Standing in a Dress on Top of the World: Jessica Ary and the High Fashion Project
The spectrum of human emotion is a complex, vast, beautiful thing. The majority of us spend our time coasting somewhere along the midline, bumping along sweet little highs and experiencing brief lulls, but staying relatively in balance all the while. However, it is also human to experience the outliers, occasionally flying towards towering pinnacles of joy or plummeting into our personal depths. While we might find any number of ways to celebrate emotional peaks, it’s often a lot harder to lift up from the valleys and figure out where to go when the darkness comes.
If you’re Jessica Ary, the answer is quite simple – you literally go up.
A few years ago, the photographer found herself stuck in “a very dark place,” struggling to make a living, feeling unmoored, and watching her bliss slip away. On a whim, driven by discontent and curiosity, she decided to sign up for a ten-week backpacking class. The experience stirred her soul, simultaneously jarring her from the darkness and swinging her back towards happiness. Enchanted by the wilds, Jessica began to spend more time outdoors, away from her Los Angeles base, quickly incorporating climbing into the mix. She fled north to the Sierra every weekend, finding both stoke and salvation in the mountains. “It just became a positive light in my life.”
The emotional rollercoaster of constantly shifting between high country magic and Southern California’s urban sprawl eventually wore her down, so Jessica bought an RV and parked herself in the small-town Eastern Sierra climbing hub of Bishop. While exploring the granite spires towering above her new home, she was inspired to start a ritual of sorts by posing defiantly – powerfully – in a dress at the top of every peak she visited, and photographing the moment. Since her first shot, she’s amassed a veritable sisterhood of the summit, including other women in the ritual and forging bonds as strong as the rock underfoot. The result is an ongoing collection of photographs and stories called the High Fashion Project.
How did the High Fashion Project begin?
I was working in fashion and when I’d go into work, my coworkers would say, “What did you do this weekend?” I would say, “Oh, I hiked to the top of this mountain,” and they’d respond, “That’s crazy, I can’t believe you’d do that!” I realized I was kind of living in two different worlds, so [the project] was me combining those two worlds. I have this side where I love fashion, I’m pretty girly, and I like to dress up and look cute, but I also like to be rugged, and get out and do these really difficult things.
There’s something very symbolic – and maybe sometimes divisive – about a dress. Why is it important that you or your subjects are wearing a dress in these photos?
It is such a symbol of femininity, and the contrast – you don’t expect to see a woman wearing a dress on top of a mountain! I feel like everyone has their summit ritual that they do on top of a mountain, and being a photographer, I was like, “I need something cool to do up there, something to set myself apart.” That was part of the drive, too – to try something different. But I also love playing with contrasting things, because I feel like that’s kind of my personality, too – I’m soft and hard at the same time, and sweet and spicy.
Speaking of femininity – men have historically dominated mountaineering narratives, although that’s starting to evolve. Do you think gender plays a role in how you approach the mountains, and how others view you?
Gender doesn’t play a role when I’m in the mountains and that’s one of the beautiful things about the mountains. The mountains create an equal playing field where everyone is tested mentally and physically. For me, this is a place that I want to share with everyone! I love introducing new people to hiking, mountaineering, climbing, and spending time with others who share the psych.
“Gender doesn’t play a role when I’m in the mountains”
Speaking of shared experiences, the High Fashion Project began with self-portraits – why did you begin to incorporate other subjects?
Well, because I’m so inspired by the women around me. Part of it, too, was their encouragement – I kept having friends reach out to me, telling me how inspired they were by [the photos], and telling me the messages they were getting from the images. That kept me going. When the next summer season came around, I knew I didn’t want to photograph myself anymore. I have these friends around me who are incredible and do amazing things, and I wanted to tell their stories and share all of their accomplishments.
My relationship with other women in the mountains, it’s really shaped me. We’re just so supportive of each other. I think that’s kind of hard to find at times, because we live in a society where people are constantly comparing each other, but once you get out in the mountains and can’t hide behind anything, it becomes this space where women support and encourage each other.
When was the first time you photographed someone else for the project?
Lauren Grabowski, who kind of actually gave me the idea to photograph other women, was one of the first people who contacted me about the photo series and told me what she got from it. She’s always been a big inspiration for me, so I knew I wanted to photograph her first. We climbed Mount Tyndall together. It was kind of challenging for both of us – it was the first time we climbed a third- or fourth-class peak on our own without somebody leading the way. She said it was a very powerful experience, and she was really surprised at how she felt up there – just really strong. The quote “Though she be but little, she be fierce” by Shakespeare kept rolling through my head while I was shooting her, because she just looked really proud and strong and beautiful. It was interesting afterwards – we were hiking down, and she said, “You know, I didn’t really expect to have much of an emotional experience from that,” but she just said it was really powerful.
