivable. Equally absurd was the idea that you could infer something about a person’s character or taste from his clothes. His rank, yes. His soul, no.
Trade expansion in the 14th century made cloth more widely available to the emergent middle class. This coincided with a dawning sense that a person’s identity might be more tied up with what he did than with how many hectares his dad owned. Selfhood wasn’t preordained after all — it could be constructed piece by piece, with clothing as a tool.
This was immediately recognized by those in power as a problem. Ford writes about a servant in England who was arrested in 1565 for wearing “a very monsterous and outraygeous greate payre of hose.” The pants in question were trunk hose, which are inflated shorts with sewn-in panels that a wearer can yank to puff out the shorts, bullfrog style. The offender was detained and ordered to change outfits, and the illegal pants were exhibited in public so that others could meditate on the “extreme folye” of the servant. “Dressing wrong” in the confines of your house is not a rebellion on the scale of English the servant, but a way to exert deviance without repercussion—a form of self-soothing that every infant with a spoonful of food and a throwing arm understands.
A few years ago, a co-worker pointed out that I had a habit of wearing unflattering colors. She said things like, “It’s not that you look bad in yellow; it’s that no one looks good in it.”
As a gift — and also a remarkable neg — she booked me a color consultation and face-shape analysis. I took a train to see the consultant, who wore jewel-tone fabrics with abundant draping. During the appointment, she held cards to my face, examined me under a white light, and demonstrated how to spread a green paste over my cheeks to deemphasize my rosacea. It was revealed that my color type was Exotic Winter and my face shape an inverted triangle.
I bought the green paste and a booklet of hairstyle suggestions. Asymmetrical cuts, the consultant explained, would correct for the defects of my head shape. Recognizing the undertones of my skin color would have a powerful impact on the choices I made. A wardrobe of flattering hues would bring out my best. Under no circumstances was I to wear brown, orange, yellow, or warm pastels. These days I don’t work at the office with the color-obsessed co-worker — or any office — but I think about her, now and then, when I slip into a forbidden hue.
A Zoot Suit
Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Underpinning a law like the one against trunk hose is, of course, an attempt to freeze and control a social order. In 1943, a squadron was dispatched to East Los Angeles in search of Mexican American men wearing zoot suits so they could beat up the men and tear off the zoot suits, which they trampled, burned, and peed upon. In theory, the suits were offensive because they used a lot of fabric, which was rationed at the time. It is more likely that the wearing of the suit indicated a sense of self-determination, which poked at a racial hierarchy that looked, increasingly, like the end stages of a Jenga game. Young ladies who wore zoot suits were called zooterinas.
Louis XIV amused himself by inventing rules about who was allowed to wear brocade. The people on the king’s Brocade List included himself and an assortment of people he liked. If a person wanted to wear, say, an embroidered brocade justaucorps with a scarlet sash, he needed to obtain physical authorization from the king. Only 50 people at a time could be on the Brocade List. As soon as one person was cut, there was drama about who would replace him. Today, elite fashion brands maintain similarly strict guidelines about which celebrities they’ll agree to dress on the red carpet. This practice can be weaponized, too. In 2010, a rumor circulated that Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, from Jersey Shore, had been sent a free Gucci handbag — not by Gucci but by one of the brand’s competitors.
“Sumptuary law” is law that regulates what people spend their money on: Luxury goods, jewelry, clothes, fancy foods … all the fun stuff. But especially clothes. Women were prohibited from wearing multicolored robes in second-century BC Rome. Commoners were banned from wearing fine black sable in 11th-century China. Sumptuary laws exploded toward the end of the 12th century, detonating all over France, Italy, and Spain. Fourteenth-century women living in Siena were not allowed to wear platform shoes unless they were sex workers.
By the 1700s, even youthful America had its own dress regulations, mostly about lace, which was considered one of Satan’s temptations. But above all, sumptuary laws were a way to crack down on social mobility. It’s a lot harder to “fake it till you make it” if you’re not allowed to fake it in the first place. Although they’ve dwindled, sumptuary laws still exist — and when they do, they tend to adhere to a certain pattern. Municipalities in at least seven states have criminalized the wearing of “sagging” pants. In 2008 Abercrombie & Fitch rejected a job applicant for wearing a hijab. (She sued and won.) UPS only relaxed its rules about natural Black hairstyles just last year.
… Or Better Yet, Pleasers
Photo: yacobchuk/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Platform shoes still have sultry connotations, especially the style recognized in modern times as the Classic Stripper Shoe: needle heel, clear PVC straps, dizzying platform of transparent Lucite. You can buy imitations everywhere, but the industry standard might be a model called Adore-708 made by a company named Pleaser that precision engineers its footwear to serve its true functional purpose as a piece of athletic equipment. Everything about the design of Adore-708 is ingenious. The angled toe box makes it possible to rock on your toes without losing stability. The platform creates an illusion of a high arch without requiring a user to actually stand en pointe. Clear straps allow the whole apparatus to serve as an uninterrupted extension of the leg. The transparency of the heel makes it possible to do floor work without scuffing the shoe (because there’s no color to scuff away). And the lining is padded for all-night comfort. It is an object artful enough that the Met has a Pleaser in its fashion collection.
