Sunday, October 08, 2023

Clothes maketh the man

We all know how Western society often judges people by how they dress, so much so that it’s reinforced by the proverb, ”clothes maketh the man”. It’s little wonder, then, that for a certain segment of our society, clothes-buying can be so fraught. Like me, for example.

I’ve hated shopping for clothes most of my life, but certainly since I became a teenager and took on more responsibility for selecting my clothes rather than having my mother do it. I found it incredibly stressful because, like a lot of teenagers, I was anxious that the other kids don’t think what I was wearing wasn’t cool enough, because they might mock me for it. However, there was a far bigger reason I hated it so much.

As a deeply closeted teen, I was afraid I might pick something that might make other kids assume I was gay, and, to me, that felt like the absolute worst possible thing that could happen. I knew that literally anything could spark that, including really stupid things.

Someone once told me that when they were in high school in the mid/late-1960s, boys’ shirts often had a loop of fabric in the middle of the back, between the shoulder blades. The loops were nicknamed “fruit loops”, and, kids of the era decided, it signified the boys wearing the shirt were gay—which was incredibly stupid, we can all agree. However, the boys’ girlfriends took it seriously enough that they would rip the loop off their boyfriends’ shirts. Sheesh, kids can be dumb.

I have no idea how widespread that was—it could’ve been a couple girls in one high school that did that, for all I know, but the frequency, and even whether it was true or not, didn’t matter: The story was burned into my brain, and as a teenager I was afraid I might inadvertently make a fashion choice that would cause such irrational branding of me.

By university, I was still trying to figure things out on my own, secretly aware of my sexuality, but still trying to make sure no one else was. After my parents died, I started buying clothes I knew were fashionable among young gay men like me (mostly thanks to a friend, and also to magazines, I learned to “dress like what you want to attract,” something I read in a novel many years later). That wasn’t to last.

After university, I spent a brief time once again living a deeply closeted life in my hometown, and by the time I moved to Chicago, the effects of the self-imposed repression were strong. It didn’t help that I was struggling to find work in the Reagan Depression, and whatever confidence I may have had about clothes toward the end of my university years was completely gone.

In the years that followed, I had partners who sometimes helped me pick clothes, and I was glad to have the burden and stress taken from me. I arrived in New Zealand with a lot of those clothes, but nearly all were gone within ten years. I still avoided buying clothes as much as possible, but when it was necessary because things were wearing out, Nigel was almost always with me. I could count on him to give me an honest opinion, but since I was choosing mostly conservative options, there wasn’t anything challenging about it, and so, he seldom advised me against getting something.

This went on for all the years we were together, and much of that time I also took over clothes that Nigel no longer liked or fit. In fact, much of my wardrobe even now is still that sort of stuff, especially because I kept some of the clothes Nigel left behind, stuff that both fit me and I liked. The rest I gave away.

Which brings me up to today, and how much I still hate buying clothes for myself. Nowadays, the fear of being judged is still strong, not about my sexuality (usually…), but a newer worry, instead. Some years ago, I started to worry that if I dressed too “young”, I’d be thought of as ”mutton dressed as lamb”, that I was dressing to look much younger than I really was. I was uncomfortable even browsing in some stores, and I imagined that the twenty-somethings working in the shop would think I was a grandpa trying to dress like—no, pass as—one of them. I imagined them thinking I’m about to say, “How do you do, fellow kids [for the uninitiated, a reference to the now-memed scene in 30 Rock—though pointing that out is kind of like acting out the scene…].

All of that is really silly, I know, which is why I’m joking around about it—however, in jokes, truth hides. It’s really true that I don’t want to create that impression, but after years of avoiding shopping for clothes except when I had no choice, I now have zero idea what might look good on me.

This has become an issue because in January I’m going to Fiji, and I have virtually nothing appropriate to wear in a much warmer place. I seldom wear shorts, as the family enjoys pointing out, but they probably don’t know that the shorts I have are all old now—and often old-fashioned, too. I have no idea what’s current, and that applies to lightweight pants, too, which is why I almost always wear blue jeans (I have no casual pants that could be called "current", but I also don’t really know what is current).

And then, there’s also the issue of swimming attire. I’ve haven’t owned any swim trunks in quite literally decades. The last time I went swimming would have to be more than 30 years ago, not just because I didn’t have swim trunks, but because I’m not keen on swimming in front of others. Yet in a few months, I’ll be on a tropical island, and I feel I ought to at least have the option to swim if I want to, and not to have to skip it because only I don’t have swim trunks.

A few weeks ago, I started browsing the website of one of the very few stores I feel even somewhat comfortable shopping at. It wasn’t to buy anything, but, rather, to get an idea of what might work. It didn’t actually help all that much, since most the models were decades younger than me. Nevertheless, it’s the start of the process.

I know that not only do most men have zero problem shopping for clothes, I also know that many actually enjoy it. I don’t understand them any more than they’d understand me. However, I know from my own past experience that my reluctance to shop and my anxiety about making the wrong choices ebbs and flows. I can have big shopping days like I had in January 2021, and I still go to buy things I need.

What I’m talking about, really, is a very specific adaptation to my new life that’s not yet complete. It’s one I’d never given any thought to, not until I realised how I need to get clothes appropriate for my trip, and also for casual times in summer here at home. This whole story, then, is about a journey of sorts, one that’s been both necessary and hindered because I’ve had no one to rely on but myself. But I have (many…) more years of experience now, and I have the tools to work it out on my own.

I know, then, that this saga will end with a victory of sorts, that I’ll become comfortable enough that none of what I’ve talked about here will matter anymore (though I may still not enjoy the shopping). I also know that I won’t think I’m mutton dressed as lamb. My fellow kids will back me up on that, I’m sure.


Roger Owen Green said...

I loathe buying clothes, even with my wife helping. Or one of my sisters, who will pick out something SHE thinks works but isn't for me.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yes, it's a burden!

d said...

Don't worry about "current"! Wear what's comfortable for you and what you are happy in. Darren often wears cargo shorts / pants (they are definitely not 'in') because they are convenient to carry things. He buys them at NZ Safety Blackwoods. I tend to buy most of my clothes from Trademe because I hate shopping! I know what brands I like, though, and my size, so I just set up a search and get daily emails with matches. :)