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Colourful jumpers hanging on a rack.

Image: ‘jarmoluk’, Canva

There’s a line in Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls that goes: ‘He was talking to Ted who was there in his dark blue short sleeve shirt.’ This simple sentence, the pronoun ‘his’ rather than indefinite article ‘a’, speaks volumes: either Ted wears his blue shirt all the time or he may wear it sporadically but, because he looks so good in it (or the shirt looks exceptionally good on him), the shirt is linked to him. A shirt like no other, worn by no other.

I also have a beautiful dark blue shirt—two actually, one that may be identifiably mine and the other not conspicuous enough to be uniquely anyone’s. Blue is one of the few colours in my wardrobe palette. My association with dark blue goes back to my early teens, when I first remember the feelings of comfort and grace lent by certain clothes, and started to develop attachments to particular pieces, having the responsibility to dress myself and the freedom to choose how. It was the beginning of hand-me-downs from my older sisters and the end of wearing twin outfits with my younger sister, hers in pink and mine in a lovely gender-neutral yellow.

My association with dark blue goes back to my early teens, when I first started to develop attachments to particular pieces of clothing.

My ‘good’ clothes were a pair of khaki shorts, a white T-shirt featuring a black and white photo print and my older sister’s long navy-blue cardigan, which dropped almost to my knees. It was too big for me and I had to constantly push up the sleeves. I loved the effect, the wet romance of this outfit, until one day my dad told me to ‘stop wearing that cardigan.’ I don’t think my dad had a fashionista’s aversion to cardigans—I’m not sure if the distaste was because it didn’t really fit me or that I wore it too often. The insinuation was that it was not suitable for public consumption and certainly not in repeat doses. I shouldn’t be wearing the same thing all the time; I should be changing and not getting attached. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be standing out, drawing attention to myself with a cardigan that obviously did not ‘fit’.

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A black jumper with a thick fluorescent-yellow strip across the front was another favourite, a hand-me-down from my mum, which I wore until she and my sisters laughed at me for ‘wearing that jumper again.’ These comments jolted me; I had somehow thought the fluorescent yellow would make me invisible. Yet other people were noticing what I was wearing, which meant it was time to start thinking about my appearance. The judgement that I ‘wore things out’ had not occurred to me. I loved the comforting familiarity of these clothes.

Michael Pollan in This Is Your Mind on Plants writes: ‘Ordinarily, I feel faithful to my old clothes and have a hard time accepting that any item has outlived its usefulness.’ Utilitarian loyalty! A book about the psychoactive effects of various plants was the last place I expected to find a comment about attachment to clothing, but there it was. Clothing, after all, is something we all have to navigate, whether we’re taking mescaline or not. ‘No one can opt out of the visual world or the laws of appearance because that’s how social worlds are managed,’ madison moore writes in Fabulous. ‘No style is actually still style.’ Even rejecting fashion, rejecting the rules of clothing, will leave you with a personal look.

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At my first poetry reading, aged seventeen, I wore my good long khaki (do we sense a theme?) linen pants. I was overdressed—most poets were scruffy and dressed in tones of brown and black. One wore a military jacket. He looked very good in it and wore it to every reading. Another poet wore a powdery blue, soft-looking coat. Its owner was asked, ‘Is it chenille?’, and replied, ‘I think it’s terry towelling!’

Even rejecting fashion, rejecting the rules of clothing, will leave you with a personal look.

Later, I myself dabbled in ostentatious coats. I had a famous blue raincoat, plucked from an op shop and worn for a spoken word performance, in character as ‘the narrator’. I tried wearing it as myself a couple of times but it never felt quite right. The host at a house party said something about my gorgeous blue coat when she turned the collar out for me. I had been mingling all night feeling great in my blue coat, thinking everyone I was introduced to was on the verge of giving me a compliment about it.

Someone I began seeing pointed out that I was wearing the same clothes on our second date as on the first. I didn’t see the problem in this. They were my ‘good clothes’—all black, tencel jeans and polyester short-sleeved shirt—what I wore when I went out. She was a costume designer, so was possibly more attuned to clothing preferences. In Recollections of My Non-existence, Rebecca Solnit describes a ‘gray 1940s suit I wore constantly as my dress-up outfit.’ I recognise this way of approaching a wardrobe: one outfit for ‘going out’ and casual clothes for everything else.

Solnit goes on, ‘The clothing speaks of an attempt to be elegant, sophisticated, to be an adult, to be ready for the world and find a world ready for me, a portrait of all those aspirations of youth.’ I was presenting a self that I didn’t quite feel I inhabited in my attempt to claim space, all while trying to avoid the femininity that I perceived as a heteronormative trap. Solnit also describes being subjected to constant misogynistic surveillance and harassment, which continued well beyond her own youth.

During my grunge phase I embraced the flannel plaid shirt, believing I was simply copying the look of the musicians I loved, skirting around its real appeal: that it was not feminine, that I could be androgynous within its folds. With k.d. lang the only out celebrity I knew of, I must have subliminally known I was tapping into a decades-old lineage of butch lesbianism. Eddie and Kurt must have known it, too.

I came back to my regional hometown on university holidays wearing a brown seventies viscose shirt with a wide collar and beige checked trousers, flush in the thrill of a good find in the op shop. My mum threw out the pants the first chance she got, they had so offended her perception of who I was. The funky self I was presenting to new friends up in the city was not welcome at home. I looked too queer.

The gateway (gayway) to my adulthood was a shaved head and a rotation of fat vintage ties—I cruised the op shops for them. The uniform at the grocery shop where I worked was black pants, white shirt and tie. The tie could be whatever you wanted. I revelled in the irony of being mandated to wear a marker of queerness—the tie taken out of its male business attire context and queered onto another body type. My sense of stylistic flair had been crushed, but I was learning how to quietly announce myself—to those who were looking—by drawing from the rich sartorial histories of queer elders.