In a 2004 TV special, Chris Rock observed that there’s something about clear heels “that just says nasty.” But why let one man’s opinion get in the way of the perfect shoe? Pleaser is one of very few footwear brands that allow users to have their cake and eat it too: ease and glamour in one reasonably priced package. The pandemic has ushered in a reversion to comfort in all aspects of dress. This is one form that may surprise you.
The fashion critic Cintra Wilson once delivered a piece of (ruinous) financial advice that I’ve never forgotten, which is this: If you find an ideal piece of clothing with a price tag that violates your budget, you should buy it anyway, because otherwise you’ll become obsessed with the item and waste money on inferior replacements for years to come.
“Your subconscious will punish you by turning [the piece of clothing] into a kind of Holy Grail that you will spend the remainder of your wretched time on earth trying to find again,” Wilson wrote, calculating that for every perfect item she’d surrendered, she had purchased six to ten inferior substitutes.
As you’d expect, dark-net markets are full of contraband. Anyone with several hours of spare time can purchase jewels, gold, bank details, ID cards, body armor, weapons, fake documents, malware, every drug on earth, and … fashion. A convincing faux Louis Vuitton duffel bag goes for the crypto equivalent of $75. A Gucci backpack is $164, a Versace sweater $100, an Offwhite hoodie $30, an Hermès belt with box and bag just $54.80 — a discount of 95 percent from the real thing.
In some cases, the customer service from forgers is better than that of the brands they’re ripping off. A few years ago, I went to the (real) Prada flagship store on Broadway and a salesperson told me my arm was too fat for one of the handbags. I left an angry Yelp review. The fake Prada vendors online are extremely solicitous. “We treat every customer as VIP,” one of the more prolific sellers promises. “We want you to be a happy customer.” It makes you think.
Women who wore loose-fitting pants in the 1920s constituted a sexual fetish known in the trade as bifurcation. Magazines depicted women in pants roughhousing, getting spanked, and hiding under each others’ beds. The fetish has long gone extinct — a case of erotic energy being normalized away by the sands of time.
There are 6,497 customer reviews on a pair of shorts with built-in butt pads on the fast-fashion website Shein. The shorts, which cost $13, are one of many available butt-pad options. You can get lace-trimmed shorts, sheer shorts, mesh shorts, shorts in black or apricot, and shorts with convenient detachable pads. The butt-pad shorts are clearly intended as an affordable alternative to surgical intervention, or a lazy person’s alternative to doing thousands of squats, but one off-label use that immediately suggests itself is that of “portable seat cushion.” If we’re ever allowed to board airplanes again, I will take one for a whirl in the depths of economy class.
Comfort shoes are back, baby! Sales of “unapologetically ugly” Crocs (CNN’s words, not mine) soared in 2020 as millions of people realized that the foam-based clogs fell well beneath the Zoom Mullet threshold. Slipper sales surged. Dress shoes plummeted. As Pleasers demonstrate, functionality need not equal clumsiness. But often it does.
A Danish yoga teacher named Anna Kalsø invented one of the definitive styles of the 1970s when she created a sandal with “negative heel technology” — that is, a shoe in which the toes were higher than the heels by 3.7 degrees, which apparently replicated the sense of walking barefoot on soft ground. An American couple visiting Copenhagen in 1969 bought a few pairs and wore them experimentally, then — locating curative powers in their lumpy new footwear — begged Kalsø to let them sell her shoes in the U.S. After evaluating the couple’s astrological signs, she agreed. Similar to the contemporary company Supreme, Kalsø prohibited advertising and relied on word-of-mouth to sell her wares.
On Earth Day 1970, the Earth Shoe debuted Stateside. There were many styles, all globular and functional, and all promoted as a way to straighten posture, improve circulation, clear the mind, and “reduce the aches and fatigue caused by living in a cement coated world.” Kalsø herself had walked 500 miles in her shoes to prove their durability. The shoes were divisive: About 10 percent of users were totally unable to adapt to the height inversion, while others became so committed that they got married in their Earth Shoes. The shoes attracted a crunchy audience and were quickly seen to be co-morbid with things like brown rice and feminism. Still available for purchase, Earth Shoes now come in updated styles — such a leopard slip-on with laser-cut accents.
Even before COVID, comfort shoes would periodically trend. A celebrity would be photographed in Birkenstocks, or a cushioned New Balance would be refurbished as “normcore.” One imagines that people whose livelihoods demand comfort shoes — health workers, the entire food-service industry — view these oscillations, if at all, with one eyebrow elevated.
