Monday, March 14, 2011

The Sears Catalog Incident and the Significance of Clothing

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

Clothing taught me that my family wasn't rich. Don't get me wrong - we weren't poor, and this isn't a self-pity post. Although I didn't have everything I wanted, I had everything I needed. As a way to reinforce the fact that I was not going to get everything I wanted, but that I was lucky anyway, my dad would say, “Don't have what you want - want what you have.”

But that's when I was older - when I already realized that we weren't rich. I made that discovery in junior high (what they now call middle school), an institution of cruelty and inhumanity located just this side of hell.  

When I was a kid, I didn't know the difference between a house that you rented and a house that you bought. I didn't know the difference between a “new” used car and a new car. And I especially didn't know the difference between clothes ordered from Sears catalog and clothes purchased off the rack at a trendy boutique - and that was my downfall.
In seventh grade, I had a new dress. I loved my new dress. It was styled like a man's shirt, and it had splashy vertical stripes of orange and yellow and white running its length (this was the sixties - give me a break). I wore my new dress to school, as proud and cool as anyone could be. 

And then one of the popular girls, who would generally not have spoken to me unless I was in her way at the drinking fountain, came over to me at lunch and said, “Cute dress. Where'd you get it?”

And I, feeling for some inexplicable reason as if she actually meant it and maybe wanted to get one for herself, said, “Sears catalog.”

She smiled and nodded and said, “Oh.” Then she sped across the cafeteria and whispered something in another girl's ear. That girl leaned her head back and laughed out loud with such force that everyone in that noisy cafeteria could hear - including me. 

That night, confused, I went home and told my mom what had happened. And she groaned and said, “Don't ever tell anyone you got something from Sears catalog.” So I never did again.

It eventually became trendy for kids to shop at Goodwill - but it was only trendy for those who didn't have to. I didn't have to, either, and could have been trendy by doing it, but the “Sears catalog incident” dampened my desire for anything that couldn't be purchased at the mall. 

This became problematic when I transitioned from female to male. I still had no real money to speak of, and I had no idea where to buy my clothes, what to buy, or even what my “personal style” might be. 

I finally figured it all out, and it came to be a combination of what I could find at thrift stores (ask Renee about this one), the mall, and catalogs (which are now online and don't seem to have any “shame” associated with them).

I don't wear ties. I don't wear a lot of things that “men” are supposed to wear, and I use being trans as an excuse not to have to. But I shouldn't need an excuse. What I cover my body with should be no one's business but my own. 

The problem is that it's everyone's business. Clothing signifies so many things in our culture - class, gender, age, station in life, level of “success,” and personal style. 

Personal style is the only one that really has any significance, and unfortunately, it's the one that many of us are willing to sacrifice in order to mirror what our culture values on the rest of the list. 

Clothes don't really make the man (or the woman). When used properly, they reflect the man or the woman inside - not what's important to the culture, but what's important to the individual. 

And it doesn't matter where they came from or what they're made of. What matters is what the person underneath them is made of.