The theme was ‘60s; my costume was gaudy. Wearing a floral shirt, long white flares, and an extravagant amount of glitter, I spent the night dancing with friends. Lighting up my nails was a sloppily-painted mix of dayglo yellow and fluorescent pink. My glasses? Rose-tinted, of course.
Looking back this was a night that changed my relationship with fashion. Despite the meeting of an unfortunately-angled blue VK and my newly-bought flares, I did not learn to avoid white when clubbing – that lesson would come later, and far less sweetly. Nor did I learn that there was such a thing as too much glitter (if only!). Instead, I began to recognise the power of fashion to disturb and challenge.
Walking home after the night out, despite the relative warmth of the evening, I found myself wrapping my jacket tight around my body and plunging my hands deep into my pockets. I was trying to hide what I was wearing.
As a gay man I was acutely aware that how I presented myself could draw unwanted, and sometimes frightening, attention. In the past I had been singled out and pushed around for wearing earrings and had, more than once, been openly mocked for wearing make-up. It repeatedly felt as if what I was wearing, how I was presenting myself to the world, was some kind of provocation – an open invitation for violence against me.
The next day, having spent the morning scouring the glitter off my face, I couldn’t wait to get to the shops to buy some nail polish remover. I hoped that once I took my nail polish off I might be able to shake the anxious feeling that had been following me since leaving the club.
But, as I walked around town after buying the bottle of acetone, on the hunt for a much-needed coffee, I noticed something: no one was looking at me, at least not any more than usual. The fear that I was being watched and judged for wearing nail polish was mostly in my head. The more I looked for disdain or disgust from those around me, the less I found it. I came to realise that nobody really cared about what I was wearing.
In the past I had only dared to wear anything that could be seen as ‘queer’ on a night out, finding comfort in the blur of lights and alcohol in clubs and bars. This was my first time wearing something daring – by my standards, at least – in public. And it felt liberating.
For a long time, I had struggled to give my identity voice in a way that was meaningful outside of clubbing, but these garish nails felt like an opportunity to do just that. They gave me a way to confront the shame that I was feeling about myself, slowly letting it disintegrate in the cold light of day.
Since that night, fashion has become a tool to confront and challenge how I am feeling on the inside. It has empowered me to feel more confident in who I am, and to be more accepting of how others choose to present themselves. Wearing make-up, or painting my nails, or wearing feminine clothes has become a way of reaching a place where I can feel distinctly me.