For Maria Cabrera and Grace Barber-Plentie, their experiences of the world don’t just come through their gender, but their role as black women in society too. This affects everything: from what they wear, to how they embrace feminism as well as their work at Reel Good Film Club. Most Polyester readers will be familiar with the group, that seeks to put on screenings and panels of films created by or starring people of colour. Now in its third year, Reel Good Film Club is stronger than ever in supporting diversity and inclusivity onscreen. We sat down with Cabrera and Barber-Plentie to discuss all things style as part of our What Makes Me series, in collaboration with Converse.
Their passion for intersectional feminism is palpable, but in a jokey, friendly way that makes it all the more accessible. Instead of pretending they’ve been cool forever, both girls can’t even seem to believe they really could be considered it now. While the Reel Good Film Club girls’ style could be considered casual, every choice of outfit is a resistance. Paired with smelling great, natural hair and a refusal to adhere to style expected of them due to race and gender, it’s inspiring how effortless Cabrera and Barber-Plentie’s rebellion against traditional femininity seems.
Both women have a lot to say for the strong women in their community, both online and off in the London scene. While the word inspirational is banded about arguably too-often it’s entirely justified in the case of these two young women. The femmes in this community aren’t only supporting each other, but pushing each other to their limits too. Be that with their important art projects or their personal style. As Cabrera and Barber-Plentie see it, body confidence is crucial and these are two girls that serves it out in spades.
How did growing up online influence your sense of personal style?
Maria Cabrera: Tumblr was really formative for me growing up, especially because I didn’t have my own computer — it was kind of a luxury and made it being able to access information and images I wasn’t seeing anywhere else even more exciting. In terms of style it was cool that instead of trying to find the items or buy the things you saw in the images, you would try to replicate it with second-hand clothes or generally more affordable and accessible things. It gave me a space to develop what I liked and it did for my friends too.
How has your personal style evolution changed between your teenage years and now?
Maria Cabrera: Although I definitely was more conscious about my body then, I was way more creative when I was younger — me and my friends were always dressing just for the “look”. I care a lot less now and very happy about that, but also there’s a glimmer of me that wants to get that excitement I had for clothes again.
What are your first memories of Converse?
Grace Barber-Plentie: I’ve already been ridiculed endlessly for this, but I most associate my first pair of Converse with learning to tie my shoes for the first time… At eleven years old. My parents thought it was easier to just not buy me shoes with laces than teach me how to do it, but all my friends were getting Converse and I was desperate to get some too so I scammed them into getting me them. They were black low-tops with a pink stripe on the sole — so sophisticated.
Maria Cabrera: My first pair were light navy low-tops in first or second year of secondary school. I remember going to a every shop in Brighton to check for the best price with my step-dad — the type of person who looks up reviews to everything he buys — and then finally getting them. Converse was associated with the emo and up and coming “indie” kids in my school. I wore them on no school uniform day with a jewelled purple guitar necklace.
Why do you think Converse is a shoe that has penetrated so many different facets of counterculture?
Grace Barber-Plentie: It’s a timeless shoe and it’s instantly recognisable design. You feel like you’re part of something when you’re wearing Converse, but by choosing a specific colour and design, you’re putting your stamp on it.
How do your socio-political beliefs in terms of fashion, diversity and identity influence how you dress?
Grace Barber-Plentie: I dress with the belief that I should be allowed to wear whatever I want! As a woman made up of so many intersections and ticking so many diversity boxes on application form, I feel like there are a lot of limits to how I should and shouldn’t dress — as a black woman I should wear my hair a certain way, as a fat woman I should try and “flatter” my figure. Over the past few years I’ve tried to break down a lot of beliefs about my place in the world and the limits put upon people, and I feel like these extend just as much to fashion as they do to my everyday life.
Maria Cabrera: Being a feminist, latina black and and brown woman, my existence and body is consistently undermined or perceived in a very stereotypical way. I felt really restricted by it growing up, but now I try to present myself for me and for my comfort. Stopping straightening my hair was the main push I needed and since that I’ve felt more comfortable in myself. I’m still working on being less conscious, but I honestly get so happy seeing latinx kids dress really weird and emo and black women who go IN with their looks, I find it really inspiring.
Why is a sense of body positivity and representation of ‘non typical’ bodies important to your work?
Grace Barber-Plentie: I feel like I kind of spoke about this above but body positivity is crucial to my work — mainly my writing — because it’s crucial in my life. As someone who works in film, one of the main ways I feel good about myself is seeing myself on-screen and writing about that. Whenever I see a film with good positivity — like, and I’m being serious here, Magic Mike XXL for example — I want to highlight it in my work. There are so few positive representations of fat black women in pop culture that I want to draw attention to them. Initially for me because I want to see myself represented onscreen, but also because I want other people to see themselves onscreen and feel beautiful too.
Maria Cabrera: As a film club celebrating people of colour on screen, we’re often screening films that subvert stereotypical ideas about these bodies that as a whole are seen as “non-typical” just because they are non-white. Black femme bodies are fetishised and sexualised in media, regardless of shape or size. To show films made by black women instantly subverts this and offers actual complexity. One of the films we’ve shown several times is The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye, I love that film because it allows the black female character (and her body) to be more that a sexual object, it also shows the masc femme black body as beautiful but also as normal and mundane.
How do you hope to subvert traditional notions of femininity through how you dress?
Maria Cabrera: As a latina my body is instantly associated with overt femininity because that’s the only representation there is for us. When I was younger I never felt comfortable in being too “done up”, I never felt I could reach this “latina-ness” all my cousins were doing. Now I really don’t care anymore and just wear what I want. But I have grown a fondness to latinas who are experts in their appearance and smell amazing, I think it’s really beautiful. I practice that too and love to look after my skin and wear cologne and scented waters, I like reclaiming that side of my identity. I feel my best when when I’m just wearing jeans, a baggy t-shirt and hoops, but my skin is moisturised and I smell good.
Who do you admire and who would you consider your peers?
Maria Cabrera: Being a “creative” who does their thing for no money can be so tiring and a constant struggle, and although I really admire the people that keep it going, I am very grateful for people who choose to look after themselves, their mental-health and those who are vocal about struggling because it’s reassuring to me. Someone I’ve met recently that I look up to is Jade Jackman who co-founded Eye Want Change and is an amazing filmmaker. She uses her talent to raise the voices of others and is so kind, always sharing her knowledge with others.
How has your personal style evolved since moving to, and because of, living in London?
Grace Barber-Plentie: It’s in London that my views on what I can and can’t wear have been able to change so much — I’ll always associate the city with changing my body confidence. Living in a city that’s filled with so many different people makes me feel like I can dress the way I want. One thing I will say about living in London is that it can sometimes feel difficult to have your own unique identity and sense of fashion because it’s such a diverse city.