by Molly Moylan Brown

An intimate group of five women of varying ages, sizes, and ethnicities gathered  at the swanky Auerbach pop-up gallery, a Berlin haberdashery first established in 1912, in Die Hackeschen Höfe for AWC member and stylist Olga Johnston-Antonova’s Accessories Workshop on 11 February.  Initially, I chose to take part as a welcome diversion and because of my curiosity about the woman whose invaluable contributions to the BBC’s #100 Women Debate, in which a group of AWC members had participated last December, had been so memorable. She brought a unique perspective to the debate, drawn from her Russian roots and international life as a stylist.  What was she like in her professional milieu, I wondered?

From the outset, Olga asserted that we were not there to address issues of weight or digress into criticisms of our perceived physical flaws. Relieved of anxiety about exposure of our imperfections, we were free to follow Olga’s focus on simple yet powerful enhancements of our physical presentation in ways that would strengthen us from within and embolden our true personae for a wide variety of social or professional gatherings and transitions.  She offered a constructive and well-prepared primer on timeless and basic wardrobe pieces to serve a range of formal and informal occasions in all seasons with an ample assortment of accessory possibilities.

We live in a world where the media peddle endless unattainable and unsustainable ideas of female beauty. A quote from the opening of Eve Ensler’s “In the Body of the World” captures this tension for me: “I have been exiled from my body.”  This ‘exile’ or disconnection begins early in many of us.  As young girls, the natural process of seeing and accepting our unfiltered selves is interrupted and overwhelmed. We relinquish our physical self-regard  and acceptance to the lens of what British feminist Laura Milvey termed the “male gaze”, depicting and seeing ourselves through masculine attitudes, points of view and desires. This has the adverse and divisive effect of putting women in judgment of and in competition with one another.

Fashion is fixated on weight and prepubescent body types — perhaps because most designers are male?  What a paradox: if we want to assert political or social influence, if we want to be respected outside the domestic sphere, we must effect an invisibility that retards self-expression, undermines our prospects for full self-expression and ensures our successes are qualified.  Food writer and television personality Nigella Lawson says the emphasis on slimness “has been about trying to ensure women take up less space in the world.”

Olga’s approach is to claim or reclaim our own innate personal aesthetic, to free our self-expressive nature from the body politic narrative, to opt, instead, for an appreciation of our true bodily nature as our point of entry into the world. This is an enlightened assertion of what should be our expressive foundation – that we are all whole and complete, beautiful just the way we are. This was a powerful and refreshing message from someone steeped in the world of design and fashion. Olga had me interrogating my assumptions and habits of response to myself and other women, asking whether and how I might be contributing to the misogynistic loop in which we’re tangled.

Olga described and demonstrated how horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines can cut across body types in more flattering ways, how splashes of color and a little shine can create a focal point and a distraction from other areas, and how much of our budget can easily be allocated to accessories to upgrade or vary our current wardrobe pieces. After the formal part of the presentation, Olga began to work with us individually. I was reminded of  fellow AWC member and photographer Susanne Ollmann who once revealed that her photographic sessions begin with the premise that her subject is beautiful.  It was under this ‘gaze’ I saw Olga applying her talents.

Why would I want a stylist?  I had no idea at the outset. Olga’s presentation clarified how a stylist can help make a woman more ‘visible’, can help a woman assume fuller agency over her bodily autonomy, that maintaining a wholesome visibility and autonomy can be both creative and fun, and that, ultimately, the liberation and insight achieved from the process extends far beyond the material.

I am grateful to Olga for the generous sharing of her talents and expertise.  We can indeed help one another hold up “half the sky” in countless ways in our daily lives.


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