By Hannah Rosenberger
Content warning: This article contains mention of suicide
Annabelle Brown was on her way to a Halloween party, all dolled up as Medusa in a dark green minidress and a gold snake headband, when an unfamiliar student sat down next to her on the bus.
“I know it’s you,” the student said.
Brown’s eyes widened. It wasn’t unusual for people to recognize her when she was out and about, although in this case she was wearing heavy eye makeup and a mask. She can never tell if she gets noticed because of her Instagram page or because of the economics classes they have together.
“Are you out scouting right now?” the student asked.
Yep, it was definitely because of Instagram.
Brown runs @tarheelthreads, an Instagram account that highlights fashion and self-expression with posts of the bold and intentional outfits she spots around campus. She tries to stay anonymous, but there’s been enough traction on the account – which has more than 2,500 followers – that many people now know her face.
“The biggest thing that is always one of my pet peeves is people being like ‘You’re Tar Heel Threads!’” Brown said, shaking her head. “No. No. I run Tar Heel Threads. Tar Heel Threads and me are two separate entities.”
How Brown Found Fashion
As much of a social butterfly as she may seem when out snapping fashion photos, Brown deals with what she describes as a whole alphabet of mental health diagnoses’, including anxiety, depression and panic attacks. She once cried in her therapist’s office because she thought she was having a midlife crisis at the ripe old age of 10. Obviously, in her 10-year-old brain, that meant she was going to die before she reached her 21st birthday.
“I was like ‘No, I’m not going to be able to go to college, I’m not going to get married,’” Brown said, barely containing a fit of laughter. “And she was like, ‘Okay, so that’s not how that works.’”
Comedic relief aside, at the center of that “midlife crisis” was her dad. He took his own life before she was out of elementary school.
“I had no concept of what depression was, what mental health was,” Brown said. “And so I struggled a lot in my younger years to kind of feel like myself.”
Dressing herself was her one outlet. Wearing outfits like her Easter dress with jeans and sneakers to school, Brown luxuriated in the sense of control she got from selecting her clothes each day. It was the only thing she felt like she could control amid the chaos in her life.
But she was always told that she’d have to “cut the shenanigans” eventually and ditch her frilly fashions in favor of leggings and oversized t-shirts; the typical college-girl uniform.
“I was like ‘No,’” Brown said. “I’m going to show them. Because there are other people where this is their way of expressing themselves too.”
Self-expression is self-care, she said. And more than that, it’s community.
Brown said her dad’s death put into perspective how important it is to not be alone, especially in a high-pressure academic environment like UNC.
Her dad was a smart guy. He held dual bachelor’s degrees from N.C. State and a medical degree from UNC. He practiced as a family physician because he wanted to help people, but he never shared his struggles with anyone.
“We want to feel like we have a lot of power, but none of us really do unless we’re strong as a community,” Brown said. “People feel alone or unseen or just like another number, and how do we change that on a campus that’s this big, and with so many stellar individuals? How do you feel like you’re not swept under the rug?”
And for her, that’s Tar Heel Threads.
Founding Tar Heel Threads
The first photo on the @tarheelthreads page is of first-year Sofia Casini standing outside of the now-closed Franklin Street bar called The Library. She was wearing a jean jacket over a tight black romper and bright gold statement jewelry.
Brown spotted her riding the bus one September afternoon and, after complimenting the outfit, the two got to talking about their shared views on fashion as both risk-taking and self-expression. When they got off the bus outside of Time-Out, Brown asked to take Casini’s picture.
“It made me feel secure in the fact that I do know what I’m doing when it comes to dressing,” Casini said. “The things that make us feel beautiful inside and out are being recognized by someone else.”
Now, fashion-inclined minds dress up specifically to get Brown’s attention. First-year Sarah Zhang said she and a group of her friends had the goal of all getting on the page by the end of the spring semester.
“The culture is like, ‘Oh, I’m going to put on a nice outfit to be featured on Tar Heel Threads,” said Jaleah Taylor, a first-year who’s heart-patterned sweater vest was highlighted in Brown’s Valentine’s Day post.
Instagram Versus Reality
Brown went and cried in the Halloween party bathroom after that encounter on the bus.
Sometimes people put her on a pedestal of almost celebrity-like status, she said. She would be in the middle of conversations, and when the other person finds out she runs Tar Heel Threads, they would start subtly posing, trying to get her to snap a photo. Other times she would hear that people were complaining about a post because they thought they had worn better outfits, but she didn’t post them.
“I try not to let that get to me, because I know [the account] makes a lot of people happy,” she said. “It makes me very happy, but it does create a lot of inauthenticity in my personal life, because I can’t tell who wants to be on the page and who wants to get to know me.”
Brown doesn’t even have a particular interest in working in fashion once she graduates. She’s currently majoring in economics so she can go into nonprofit work. After graduation she specifically wants to support the children of domestic violence survivors while the victim-parent finds a way to leave the relationship.
But she thinks her two passions — fashion and nonprofits — come from the same heart.
“Everyone’s just trying to make their imprint wherever they can,” Brown said. “And I think that’s Tar Heel Threads for me. It’s not like a tabloid. It’s not a hot-or-not. You’re expressing yourself and you’re getting on campus every single day. You’re trying to be true to who you are.”
Edited by Nick Battaglia