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In Pursuit of a Better (Dressed) Me
Or, Style is a Form of Costuming and Self-Hypnosis, and I Need a Hit
I cut my hair a couple o’ weeks ago -- had it cut, rather -- and started watching a couple of style-gurus on YouTube.
It was time.
I let the hair grow after Trump got elected, my attempt at matching the outside of my head to the inside. It got pretty long and then, ya know, pandemic.
I grew up in rural Maine, USA in the 1970s and ‘80s, and my personal style trended toward jeans, T-shirts, flannel shirts, and sneakers/hiking boots. The only deviations were my mother’s attempts to put me in a nice pair of corduroys, and those ended once I started buying my own clothes in late junior high. I had longish hair and, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, sported a mullet. I borrowed shoes from my chorus teacher’s husband for my senior solo performance. A year later I had one ‘fancy’ outfit I bought from Chess King to take a lady to her Senior Semi-Formal.
The look followed me to college, and while many of my schoolmates swanned around in J. Crew, I stuck to the battered Levis, worn-thin Ts, and much-washed flannels. I had an occasional awareness that I looked less-than professional, not even appropriate for some of my extra-curricular activities, but I hadn’t caught on that clothing is as much costuming as covering.
I worked in a warehouse for nearly a year after college, which didn’t require a change in my style paradigm. It wasn’t until I got my first journalism job that the jeans lost their holes and patches, and the sketchy Ts became collared shirts and sweaters. I bought some neckties from a lawn sale the guys living below me were throwing to pave the way for their relocation to Key West.
I didn’t know I was supposed to match my leathers (shoes, belt, watch strap) until the first incarnation of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out in 2003, and I can trace the beginnings of my first “dress-better” era to that moment. I discovered Banana Republic and The Gap. I swapped out my backpack for a messenger bag because an article in GQ suggested that only children used backpacks, and I bought decent shoes in both brown and black.
Job led to job, and I continued to “try”. Nothing too expensive, but I did have a black suit and several ties, a pale-blue Oxford shirt, and a Timex watch with a reversible band.
In the early Aughts I switched professions and adopted what I called my “teaching costume”: necktie, button down, Carhart work pants, black or brown Doc Martens and belts to match. This stuff lasted for years, and I only bought new when I needed to replace something. I went to the same person every seven weeks for a haircut.
As my teaching career began to wrap up a decade later, I decided I was going to start wearing kilts. I had some idea about provoking conversations about gender, and anyway Lazarus Long said kilts were a great way to hide weapons. I bought four and cycled them into my wardrobe. Eventually, my kilt ensembles were the most formal things I owned.
Then Trump got elected, and COVID hit. Aside from the kilts, my wardrobe was barely worthy of a writer who seldom left home. My driver’s license and passport both suggest “long-haired hermit” and in the self-portrait I took on my 51st birthday last October, I’m wearing my old high-school/college uniform: jeans, a t-shirt, boots, and flannel (although my belt does match my boots). I still teach, college now, but even for a ‘cool prof,’ my costume is lacking.
I don’t believe that clothes make the “man,” but I do believe there’s power in the costume/uniform. Batman can only Batman when he’s wearing the cowl. I felt professional in my teacher togs, even on days I was not at 100 percent. It was my crutch. My forward face.
My current style offers no support. When I face forward in it, I feel small … both invisible and terribly exposed. I’m still that moody kid from Maine, which is both a good thing, and something I need to conceal (even from myself) at times. I need a Professional Writer Costume, if only to fool myself on the days I’m not feeling it.
So, I got a haircut and resolved to pay better attention to how I present myself to myself. I’m doing this for me, but the rest of the world can buy into it if it wants.
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