A Plague Doctor Costume
Photo: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty
The hazmat suit of the 17th century consists of an ankle-length oilcloth or waxed leather cloak and beaky mask with goggles, plus a cane and goat-leather boots. All of these elements served a purpose. The cane was for prodding and examining patients at a suitable distance, taking their pulse and lifting up their clothes to check for inflamed lymph nodes. The coat’s waxed treatment would have repelled loose bodily fluids. Same with the goggles. The iconic part of the outfit, that mask, was stuffed with herbs meant to filter air emanating from the patient and to conceal foul odors. Sometimes the herbs were lit and allowed to smoke out through a pair of nose-holes, which would have made the costume even more terrifying to anyone on the receiving end.
Miasma theory blamed “corrupt vapors” for the spread of disease, which wasn’t true but was based on the (correct) observation that unsanitary conditions sped up transmission. The length of a plague doctor’s coat probably helped repel fleas, too, which were the actual vectors of plague. It was an accident that the look transformed a regular person into an anonymous and bestial spectacle. Even the mask’s beak wasn’t intended to look creepy; it was just a practical design solution for keeping a bouquet of herbs hovering beneath a wearer’s nose all day.
But if the birdlike mask is accidental, it is also the element that glued this costume to our collective image bank and caused it to stick around for so long. We’ve always loved and feared an animal-human hybrid. Centaurs, sphinxes, , minotaurs; Ganesha, Anubis, Pan: They whiz straight past our conscious minds and into a sunken Pinterest board of the id. There are more than ten “plague doctor” costumes available from HalloweenCostumes.com, including a sexy version and one for children. (But, thankfully, no sexy version for children.)
Remember when fashion brands touted the fact that their clothes could go “from day to night”? With a change of shoes, your office-appropriate sheath could metamorphose into flirty cocktail attire. I’m not sure anyone was convinced of this line, but it was a line. Day-to-night dressing.
COVID, of course, has introduced day-to-bed dressing. A large chunk of workers can log off and tumble directly from desk to mattress in their marshmallow-soft sweats and athleisure made of fabrics that can stretch up to 300 percent of their own size. Will the end of COVID spark a resurgence of physically punishing clothes? Will we sprint toward stiletto heels, Spanx, itchy wide-fiber wools, tube tops, and restrictive latex? Could bandage dresses make a comeback? Chafing bustiers? Those A.P.C. jeans that take a decade to break in? Chain mail? Girdles? Hair shirts?
Nudism came to America from Germany during the Great Depression, and perhaps it’s time to reconsider the movement as a rational response to the overindulgences of capitalism. Nudism started as a tendril of a broader (but still niche) response to everything about modernity that obscured a person’s relationship to nature: urbanization, consumerism, industrialization. Being naked, the German thinking went, exposed a person to the healthy healing powers of sun, light, and air. It was hygienic. It aimed to unravel the shame that society had insisted on attaching to the body. It was an ideal and a therapy — and, to this day, arguably the only fashion choice immune to being commodified or appropriated. If style wars are class wars, could nudity be the future of resistance?
Five years ago, I was walking north on Bowery when I paused at a red light behind a slight young woman in a faux-leather jacket and sunglasses. It turned out to be the actor Rooney Mara. As we waited for the light, I noticed that a raw egg had been broken against the shoulder of her jacket and allowed to slightly calcify. The light changed and Mara strode forward, while I paused to examine the situation. How had the egg gotten there? It was not in a place where an egg might have naturally fallen over the course of being eaten. Also, the egg was raw. Had someone thrown an egg at Rooney Mara? Had she thrown an egg at her own jacket? Either way, why? She clearly knew the egg was there — it glistened, unmissable — and, equally clearly, didn’t care.
The purpose of clothes is to cloak our private parts and protect our bodies from hailstones and heat and the world’s millions of species of insects. The effect of clothes, which isn’t so simple, is what we call fashion. For a certain kind of person, the Mystery of Rooney Mara’s Jacket is exactly the appeal of it. An outfit is a crossword puzzle: The clothes are clues; the solution is the person wearing them. Sometimes a puzzle is booby-trapped with tricks and fake-outs, which can either be deciphered exegetically or abandoned in bewilderment.
The Identity Hoaxers
The confession, when it came, did not hold back. “For the better part of my adult life, every move I’ve made, every relationship I’ve formed, has been rooted in the napalm toxic soil of lies,” read the Medium post. It was published in September under the name of Jessica A. Krug, a George Washington University professor specializing in Black history. Krug had, she said, variously assumed the identities of “North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.” She was actually a white Jewish woman from Kansas. “You absolutely should cancel me,” Krug wrote in her self-dramatizing mea culpa, “and I absolutely cancel myself.”
Krug had cultivated her assumed identity over several years, and used it to speak “authentically” about race in America. The deception appears to have begun while she was studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Krug “used to identify as half Algerian, saying that her father was a white man of German ancestry who had raped her mother,” a fellow academic told The Cut. When Krug moved to New York, she became Afro-Latinx, and used the name “Jessica La Bombalera” for her activism. One of her former students said: “There was this theme in her teaching of being super-representative of her communities and saying that folks had destroyed it and gentrified it. Now looking back, she was talking about herself.”
