K8 Hardy’s Outfitumentary should be a mind-numbing watch. About an hour and twenty minutes of the artist and filmmaker showing off her eccentric outfits in head-to-toe shots almost daily for over a decade on a crappy lo-fi mini-DV camera, the delightfully and perfectly titled 2016 film, directed, produced, photographed, and edited by Hardy, could easily be excruciatingly boring or painfully self-indulgent—or horror upon horrors, a teeth-pulling torturous combination of the two. Yet, I didn’t feel the urge to flee from my wooden seat at Dimes Square cool-kid art-house theater Metrograph, which recently screened Hardy’s film alongside Ryan Trecartin’s cinematic migraine I-Be Area, Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return, and, naturally, trash lodestar Pink Flamingos in a series Queer Poseurs, Cinematic Muses: K8 Hardy’s Inspirations for Outfitumentary. Instead, I was not only riveted by the film’s unexpected depth but moved by the coming-of-age story told through a fashion-fixated experiment.
I don’t know why I was so surprised by how captivated I was by Outfitumentary, which, for those of you Filthy streamers, is screening on Metrograph At Home through December 31. Like many denizens of camp, I’ve always been repeatedly drawn to—and could easily watch 90 minutes of—Little Edie Beale’s emphatic explanation about her “best costume for the day” in that formative documentary Grey Gardens. Of course, that scene is about much more than Little Edie’s radical reconception of every conventional item of clothing; it’s also about her inherent creativity that is, at once, stifled and endures in her Long Island folie-à-deux isolation. Though certainly with fewer raccoons (yet a couple of cats and a dog) and former First Lady relatives, Outfitumentary similarly exposes how fashion, far from being frivolous, can speak to who we are and who we are becoming, as we try on, sometimes keep and other times toss away, our own revolutionary costumes for the day.
Outfitumentary follows Hardy from 2001 as a gawky twenty-something until 2012, when that now-outdated aforementioned mini-DV camera broke, its self-destruction the deus ex machina finale to the project. Capturing a dizzying array of different versions of Hardy (one could write an entire essay on her ever-changing hairstyles alone, from buzzed to bleached to blue), the film presents little in the way of context. The timeline is only discernable through various cues such as Hardy’s Nokia ringtone, a flip phone, a friend’s disembodied voice mentioning Myspace, the TV or radio analyzing the coming end to the Bush administration, and certain musical choices such as Cat Power, MIA, or The Knife, a mix that a shrewd audience member at the screening identified as Meow Mix music, referencing the bygone lesbian bar formerly located not too far from Metrograph that closed in 2004. In fact, the only break in Hardy’s intrepid commitment to solely filming herself is her handwritten notes that open the film. Scrawled and torn from a yellow legal pad, placed one on top of the other in layers of explanation, these notes begin, “As a young artist in New York, I was running around the city like a peacock in my flamboyant queer and feminist looks.” “I felt there needed to be an accurate record of the way a blossoming radical lesbian feminist was dressing,” she continues.
Though certainly nailing the blossoming latter bit, I find Hardy’s articulation of herself as peacocking curious. At least in the beginning shots, a peacock is not exactly how I would describe her energy. Maybe more like an adorable yet hesitant fawn. In this earliest footage, Hardy comes off as endearingly guileless and awkward in front of the camera, not only hinting at her youth but the pre-smartphone era when most of us weren’t so comfortable in front of the lens (some of us never got there fully). She struts and vamps goofily, enthusiastically explains the project’s concept to her skeptical roommates and/or friends, and constantly lifts up her leg, sometimes stumbling, to make sure her shoes get in the shot. A necessary move that many of us with apartments too small and cluttered for a full-length mirror will immediately recognize. Yet, it’s exactly Hardy’s unaffected presence in front of the camera that enchants viewers, guiding them to stick with what, on its surface, is a pretty rigid concept.
As we move through time with Hardy, we see her trying on a variety of identities through her fashion choices. One day she’s Edie Sedgwick with her pixie haircut and minidress. Another she’s a working-class dyke in a button-down shirt only fastened at the top and workman pants. And yet another, she’s a high camp Park Avenue kook in a ginormous fuzzy winter hat. The obvious observation here is to point out her play with gender, but to me, this is too self-explanatory. Sure, she ricochets from masc to femme and back again, but to solely slot the film as yet another representation of gender as performance seems minimizing. One of the most delightfully rewarding parts of the movie is when Hardy joyfully dons coded lesbian signifiers. In one scene, she turns coyly to reveal a jangling ring of keys hung on her belt loop. In another, she’s showing off a bandana in her back pocket. Even just the cut of her jeans feels as if it’s telegraphing queerness to others. Not that these codes are always that subtle. One of the first scenes showcases Hardy listening to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” while holding a camera up to the mirror, displaying, in its backward reflection, her shirt that reads: “Inside this shirt is the body of a lesbian woman.”
