Back in the late 70s, when I was but a wee small slip of a thing, back when trappers were keepers and stickers were puffy, fashion was very…iffy. Choices were made. Choices which would color entire lives, color them in a pale avocado-and-goldenrod shade of regret. I made my share of these questionable choices.
One year, I had set my sights on being a wizard for Halloween. I was going through some sort of rebellious/A Fascination With The Occult Is As Good As A Personality phase and had just convinced my mother to buy me a staff at the local Renaissance Festival. It had a carved wooden unicorn head on it.
Even then, there were signs…
In my search for ultimate fashion power, I enlisted the help of my mother’s friend Rick. Rick, half of Rick and Bob, a long-term gay couple that I imprinted on in terms of what a relationship should be (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to judge what effect this had on my own sexual development), not only encouraged my interest in all things spiritual, but was also a fantastic sewer. Rick, my mother and I spent a memorable afternoon at Hancock fabric shop, with Rick opening various women’s dress patterns and trying to piece together a pattern for a robe/gown for a boy and a cloak with a hood while my mother chain smoked and said things like, “What about the velour? Velour is nice. You’ll like it and it’ll be warm.” It really wasn’t, but I think she felt that she had to throw in the “warm” to fulfill some sort of normal parental responsibility. The shop assistants kept hovering nervously by the cutting boards, glancing furtively at us and then muttering to one another. One eventually approached us and asked my mother in a fluttering voice, “Can I help you find anything?” while trying to simultaneously smile and understand why this was happening to her. My mother blew smoke in her face and replied, “Fuck if I know, cupcake, ask him.”
Now that the associates were properly scandalized, we purchased several patterns as well as volumes of some black shimmery thing (I think it was satin, but it was much more stiff than I think satin should have been. Still, times were different then), midnight blue velour and red cord for a belt. Rick offered up his living room and we, and by we, I mean he, as I played on the computer while my mother chain smoked, created the costume. At the end of the day, it really wasn’t all that spectacular. The suspicious-satin was far to stiff and the velour was more impressive in the bolt than once it was made into a cloak, but after I put some puffy stickers on it (special stickers I had to get from New York because they were filled with some sort of liquid iridescent goo), the cloak became my favorite thing of the moment.
Halloween that year was cold and wet and I, tromping around in my cloak and robe and these weird boiled leather boots my mother bizarrely had just lying around (much like she had the fringed leather jerkin and green tights she set me up with for my second grade talent show where I looked like a demented leather boy Kermit the Frog, choking out “Greensleves” a capella because my tape broke seconds after I went out on stage) got thoroughly soaked and should have been miserable, but was so in love with that damn cloak that it made no difference. Plus, I was SURE I was better dressed than my friend Lane who went with us that year in a store bought costume.
“What are you, dear?”
“I’m a wizard. You can tell on account of the knotting of my red cord belt. Also, I have a staff. It has a unicorn. Surrender the candy.”
“Oh, I”m sorry dear, but we don’t give out candy. Here, have a nice comic book about your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus Christ, lady, it’s Halloween, and you’re giving my son tracts? What the hell is wrong with you? *targeted puff of smoke blown into the neighbors house* Give him some friggin candy!”
“Yes! Surrender the candy, mortal, lest I curse you or possibly shoot a fireball at you!”
“I’m sorry, we only have the Good Word here.”
“Lady, the only Good Words these kids are interested in tonight start with Milky and end with Way. So if you don’t have any, you can wipe your ass with you tract.”
“NO CANDY!?! HULK SMASH!”
“Shut up, Lane.”
Halloween passed, but my love of that cloak persisted. So much so that I began wearing it everywhere. To the mall for Christmas Shopping. To school because why not? To church.
