Fashioning a Place Online: Columbia University Students Create Fashion Representation on Social Media
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Fashioning a Place Online: Columbia Students Create Fashion Representation on Social Media

Fashioning a Place Online: Columbia Students Create Fashion Representation on Social Media

April 8, 2021

From left to right: Djenebou Semega, Tamara Sarpong, Monsérrat Ambrosio. Photography by Rommel Nunez

Monsérrat Ambrosio, a Columbia College sophomore, films a try-on haul video for her YouTube channel entirely from her dorm room. It is spring break, and she finally has time to go thrifting and share what she had found, along with some pieces she ordered from the online store Nasty Gal. She holds up her thrift finds piece by piece, explaining why she chose each and what size she bought before rolling a clip of her styling the piece to show how it fits. She envisions a pink pair of wide leg pants matching perfectly with a new pair of white boots, tries out new prints with an embroidered floral sweater, and shares some pants she found for her dad and brother. As she moves on to the Nasty Gal part of her haul, she recalls her reaction to discovering the store’s plus-size selection. “I was like, ‘Oh snap! You guys sell plus-size?’ How many times am I going to say plus-size?” she says. “Basically, I’m a fat girl and I didn’t know Nasty Gal had it for us fat girls.”

On a different platform, TikTok, Djenebou Semega, a sophomore at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, tries on modest, hijab-friendly styles while lip-syncing to Chloe x Halle. She poses and dances as she tries on maxi dresses and button ups layered over T-shirts, all while smiling at the viewer, inviting them to enjoy the satisfaction of curating a good outfit. Over on Instagram, Tamara Sarpong, a Columbia College sophomore, poses in front of the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. Each poised shot features her wearing a white tank top, white jeans, white sneakers, and a matching white do-rag. This post, her first after deciding she wanted to focus on fashion, holds a lot of sentimental value for her. “I wanted to take fashion seriously on my social media,” she says. “I planned the location, put the outfits together, edited them, and it got really good feedback.”

All three of these women exemplify the modern, digital sphere of fashion, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have become major hubs for sharing style for brands, models, influencers, and consumers. Despite their openness for sharing creativity, these platforms and their algorithms are far from perfect for many users as they often give disproportionate attention to white, skinny, wealthy women while ignoring other demographics. Still, during the past year when opportunities to show off outfits in person have been limited to grocery store trips or walks to get tested for COVID-19, social media has been a consistent outlet for creative expression through fashion, with the opportunity for individuals to document their developing style throughout the year.

Tamara Sarpong (@tamarasarpong on Instagram) Photography by Emma Snoddy / Columbia Daily Spectator

Sarpong has taken control of her fashion since her youth. She describes how her mother, one of her major inspirations, would let her pick out her own outfits at nine years old. Her West African identity influences her view of clothing: “In West African culture, fashion is super important. We would have African garments and I used to, as a kid, be involved in creating them, whether it was picking the fabric I wanted on a dress or a certain style of a dress that I wanted,” she says. “I literally flipped through magazines and catalogs and [told] my seamstress, ‘I want this dress and this fabric.’” This passion for clothing creation continued through middle school, when she started thrifting and reworking her finds.

Sarpong entered college on the pre-med track, but it was not long before she realized that she wanted to pursue fashion. “College, for me, provided an outlet and a space to become my true self and find out what it is I truly do like—be[ing] myself unapologetically and fearlessly,” she recalls.

When the pandemic sent Columbia students home last year, Sarpong decided to spend some of her newfound free time revamping her social media to reflect her focus on fashion, which included downloading TikTok. She laughs about how she used to tease her friends who were active on the app, but by early summer, she began making fashion videos of her own. After the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent national attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, Sarpong promised herself that she would highlight Black-owned brands on her Instagram.

“Black women are the blueprint for a lot of our fashion trends and everything like that, but we don’t get the credit and we don’t get the attention that we should be getting,” she says.

