Rising fourth-year Mary Pierce had just started high school when she was first approached by a modeling scout. Pierce shrugged it off then, and during a few other similar situations that followed.
“I was a very tall and awkward teenager so when I was approached by these scouts I always thought it was a scam,” said Pierce, “But when they talked about traveling the world and getting paid for it, I was all ears."
It was finally her wanderlust that led Pierce to say yes to Elite Chicago, the agency that launched her into the world of haute couture (read: high fashion). Since then she has racked up contracts with agencies in Chicago, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Milan, and Seattle. Through these agencies, Pierce has amassed a portfolio which includes spreads for Italian Vogue and Marie Claire. She has also walked the runway for the likes of Diane Von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, and Jason Wu.
Photo by Hallie Suesenberg for Jason Wu
Though you won’t find her strutting through the Quad runway-style, Pierce has found ways to continue her side-career during college and even brings it with her to the classroom. In order to fit it all in (sans one of those magical time turners from Harry Potter), Pierce has had to be especially crafty with her scheduling. She tries her best to keep her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which leaves Friday through Monday for travel. While traveling, she regularly cranks out assignments on her airplane tray table.
“During this past finals week, I had to work in Atlanta and I had this final due the second my plane landed, and so I was finishing my final the entire time I was on the plane,” she explained. “When I got there, the Internet at the airport was not working. I had to rush to the closest Starbucks and somehow it all worked out.”
While on campus, Pierce has mapped out UChicago’s fashion scene through word of mouth and artful social media maneuvering, finding a handful of fellow models, most of them graduate students. Though her contract forbids her from appearing in photoshoots for MODA, UChicago’s student-run fashion magazine, she has been able write for them.
“With the opinion pieces, I can bring in philosophical theories. People do that in the fashion world but it’s usually not as prevalent. When people think about fashion, they think about Fashion Week and the glitz and the glam, but there is a really deep underlying philosophy that’s happening there.”
Pierce has also been able to explore her interest in fashion through her academic work as well. Math has been one lens through which she can study and appreciate fashion. In fact, mathematicians Euler and Halmos are two sources of inspiration that led Pierce onto her aesthetic theory path.
“Paul Halmos wrote about beautiful proofs and the ‘logical dovetailing of a carefully selected spare set of assumptions with their surprising conclusions via a conceptually elegant proof’,” said Pierce. She memorized this quote for a high school math class and it stuck with her, shaping her interest in both mathematics and aesthetics.
“I wrote one of my UChicago application essay questions about Euler's identity, which is one of the most beautiful formulas in mathematics...Through this formula I realized that there was a truth in mathematics that was beautiful,” added Pierce. “This all relates to fashion because designers, at the most theoretical and highest level, seek a similar beauty—a beauty that is useful, simple, succinct and yet transcendent enough to speak to many people.”
Photo by Simon Perry for Sheridan Road Magazine
Now her studies have become more humanities-focused with philosophy and art history. As an Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities major, she is able to construct her own plan of study. She has studded her course list with classes like Anthropological Approaches to Global Hip Hop (for which she wrote about Rihanna’s appropriation of hip hop culture through her fashion choices) and Internet and Society (where she explored the role of Instagram in fashion).
“When I talk about modeling or fashion in class I usually talk about it theoretically and use examples of other models or designers that I've worked with instead of focusing on myself. I think that puts a healthy distance between the subject and the scholar,” said Pierce.
While her practice has undoubtedly helped her theory, her theory has also helped her practice. Pierce has enjoyed bringing what she learned in school to her conversations with designers and photographers.
“I really like talking with [them] because they are all really creative and they think about these things, just not parsed out in the University of Chicago lingo that we use,” explained Pierce. “When I talk about how beautiful things have to be very simple and the most contrasting, we have this complete conversation about it. It’s so deep and philosophical and that’s really cool.”