The Clothes We Couldn't Wear Until We "Came Out"

Take it from someone who's known they were gay since birth: Clothing is a manifesto. It's a mission statement, a mood, a public declaration of self and intent. For some, fashion is a means of definition; for others, it's a small part of a very big, colorful picture. No other time than during Pride month will you see the connection between fashion and identity so coherent (and multicolored). But, as anyone whose had to come out can tell you, it hasn't always been that way.
There's this idea that fashion can act as an armor, a shield that protects us from outside judgment and misinterpretation. And it does. But depending where you are, it can act as a marker, too; an "outing" tool, so to speak, in areas where flamboyance and full expression of personal style aren't as accepted or encouraged. It's part of why LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group. And the statistics for transgender people, especially of color, are worse.
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In the slideshow ahead, we asked members of the gay community to tell us stories about an item of clothing they couldn't wear until they came out — for fear of being outed or ridiculed for dressing "too gay." Coming out is the first step to living one's truth, much as the act of getting dressed in the morning and having the courage to walk out of the door as you are can be, too. At least, that's the fantasy that fashion can provide to self-discovery that, in harsher conditions, may not manifest as easily as we want it to. But when it does come to fruition, it holds a lot of power — a power that allows you to live exactly the way you were born to.
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the insideand the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.
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Ripped Jeans
"Back in high school (2011-2014), distressed jeans were the telltale sign that you were gay. It was deemed as feminine and 'suspect' whenever men wore them, especially in the Black community. If it wasn’t baggy and loose-fitted, you were deemed as a DL queen. I didn’t start wearing ripped jeans until I got to college, and that’s when I officially came out. My dad was like 'Why you wearing those?! You know I don’t like them — (hidden smack of homophobia) Go on up stairs and change!'"

"That’s when I officially came out to [my parents] via email a week later."

- Myles Colbert
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Tank Tops
"When I came out, I bought myself a T by Alexander Wang tank top because I was always afraid to wear tanks before, for fear of being perceived as too gay, which in my mind included wearing tank tops. During my first summer in college, I came out and I was living alone and working. Even after I came out, I still had a hard time being comfortable with my sexuality. So, I decided to buy something that I thought would help me feel comfortable with myself and that I would have normally thought was a really 'gay' article of clothing.

I went to the Wang store in Soho and dropped, like, $150 (it was also one of my first designer purchases) on this super flow-y tank that I still have to this day. All summer I wore it to Pride, gay bars, etc., but it still reminds me of that time of coming out and really learning to be comfortable with my identity through the clothes I wore — and not having to dress a certain way to pretend to be something else."

- Aaron Kurlander
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Jumpsuits
"A Pepto-Bismol-pink jumpsuit. At the time, I was out to my sister, so when I went to visit her in Vietnam it was sort of like being able to be 'out' without being out to the rest of my community. We went to Hội An, which is known for having amazing tailors who can literally make anything you want. I had seen jumpsuits in magazines, and a few busted ones in thrift stores, but never actually tried one on.

"One thing lead to another and I ended up getting one made while I was there. When they brought fabrics to choose, there was a pink twill that caught my eye. And I figured that if I was gonna go get something custom, I might as well go all out. When I flew back to the States, though, it just sat in my suitcase for months — and, eventually, at the bottom of a drawer because I was too afraid to actually wear it out in public.

"It wasn’t the first thing I wore after I came out. I still don’t wear it on a regular basis, but it does carry a sort of confidence that I love whenever I put it on."

- Joel Kayto
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Turtlenecks
"I always wanted to wear big glasses and turtlenecks. Growing up in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, having any kind of style as a closeted gay teenager was a huge risk. I still found ways to express myself — I went through a whole period where I only wore bright yellow — but it was always the silhouettes and brands that my straight counterparts were wearing.

"After I came out, I pretty much moved to Europe for college straight away. At a school of about 400 kids, I was the only out person and never had the opportunity to be influenced by my gay peers fashion-wise. So, it wasn’t really till I moved to San Francisco and I saw people wearing things of all colors and shapes (all sorts of tacky), and that I really felt like I could go full me/full weird with my style.

"Also, I've always been attracted to wearing big, bold eyeglasses of all kinds. Once I moved to San Francisco, I started collecting them; now, I have over 50 pairs of eyeglasses — some real, most fake — and a big collection of over-the-top sunglasses that I just never would have worn before I was out.

"It’s not like I was into them both together, like Steve Jobs or something. I just always loved big glasses. (I think it might be because of Elton John.)"

- Elliot Tomaeno
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Jewelry
"It was a big gold skull ring from Urban Outfitters. It had fake diamonds for eyes. I also wore an Obey shark jaw thumb ring. I wanted to embrace my more feminine side and I felt like rings were a fun accessory that people wouldn't expect a cis man to wear at the time.

"I felt like I was allowed to care about what I wore when I came out. Like, people wouldn’t be surprised if I cared about what I was wearing because I was gay. Now it’s okay for guys to care about what they're wearing, but five years ago, it was a little less socially acceptable. I also felt like I was able to pay attention to runway shows. Fashion was pretty pivotal to my coming out story."