One of the oddest aspects of the saga was that Krug’s assumed identity was so stereotypical as to be borderline unconvincing: She wore hoop earrings, crop tops, and “tight, tight cheetah pants” to class, and spoke with an exaggerated accent. She also took funding from a program designed for marginalized scholars. According to Gisela Fosado of Duke University Press, the publisher of Krug’s academic book, her scholarship “may not have ever existed without the funding that was inseparable from her two decades of lies.” And yet—the work was well regarded. The white, Jewish Jessica Krug could have had an academic career. What she would not have had was moral authority.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the case, however, is that it is not unique. In fact, Krug’s admission was prompted by scholars in the field discussing the case of H. G. Carrillo, who was also a professor at GW. After he died from COVID-19 in April, Carrillo’s family came forward to correct the initial tributes: The author of Loosing My Espanish was not, as he had always presented himself, a member of the Cuban diaspora, but a Black man born in Detroit. His birth name was Herman Glenn Carroll. This was news to everyone, including his husband.
Those who had nursed suspicions for years about colleagues and acquaintances soon brought other cases to light. Over the holiday season, the self-presentation of Hilaria Baldwin—the wife of the actor Alec, with whom she has five “Baldwinitos”—was questioned. Baldwin, who had long presented herself as nebulously Hispanic, admitted that she was born Hillary Lynn Hayward-Thomas to white, English-speaking Bostonian parents who have since retired to Spain. Before that came the academics Kelly Kean Sharp and CV Vitolo-Haddad, the attorney Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, and the activist Satchuel Cole. All were white, but were assumed to be minorities in their professional and personal lives. The best-known example of all is Rachel Dolezal, who now goes by Nkechi Amare Diallo.
The superficial similarities among all of these cases are striking: mostly women, all educated and professionally successful, all working in fields engaged with questions of oppression and marginalization. And in all of these cases, somewhere along the line, empathy tipped into appropriation. It was not enough to feel the pain of marginalized groups; they had to be part of them, too.
Baron Munchausen lived an eventful life. He rode a cannonball, traveled to the moon, and was swallowed, Jonah-like, by a giant fish. When his horse was cut in two, he substituted a laurel tree for its missing legs.
You will not be surprised to hear that none of these stories is true. The 18th-century German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe borrowed the name of a real-life aristocrat for a series of fantasies. The actual baron, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen, had told tall tales about his military career, and his name became a byword for exaggerated claims.
In 1951, the baron’s name was used by the British physician Richard Asher to describe a syndrome that he claimed “most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written.” A patient would arrive at a hospital with an acute illness, but no cause could be found. The presence of a large number of abdominal scars, from investigative surgery, was one clue to physicians that they were in the presence of a faker. But otherwise, such patients usually managed to string along their doctors for days or weeks; it took, Asher wrote, a “bold” emergency-room doctor to refuse them admission.
Asher argued that many of these patients were genuinely ill in some way, “although their illness is shrouded by duplicity and distortion.” He also noted that their lies had no obvious purpose: They did not want to defraud the state or solicit charitable donations. In pursuit of nothing more than attention and an audience, they were willing to tolerate painful and intrusive medical procedures. “The most remarkable feature of the syndrome,” Asher concluded, “is the apparent senselessness of it.”
Munchausen syndrome is now known as “factitious disorder,” and has spawned a series of spin-offs: In Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a caregiver—usually a mother—makes up an illness or injury on behalf of a patient, or even causes the problem by poison or other methods; “Munchausen by internet” describes a syndrome wherein patients pose as sick or dying in chat rooms and online support groups.
From the start, Munchausen syndrome had a social component as well as a medical one. Asher wrote that his patients’ lies were not confined to their illnesses. One might claim to be “an ex-submarine commander who was tortured by the Gestapo.” Another would spin a tale about “being an ex-opera-singer and helping in the French resistance movement.” They latched on to the Second World War to create a heroic narrative, attaching their personal pain to a grander, global story.
The sickness fakers were not the only ones to do this. Half a century after Asher identified the syndrome, an extraordinary event took place. In April 1998, two child survivors of the Holocaust, Binjamin Wilkomirski and Laura Grabowski, performed together—on clarinet and piano, respectively—for a crowd drawn from the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and a local synagogue. The pair played a song written by Grabowski, “Ode to the Little Ones,” dedicated to all the Jewish children who had died in the Holocaust.
Three years earlier, Wilkomirski had published a memoir of his childhood, called Fragments in its English translation, that detailed how he had been separated from his family in Latvia at age 3, and found himself in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. The story, told through the naive eyes of a child, recounted how he had been brought to see someone at the camp who he was told was his mother. She gave him a crust of bread before he was taken away. He never saw her again. “At some point during this time, speech left me altogether and it was a long time before I found it again,” he wrote. After the war, he was adopted in Switzerland, but both his new parents and his new country, according to Wilkomirski, forced him to repress his trauma. His memories were brutal but hazy; he does not name the second camp he was taken to, but it was inferred by his publishers to be Auschwitz. Fragments was rapturously received, translated into several languages, and garlanded with prizes. Yes, there were awkward questions, but these were easily answered by Wilkomirski. Why did he not have a number tattooed on his arm, for example? Because he had been selected for experiments by Josef Mengele and had therefore escaped the usual mark inflicted on concentration-camp prisoners in Auschwitz.
