On dissent, disruption, and fighting back against the bullshit
Sara Benincasa started Excellent Coats on Irritated Women in December 2018 and since then, she’s gained a healthy following of 26,000 Instagram users. If you’re not already one of Excellent Coats’ fans, it’s definitely time to delve into the account. Spotlighting women who are “all outta fucks in a fabulous coat,” Benincasa’s content is equal parts humour and herstory. This week, I spoke to the woman behind the coats about fashion, politics, and joyful anger.
“I created it because Nancy Pelosi wore this fabulous Max Mara coat for a meeting that she and Chuck Schumer had with Trump. It was really cool to see her claim her throne as someone who’s an effective antidote to the president; both rhetoric-wise and legislation-wise.
“She walked out with that fabulous coat on that everybody loved, and so I tweeted: “This is a great day for excellent coats on irritated women,” and a few people said: “this should be a thing!”
“People say things like: “all politics is personal,” and I think that extends to our purchasing choices, and the way we choose to present ourselves in the world. We live in a capitalist society that runs on commerce, regardless of our feelings about that and how it could, or should, be amended. A lot of people operating in this system are doing really great work to affect change, so I wanted to celebrate them.
“People often think of fashion as being this very superficial thing that only has to do with how you want to represent your status to the world, so I wanted to take these people, who are celebrated (or denigrated) for their beliefs, and look at their fashion; it’s a cool high-low mix. Why don’t we praise them for their presentation and beauty as well? Not to take away from their other accomplishments, but to highlight them in fact. Maybe some people who are most interested in fashion more than anything else will come to the account and learn about some really cool leaders who could help change their lives.
“I’m learning as I go. People send me images of women who I hadn’t heard of or seen before all the time. I don’t always have a credit for the photographers, so people will often research them for me. It’s really important to me to credit the artists I spotlight properly for their work.
Growing up, I loved watching a show on MTV called House of Style. It was hosted by 90s supermodels like Shalom Harlow and Cindy Crawford, they had a rotating list of hosts over the years, and Kevin Aucion, who was a brilliant makeup artist. Watching that show was so much fun because you got to meet the designers and see them in a new light. They were funny and silly and over the top and dramatic. That introduced me to the notion that there were real people who made up the fashion world.
“Obviously, fashion can be, to use an over-used word, toxic. When you only see tiny people in clothes, it can be really limiting, but I think that we’re in a such a fascinating and exciting era for fashion because we are starting to have models of different sizes, shapes and colours of different backgrounds. The internet has empowered them to have their own voice.
“I did, at one time, work as a paralegal for a law firm specialising in immigration for fashion models in New York. They hire extra seasonal help the way retail shops will. I was 26, and just out of graduate school for teaching, and making portfolios where we would have to prove a certain level of excellence or expertise in the field. For the models, we would use recommendations from people like Anna Wintour and Mario Testino. It was like applying to university, but more so. Looking at the way my country treats immigrants of all kinds, I’m really glad I had that experience. It showed me what happens when you get the elite treatment.
“Until recently, I had just been emphasising the women in the clothing, but then I started to think about the clothing that I was showing. I realised that I was inadvertently promoting whatever designer was showing. I want to highlight designers who are using recycled materials, who are trying to be zero-waste, who are local, and who are incorporating designs from their own cultures.
“I can’t control what celebrities or icons of history wear. If it’s Mahalia Jackson singing on the steps of an institution where she was barred from singing because she was a black woman, and she’s wearing fur, I’m not going to put my 2019 values on it, because this is about something much bigger. It’s about this woman’s accomplishments and what she did.
“I want to highlight women who have demonstrated through their actions that they have been irritated. Sometimes there’s a joyful rage that powers activism and powers making a change. They don’t always look angry, but I try to highlight women who have engaged in dissent, disruption and fighting back against the bullshit, and sometimes they look pretty happy.
“I love this quote from Molly Ivins. She’s my role model. She was a brilliant journalist and humorist from Texas, and she wrote amazing columns about politics in the 80s and 90s. She said:
“So keep fighting for freedom and justice beloveds, but don’t forget to have fun doing it. Be outrageous, ridicule the ‘fraid-y cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce, and when you get through kicking ass and celebrating the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”Molly Irvins
“It’s guiding principle for myself and a guiding principle for Excellent Coats on Irritated Women too. I will show people who are angry at a protest and who are pissed off, but also people who are joyful in the midst of whatever their struggle, or the struggle of which they’ve chosen to be a part to uplift others. Ultimately, I spotlight dissent, disruption, and fighting back against the bullshit.”