Image: Illustration by Manelisi Dabata

When I was younger, there was one item in my father’s wardrobe that fascinated me endlessly. It was a Burberry trench coat in a buttery camel colour that my dad wore to work whenever it was cold or raining. It looked like the sort of coat Shaft would wear, if he were investigating crimes in swinging London instead of Manhattan. None of the other dads on the school run wore trench coats, and so he always cut a particularly distinctive swathe.

The coat fascinated me because, to my 10-year-old self, it was an introduction to personal style. It was a choice that suggested experience and consideration and know-how. Like the other glimpses into my dad’s sartorial self — Argyle fleeces, Italian leather-soled shoes — they were a picture of a wilful self-definition that suggested an unseen inner world. Having a signature fashion item — like Jackie O’s sunglasses or Hervé Renard’s white shirts — suggests that you’re switched on and interesting. Fashion is a way of letting people who don’t know you see something about your inner theatre.

Nothing I wore as a child conveyed any sense of an inner world. My clothes were curated by my mother and her value-driven eye for the sturdy and the stylelessly long-wearing. My choices were limited to the deeply unfashionable (naff jeans or bad corduroy?), when choice was presented at all. By the time I was finally able to choose my own clothing, I had developed a preference for items that I thought communicated novelty, but in retrospect probably made me look as though I’d gotten dressed in the dark, during a house fire.

I made some reprehensible choices. As a long-standing member of the portly community, I first tried hiding myself in tent-like golf shirts, which is how I learned that you shouldn’t wear golf shirts if you’re not planning to play golf. I attempted bright trousers and chunky takkies and statement T-shirts, and a hat I thought was pretty snazzy until a friend gently pointed out that I looked like the NikNaks man.

None of it helped at all in alleviating the constant terror that the outside world was looking at me and making pronouncements about my ability to dress myself, and what it said about me and who I was in the world. What it said was, “There goes a stress eater who can’t decide who he wants to be.”

Teaching at a university for most of my adult life hasn’t helped. Working in a moving street-culture gallery will make you aware of yourself as an artless person in the world far more brutally than you may be prepared for. The most readily notable thing you’ll witness on any university campus today is that fashion is an interpretive art form based on the concept of appearing unintentionally stylish. It’s a world away from anything you see on the catwalks, and it melds glam and kitsch, presented without any irony. Irony is passe. The ignominy of being a fashion pariah is never felt more keenly than when you’re in the midst of a civic parade of the young in their Hospice Shop-sourced crushed-velvet jackets and fishnet vests and other items curated and combined in ways you never thought possible.

I do like having a unique fabric item that generates feelings that anchor me to the world in a positive manner.

Mainstream fashion has been desperately trying to get a handle on this for the past decade. US art collective MSCHF’s cartoonish rubber boots aren’t boundary-pushing: they’re just taking up the anything-goes zeitgeist you see on the streets of any metropol.

You can’t predict what will get flung out of time’s centrifuge anymore. This year, socks are happily sliding into sandals. Hawaiian shirts are knotting above bared midriffs or tucking into jeans in the same style your mother wore in 1993. Speaking of jeans, double denim is apparently something to be embraced now. Everybody looks like they’re on the set of In Living Color. No doubt, someone somewhere is plotting to get ahead of the curve by unveiling a dramatic Dynasty-style shoulder-padded ensemble.

To an outsider, the rules of the game are not immediately clear. That’s partly because there are no rules, really. The current aesthetic is all about doing away with hard-and-fasts and replacing them with you-do-yous. “Cool”, that elusive quality, now harbours in whatever you want it to be. Whether your style palate references Steve Urkel or Stevie Nicks, you’re doing okay. The fiction of empirical authenticity is the salient aesthetic among the young, and it’s refreshing to see.

When I was younger, everyone was interested in performing their originality — a bit of a fool’s errand in a sea of humanity. Now, the thrust is more towards expressing your readiness to embrace the provisional, the contradiction, the slash in the either/or. Nothing is perhaps more reflective of our current age of overlapping crises than the people who are tearing up the lookbook.

In the wake of the shifts that have defined this strange new decade, it’s been fascinating to see how the fashion scene is one where everyone is free to invest their own sense of importance. Perversely, this hasn’t done much for my anxiety around finding my own signature look. In my thirties, my wardrobe is more fashion-weak than Fashion Week, my colourways are accidental, my silhouettes are dishevelled, and my fits are mostly washed-on-the-wrong-cycle.

I buy shoes according to what fits, and the other people in the New Balance store look like they’re on their second or third pair of hips. Nothing I buy “unlocks timeless elegance” or is a “must-have”. I’ve had to accept that I will always be a shoddy adherent to the world of fashion. I no longer click on articles imploring me to seek out “The Only Overcoat You’ll Really Ever Need”. I just have clothes. In some senses, it’s wonderful that we’re in a consumer moment capacious enough to accommodate thrifted moon bags and Loro Piana sweaters woven from the wool of cute creatures you’ll only ever meet in the Andes.

But you still have to choose, and it’s the choosing that defeats me. Or, at least, it did, until I found my style statement, the perfect garment to express who I think I’m meant to be. I was rifling the racks when I found them. Or rather, they found me. White-and-blue striped linen pants, in a flattering cut and length. They seemed to leap off the rack and into my hands. The moment I saw them, I knew they would be leaving with me. I didn’t deliberate, because they whispered something to my soul, something about how others would see me and how I would see myself when I wore them. They fitted like they were destined to be mine. They fitted like I would be seen and understood.

I don’t intend to become someone who wears linen pants everywhere I go. But I do like having a unique fabric item that generates feelings that anchor me to the world in a positive manner. They feel like my entryway into the realm of those who can choose. I look at them and I think, “I picked those.”

 From the April edition of Wanted, 2023.

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