Eva Hagberg Fisher on #loafersofjustice
We are eighteen years into the new millennium, yet, as Eva Hagberg Fisher discovered, “the patriarchy is still too strong.” Her story about seeking justice in a sexual harassment suit against her former graduate school adviser at the University of California, Berkeley, was published in the New York Times Style column a few weeks ago, and I read the piece with both anger toward the administration (full disclosure: I completed my graduate degree there) and admiration for Fisher’s humor-inflected tenacity. Never look too sexy on TV or on campus, she cautions in the article. At the same time, she writes, “you always want to stay ‘just plausibly sexy enough to look like you could have been harassed but 100 percent weren’t asking for it.’” Curious about how readers responded to her account of her ordeals through the lens of dress, I reached out to Fisher. Our conversation follows.
Elena Wang: There is so much judgment and blame around women’s appearances in our culture, not least in the #MeToo movement. What kind of commentary did your story elicit?
Eva Hagberg Fisher: 99% of the messages I received by email, Twitter, and Facebook were positive and supportive, and many of them were wrenching. The one I remember most is a woman thanking me for helping her feel less crazy; she’d stopped wearing a favorite skirt because of a sexual harassment situation, and my story helped her to understand her own decision a little more clearly and compassionately. One of the many reasons I was glad that my story ran in the Times’ Style section is that there isn’t a comments section; I was grateful for the sense of protection from what is often just inevitable online harassment. I also wanted it to be in the Style section because I knew from his previous work that Choire Sicha is a tremendously astute and empathetic editor who would see all the various things that this story could be. I’m highly aware that as a white woman of a certain social class, I occupy a privileged position. I want to use my position to help others, but I also anticipated critiques – of my ability to afford the clothes I bought; and of how much harder my situation could have been were I not white. My aim is to acknowledge these privileges and then use them for good.
How did you choose the angle of style to tell your story?
I thought about the various sexual harassment stories that had been published, and realized none discussed the extraordinary difficulty of presenting yourself as a credible sexual harassment “complainant.” I needed to look like both a victim and a threat to the administration. I needed to appear serious and also sexually viable. And I needed to navigate all of these possible perceptions and projections everywhere I went – on campus, during disciplinary hearings, meetings with my lawyer, talking to the press.
So your relationship to fashion must have changed a great deal after reporting the case?
Absolutely. As I wrote in my article, I felt like I couldn’t wear my high-heeled boots anymore. I couldn’t just dress for myself. I had to be hyperaware of my attractiveness, of the signals that I was sending. What if I ran into the chair of my department? My fellow graduate students, who knew about the case from the November 2016 investigative article in the San Francisco Chronicle? Someone who might be on the disciplinary committee who would hear about my sexual history? I really learned to internalize the gaze of the other.
In lieu of high heels, you chose loafers – orange-suede loafers, polka-dot loafers, super worn-in navy blue loafers…
[Laughs] The polka-dot pair was my way of showing my personality, in spite of everything that had happened. I managed to cobble together a suit for the many legal meetings, but at least those shoes were me. Kind of. The orange loafers I posted on Instagram I tagged #loafersofjustice because I wore them to my first meeting with my lawyer. Without having planned it in advance, my friend, who came along to support me, wore loafers too! We had to take a photo. I couldn’t really talk about what was going on but I could kind of subtweet through Instagram captions. I don’t do well not being allowed to talk about something (but agreed with my lawyers’ recommendations to keep a low profile while we were pursuing potential legal action), so taking pictures of my clothes and posting them was a way to feel like I was still communicating with the outside world.
How do you dress now that the case has been settled? Are you able to expel the gaze and to dress again for yourself?
I feel liberated. I still have to present myself professionally, and I’m at an especially interesting moment now that I have taken on PR work for architects and need to dress the part. I paid off my credit cards and then bought a Celine wallet and a Givenchy bag the other day. I got this killer flower-printed silk bomber from Joie a few days after signing my settlement. It’s definitely my “fuck you” clothing item that I got with my “fuck you” money. My favorite label right now is probably Vince. Real neutral but well-cut – that seems like a good look for an architect PR person.
Do you feel like your speaking out has helped connect you with a community of folks who experienced similar challenges? I’m thinking, of course, of #MeToo.
I’ve connected with a few really brave women who are going public about their experiences in academia. But it’s still really challenging to speak up in academia – the system is so geared towards crushing anyone who tries to challenge the status quo. I’ve watched other industries – media, entertainment – and I’m waiting for our moment in architecture and academia, the two worlds I’m in. I had a sort of sad moment seeing everyone wear their #TimesUp T-shirts during the Golden Globes. It took me a while and a few conversations with friends to pinpoint what it was that I was feeling; it was the palpable lack of a community around me. I had to do all of this mostly alone. I had very little public support (though some extremely important private support) the entire time I went through the very lengthy investigative and legal proceedings. It was extremely isolating, and I felt like I had to “behave well” the whole time to do right by the case and not blow it. But those moments of discomfort are worth it if I’ve made it just that much more difficult for the administration at Berkeley to dismiss and silence allegations of harassment.
Eva Hagberg Fisher is the author of two books about architecture and the forthcoming memoir How To Be Loved (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).