Because I am neither extremely beautiful nor incontrovertibly well dressed I had to “come out” as liking fashion twice, both times to gay confidantes (so maybe the sexual metaphor is not so shallow). The first time was to my friend Diana the summer before college. It was about something small. She noticed I was wearing a scarf. This was the mid-late 2000s; scarves were just about to become a hipster cliche. Mine was knitted in green and black stripes by Olga, my dad’s live-in girlfriend, which I had stolen or appropriated unfittingly for a new summer regimen of nylon cargo pants and a very tight stretchy orange tee shirt which showed off my in-diet body. That was the summer I worked at the Seaport for the toy sales division of a children’s TV production company. Since there were very few customers at our kiosk I had little to do but write in my journal, read literature anthologies and stare at passerby, which culminated in a short story that in retrospect was an interesting piece of juvenilia, about the significations of various American and Eurotrash footware. Diana, my sole lesbian friend at the time, was the most fashionable person willing to talk to me, but very rarely about fashion. When we did talk fashion she mostly talked at me (I was still closeted) about boat shoes and introduced me to Ray-Bans, which she owned a real version of (I think) and which we definitely bought knockoffs of one day for five dollars at Chinatown or St. Marks’s Place; I remember because we took a photo album for Facebook of me in the knockoff Ray-Bans and a pink wig and one of those photos became my profile picture when my dorm mates and I met the virtual avatars of each other online a couple months before I’d move in to Dodd-Mead House. Anyway maybe this is a not-coming-out story because I can’t remember if I ever actually came out to Diana about loving fashion. She noticed my scarf and made a slightly rude remark about how unusual it was for me to look trendy, like I had done it by accident, or maybe I told her that I watched a lot of Project Runway and cared passionately but secretly about accessorizing; I don’t know. There was another disastrous coming out to Diana a year later when I came home for spring break in a red cotton trench and bright blue tights which I’d bought at Conway. Conway is a recently defunct Harlem/outer borough department store with basement prices probably secured through child labor. I loved it for years. When Diana saw me in my getup she literally couldn’t look at me and about half an hour into our anxiety-fueled West Wing style walk-and-talk she announced she had to leave because she found my new presentation as a “Glamazon” too bizarre. Although maybe once a year we exchange slightly rude or alienating hellos to each other online, I haven’t seen her in person since.
The second time I had to come out as a fashion-liker was to Alex Dulchinos, who was my best friend and also my first close male gay best friend, an important personal milestone. Dulchinos and I went thrifting regularly at the Ravenswood iteration of a chain of Chicago resale stores called “Global Village.” Global Village was and remains my secret font of amazing, cheap clothing. Most prices there are around 50 cents. Almost none of my plunder from Global Village is extant because in 2012 I nuked half my wardrobe over an OCD fear that my possessions were saturated irreparably with mercury vapor. It’s very sad. Anyway Dulchinos and I would go thrifting to what I conceived of as basically the orient of thrift stores and bought cheap, horrible clothing with sequins and shoulder pads, some of which we effectively modified to make presentable. It was at one of those hauls that I came out as genuinely liking fashion — what had he thought before, I wonder, if we were already shopping? — and he was kind about it. It was a big deal for me to come out as a fashion-liker back then because I hadn’t started trying to dress well yet. I did own a brown genuine flannel, red leather boots, a striped V-neck shirt, knockoff keds and two pairs of skinny jeans, including one in Turkish blue which I thought made me look hip, but I knew that this was not objectively enough to qualify as well dressed. It was a secret trying until that point, which is something I do a lot, secret trying.
Fashion is an almost unceasing source of delight. It’s also oppressive, which is part and parcel of its appeal. I found the best explanation of this phenomenon in Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing, in an aside between two minor characters:
Albertine said, “I’m longing to hear about the ball, Juliette.”
“Yes, but why didn’t you come? We were all wondering.”
“I was discouraged. My new dress wasn’t ready, and I do hate autumn clothes in the spring. So after dinner I went home. But as soon as I had sent the motor away I longed very much for the ball. I couldn’t go to bed, I sat in my dressing-room until three consumed by this longing to be at the ball. Isn’t it absurd, really! But to me a ball is still a miracle of pleasure. I see it with the eyes of a Tolstoy and not at all those of a Marcel Proust, and really, I promise you, it is terrible for me to miss one, even at my age….Perhaps I ought to have gone, even in an old dress. But there — a ball to me is such a magical occasion that I cannot enjoy it wearing just anything. For days I have been seeing myself at that ball wearing my new dress, and when I found it couldn’t be ready in time (nobody’s fault, influenza in the workrooms), I didn’t want to spoil the mental picture by going in just another dress. Don’t you understand?”
I wish I could explain the satisfaction of a billowing pleat or a shirt whose proportions are exactly right for their paired pants. Or the feeling of being in a crowd knowing that you’re contributing to the vibrancy of the throng– although I absolutely hate the related feeling of superiority I sometimes get when I’m better dressed than other people in a group, or the inferiority of being below the sartorial average. Fashion always seems to be on the edge of offensiveness, not visually (I’d say the opposite, because tautologically it makes attractive what is normally boring, ugly, or impolitic), but psychologically. It’s thrilling, shaming, joyous, depressive. Maybe that’s one reason why fashion is constantly aestheticizing death: it’s spotted its own tendency to creep against homeostasis.