Grabowski certainly believed him. More than that, she recognized him. After reading his book, she decided to go public with her own story of surviving the death camps, and of being left infertile after Nazi medical experiments. She wrote Wilkomirski a letter saying that she had been in some of the places he described in Fragments. According to Blake Eskin’s A Life in Pieces, the pair bonded over their memories of the same girl, Ana, and the blood disorders they both had, which they attributed to the medical experiments conducted by Mengele. The group of child survivors Grabowski met with in Los Angeles invited him to visit. When she met Wilkomirski, she said: “He’s my Binji, that’s all I know.”
It is hard to speculate what could have been going through the two child survivors’ minds when they met the first time in Los Angeles. Did it feel like relief—or a high-stakes poker game? Because, as it turned out, they were both lying. Wilkomirski had been adopted by Swiss parents, but he was neither Jewish nor a concentration-camp survivor. His childhood was miserable, yes, but in ways that were utterly mundane. Laura Grabowski wasn’t even Laura Grabowski. She was Laurel Willson, born in Seattle in 1941. Before claiming to have survived the Holocaust, she had posed as a survivor of satanic abuse, and had published a book on the subject, called Satan’s Underground, using the name Lauren Stratford. The reaction to Wilkomirski and Grabowski’s Holocaust deception, when it was finally revealed, was a mixture of horror, guilt, and anger. How could someone cheapen the experiences of those who had suffered real pain? What would drive someone to do such a thing?
A scar on history as big as the Holocaust attracts troubled people who want to affix their own suffering to a grand narrative, just as those first Munchausen patients did. Grabowski and Wilkomirski are far from the only Holocaust fakers: One woman claimed to have been raised by wolves, another to have been taken in by a convent after the liberation of Dachau; a man from Pennsylvania peddled a story about escaping from Auschwitz because, he said, of “fears that the history and horror of the camps would be forgotten.”
The pattern has been repeated with other historical events: In 2007, the head of a 9/11 survivors’ support group, Alicia Esteve Head, was exposed as a fantasist. She claimed to have been on the 78th floor of Two World Trade Center when the plane hit, and to have crawled through the debris and flames to reach safety; her fiancé, Dave, was in One WTC, she said, but he did not make it out; a dying man had given her his wedding ring, asking her to deliver it to his widow. Head claimed that her burning clothes had been extinguished by someone who didn’t survive, and she promised to give his parents a piece of them, because it was one of the last things their son had touched.
Head told this story, over and over, while working as a tour guide for the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. None of it was true. She was likely not even in New York on 9/11—she was registered at a university in Spain at the time.
Head was not a traditional con artist, though. “No one has suggested that Ms. Head did anything to profit financially from her position as an officer with the Survivors’ Network, the nonprofit group for which she helped to raise money,” The New York Times reported in its story questioning her claims. She really did have a scarred arm, although the origin of the injury is unknown.
My hunch is that any sufficiently traumatic event creates characters like this: the Bataclan killings in France, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina. We hear more about the Holocaust hoaxers and the 9/11 fakers because these are internationally famous, political tragedies. A high number of conspiracy theories swirl around them, such as the neo-Nazi lie that there were no death camps and the internet-friendly insistence that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.” In both cases, there are also groups of gatekeepers dedicated to keeping the historical record clean.
Yet even as the last real Holocaust survivors reach old age, the hoaxes continue. In July 2019, a 31-year-old German blogger named Sophie Hingst was found dead after having been exposed for inventing 22 relatives and submitting details of their deaths to Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. When Derek Scally, a journalist from The Irish Times, confronted Hingst after the deception was exposed, she spun a tale of family troubles, saying that her mother had been a “madwoman” who shot herself, and that she had discovered her body. But Scally found Hingst’s mother in the German phone book: “My daughter has many realities and I only have access to one,” she told the reporter.
Scally decided that Hingst was mentally unstable, rather than a scam artist. A therapist friend had told him “that Germans claiming to be from Jewish families touched by the Holocaust was not an unusual phenomenon. The need to be associated with the victims rather than the perpetrators in such a context was, he said, often linked to another trauma in a person’s life.”
The writer Anne Karpf, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor herself, puts it another way: “If you are [a] victimized, miserable, turbulent person because you’ve been adopted, because you’ve been badly treated, you aren’t necessarily going to get the kind of sympathy which you’re going to get if you are a Holocaust survivor. In the hierarchy of suffering, it’s at the pinnacle.”
