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How Fashion Helped Me Explore My Gender Identity

by Phoenix Atkinson

In lockdown, my hair grew out - as hair often does. It had grown from a tight (but slightly bland) short back and sides to a rather glorious and simultaneously rather awful semi-mullet. Imagine Billy Ray Cyrus with an attempt at Joan Jett. It had been dyed so much that you could almost feel the strands screaming for a decent shampoo, condition and cut, and, by the end, it was reaching my shoulders. One of my mates had said recently that I had “looked like a non-bald Bill Bailey”. The absolute goal!

It’s an uninteresting story, as most of mine are - unless you know the context. Hair grows when you can’t get a trim, big deal. But there was something in the way it made me feel that I want to talk about.

I had been out as trans-masculine for a few years at this point, and I was happier than I had ever been, but there was still something wrong. I felt like I had to conform to the masculinity I was taught. Bland clothes, bare face, short hair. I was still stuck on what everyone’s view of me was. 

I wanted to be the ‘perfect trans’, whoever the hell that is. I wanted to be the ‘ideal’ of masculinity, whatever the hell that is. I wanted to fit in, whatever the hell that meant. 

So I hid all my emotions and wore the same three hoodies, the same three t-shirts, and the same three pairs of jeans. My wardrobe was a never-ending barrage of stone grey and obsidian blacks, maybe a band tee in the middle of it somewhere if I was feeling outrageous. I stopped wearing makeup, stopped doing ‘unmanly’ things, and stopped looking in the mirror. And when I did, the guy looking back at me was more me than it had been, but yet still someone else.

Then the lockdowns hit. And it hit me like a freight train going through cardboard. My hair grew out, I hated it, then it kept growing, and I started to love it. It was red (as it is now), long, and was in severe need of a cut.

Then time passed and I found some old makeup. I had never had so much fun. My eyes were becoming canvases for blushes and sharp lines, my cheeks were drawn on with lip tint, and my lips were in a genuine smile for the first time.

Once the lockdowns lifted, I still didn’t cut my hair. Despite desperately needing it, I liked it too much. I also kept wearing makeup. 

When I first got called ‘they’, it was me. I finally changed my wardrobe. Skirts were in. Jeans were in. I was mixing everything I liked and I was so happy. I wasn’t a ‘boy wearing a skirt’. I wasn’t a ‘girl wearing jeans’. I was an ungendered enigma in the clothes I loved.

The best part was: I didn’t care what people thought. Still don’t, why bother? I was what I wanted to be. I still am. I don’t regret the number of bad haircuts, dodgy clothes, and the person I came to be. Again, why bother? I’m still trans, whether I’m in a bare face and skirts, or eyeliner and trousers. I’m still me. Just so much happier now that I’m wearing what I love. 

I realised that fashion is important, at least to me. I became obsessed with Vivienne Westwood, charity shops, and finding my own wardrobe. I found an ADER FW20 button-up shirt (8 pounds!) and a perfect pair of black Levi’s (4 quid, charity shops are heroes!). 

I figured out a fashion philosophy. It’s not Camus, but it works well for me. 

This is it: fashion isn’t gendered. 

Nothing is. My philosophy is that you should wear whatever makes you feel brilliantly, outrageously you. It’s not world-altering, Jonathan Livingston Seagull probably has a deeper view on individuality than this, but it works for me. I’ve taken it into everything I do. Find what you love, and go for it. Wear what makes you feel the most ‘you’. Do what makes you feel the most ‘you’. Why not?

That’s what fashion should be. It should make you, the wearer, feel how you want to feel. If you feel your best in three-piece suits, then wear them. If you feel your best in jeans and hoodies, then wear them. If you feel your best in a swimsuit made of safety pins and chainmail, guess what, wear it!

Now, I’m taking that philosophy into my life. I’m doing the things I love. Maybe my wardrobe change was an extended trial. After all, I like what I’m wearing now, so why not like what I’m doing?

The weird thing is: it works! I feel alright these days. I definitely care less about what other people think. I definitely feel better. I like myself more and more every single day. I’m not perfect, but at least I’m okay with it now.

And I’m still obsessed with Vivienne Westwood, by the way. Hopefully, I always will be. Or, at least, until I can afford a Westwood corset. Let’s be honest, in this economy, it’ll be forever before that happens.

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