Style is a kind of speech. Long before I open my (loud) mouth, my physicality speaks volumes. So much of this is outside of my control, with much being dictated to the viewer by thousands of micro messages transmitted down the years. My Blackness reads mammy and savage. My fatness reads misery and gluttony. My clothes sit alongside these, allowing me to speak for myself.
So I dress deliberately, to communicate who I am and what matters to me. Each outfit is carefully coordinated and charmingly understated because I am my mother’s child. She spent years teaching me the value of putting my best foot forwards. I look femme because queer femininity matters to me because the creativity and warmth and humour and care that characterise my femininity matters to me. I embrace tailoring because I grew up on period dramas, and part of me wants to be a mixture of Hercule Poirot and Mr. Darcy.
I am not, however, so naive as to think my motivations are pure; I have absorbed the same oppressive messages as everyone else. I know that each outfit is also driven by a desire to be one of the Good Ones, to be admitted – however conditionally – into spaces that dole out social power and economic security (I am an accountant, after all). A black blouse and pencil skirt read professional, dependable, unassuming. They tell my employer, coworkers, and clients that I am a serious person who can safely handle whatever work I am given. My femininity makes my queerness less immediately apparent to the casual onlooker, especially when I’m single. My tasteful nude lip and sharply winged liner puts non-queer people at ease, lets them assume I pose no threat to their social order and spares me some violence in the process. My suits – from the grey cotton to the orange polyester to the purple velvet – mark class. They allow me to entertain a fantasy that maybe I can partake in some small part of the status enjoyed by men like Poirot and Darcy. If my white shirt is crisp and my trousers pressed, perhaps I will feel a little less powerless.
Sometimes I wish I were more comfortable being underdressed, and I often fantasise about being more masculine, but so much of my livelihood depends on making thin white people comfortable. So much of who I am has been constructed around making thin white people comfortable. It’s useful and it’s exhausting and I wish I didn’t (need to) do it. Even if I stopped, unpicking the damage done by a childhood/adolescence spent surrounded by white people is a lifetime of work.
Back in March, the pandemic forced the world into lockdown. For the first time in my (admittedly short) working life, I was working from home. To maintain some semblance of structure and normality, I dressed every morning as though I was going into the office: in drab blacks and muted blues. Every morning, I caught my reflection in my dining room mirror and something inside me – something small and peripheral but sensitive – broke. There I was, sat alone in my own home, and still, I let my appearance be dictated by the tastes of people I neither like, respect nor even see. So I started going to work in pyjamas instead; I wasn’t seeing anyone so why get dressed at all? I expected it to be freeing, but it made things so much worse. The previously neat division of work-me and normal-me broke down, with panic around deadlines and client meetings invading every moment of the day and night. By the 5th late night anxiety attack, I knew something had to change. I couldn’t end the pandemic, or make my job less stressful, or guarantee my family’s health, but I could get dressed. It was small, but that tiny scrap of control made the loss of my other coping mechanisms – theatre, live poetry, cafes – bearable.
Somehow, in the process of analysing how much of my look is shaped by whiteness and thinness, I had forgotten how much I love clothing for its own sake. Despite workwear limitations, my wardrobe is curated such that I have outfits for almost any occasion: in tones muted enough for the office and prints bright enough for a Nigerian wedding. I had forgotten that I always found small ways to stay myself, even in as oppressively corporate a sector as financial audit; my nails are longer than is strictly professional, my hair changes as often as I feel like and my earrings are as big and bold as I can get away with. Being out of the office gave me the room to listen to myself, away from the frozen smile of managers confused by a switch from box braids to kinky twists, and the barely disguised contempt of a client unwilling to respect a fat Black person. In my dining room and my kitchen and my bedroom, I could speak to myself, speak for myself in a way previously inaccessible to me. I wore the African prints previously saved for special occasions, the crop tops that otherwise terrified me. I got the undercut and purple box braids I’ve always wanted, bought the waistcoats and turtlenecks I long felt too fat/busty for and my lips are red or purple or nude depending on what takes my fancy.
My relationship with my style still isn’t pure. I still wonder if being perpetually overdressed is healthy and if my feminine presentation is more cowardice than celebration. But I don’t think purity is possible; expecting something as inarticulate as my clothing to perfectly reflect who I am is unrealistic. Expecting myself to know exactly who I am is unrealistic. Trying to find a sense of self to be precise or clearly defined or entirely divorced from the white/thin/male gaze is a fool’s errand. All I can do is keep growing, keep learning, keep trying to find myself both inside and outside of my wardrobe. My perception of myself may always be filtered through this deeply antiblack, biphobic and fatphobic society, but I can continue to fight for a sense of self-built more around freedom than acquiescence. This fight, with its ambivalence and complications, doesn’t make what I do now any less worthy. Something doesn’t need to be sure to be good. Style is, after all, a kind of speech: incomplete, imprecise and beautiful.