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‘Self-styling is how we dress for the social world’, moore says. Everything we wear sends out a signal, yet the styles we develop for ourselves can be just as much about security and safety as comfort or expression. As a young adult, I found safety in ambiguity. My sense of style evolved through a process of eliminating modes of feminine. When I did occasionally amp up a feminine appearance, it was striking how different I felt and how performative the outfit seemed. I remember a black short-sleeved shirt dress I once wore with a belt, knee-high boots—and teased hair (which I had not attempted since Grade 5). There was power in this outfit, which came not only from the added height of the boots, but also in its difference to my usual appearance. In conventional clothing I appeared more masculine, but did not draw attention to myself, and in this lack of attention I found a space I could move and therefore be comfortable in. Was I dressing myself in an absence or an alterity?

I was learning how to quietly announce myself—to those who were looking—by drawing from the rich sartorial histories of queer elders.

I landed in a grey area, a zone defined by what it was not. But this is a reading of androgyny as a kind of blankness, a neither, rather than a potential everything. As moore elaborates in Fabulous, for queers of colour especially, dressing fabulously is not necessarily about defying gender, but about ending it altogether. When we present an idealised version of ourselves to ‘go out’, moore asks, are we playing into the hands of archetypal gender roles? ‘The rules are about keeping gender and identity intact.’

‘Gender fuck’ style takes it back to the basics of simply taking pleasure in clothes: feeling, looking and creating ‘fabulous’. You can participate in this even if not looking fabulous yourself, by acknowledging fabulousness when you see it. Solnit concurs: ‘looking amazing…can be a gift to the people around you, a sort of public art and a celebration.’

I’m not at all claiming to have reached a mantle of fabulousness. I still dress mostly in black, browns and blues, as I did as a twenty-year-old. My clothes give me a comfort that is a combination of security and self-expression, but I do wonder now how much my sartorial selection of dark colours and uniformity has been an active choice. Have I taken on the teachings of my youth so deeply that what I perceive as ‘my style’ is in fact only that which doesn’t threaten other people’s conceptions? That by throwing open the doors of my very own closet I was coming out into somebody else’s?

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In Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s most recent concert film, This Much I Know to Be True, the two musicians are mostly seen wearing their favoured fitted suits and clean shirts with cufflinks. The suit is their uniform and they play within it by wearing different fabrics and patterns. Tailoring is quintessentially masculine. While Cave and Ellis can laugh at themselves, the tailoring tells us that they are serious about their art, their work. The coded message in their clothing is that they are authoritative male figures. The suit transposed to the body of a female musician, think Annie Lennox and Laurie Anderson, deconstructs at the same time as it plays on this gendered coding. For his book What Artists Wear, Charlie Porter interviewed Laurie Anderson about ‘using tailoring as part of her critique of power and control.’

Performers playing with a look in their art do so in a zone of safety, whereas a person on the street disrupting gender norms will be at greater risk of abuse and harassment.

Performers playing with a look in their art do so in a zone of safety, whereas a person on the street disrupting gender norms will be at greater risk of abuse and harassment. Alok Vaid-Menon talks about this from a transfeminine perspective in moore’s book, and Joelle Taylor in C+nto & Othered Poems describes the ‘constant state-endorsed abuse’ she has endured as a butch lesbian who wears suits. As the blurb states, visual identity is a ‘difficult balance between survival and self-expression.’

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis sitting on wooden boxes on the floor of a room, surrounded by musical equipment. They are both wearing dark tailored suits, and are looking at each other smiling.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis in This Much I Know To Be True. Image: Charlie Gray / Press

In a couple of scenes in This Much I Know to Be True, Ellis is wearing a maroon cardigan with a small hole in it, likely a handwash-only garment. Perhaps he had washed it in the machine? Perhaps he had not noticed the hole. Or could the cardigan be a favourite? Worn so much and washed so often that the threads were beginning to split.

I like Ellis’ commitment to his cardigan, particularly in light of the fact that Australians are among the worst in the world for wearing new clothes only a few times, or not at all, before throwing them out. Reports released this year by the Australian Fashion Council estimate that, globally, up to half of all new clothes purchased are never worn by the purchaser, while over 90 per cent will ‘outflow’ within a year, meaning they are passed onto others, donated to charity or taken directly to landfill.

Personal style goes beyond the seasonal cycles of fashion, where the pressure to keep on trend and to follow prescribed gender roles is a form of capitalist, patriarchal oppression. Clothing has always been a marker of class, and being able to afford to be ‘fashionable’ was a way to show which class you belonged to. As moore says, fabulousness distinguishes between style and fashion: style is resistance. It does require a strong sense of self to withstand the public scrutiny directed at marginalised bodies claiming space. Porter challenges us to ‘look at our own wardrobe and ask: what might this then say about our own defiance or compliance?’

I wear clothes today that I first wore over ten years ago, though they’re now relegated to sleeping attire only. Hand-me-downs now come from partners rather than sisters (more of a sidle-over than a hand-me-down?). I don’t think I’ve handed down anything of my own. I tend to wear things to oblivion—threads dissembled such that the shape is lost, it literally hangs. I remember how each favourite piece of clothing has come to me or I to it, and each parting, often reluctant. Some favourites have shrunk in the wash. Some I’ve been told to let go. The abandonment to the Salvos bag. The misplaced coat, left somewhere.

In a brave new world of dressing sustainably, where we wear fewer clothes and wear them for longer, perhaps we should think more in terms of attachment theory rather than fashion theory, while still allowing ourselves to be fabulous sometimes.