I wear the same outfit almost every day: a pair of khaki pants (I own two pairs of the same pants in two different shades of beige), a t-shirt, a long-sleeve button-down shirt (I own seven of them, but they’re all the exact same shirt—even bought from the exact same rack at the Kohl’s in Muncie, Indiana—in different colors and patterns) with the sleeves rolled up to just above my elbows, and a pair of Clarks desert boots I’ve worn for three years.
If it’s warm, I ditch the undershirt and switch to a short-sleeve button-down; in the summer, I have three pairs of flat-front khaki shorts from American Eagle and I sub a pair of flip flops for the boots. Rarely, I wear my single dark blue polo shirt.
In case I need to dress up, I have two navy blue blazers—one from Target and one I bought on clearance at Kohl’s when I couldn’t locate the first for two weeks after moving last summer and I needed to wear it for work—and a single charcoal gray suit and a pair of black dress shoes reserved for weddings, funerals, and job interviews. I own two sweaters so I can mix it up a bit, but I almost never wear them. I have five old pairs of jeans that I only wear to do chores around the house and a collection of old T-shirts that I wear to sleep in. I own two belts—one brown leather for every day, one black leather to match my suit. That’s it.
I am not, as you may have already guessed, an adventurous dresser. Also, I do laundry a lot. It’s not that I don’t care about what I look like—I carefully polish my dress shoes every time I wear them; I own no fewer than sixteen different ties, even though I only wear one about twice a year, and I take great pride in whether or not they complement my dress shirt. I would never wear brown shoes with anything other than a brown belt. I know that I look better in red, blue, and black than I do in any other colors and my wardrobe mostly reflects that. Unless I’m mowing the lawn or making a quick run to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon, you will probably never see me in a shirt without a collar or wearing a hat. I read articles on The Art of Manliness about fashion. I have a Men’s Wearhouse credit card. I have a Pinterest board dedicated to clothes I wish I could wear.
This is partially because I’m fat and it’s not always easy to find clothes I like that fit me. To buy pants, I have two options: go to Walmart and buy dad-style Wranglers (spoiler alert: I never choose this option) or get online and order them because stores don’t typically carry anything bigger than a 36 or 38-inch waist and I wear a 42. Unless I’m buying a dress shirt, I’m stuck buying an XL (or even an XXL) to ensure that the bottom button actually fastens, which means the sleeves are too long. Dress shirts are their own special version of hell: I need a 17.5” neck (which typically correlates to an XL) but I only need 33” sleeves (which is typically a medium)—you try finding the shirt you want with these measurements. There simply aren’t a lot of options for a guy with my body shape, so when I find something that fits—American Eagle’s Slim Core Flex Pant (42/32), SONOMA Goods for Life™ button-ups from Kohl’s (size XL), Target’s Massimo brand crew-neck and V-neck T-shirts (size XXL)—I tend to buy it in every color. It makes things easier. This is why I tend to accessorize: I am a sucker for a good tie, I have a shark tie bar and football cuff links, and I am incredibly picky about my glasses. These are things I can pull off at any size.
But it’s also because I don’t really know how to dress. See, I’m transgender, which means that I spent the first twenty-three years of my life being taught how to dress like a woman. I know how to put on make-up and braid hair and the purpose of pantyhose because that’s what people—my mom, my grandmother, my friends—taught me. I started wearing mostly men’s clothing in undergrad, but it was before I was being completely honest with myself about what I was doing, so I stuck primarily to jeans and T-shirts so I could have plausible deniability if anyone questioned me. When it comes to menswear, I’m mostly self-taught, and my experience has been limited to the past five years. I learned to polish shoes, to tie ties, and to use pomade (after a misguided haircut I’ve since abandoned) by watching YouTube tutorials. I learned the difference between sport shirts and dress shirts by reading articles on The Art of Manliness. It’s like when you first start school: you know that you need to learn how to read, how to count, how to tie your shoes, so you ask and you figure it out. But you have no idea that Algebra even exists. I am often overwhelmed by how much of men’s fashion fits into the “Algebra” category.
Example: A few weeks ago, I bought a new blazer from the clearance rack at Kohl’s. I wore it to campus, thinking I looked awesome. My students, who recently discovered that I wear my favorite red, plaid, button-down shirt to campus at least twice a week, kept stopping me in the hallway to compliment me. Just after lunch, I was walking from the mailroom back to my office when I heard someone call my name. It was my friend Debbie, who is probably one of the best-dressed faculty members on campus.
“You forgot to cut the vent open on your jacket,” she said, the same way you would give a friendly heads up to someone whose tag is showing, or whose shirt is on backwards, or whose fly is down.
I recognized all of these words, but could not, for the life of me, figure out what they meant in this sentence. My face must have given me away.
“The vent in the back. They sew it shut so the jacket doesn’t crease in the store,” she explained, leading me to the main department office to borrow a pair of scissors. This is also how I learned that my pockets were sewn shut for the same reason.
But despite all of this—the struggle to find the right clothes for my body, the struggle to figure out what I should or shouldn’t be wearing, or how I should or shouldn’t be wearing it—I still love fashion. I remember, sometimes, the feeling I used to get when we’d go back-to-school shopping every fall and I’d stand off to the side and watch my brother pick out clothes from the boys’ side of the store and the longing I’d feel—to wear those jeans or that T-shirt, to wear a shirt and tie for a special event instead of a dress, to just run a comb through my hair instead of standing in the bathroom for what felt like hours while my mom used the curling iron and blow dryer and hair spray to make my hair behave. There’s a part of me, when I get dressed every morning, that feels excited, exhilarated even, by the act of putting on these clothes, by making myself look the way I used to only dream I could look.