The notion of needing “to be associated with the victims rather than the perpetrators” is what sent me down the rabbit hole of identity hoaxers. You would be surprised at how many there are: the “pretendians,” who claim Native American ancestry, including the former Klansman who reinvented himself as a best-selling “Cherokee” author; the Syrian blogger “Gay Girl in Damascus,” who turned out to be a straight American man named Tom MacMaster; Scott Peake, who presented himself as a fluent Gaelic speaker from a remote Scottish island when he took over the Saltire Society, which promotes Scottish culture. (He was really from South London, and couldn’t speak Gaelic.)
Within this galaxy of hoaxers, the academics and activists who attempt “reverse passing” are a distinct group. “Passing” has historically referred to the practice of nonwhite people adopting white identities or being read as white, allowing them to bypass the racial segregation of housing, jobs, and services. But the racial reckoning in the United States in recent years has asked white Americans to see themselves as perpetrators of centuries of injustice, and Black Americans as victims of that injustice. “Reverse passing,” also called “blackfishing” or “race-shifting,” seems intriguingly common in university humanities departments and leftist activist spaces, where many subscribe to the worldview outlined by Robin DiAngelo in her best-selling book White Fragility: “White people do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it.” Perhaps the subconscious reasoning runs like this: White people are oppressors, but I’m a good person, not an oppressor, so I can’t be white. (The right-wing version of this argument is different: I’m white, but don’t feel like an oppressor, so I reject this ideology.)
In individual instances, there can be financial or professional benefits to “reverse passing.” Ayendy Bonifacio, an assistant professor of U.S. ethnic literary studies at the University of Toledo, told me that for an academic such as Krug, “embodying that same identity that she writes about, and teaches, could lend her more cultural credit, to a certain extent, but also more trust from her readers, from her students, from other scholars in the field.” Watching a video of “Jessica La Bombalera” made him wonder whether Krug’s performance, in one sense, reflected a failure of solidarity, an inability to generate empathy without identification. Yet, he noted, discussing issues such as racism, gentrification, and police violence while posing as a person of color was “not just a performance of identity, but also a performance of other people’s traumas.”
As with Munchausen-syndrome patients, though, there did appear to be trauma in Krug’s life—just not the one she claimed. In her Medium post, she wrote of the “abuse” and “alienation” of her childhood. “The mental health professionals from whom I have been so belatedly seeking help assure me that [creating a false identity] is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked my early childhood and teen years … I have not lived a double life. There is no parallel form of my adulthood connected to white people or a white community or an alternative white identity.” She claimed to be, in the popular phrase, living her truth—even though her truth was a charade. (Krug has since disappeared from social media, and I was unable to contact her for comment.)
Once I noticed the Krug case, further examples kept coming to my attention. On September 18, the Black Lives Matter activist Satchuel Cole was outed by the website Black Indy Live for passing as biracial while being white. Cole, who uses they/them pronouns and legally changed their name in 2010, was well known in Indianapolis as a community leader, and acted as a spokesperson for the family of a Black man killed by police. There may be childhood trauma behind their story too: A 1994 article in The Indianapolis Star quoted someone of the same age and former name as Cole, whose sister had just received a 30-year jail term for killing their abusive mother. (The mother had also been complicit in their stepfather’s sexual abuse.) In the activist community, Cole had claimed that their biological father was Black, but after the Black Indy Live story was published, they posted on Facebook: “I have taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white. I have used Blackness when it was not mine to use.”
A month after Cole was unmasked, Kelly Kean Sharp resigned as an assistant professor of African American studies at Furman University, in South Carolina, after her claim to Mexican heritage was debunked. She had described herself in her Twitter biography as “Chicana” and took part in panels on the experience of being Latina in academia. (Furman confirmed to me that Sharp had quit, and had no forwarding address for correspondence.)
The third story belongs to CV Vitolo-Haddad, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who reacted with outrage to the news of Krug’s deception, calling her a “Kansas cracker” with a doctorate in “performing blackface.” Soon after, an anonymous Medium post alleged that Vitolo-Haddad, who uses they/them pronouns, had claimed to be Cuban and Black “while distancing themselves from their upbringing in a wealthy Italian family in Florida.” Name and appearance changes along the way had helped this impression—CV came from the initials of their first and middle names; Haddad came from a previous marriage—while photos from Vitolo-Haddad’s teenage years show them with paler skin and straighter hair. In their own Medium post, Vitolo-Haddad wrote: “I have let guesses about my ancestry become answers I wanted but couldn’t prove. I have let people make assumptions when I should have corrected them.” After this, California State University withdrew its offer of a tenure-track position to Vitolo-Haddad. (Vitolo-Haddad could not be reached for comment; they told Inside Higher Ed that they had benefited only “socially” from their racial identification, and had not applied for scholarships or fellowships reserved for people of color.)