Sarpong primarily sources her clothes from independent Black-owned brands, thrift stores, and her own do-it-yourself projects. This year, she decided to stop spotlighting fast-fashion brands, which often engage in environmentally harmful manufacturing practices, and instead promote sustainability.

Quarantine has also given Sarpong time to formalize her process for creating Instagram posts. She develops each post as a small project, with a coherent theme and style throughout. For inspiration, she often turns to Pinterest, creating mood boards with ideas for outfits, makeup, location, and editing techniques for a cohesive visual package. After planning and taking the picture, she then turns to editing, which involves deciding the best way to capture her desired aesthetic. In a recent post, she describes how her outfit—a bodysuit and stockings—was inspired by 1990s fashion. She drew editing inspiration from early 2000s magazines to create the finished product. Despite planning ideas in advance, many of her editing decisions occur as she works. “Ideas will come up in my head and then I would just pull up Photoshop and Lightroom on my iPad and just play around with things,” she says. “If it ended up being something that I liked then I would keep it. If not, then I just start over.”

Sarpong is also a part of the Women@Dior mentoring program, where she is one of a few hundred mentees worldwide. “I was just like, ‘you know what, let me submit my résumé and my cover letter and hope for the best,’” she recalls. “Then I got the email, and I was looking at it like, ‘This has to be a joke. They had to have sent this to the wrong person.’”

Sarpong hopes to use what she learns in the program to support her goals of becoming a creative director for a brand or even her own label. Her interests regarding the role focus on “putting things together to create a picture that represents the brand,” she says. “That comes with photo shoots, marketing campaigns, and things that encompass the brand’s message and their aesthetic to appeal to their audience and attract an audience.”

Djenebou Semega (@djenebou_semega on Instagram) Photography by Rommel Nunez / Staff Photographer

Djenebou Semega did not find her interest in fashion until later in her life. She wore a school uniform until high school, leaving little space for style experimentation. The sudden transition to choosing her clothing left her floundering. “I never knew what to wear. I never knew what kind of clothes I liked and what looked good on me,” she recalls. Semega knew she wanted a “fresh start” with her style as she transitioned to college.

On TikTok, Semega discovered other Muslim women who dressed modestly and made videos documenting how they styled, altered, and layered clothing from major retailers in order to fit their preferences. TikTok remained a source of inspiration throughout her first year at Columbia, but it took until the summer before her sophomore year to build up the confidence to post videos herself.

“I decided if this is actually something that I wanted to do for a while, I shouldn’t hold myself back from it,” Semega recounts. “One night, I was here at home in this room and I put a bunch of clothes that I got in the mail together and then filmed the four outfits.”

In that first video, she tries on sweaters, puff-sleeve blouses, and bucket hats, all perfect for late summer. She remembers the anxiety of putting herself in front of an audience for the first time. “I was like, what are people going to think about it? I don’t know how people are going to react. I don’t know how my parents are gonna react.”

Those anxieties were ultimately unwarranted—before long, she found support in her family and friends, so much so that her friends now serve an essential role giving feedback in her video creation process.

The first step for any of her videos is finding clothes. Quarantine gave Semega more time to cultivate outfit and clothing inspiration. She recalls, “I would make spreadsheets of clothes that I wanted that I’d find in videos or on Instagram. I would make sure I put the person’s [handle], so that I could go back to it and look at it.” If she is shopping in person, Semega pays special attention to picking out pieces that will not be too bulky when layering or choosing pieces with more coverage to avoid layering altogether, especially for the summer. Choosing these outfits means more to her than just looking her best. “When I go out, I’m representative of my religion of Islam; I choose to dress modestly,” she says. “Women hold so much beauty in the world, and so not everyone deserves to see that. For me at least, it feels right. Like I am valuable; I am sacred.”

With her clothing finalized, she sets up a backdrop in her room and plans out three or four outfits to fit in a minute-long TikTok video. She then tries out each look with different sounds and poses before choosing her favorite.

Semega’s videos have garnered thousands of views and likes, with a few clips hitting over a thousand views. TikTok provides an outlet for Semega to foster a virtual community of other Muslim women. “You go into these stores and you can’t find the right things for you. You have to do more in order to wear them instead of just picking it off the shelf and then the next day put it on,” she says.

