By Martin J. Smith
I hit puberty at age 13. Things were changing for me. My voice, my face (hello, acne!), my shoulders were getting broader, and everywhere I looked I saw… guys?
“Hold on a second! I can’t like guys! It’s natural for a guy to like girls! And unnatural to like guys! Hey! To get my mind off of it, I’m going to watch TV. My brother has cable in his room. And he’s not using it, for he’s interning in California, I’m going to watch some movies late at night and- what’s this? Passion Cove… TV-MA? What’s that- OMG!!! They’re naked! And having sex! But… where’s the dick?”
This was what happened that summer. Ever since then, I was uncomfortable in my own skin, more so in high school because it was all-boys’ Catholic high school. So I literally saw guys everywhere. My parents told me what to wear. The school hoodie, these polo shirts, those button ups. The majority of my wardrobe was handpicked for me. That is until I went to visit my sister at Harvard when I was, I want to say, 16?
I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was cold, raining, wind was blowing. My mom, dad, and I walk into the Urban Outfitters, and there was a huge clearance section on the basement floor. The big circular racks were labeled with sizes. At the time, I had a small frame, but I enjoyed wearing clothes slightly bigger than me. And, I saw it: a white button up, pairs of pink stripes widely spaced out, silver embroidery between the pink stripes. And the label said Ben Sherman. Price tag? $30, marked down from $60. I tried the shirt on, and I felt like I was a king wearing his royal robes. A knight in his armor. A soldier in his uniform.
I felt like Sweeney Todd when he find his razors, saying, “At last! My right arm is complete again.” This time, though it wasn’t my right arm. It was my entire body. The endless possibilities of what to wear. Where to get them. I didn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.
I didn’t want the shirt… I NEEDED the shirt. After much convincing, my mom bought me the shirt. Because my mom didn’t want me to be gay, she thought the shirt looked a little gay. But the cashier said she bought her boyfriend Ben Sherman shirts all the time. I became more judicious in choosing my clothes. Screw price tags. It was how good I looked in them.
In high school, we didn’t have a uniform. We had a dress code. And the dress code was wear pants that were not jeans, and collared shirts. So I got to wear the Ben Sherman shirt, and many other shirts. The combinations of clothes I could use from my own personal closet.
No! Not closet. It wasn’t just a closet. It became my armory. From that point on, to this day, with every look, I slay! I became more adventurous with my clothes.
Every morning, when I wake up, I open my closet door. With a decision made the night before, I choose my look for the day. Depending on the weather, I decide to wear a button up shirt, a turtleneck, a long sleeved shirt, or even just a sweatshirt. Or, in summer, I choose from a variety of tank tops, a t-shirt, a short-sleeved button up. I usually wear a pair of jeans, bright colored pants, or a dark pair of slacks. However, I do have my share of shorts, an array of golf, cargo, and jean shorts.
While I was working at Joseph A. Bank (stylized as Jos. A. Bank) in Houston, Texas, I was asked to wear a coat and tie. Luckily, I own slacks and blazers and button up shirts, and ties for days.
Jos. A. Bank caters to the businessman: suits, dress shirts, ties, blazers. Very conservative. And this in Houston, so we're talking conservative customers who are CEOs, athletes, oil men.
However, I don't wear conservative shirts. I don't wear conservative ties. I don't even wear conservative blazers. I own them, but they're not my favorite.
One of my favorite shirts is this Ben Sherman paisley shirt I bought from Beacon's Closet in Brooklyn. It is loud, colorful, not conservative at all. And I wore it with pride while working at Jos. A. Bank. I had two assistant managers, Steve and Frank. Frank wasn't too amused by the shirt. Steve defended how I dress. He was a little adventurous with his fashion choices. And he thought I continued where he left off with how we dress.
Bitch, please! I was 24, he was, I want to say, in his mid-40's? Doesn't matter. He was twice my age, give or take 5 years. And I did not continue where he left off. Because where he was and where I was were very far apart.
I own button ups, t-shirts, tank tops, shorts, jeans, slacks, sweaters, turtlenecks, sweatshirts, and jackets galore. Plus a variety of shoes, a few suits, and a tuxedo.
My wardrobe, my closet, my armory has grown over the past 10 years, maybe even more than that.
Each article of clothing has a purpose. Some are more blatant to show I'm gay, others are meant to show my more serious side. But they are all me. I own sports shirts. Shirts from Broadway productions. I even sometimes take a shirt I own and make it my own by cutting off the sleeves and adding glitter to it.
I also suffer from body dysmorphia. I use clothes to mask my physique. Being a gay man with a twink body, especially in Los Angeles, I feel my body isn't adequate enough for the muscle hunks. So, I dress for people to look at me, to get noticed. I wear clothes that help me stand out in the crowd. Bright jackets, extra small shirts to make me seem muscular, tight patterned jeans and pants. I want to be noticed. I want to be seen. And I am.
I wear clothes from the 70s and 60s. Vintage and thrift store finds are what make up the majority of my wardrobe. I'm not exactly the wealthiest person in the world, but I do my best to look it. I don't wear couture or the latest clothes off the Milan runway, but I have finds. A lot of my clothes are Ben Sherman, found in Beacon's Closet in Brooklyn or Crossroads in Los Angeles, plus the local TJ Maxx and Marshall's.
Underneath those clothes, is an insecure skinny gay man who doesn't see his self-worth. A feeling I’ve had since I was 13. I dress to impress myself. And I impress myself every day. I mix patterns. I mix colors. I buy clothes I wouldn't normally wear because I know, somehow, I can make it work.
I once wore patterned swim trunks with a black and white horizontal tank top and a blue and white floral silk button up. And I made it work.
The rules of fashion don't apply to me. I redefine them on a daily basis. There are days I can walk through West Hollywood wearing a blue pinstripe suit. Others, I will walk in Trader Joe’s at 6PM wearing my pajamas.
Fashion is what you make of it. Fashion is individualistic. Fashion is you.