The ur-example of this phenomenon is, of course, Rachel Dolezal, who was heavily involved in Black grassroots activism in Spokane, Washington, until she was revealed as the daughter of white parents. She had darkened her skin and adopted traditionally Black hairstyles, dyeing her naturally blond hair. And yet what was remarkable was the tenacity of her belief: Growing up, she said, she had always drawn herself with darker crayons. Dolezal’s deception was revealed after she complained of hate crimes, and it led to her dismissal as an instructor in Africana studies at Eastern Washington University.
The 2018 documentary The Rachel Divide traces Dolezal’s identity issues to her childhood, when she was raised by white parents (alongside a white brother) whom she loathed, and had adopted Black siblings whom she loved. She has claimed that her parents were religious fundamentalists who made her live as an “indentured servant.” Her brother accused her of fabricating sexual-assault allegations against him. (The charges were dropped.)
There is something of Wilkomirski’s story here: A childhood that was traumatic in sadly mundane ways became the prompt for Dolezal writing herself into a historical narrative of oppression. Like the other academics claiming a trauma that wasn’t theirs, she had found a type of suffering that had meaning beyond herself, a type of suffering to which people would pay attention.
Fakers and charlatans have a long history. Some are clearly motivated by greed, some by expediency. Others watch a small deception twist and grow, until the pretense consumes their life. The racial-justice movement in the U.S. led by Black Lives Matter has created new opportunities for nonwhite Americans, as have affirmative-action measures, and these have inevitably encouraged a few chancers to play the system.
Yet something more complicated, more psychologically knotty, is clearly going on with the racial identity fakers described above. As I read more and more of these stories, patterns began to jump out. Most of them are intelligent and highly educated. They use their new identities to claim a public voice—speaking on panels, writing books, leading protests. They choose to work in fields related to their borrowed oppression. The intensity of their identification could seem almost parodic to outsiders; Vitolo-Haddad once brought sage to class to “cleanse the space of whiteness.” They police other people’s identities, accusing them of not being “Black enough”—an intriguing psychological tic, given that they are not Black themselves.
They are also typically female. Marc Feldman, the American psychiatrist who popularized the term Munchausen by internet, has noticed that most of the cases of factitious disorder that come to his attention involve women. Perhaps female patients are just more likely to make themselves available to researchers, he told me, or maybe women are more likely to turn their pain inward. “When they act out, men tend to act out in really overt ways, and end up predominating in prisons over women,” he told me. “Women tend to act out in subtler ways. They act out within the system. And it may be the medical system, or it may be another, but they’re not overtly sociopathic.”
I asked Feldman whether it might be appropriate to think of these women in terms similar to the ones he would use to describe his patients. They were suffering from “social Munchausen syndrome,” if you like: faking social injuries in the same way that a classic Munchausen patient would fake asthma or cancer. “Every once in a while, I get an email saying, ‘Could this be Munchausen by internet, [when someone] lies about their identity, but doesn’t seem to lie about illness?” he said. “And that’s always presented me with a quandary, because technically Munchausen syndrome has to do with faking illness or even, in some cases, inducing it. You’re onto something that I haven’t paid a lot of attention to.”
As an outsider, it’s easy to empathize with whatever pain drives fakers to rewrite their history, particularly because the cost is commonly cutting their family and childhood friends out of their life. But people closer to these hoaxers, and closer to the pain they cause, tend to have a less forgiving view. When I spoke with two men who knew Satchuel Cole, the Black Lives Matter activist, personally—Laron Anderson of Black Indy Live and the Indianapolis music producer WildStyle—what emerged was a story of power, manipulation, and control. Both described Cole as a zealous gatekeeper of the Indianapolis Black and queer communities. Posing as Black gave Cole authority, the pair said—at the expense of genuine members of these groups, who were afraid to question someone above them in the local hierarchy. As for Krug, “from what I hear, her work was good,” Brandi Adams, who will join Arizona State University as an assistant English professor this fall, told me. “But she also made life difficult for a lot of Black and Latinx scholars, which is inexcusable. During the deception, she made other scholars feel that they were not Black or Latina enough. She was policing Blackness.” In the U.S., only 3 percent of college professors are Black women, and the community of Black scholars with whom Adams associates was gripped by the Krug news.
Other academics working in Black history and related fields have expressed a separate concern: that these fakers will be used to undermine the integrity of the discipline as a whole—just as fake Holocaust victims have been used by anti-Semites to claim that the Shoah never happened at all. “I have hesitated to share my suspicions,” the anonymous blogger who outed Vitolo-Haddad wrote, because “I do not wish to give fodder to people who have other grievances with CV, or with Black studies and Black liberation struggles.”
As for how the hoaxers get away with it, there is a strong taboo in liberal circles against questioning anyone’s identity, or their experiences of trauma. Doing so is taken to be the same as questioning all trauma. The left, in particular, respects this because of its awareness that some people think that racism is routinely exaggerated, that sexual-assault allegations are overblown, that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Trans activism has a taboo on “deadnaming”—mentioning, for example, that Caitlyn Jenner was once Bruce—and this norm has spread to university websites and news sources, which sometimes scrub references to a person’s previous identity. This act, motivated by kindness and respect, has the unintended consequence of impeding efforts to check court records or high-school yearbooks, and making it harder to compare successive versions of a person’s life story. Then there are the fluid power dynamics at play: Although Black Americans have, on average, lower incomes and social power than white Americans, a tenured professor (no matter their ethnicity) has immense power within a university department. It takes a brave graduate student to question their identity, just as it takes a brave doctor to express skepticism about a Munchausen-syndrome patient.
