When I came out as queer, my sense of style changed dramatically. Not just the individual pieces, but also the way I bought them, wore them, and presented my sexuality in them. Before coming out, I associated queerness with something to hide, so I wore clothes fit for that purpose. Straight cuts with dark colours and little flair were my comfort. But once I’d embraced my identity and discovered queer fashion icons and art communities, I began to sport bold shades. I became attracted to loud prints and interesting shapes. Take it from someone who only used fashion as armour to conceal my body before owning my queerness: Clothes are a declaration of the self. A statement of identity I went from burying to wearing proudly.
I am not alone in feeling this way. “Clothes have been an integral part of my queer awakening,” Ben Pechey, a non-binary fashion critic, tells Refinery29. “They are the conduit of how I identify, bolstering me against the outside world. I find this comforting when navigating a world that rarely understands queer people.”
Perhaps making up for lost years in the proverbial closet — when I bought plain, figure-concealing pieces I told myself were “fat-hiding” and “straight-passing” from the high street — I’m a much more considerate consumer now, while also being experimental and unafraid with my style. When I shop, I deliberate. I ask myself if the pieces belong in my wardrobe, or on me. The words, “Do you have this in black?” rarely leave my mouth anymore. I want the exaggerated. The extravagant. The tongue-in-cheek. There’s no better way to summon my own strength than by wearing camp clothing. When you’ve been through struggles with identity, it seems all the more important to present yourself in a way that feels celebratory.
In a research article titled “Clothes Maketh the Queer? Dress, Appearance, and the Construction of [LGBTQ+] Identities,” fashion and identity academic Victoria Clarke writes, “Dress and appearance constitute a primary way of creating a sense of identity and community, separate from the dominant culture, resisting normative, gendered expectations.” This describes the empowerment I feel from wearing camp clothing perfectly.
And, when you’re plus-size like me, dressing in a way that feels representative of your identity becomes even more difficult.
The rise of fat positivity in the last few years has ensured a long-needed boom in plus-size clothing production. According to research by Statista, the US plus-size apparel market was estimated to be worth $9.8 billion (£7.3bn) as of 2019, up from $9.7 billion (£7.1bn) the year before. It is now outperforming the rest of the fashion industry. More and more brands are signing up to offer the diversity we deserve. However, most plus-size options still seriously lack style variety — unless shapeless sacks with butterfly prints are your thing. Additionally, pieces that represent the uniqueness of being a queer person are few and far between, and that’s why many queer fashion lovers have been taking the matter into their own hands and turning to queer-run clothing swaps.
Back in 2015, I was invited to a queer-run charity clothes swap. As a plus-size shopper who has worn shapeless black clothes for most of my life — partly because of the lack of options, partly because I was still wearing a lot of black — I attended to show support but carried little hope for what I would come away with. At the time, I was part of a vibrant gay community, surrounded by camp fashion often acquired on the high street — something I felt left out of due to my larger size. Yet, at my first-ever clothes swap, where communities (typically local) swap their pre-loved clothes for the pre-loved items of other attendees, I found myself pleasantly surprised.
The sense of freedom felt at this clothing swap is hard to replicate in any other fashion space. The simplicity of browsing garments, free of judgment and anxiety, is something no plus-size, queer person takes for granted. This swap shop was specifically run by fat, LGBTQ+ folk, the kind of fashion event I didn’t know existed. (Since then, I have found more.) When you try on clothes in a store, everything works against you, from the price tag to the awkwardly-placed, confrontational mirrors. But at a clothes swap, you’re surrounded by other fat, queer people in the same position as you — you’re just a bunch of people building wardrobes together. The free element of clothing swaps also means freedom, as the lack of cash involved meant I could be more experimental. When you have nothing to lose, you can be brave with your outfit selection.
For the first time, my size and sexual orientation didn’t matter when shopping for clothes, an invaluable experience that changed my outlook on fashion. I left with an overflowing bin bag stuffed with new clothes, including a zebra-print oversized dad shirt, a pair of not-so-sensible heels, and a glittered mesh T-shirt, pieces I never thought my body would wear.
Katrin, a plus-size queer designer, runs clothing swaps in Edinburgh. Like me, Katrin found the joy of swapping clothes with other fat girls to be an experience that changed not only her wardrobe but her entire outlook on fashion. Like many plus-size women, she grew up feeling jealous of thin friends who would lend pieces to each other for night’s out, and it wasn’t until university that she found a plus-size friend to do this with. “For the first time, I experienced looking through someone else’s closet for outfits. It felt amazing to share that with someone,” she says.
Discovering the joy that clothes swaps bring, Katrin began organising private swaps in her community. “I realised that other people could probably benefit from clothes swaps the way I have, so I set up a Facebook group and began organising larger events for queer, plus-size people.” Prior to the pandemic, the group-run event met up regularly to browse each other’s pieces and trade.
After experiencing the diversity of items and the vibrant community spirit, Katrin rarely shops new now. She also notes the environmental benefits: “In a world of fast fashion, it’s great to be able to give pieces a second or third home. It’s also very budget-friendly, an exciting way to receive new clothes without paying for them.”
TJ, a queer artist from Belfast, seconds the latter, calling clothing swaps "a space where you find something you have wanted, or to try on an item you might normally find inaccessible." Having attended other plus-size focused, queer-run clothes swaps over the years, TJ found them a safe solution to style exploration without the fear of financial commitment.
Part of TJ's love for clothes swaps comes from their non-binary identity. "A huge part of my gender expression is tied to the clothing I wear as a non-binary person. Clothes have a massive impact on my confidence," TJ shares. "I wanted to create something that would allow others to play and explore and discover what makes them feel the most at home in their own bodies." More recently, TJ wanted to help those who've been affected by COVID-19, providing affordable clothing and a source of community-driven entertainment, by launching a socially distanced clothes swap event within their art collective, the 343.
Since then, they have organised safe and secure drop-off and pick-up days. After the drop-off, clothes are left untouched for a few weeks and then the bags and surfaces are cleaned before being transferred to an unused area. Moving forward, they'll be photographing items and publishing them online, and then responding to people's claims for them.
TJ doesn't expect the usual process for clothes swaps will resume until 2021. As such, they will continue to adapt the swap according to the government guidelines throughout the pandemic. However, they believe the spirit still carries. "For a year that has been so isolating and lonely, the queers around me still strive to keep our community supportive," TJ shares. "The community closet clothes swap is only an extension of that."