It’s not only gender and sexuality, though. Hardy clearly draws on class signifiers as well, deftly picking out thrift store finds that scream the very specific kind of bad taste that working-class Americans should all recognize (I speak from experience). Cartoon T-shirts, Texas-embroidered jean jackets, a Cowboys Starter jacket derived from the heyday of those much-coveted windbreakers. She even wears a jacket emblazoned with the word “Style,” reclaiming perhaps the most unstylish sartorial choice one could make. Even the recycled appearance of certain favorites–a sweater dress with small bows, a sweater with a lamb–felt wholly refreshing and relatable for those of us without funds for new daily clothing.
Bombarded by this endless parade of outfits, no matter how strikingly inventive (I was especially taken by her self-made cat-eye T-shirt dress that opens this essay, which is very Little Edie), I’ll admit that I did find myself zoning out for a moment or two, only to return again, often snapped back to attention in instances when Hardy diverts from her full-body self-determined boundaries. Perhaps because of their novel visuals, these moments took on more emotional weight as Hardy bends over in the shower naked, shoots herself in a flower crown in front of a white screen, and zooms into her face to not just celebrate her innovative makeup, as in several other parts of the film, but to show her eyes welling up. Yet a tear never quite falls, teetering on the edge of her eyelids. These scenes are quite beguiling and enigmatic as you’re left wondering: What is she trying to tell us? Or, as Hardy herself asked in an ArtForum interview, “What did she want to show me?”
Despite these ruptures in the structural flow, Outfitumentary is, in parts, reminiscent of some of Warhol’s more punishing films. Yet as with Warhol, its monotony allowed me to notice more than just the clothing. This includes Hardy’s surroundings. Outfitumentary is a covert love letter to New York City. Specifically, the life of a young artist in the big city post-9/11, inhabiting roommate-crowded apartments and small bare white-walled art studios. Hardy’s growth as an artist is also tracked by her real estate upgrades such as a bigger room, the closet of which she covers with graffitied vagina-related scrawl only to (poorly at first) paint over it, and a larger art studio with those giant paneled windows seen all over Bushwick. These spaces are still far from perfect. As the film shows, they constantly require enormous fans to keep cool in the summer and the windows open to fight the stifling steam heat in the winter. Hardy lays bare the kind of urban squalor that NYC denizens live in: our chest of drawers burst open (and broken, in my case), clothes on racks in the middle of rooms, FedEx boxes strewn around.
And this gets to a point that has been nagging me since watching the film a few days ago. I’m not sure if the connection I felt has to do with the strength of Outfitumentary itself or my aging millennial nostalgia for my own youth and relation to what Hardy shows viewers. These are spaces I recognize, early aughts clothing I remember, music I still love (Cat Power forever), and Hardy’s coming-of-age that I identify with. Even her shot of scuffed shell-topped white Adidas sneakers, which have recently come back into style, tugged at my certainly-not-fashion-forward heartstrings. How would a viewer from a younger generation relate to Outfitumentary? I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t really answer that and really, what does it matter?
Lingering on this generational question, a lot of viewers and critics, including writer Whitney Mallett who appeared in conversation with Hardy at Saturday evening’s screening, feel the draw to compare Hardy’s self-documentation to our universally narcissistic present in which we are monomaniacally fixated on posting anything and everything on social media. Yet, to me, this is one of the least interesting parts of Outfitumentary. Yes, a whole lot of teens and twenty-somethings spend their days kicking up their shoes on Tik Tok just like Hardy, but I’m not sure what else comes from comparing them other than the knowledge that there’s something to be said there about human nature. More than social media, Outfitumentary, with its low, fuzzy, occasionally out-of-focus production value, has a lot more in common with the D-I-Y cut-up zine aesthetic (it’s no mistake K8 has also made music videos for Le Tigre and Men) than any professional or even semi-professional YouTuber.
One of the major differences between today’s technology and Hardy’s shitty mini-DV camera is the latter’s potential to deteriorate completely. Of course, there’s always the risk that our iPhone just won’t turn on one day or we may accidentally drop it in the toilet while mindlessly scrolling. But, our photographs and videos are mostly still preserved online, whether on social media or the Cloud, existing forever, sometimes, creepily, after our deaths. While we may be mostly free of the frustration of trying to bash at a failing piece of technology, the black screen of death isn’t sufficiently evocatively dramatic either. There’s no gradual fraying of its image resolution, no fritz, no loud glitches, no randomly darkened tinge, no sudden loud audio as inflicted on Hardy’s project towards the end of Outfitumentary. Even still, she remains determined with her fluffy Cruella de Vil split-dyed hair and dresses. While we no longer can see the details of these outfits, we track her struggling with the end of this mini-DV camera, waving her arms and looking on confused as it takes its last gasping recordings. Her camera giving up the ghost is sort of funny as the sound quality falters emitting piercing audio bursts. And yet, it’s also strangely tragic as if something is being lost. There’s a finality to it—not only the end to a years-spanning project but of adulthood finally being obtained. Can we really ever go back again?