I think it was probably that last one that set my grandmother off. She was not amused, having her grandchild show up for the lord looking like something out of a gothic horror novel. Up to that point, my mother hadn’t cared much one way or the other, but when she realized that this could be another battlefront in the never-ending war of passive-aggression that she and my grandmother were locked in, suddenly the cloak became a rallying cry. It got so bad that, if I was going to try and wear the cloak, I knew to put it on fifteen minutes early so that my mother and grandmother could duke it out and we wouldn’t be late to wherever it was we were headed. Even then, I was a punctual child.
“John, you may not wear that outside. We are going to a restaurant and that is not appropriate.”
“John, yes you MAY wear your cloak if you want to and I will thank you, Mother, to stop dictating how I raise my child. I want him to feel free to be who he wants to be.”
“If by who he wants to be you mean beaten up in school and teased by all the other kids, then well done.”
“*puff of smoke blown directly into Grandmother’s face*You don’t get it. Things are different. Who in this day and age is going to beat up Liberace or Doug Henning?”
“*small cough* I am not sure if your examples are helping your case or proving mine.”
Adult emotions were scary to me, so I tended to ignore these conversations and their under the radar hostility. I hadn’t received any guff from kids at school. The ones who were going to pick on me were going to do that anyway. Wearing a cloak wasn’t going to make any difference in that. In some ways, it helped because it drew others to me and increased my circle of friends. I wasn’t lacking in them before, though, so while they also thought I was flying my freak flag high, I really wasn’t and in some ways sort of resented them trying to make it into something it wasn’t. Ultimately, I didn’t care one way or the other, really, if I wore the cloak as it didn’t really affect my life. So while my mother and grandmother fought their 30 year war, I just played video games until someone scored a victory or gave up and then either wore the cloak or didn’t.
It became a very sore point between my mother and grandmother, that cloak. The resentment and hostility simmered and burbled for years after it had become a mess of threadbare velour (that shit sheds like you wouldn’t believe) and popped seams. I moved on rather quickly, begging my aunt for this weird Member’s Only type jacket with a tan body and white sleeves because I had just seen Empire Strikes Back and this jacket seemed like something Luke Skywalker would wear and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to be among the best dressed Jedi on Ice Planet Hoth. I had abandoned this supposed statement because, really, it was just a passing thing and that’s what childhood is all about.
“John, don’t you want to wear your cloak to church this morning?”
“*smug look of self satisfaction*John, put on your space trek jacket like a good judo so you don’t miss Sunday School.”
I don’t think my mother has ever forgiven me for that. In her mind, my lack of interest in the cloak was me going all Benedict Arnold on her West Point. I had sided with my grandmother even when I wasn’t really conscious of the decision. My fashion choices, and, really, myself, were little more than an extension of my mother’s relationship with her mother.
All this came back to me while I was reading the article “What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear A Dress?” in the Times last week.
Yes, I haven’t been in New York for years, but like a native I still call it the Times. Pretension endures almost well as ignorance.
It’s a fascinating article about gender roles and variance. What struck me, though, was the degree with which parents were imbuing the actions of their children with their own baggage. It’s not like that’s anything new, mind you. In a roundabout way, Kelsey Grammar’s entire career is based on the fact that children sometimes become extensions of their parent’s own insecurities and then someone has to go fix that.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to see it being approached from the other side. Instead of parents bemoaning the fact that their children are doing things in a non-stereotypical way, they’re trying to provide their children a safe and nurturing space, while being very guarded about their fates; saying their children’s gender expressions are nothing to worry about while at the same time hiding their identities, changing schools and churches and possibly sometimes sending a message exactly opposite of the one they want.
Young children make choices for all sorts of reasons, but to attribute meaning to those choices is something adults do. They add subtext and intent that makes no sense to a kid who thinks puffy stickers are going to adhere to velour in the rain.
So I don’t really know what’s so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress or a girl who wants to play with guns or a boy who wears a cloak to the mall to see Santa. Probably nothing. But before I judge the outfit, I would need to see what’s going on underneath. I would need to see the shoes.