“We’re all supporting each other. It’s nice to see the Muslim women and hijabi community come together in that way, because that's something that we all deal with.”

Monsérrat Ambrosio (@monserratambrosio on Instagram) Photography by Rommel Nunez / Staff Photographer

Ambrosio also started taking interest in fashion when her high school dropped its uniform requirement for second-term seniors. Growing up, she struggled with limited offerings available for plus-size girls.

“The only clothes that were publicized or marketed for bigger bodies were middle age women kind of fashion, so it was very hard for me to always tap into it,” she says,

Even thrifting was difficult, as options were limited to the same matronly styles she found in stores. She found inspiration in her older sister, who aspired to attend fashion school, and watched her make clothing.

When she arrived at Columbia, the outfits she saw people wearing around campus provided a new wealth of style inspiration, as well as a sense of comfort in meeting people with similar body types to her.

“I was one of the very few plus-size girls in my class, so once I made the transition into college, I saw a lot of other folks who had the same body type as me. I literally thought that they did not exist,” she recalls.

Scrolling through TikTok during quarantine also played a major role in evolving her thinking about fashion and plus-sized body types. Her For You page pushed videos of people who looked like her showing off styles for an audience, a far cry from the media she was used to seeing.

“[It] was always like, ‘How to pose so that your belly isn’t showing,’ ‘How to layer so that it’s not showing,’” she says. “The biggest change that has happened to me is realizing that, I already knew that it was okay to have a tummy, but that it’s okay to want to show it too." This confidence has led her to experiment with pieces she would not have in the past: items such as oversized pants, patterned clothing, and midi skirts.

Ambrosio has also been making her own videos on TikTok since last summer, showcasing small clothing hauls, outfits of the day, and short vlogs, some of which she reposts to her Instagram account.

On her current YouTube channel, she posts hauls, lookbooks, vlogs, and other fashion- and student-related content. Fashion videos have been hard for her to maintain, however, with the existing expectation of being focused on spending, especially on YouTube. Ambrosio mainly buys her clothing from thrift stores or stores typically categorized as fast-fashion. To her, the demonization of fast fashion can be unfair to people who wear plus-size clothes.

“We can’t really be upset with fat people buying from these fast-fashion places when a lot of the time that's their only option for clothing. But even then, we should remain cognizant that we shouldn’t be purchasing every time.”

Ambrosio feels strongly about using her platform to speak up about issues surrounding fashion. In a summer try-on haul last July, she took time out of her video to discuss thrift gentrification. With the rise of resell platforms like Depop, people buying clothes in bulk from thrift stores in order to resell and profit also increased. She felt her voice would add value to the conversation around the ethics of the practice.

“As someone who is from these communities who do depend on thrifting, I was like, ‘Whatever, I'm just going to do it,’” she recalls.

While Ambrosio sees value in talking about social and racial issues on social media, she also notes that this burden should not fall on creators of color.

“Someone worded it so perfectly where it’s like, as creators who aren’t white in a white-dominated media industry, we constantly have to be the face of these issues. We should hold white creators accountable for doing it too.”

***

Social media has long been criticized for lack of representation in its promoted materials—open Pinterest, Instagram, or TikTok to look for style inspiration and you are bound to see thin, white women dressed in expensive clothing on advertised or featured posts. While the lack of relatable inspiration can be discouraging, more young creators are taking it upon themselves to be those role models—to put out the content they wish they had seen growing up. Sarpong, Semega, and Ambrosio are no exception, each creating content celebrating the intersection of identity and fashion. Semega in particular hopes to be a role model for younger Black Muslim girls who often struggle to find representation in any mainstream media, let alone in fashion. She hopes they can walk away from her videos understanding their inherent value and beauty.

“They’re beautiful and they’re capable of doing whatever they put their minds to,” she says. “They should go for it, whatever they’re trying to do, whatever their goal is. I support them fully.”

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