Let’s talk about some of the other moments in the project. How about the Mount Maggie shot, which includes two other people?
That’s actually one of my favorites. The two women with me are Crystal and Ming, and the three of us met in [the Wilderness Travel Course]. Over the summer, we did a lot of peaks together, backpacked together, and just really had such a beautiful friendship blossom. It was kind of an ode to friendship in the mountains.
I think my favorite shot is the one of you standing on top of Mount Whitney in a red dress – what’s the story behind that one?
That’s an interesting story, actually. I was supposed to do Mount Whitney with another girl, and we’d been training and planning, but two weeks before, she dropped out and couldn’t do it. I was scrambling, trying to find someone to go with me, but couldn’t find anyone because I was leaving on a Wednesday and no one could get off work. I’d been training for this, I’d been looking forward to it, but I’d never done anything like this on my own – I was doing the [third class] Mountaineers Route, and this was only my second Sierra peak. But it was like I felt compelled – I have to go. I drove out there and luckily met a guy who agreed to go with me. Honestly, I don’t think I could have done it on my own at that point – I was just too fearful and wasn’t confident enough, so I was just really relieved to have someone with me. The whole way up, I just kept saying, “This is the best day of my life!” And it was. I got to the top and was just so ecstatic. It was a situation where everything was going wrong, and it seemed like the universe was against me and didn’t want me to summit this mountain, and being the stubborn woman I am, I was like “I’m gonna get to the top of it!” I was so happy.
Looking back at the project so far, how have these experiences in the mountains affected you?
I’ve learned to chill! I started mountaineering and the High Fashion Project basically at the same time. I was immediately excited about both “projects” and set really high goals for myself. After a couple of seasons, I began to wear myself out. I couldn’t keep up with the high amount of training and the time required. I tend to throw all of myself into something and become completely engrossed in a project, and that’s what happened – it was an obsession. Everything went into climbing mountains and creating these images, that it began to feel like a job to produce so many images. I realized I needed to take a step back and remember why I started mountaineering, climbing, and the High Fashion Project. Once I did that, I found a much healthier balance.
What inspires you to keep working on the High Fashion Project, to make it an open-ended experience?
Early on, I took a photo on every summit, but now I save the “dress pictures” for those really special climbs. Some recent examples are the on the summit of the Preston in Norway (the longest multi-pitch I’ve ever climbed), Dragon Peak [in the Sierra], because that traverse is so amazing, and most recently on a spire in Mexico. My friends get excited when I tell them I’m bringing a dress because they know that it’s a special day. It always amazes me how many people want to get involved and help me achieve an amazing picture. In Mexico, it required four of us – two teams of two; each team climbed a spire. I was inspired that everyone was psyched to help me get this shot.
It’s been interesting to watch the project evolve along with myself. This project is a huge part of me, and has become a large part of my experience in the mountains. I can’t really imagine a time the project will completely end. As long as I am in the mountains, I will be taking these images. The frequency may change, but it will always be there. For me, it’s about the full experience of creating the images. First, the inspiration to bring a dress, then choosing the right one for an impactful image. Next is the hike or climb to get to the summit, which of course is the best part! Then comes that crazy scramble to change into the dress when it’s cold and windy! Then, framing the shot and getting different angles. And lastly, sharing it. The response has been really beautiful. I’ve had so many people write me – climbers and non-climbers – to tell me that they are inspired by my images and they are beautiful. That’s what inspires me to continue creating.
Looking back, what is your takeaway so far from working on the High Fashion Project – and what do you hope other people take away from it?
When I look at it as a whole, I see this incredible journey that I’ve made, and for me, it’s just a message that – it’s kind of corny – you can really accomplish whatever you want. I just see all the growth that has happened, and I hope that other people see that, too. It’s okay to go against the norm, follow your dreams, follow your heart, and be successful in whatever you do. That’s what’s kept me going – that people are inspired by it, and that inspires me and makes me want to create more. I want to empower other women out there.
I hope that people are inspired to follow their heart and chase their dreams, whether that be to ask out that cute guy, or quit your job to do what you love, or even climb a mountain!
About the writer:
Shawnté Salabert loves experiencing and writing about human-powered exploration, outdoor recreation, and adventure travel. Her work has been published on the pixels and pages of Modern Hiker, Adventure Journal, Moja Gear, The Picture Professional, Charleston City Paper, and other fine outlets. Her book Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California will be released via Mountaineers Books in Fall 2017. For more information, visit shawntesalabert.com, Instagram, or Twitter.