And then there is the fluidity of race itself: What makes a person Latino or Black? One grandparent? Two? The questions quickly begin to verge on segregationist “one drop” rhetoric. The whiteness of academia itself inhibits questions. “People like Krug go under the radar because of the incuriosity of academia and how little we talk about people’s race and ethnicity, in part because there is a dearth of people of color in academia,” Bonifacio, the University of Toledo professor, told me. Skeptical onlookers also worry that making the argument that someone does not “look Black” or “sound Black” reinforces troublesome stereotypes. “When I looked at [Krug], I thought: There are people in my family who look like you, and I would be offended if people were like, Who are you?” Adams said.
We can all understand the hoaxers who pretend to be someone else with malign intent: the con artists, the charlatans, the cads. The inexplicable, and haunting, cases are those people who seem to believe their own stories: the sick patient tortured by the Gestapo, the little boy separated from his mother in a death camp, the white girls who decry “blackface” while curling their hair and passing as Latina or Black.
Right now, there are people out in the world claiming pain that isn’t theirs—and hurting others in the process. But many are doing so because of the pain that is theirs. During our conversation, Feldman told me something shocking. “I think we’re missing the vast majority of Munchausen-by-internet cases,” he said. “Because in the vast majority of cases, the deceptions are successful.”
Molly Mae x Beauty Works hair straightener review: Better than ghd?
After spending weeks lusting over Molly-Mae’s sleek bob, we were keen to see if we could achieve similar results with this kit that’s been designed by the Islander herself.
An already saturated market, there were high expectations for Beauty Works’s first foray into the world of poker straight locks but as soon as we opened the packaging, we could see how the brand was trying to set itself apart from the rest.
While most straighteners come with little else than the box they’re delivered in, the clue is in the name with this one, as it comes as a kit with everything you need to style your hair, including a stylish pink faux leather storage case, bristle paddle brush and protective glove to shield your hands from any accidents.
As for the tool itself, the straightener is made with a glossy white finish and looks seriously sleek, with a long, thin design that feels lightweight yet sturdy in your hands. But, are the straighteners as technologically impressive as they are good-looking?
In short: yes. The narrow plates are visibly different from other models we’ve used, with a smooth ceramic coating and three infrared bars, which are said to help you create snag-free styles, eliminate frizz and provide enhanced shine. It also includes a dial at the base, which allows you to adjust the temperature (it ranges from 80C to 220C). This is a key feature that makes this tool a great option for all hair types as, while 185C is the optimal styling temperature for most people, lower heat suits fine hair best and thick or coarse tresses may need more heat to be effective.
Read more: 11 best hair vitamins for stronger, healthier and glossier locks
When we first plugged the straightener in, we were surprised to see a small silver cylinder shape at the base of the tool transform into a display screen which showed the plates were increasing in temperature. The dial is simple and satisfying to use as it clicks with every movement to the right or left until you reach your desired level of heat – we opted for 185C, which was swiftly reached in around 30 seconds. However, it’s worth noting that, unlike ghd’s, there is no sound to let you know when the straightener is ready to go.
Our hair is fairly straight to begin with but we struggle to get it looking sleek and glossy, so we decided to aim for that Jennifer Anniston circa Friends vibe with a smooth finish and curled under ends. We didn’t bother to section our tresses and jumped straight in, gliding it through the narrow plates of the straightener. As the infrared heat moved over our strands, they became immediately pin-straight and noticeably less frizzy, while the curled under ends were a breeze to achieve with just one swipe. We also didn’t have to hold the straightener on our hair for long as we moved it down and experienced zero snagging. In fact, our typically dull looking hair even appeared noticeably shinier.
All together, the whole process took about five minutes – a definite plus if you’re the type of the person that runs late or is looking for fuss-free styling. We also loved that the straightener comes with a handy lock feature, which stops the tool from opening or closing and means the plates can cool down safely, and be stored away in the carry case neatly.
Over the last few years, we’ve got into the habit of waving our hair on a daily basis so, perhaps the most impressive thing about this tool is that its sleek styling job might have converted us to the straight side. We’ve worn our hair straight pretty much every day since the tool arrived in the post and, dare we say it, have all but ditched our much-loved ghd’s.
However, fellow wave lovers shouldn’t tune out entirely, as you too are catered for with this handy gadget. When it came to adding texture to our tresses, the straightener’s smooth plates, glossy exterior and narrow design created really effortless-looking curls with lots of shine and staying power. After brushing ours out, they lasted a full two days before we decided to give our locks a wash but, if you can go longer, we’re sure they’d go the distance.