Today I noticed something: the stitching on the cuffs of a top I was wearing was coming loose. The top had been bought from a local charity shop (as are the majority of my clothes – I dislike high street shopping). It had been like new when I purchased it…or so I had thought until I noticed that thing today.
Yes, the stitching was coming undone; but what I noticed was that this was not the original stitching. The thread was the wrong colour. It was actually a little untidy and uneven, once visible. The previous owner of the garment had added stitching, in order to tidy away the rather frilly edges of the sleeves.
And it occurred to me: what was the previous owner’s motivation for doctoring the designer’s intended aesthetic? Did they not like the look of the frills? Or did the frills aggravate the person’s senses in a way that was so uncomfortable as to be unendurable?
Could it be, perchance, that my top’s previous owner was a fellow autistic?
I’ve always been fascinated by fashion. But it’s much more the fascination of the observer – I guess it’s an extension of the fascination I’ve always had with people.
From a very early age, I drew. Never landscapes, still life, or anything other than people. Usually just standing around in groups, interacting. Limited or no background scenery. Just the people. I’d attempt to replicate, in grey pencil, the gestures, expressions, postures and stances of the people I observed in real life. Perhaps it was a method of ‘social interaction analysis’. And the clothes they wore were always a big part of this.
Always a little too serious and ‘meta’ to really be into throwaway pop music as a child, I nevertheless used my pencils to try to reproduce album covers, stills from music videos, and so on (always greyscale; never in colour), and I think it was always the visual aesthetic that most interested me. I was fascinated by the crown-less ‘hat’ Kylie Minogue wore on the cover of her first album, her mass of permed blonde hair tumbling out and over the brim. Not a clothes thing, but another image that always captured my attention was the silhouette, against a blank, white background, of Morten Harket of a-ha singing into a studio microphone in the ‘Hunting High and Low’ video – another image I’d draw repeatedly from memory. But again, it was the stark, visual aesthetic that got me.
I studied closely. And there were times I adopted the looks of others. When I was ten, everyone was wearing brightly-coloured hooded t-shirts, hi-tops and dungarees. God knows, I struggled enough with friendships, so I wanted to wear the same. I never got the appeal of shell tracksuits (another garment popular at the time), though.
The tie-dyed, hippie/grunge hybrid look of early secondary school was again adopted in response to what everyone else seemed to be doing. We younger kids took our cues from those in the years above us. And all the while, I watched the much older girls. And at home in my room, I drew versions of them, in pencil. Fashionable, conversing, enjoying their interactions. Happy in their social groups.
And there were times when I didn’t ‘get it’. As a much younger child, I would wear my entire collection of brooches all at once, the motley assortment of metal jewellery covering, weighing down and distorting the shape of my sweater. Later on, it never occurred to me that wearing a Girl Guides sweatshirt much of the time was unacceptable. It really was a lovely shade of blue. And white socks? Apparently they weren’t cool either. No-one ever told me.
As time went on, I started to branch out. When everyone else got black DM boots, I asked my parents to get me bottle green ones. Slight variations on the norm really appealed to me. By the time the mid-90s arrived, band tshirts were my thing – always skinny fit; always the less prevalent designs – if lots of people appeared to have a certain band’s tshirt, I’d choose a design from their merchandise range that was a little more unusual. And the further I got through secondary school, the more it became apparent that I was never going to be cool, no matter what I did. And thus, the further I deviated from convention in what I wore.
I continued to read teenage girls’ magazines. Sugar. Just Seventeen. More. But I continued to be ‘meta’ about it; I never really bought into their diktat. I was an alien attempting to learn and adopt the culture of another species. Reading these magazines was more of an anthropological exercise than anything else.
And my fascination with fashion continued, even as I, myself, moved further and further away from it.
It amazes me now to think how much I’ve compromised over the years – especially when it comes to comfort. Vintage polyester was scratchy, unbreatheable, quick to snag. For a long time I was convinced that my ‘pear-shaped’ figure dictated that I should never wear trousers. So I have often endured skirts with tights, even though the feel of tights, at times, makes my skin crawl to the extent that I actually want to vomit, especially on very hot or very cold days. For a long time, I loved the semi-tailored, androgynous look of slim, long-sleeved shirts and skinny ties, despite how much I detested the feel of full-length fitted sleeves against my forearms (although loose sleeves are fine), and despite how impractical, in sweat terms, shirts are when one’s main mode of transport is brisk walking. The underarms were always the first part of the garment to suffer.
Fashion is often impractical. Beautiful at times, astoundingly so sometimes; but comfort isn’t fashion’s main raison d’être. It still fascinates me, however. Fabrics fascinate. Patterns fascinate. Colour combinations fascinate. Shapes and outlines fascinate. And the ways clothes are worn, by real people, fascinates.
But recently, I’ve found myself returning to high street shops. Perhaps it’s nostalgia – many of the ‘looks’ from my teenage years – my formative years – are fashionable once again. And some of them are actually comfortable. Skinny jeans, whilst tight, have a heaviness, and exert a certain degree of pleasant pressure on the skin, that leggings and tights do not. They look good with DM boots – another item that, to me, look amazing whilst also providing a wonderful amount of positive sensory input to my feet and ankles, hugging them tightly as I walk. There are tops of interesting, unusual shapes, many of which are loose under the arms. Practical. I still hate shopping. I always will. Shopping as a preferred pastime is baffling to me. But I’ve managed recently to find things that I like, and that fit.
And then I’m out of the shop and away.
And all of this combines well with heavy eye makeup. I have never been keen on full-face makeup. Foundation cloys, clogs and stifles my skin. Powder dries it. I can never escape the acute awareness that I have additional layers of matter on my skin. And I hate it. I want to claw it all off.
But eye makeup. I love it. I wore elaborate winged eyeliner throughout my teens and early 20s. For a while I gave up – the time, the effort, didn’t seem worth it. But now I feel like I have come home. Eyeliner – and lots of it – is part of how I express who I am.
These days, I am probably shopping ‘below my age’. Because I no longer care. I will wear what works for me. But I will no longer sacrifice comfort. Maybe my top’s previous owner wasn’t autistic. But maybe they were. Perhaps, just as I cut out clothing labels to remove the potential for that excruciating scratching feeling at the base of my neck, that person was adapting a garment to make it work for them. Make comfortable what was stylish.
This subject matter may seem frivolous and vacuous compared to that of other recent posts. But clothes are part of our identity; they’re part of how we express who we are to the rest of the world.
For some – especially women, and other marginalised groups – clothing can be intensely political. I don’t know, perhaps it is, instinctively, for me. But I don’t think I’m making a statement. I’m just wearing what I want to wear.
With a recent formal autism diagnosis, I wish to live authentically. And part of living authentically is dressing in a way that feels authentic to who I am.