This past summer, Sarah Hughes travelled to Halifax, Quebec City, Victoriaville, Toronto, and Winnipeg to photograph women in two outfits of their choosing—the first one “comfortable and safe,” the second “attractive and sexy.” She then invited each of her subjects to talk about these dual identities. The fifteen women here are a representative sample from a larger work entitled Persona Project: Safe & Sexy, in which Hughes explores the considerations at play in women’s choice of clothing, revealing the influence of personal history and social convention. The photographs are based on early anthropological portraiture Hughes saw while working at the Smithsonian film archives, as well as “before and after” series popularized in magazines in the 1990s—both of which feature head-to-toe frontal perspectives. Viewed collectively, the women’s individual personas come into sharp focus.
Sarah Seller, 19
I think about what I’m wearing if I’m going to meet a really hot guy or something. Am I going to be comfortable? I hope I don’t bend over and split my pants, you know? At school I sit on a hard chair all day, so I’d rather wear big fluffy pants that are kind of cushiony and warm. I’m a little over average in weight and I can’t really flaunt my body, so I like to cover up as much as I can yet be sexy and classy.
I probably have used my gender to get what I want. I just don’t think about that a lot. But I know a lot of girls who have. I know a lot of guys who have. You know, “I’m the man, check out my car. The chicks love it.”
I have a friend who lives down Portage Avenue, and we like to hang out on the balcony on Sunday cruise night when there are all these phat cars riding by.
Jacintè Faria, 26
I wore heels with both outfits because I’m short and I don’t like people looking down on me. It’s only a small inconvenience for my feet. Yeah, I’m a shorty. And I definitely feel more assertive when people can look me in the eye.
I picked my safe outfit because it’s easy. I won’t have a problem on my bike with having to hide my underwear. Going upstairs I’m not worried about someone looking up my dress. I chose my sexy piece because I feel cute and all packaged up into one little piece.
My mother grew up on a sugar plantation in British Guiana with all the bells and whistles. She was always dressed well. French dresses with little gloves. When we were growing up, she instilled that same thinking in me: you should be presentable. But I grew up in the eighties, when everyone wore jogging pants. No one dressed pretty like a doll. I remember picture day was always a big deal. I hated it. You always fight what your parents try to instill, but those values come full circle later on.
Griselda Manning, 54
On the farm, it’s all dirty work, with buckets of water and animal manure. I do think about my clothes, but not in terms of how I look. They have to be comfortable, warm or cool enough, and scruffy, so that I’m relaxed.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and usually Fridays, my belly-dancing classes are in the morning and they’re an hour’s drive away, so I have to get up early, milk cows, feed sheep…then jump in the bath, go and teach, and then come back and get the old clothes on again.
I’ve always been a dancer—a ballet and modern dancer—and it’s very hard to suddenly stop. When you’re fifty-four, performing doesn’t work as well. What I love about belly-dancing is that it embraces women of all shapes, sizes, and ages. I work in dirty, old clothes every day, and it adds a bit of glamour to my life. With the exception of my first hus- band, who hated everything about me from the day we got married, I’ve had mature men in my life who have absolutely loved the way I dress.
Jade Stafford, 30
My best asset? Definitely the legs. I’m at least a head taller than most of my Asian girlfriends, and when we go shoe shopping, they’re in the size six or seven aisle, while I’m in size ten. They’re like, “Where’s Jade? Oh, she’s in the clown section.”
I’m reading a book called A Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch) because I’m the manager of a cooking school and I want to be able to exert authority but not come across as too demanding. The dress code at work is business casual. I lean more on the business side because if I’m dressed casually, it gives the idea that customer service isn’t our number one priority, which it is. Everyone who comes to work knows that they should be dressed, pressed, ironed, and presentable.
My safe outfit is business casual with a touch of playfulness, with my belt and my ribbon. It really brought out my personality, that I still want to have fun. Because it’s a cooking school, not rocket science. We want people to see that we don’t take everything super-seriously.
Chandra Mayor, 32
I fear physical violence more than sexual violence. I’ve been raped a few times, and I know it’s something I can escape in my head more easily than I can escape physical violence. Being hit repeatedly is harder for me.
I got the shirt I’m wearing for my safe outfit in LA, when I was doing things that felt really, really dangerous. I flew down there to meet a woman I’d never met before, which is stupid and dangerous. But it worked out okay, so the shirt makes me think of being brave.
My current body makes me feel safe. I used to be extremely thin, and when I was in that body I couldn’t go anywhere without someone touching me or yelling something at me. I was hyper-visible and hyper-vulnerable all the time. Then I put this weight on and suddenly I was completely invisible. I was glad, but it was also disconcerting.
I think of clothing as costuming to set the mood. If I’m going out to do a reading I want people to be enthralled, so I try to wear something a little more glamorous, even if it’s ironic glamorous, like plastic pearls.
Audrey Wells, 18
When boys and girls were first starting to look at each other and people started to have a chum or a blonde, I had fewer male friends. Some say you can’t have guy friends, but I find it really beautiful. And I want that. Lately, I have started to have more. A person I considered my good friend was in love with me, but I didn’t feel it. It’s at this moment where the line is difficult to handle.
I am not so daring in how I dress.I am afraid that if I wear sexy things, men will think I’m cheap or easy. I prefer to keep it simple, to be comfortable. I like clothes I can wear anywhere. I don’t consider myself a femme fatale.
Each of my friends have different styles. There are a few who dress to seduce. They know they have a lot of charm and they use it, but that doesn’t bother me because they are comfortable like that. Often I find them sexier than me.
