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“Wearable Tracy” and Connections Forged Through Funky Hats

One day in May of 2017, a woman named Lee Kim got a Facebook notification alerting her that it was her friend Tracy Brandenburg’s birthday. Kim, who lives in the leafy Bronx neighborhood of Edgewater Park and works designing conference experiences at Pfizer, suddenly felt awful. She had forgotten to get Tracy a gift or a card or even to give her a courtesy call. Kim didn’t want to make one of the minimal online gestures that can pass for well-wishing in the age of social media—send a text, jot down a timeline post, or simply press “like” and move on. Instead, she wanted to do something grand, an effortful gesture that would tell Brandenburg that she was not only remembered but cherished. The two women met while Kim was taking a “Design Thinking” workshop at the University of Wisconsin; Brandenbug, an anthropologist, gave a lecture about empathy and creativity, and the material so stuck with Kim that she struck up a conversation that led to a lasting friendship. When Kim saw the birthday notification, she made a snap decision that was as creative as it was kind: she ran to a local dollar store, bought a pack of pipe cleaners, and quickly fashioned them into an architectural hat that made her look like a cross between a Dr. Seuss scribble and Isabella Blow, the editor and millinery muse. She took a selfie of her kooky “birthday crown” and sent it to Brandenburg in the hopes that it would generate a smile. The last-minute gift evolved into a years-long project that would change her life.

Kim began walking around in the homemade fascinator, which she called a “Wearable Tracy.” For the first time in a long time, she felt sensitive and exposed, hyper-visible on the street and on the subway. As a middle-aged mother of a small child, Lee had settled into a routine (some might even say a rut). She’d wake up, play with her daughter, Hannah, and then begin the long, anonymous commute to her midtown office. In the Wearable Tracy, however, she defied anonymity. People stared, smiled, snickered, and side-eyed. Some even talked to her, asking her about her craft-store chapeau. It occurred to Kim that she had not felt this kind of engaged urban connectivity in years. So she made a plan. She’d keep making and donning Wearable Tracys, every day, for a year. The project had three rules: she had to twist fresh pipe cleaners into a brand-new Tracy every morning; she had to wear the piece all day long (from nine to five); and she had to ask the name of anyone who spoke to her about her hat, even if she wasn’t feeling particularly talkative. It was a social and aesthetic experiment, not only to break out of her comfort zone but to force others to do the same. She would be the peacock striding through the city, reminding people of their own potential to be iridescent and rare.

The filmmaker Emily McAllister met both Kim and Brandenburg in another “Design Thinking” workshop and stayed in touch. After Kim began the Wearable Tracy project, she started an Instagram account to document her hat menagerie, and McAllister quickly saw that there could be a colorful film to be made that chronicled the experiment. “It just felt like I couldn’t sit on the sideline anymore,” McAllister told me. “I had to jump in and be the person to help her tell her story.” The two spent several days filming Kim’s subway rides and home life, documenting impromptu interactions with strangers. One night, after shooting, Kim—who often gives away her crowns to people who ask about them toward the end of the day—gave McAllister a “cat-mermaid inspired Wearable Tracy.” The filmmaker wore the hat, which featured a large fuzzy cat in neon colors that resembled a balloon animal, out to dinner that night in Chelsea. “Knowing I only intended to wear it for a few hours made it less intimidating,” she wrote, via e-mail. “But I still felt quite bold, and it was refreshing to feel like I was doing exactly what I wanted and being exactly who I wanted to be.”

Kim intended to quit the Wearable Tracy project after a year, but her daughter implored her to keep going. By spring of last year, when the pandemic hit New York, she had made more than nine hundred different crowns. Then, on March 10th, she stopped. She wasn’t going into work anymore, and she did not see the point of making the hats just to wear them at home on her couch. It was her daughter, Hannah, who again implored her to push through the inertia. She told her mother, “I still draw every day, so you should make your Wearable Tracy every day.” On April 3rd, Kim restarted the project, making her nine hundred and seventh pipe-cleaner fascinator, a swooping, all-white construction that looked like a cumulus cloud drifting past her head. When she wore it to her first virtual meeting, her co-workers beamed. In a time when everything was “unprecedented,” Kim’s eccentric project was a jolt of the familiar. Wearable Tracy had come full circle: a daring diversion had become a great comfort.

As we begin to emerge from a year of isolation and stretchy pants, the arc of “Wearable Tracy” feels like a subtle road map for how to reconnect, both emotionally and sartorially. In the aftermath of a terrible year, why not take a bold risk, or at least pursue a minor adventure, in your clothes? It does not have to be a pipe-cleaner hat to be a conversation piece—it can be the silver dress at the back of your closet, or the loud tie, or the beat-up denim jacket with punk-rock patches on it. Try stepping out in it and see what happens. Kim’s story feels like an invitation to take a cue from the famous milliner Philip Treacy (whose name is poetically close to “Tracy”): “It’s all about change. A hat can completely change the personality of the wearer, make them stand differently and walk differently. A hat can make that person feel interesting.”

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