Julie Cunningham, 32
I was seventeen and taking care of three family members at the same time, alone. I went through a huge depression. I lost my fiancé because I was a wreck! It all fell apart. I got my shit together, did some therapy, and figured out I was gay. That’s when I really started to settle into my own.
There was the hippie stage, the goth stage, and, of course, the rockabilly scene. I still like that style. But I was always shy and the bigger kid and really self-conscious about my weight, trying to fit it. Am I wearing the right outfit? Is my eyeliner done just right?
Now I really don’t care. You don’t like it? Don’t look! You’re missing one hell of a good person.
I always walk with confidence and at night I tend to walk more like a guy and look like I’m ready for a fight. I put on a frown and away I go. But I feel pretty safe overall. I usually have my dog with me, and most people just ogle the dog. He’s glamorous. He’s sexy. And he keeps me safe.
Jody Hudey, 20
In grade ten or eleven, when I lived in Brandon, I started working at my uncle’s tattoo shop and hanging out with people with tattoos and piercings and bondage clothes, and that changed the way I dressed. I don’t feel sexy if I’m showing too much skin. That’s trashy to me.
Mostly I didn’t like Brandon because of the gossip. Women do crazy things when they’re jealous. If they like your boyfriend or don’t want you to be friends with one of their friends, they just make up stupid things and tell everyone. There were a lot of times I got beat up in Brandon. Groups of girls would come up and just say something stupid like, “You remember making fun of me in junior high? ” I wouldn’t even recognize these girls. I started fights too. I always thought I had a good reason.
I moved to Winnipeg and started hanging out with more laid-back people. That’s when I started with the beads in my hair, dreadlocks. I moved away from the fishnets. I’m calming down a bit, going more natural.
Isabelle Massey, 40
I was raped when I was eight years old. It wasn’t because I was sexy at eight years old—but it makes you learn fast. That was part of my education. I grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Mont- real so in my teen years I was already conscious of danger. When I got pregnant, I didn’t want to live in Montreal to raise my daughter.
I feel safe when there are people close by—and if I’m with my boyfriend or daughter, it changes. With clothing, if I’m in black clothes I feel protected because black is more discreet. You’re noticed less.
When I’m in nature, it wakes up my senses. Summer as well…the wind on your skin, the sun, it wakes up our sexuality a bit more than winter. I like my legs. When I wear a short skirt, when I’m with my partner, I like that, and he finds it attractive as well. I use my hair as well to communicate that I’m more sensual. Sexuality is simple, I find.
Claire Lamarre, 55
I started to appreciate my femininity when I was thirteen, when a man first whistled at me. But my parents were very strict. I was not allowed to wear makeup, and my father cut my hair like a boy’s. You must understand the context: I lived in a small town where religious people were very powerful. My mother was frighteningly beautiful, but she wore lovely hats, not plunging necklines.
When I was older and returned to Bas-du-Fleuve for the weekends, it was as if I was no longer from there. People looked at me strangely because I dressed like a girl from Quebec City. That’s when I realized that clothes are like skin; you become a stranger when you are not dressed like others.
I find that now, maybe because of the Internet or television, we do not have the sense of being different. Everyone dresses the same.
Amanda Lamy, 26
I want to be appropriate for work and be comfortable. I have three little girls to get ready and out the door, so it’s got to be quick and off we go. I’m definitely an urban aboriginal, which is different than a person from a reserve because I know how to navigate the city. But I don’t know my language.
When I was younger I tried to put fewer clothes on, but now I feel more attractive and sexy with more clothes on. Now I like to wear things with different textures, like soft, satiny things, or maybe in the winter something furry. Not for strangers. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I’m with the person I’m meant to be with, and that would be very disrespectful to him, to myself, and to the family that we’re making.
In the North End, where I grew up, there’s all different kinds of people. Then I went to a school where I was one of maybe five aboriginal people. I was a little bit taken aback, like, where are all the colourful people?
Melissa Finch, 24
What I wear all depends on how I’m feeling. Because every day it’s something different: “Oh my God, let me wear something that’s not tight on my stomach,” or, “Okay, I feel nice about my legs today, I’m going to show off my legs.” I think the fact that I grew up in a very suburban, conservative area probably made me want to push the limits a little more. And because I grew up in neighbourhoods that were predominantly white, I felt like, why try to blend in when I’m not going to anyway? So I was more comfortable dressing edgy and creative. And I was making my own clothes too, so I wanted to show off what I made.
If I dress sexy for one guy, my next boyfriend will want to see me wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and the next will want to see me wearing the clothes that I make. So I don’t bother dressing for my partners anymore. I used to try to be cute for them and I still want to be cute for them, but within my own idea of what I like. You can’t make everyone happy, you know?
Molly Austen, 83
I joined the Wrens—a branch of the Navy—and they shipped me to Halifax, where the usual things happened: you meet a boy, you get married. I’ve been here over sixty years. It’s my community. Wherever I go, they accept me for who I am, and that’s the way I go about my business.
I never could understand what all the fuss was about women’s liberation. I do know there’s been a change in the male-female situation because when I was married, I made meals. But all of my sons and sons-in-law are great cooks. They’re willing to pitch in and do the cooking, and do it better than the women.
I do aquasizing in the mornings, and I look around the dressing room afterward and see these lovely, old, aged bodies with their sagging tummies and things. We have this one young, beautiful, dark-skinned girl who has the most beautiful figure, and I thought I was the only one who was awed by it, but last week she walked through and several mentioned it. We all wish we looked like her but we don’t, so we have to accept ourselves the way we are.