- Scott Csoke
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Heels
"Several years after I started to really explore fashion — perhaps not right after I came out (this was post-college at Purdue) — I went through a weird phase I wish to never revisit and somehow got away with wearing heels all over Indianapolis. The Midwest Rick Owens wannabes were shook!

"Anyway, the Damned Switchblade on Solestruck. Indy is largely conservative, and throwing on drapes of black and leather helped me explore this world I'd been fascinated with for so long (and educated myself over time before moving to New York). My first relationship with a man ended and I felt a bit lost with my identity; I didn’t feel I belonged but had a strong sense of connection with fashion. Living in Indiana for 24 years of my life, I was absurdly used to walking into a mall and having cars drive by yelling “faggot.”

"Dressing wildly for Indiana — and exploring — created this shield almost. I knew I was creating this attention, but [I kept my] eyes forward and knew I felt great with what I saw in the mirror. It helped build this sense of confidence I guess I wouldn’t have developed. It helped me make the connections I needed to move to NYC (and probably even helped me get my first internship). Like, who was this 6’1” guy walking in with leather pants and wedges?"

- Zach Leis
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Messenger Bags
"When I came out at 15 in Levittown, L.I. — America’s first suburb; very white, middle class — no one was surprised. I wore messenger bags for function and before they were a trend item; I was ridiculed for it, but owned it anyway. After coming out, I discovered the art of thrifting. All the early 2000s It girls were diving in, and I was too versed in pop culture not to. I wound up buying a questionable vintage vest (green and orange with floral patchwork lettering; think: very Etsy) and paired it with a white button-up and ripped Abercrombie jeans (you know, to still fit a certain mold).

"I won best dressed senior year. I'm glad I stopped giving a fuck, even if for momentary school superlative recognition. Wearing a crossbody bag in junior high was an invitation for commentary. Emotions were high and kids were insecure. It didn’t surprise me, but it stung. Comments from 'borrowing mom’s purse/bag,' 'what’s in the bag, fag,' etc. — I'd been hearing people call me 'fag' since I was about four or five, however. My mom and grandma would let me play dress-up inside the house (as to not be taunted). I had a sweet pair of ruby slippers from Toys"R"Us, too.

"I joined track — mostly for clarity, whether I knew it then or not — and dropped weight before high school. But when I came out, I evolved my style from obsessively collecting magazines and saying Screw it, you have one life to Have more fun. I’ve added more elements of that into my wardrobe to take life a bit less seriously. Working in fashion, I noticed people comparing themselves and their wardrobe to others quite often, whether face-to-face or through social media. So, why not buy what you want? I still wish I kept some of my thrift finds; I'd probably be utilizing them today."

- Jonathan Bender
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Skinny Jeans
"The Southern boy in me was afraid to wear skinny jeans! You know, those skin-tight ones the teens wore with Vans and whatnot. Abercrombie skinny jeans — I always wanted to wear them to church, specifically, but was never allowed.

"We all know living in the south is very conservative. If you dress, walk, act, or sound differently than what is deemed 'normal' you get double-takes, stare-downs, and looked at with a downturned mouth. That's how it is growing up in the closet — in all aspects. But specific to clothing, I love going back now and wearing something I would’ve never worn when I was growing up just to get as many stares as possible. Those Calvin Klein 205W39NYC boots always trigger so many looks. (Thanks, Raf!)

"In hindsight, I'm thankful for feeling shunned or over-conscious about clothing growing up. I probably would've never gained such an interest or be working in fashion today had it never happened."

- Tyler Jackson
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Slip Dresses
"After many years, I finally made the decision to medically transition into the femme queen goddess I am. During this period of self-realization, embrace, and love, I bought this Opening Ceremony black lace slip dress (on sale). This was huge for me because prior to this, I played around with androgyny but never really dived into items that were socially constructed for 'girls.' It took a lot of mental power to dislodge gender norms in my head despite how queer I was and am now. I see this dress as a symbol of the birth to living my truth.

"I've only worn it once outside of my apartment since, but I remember that moment before I stepped out into the world; this huge wave of anxiety overcame me. There I was, a transgender person in a black slip dress and lucite heels. I was terrified of the hate, harassment, and discrimination I was going to face. I was scared that people would clock me, call me a man, ask if I have a dick, and get called an 'It.' I was terrified for any potential violence I could face. The anxiety was so heavy that I just ordered a car to pick me up.

"I — of course — plan to wear it more with the utmost confidence and totally own it, especially since I paid a decent amount of money to have it altered. But the weather just hasn’t permitted as of yet... I’ve worn other slinky and skin-baring dresses and skirts since then, but this OC dress is definitely special."

- Derek Nguyen
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White Jeans
"I grew up in a very waspy, preppy town on the north shore of Long Island. Most kids wore Abercrombie & Fitch, Vineyard Vines, and J. Crew. But I didn't connect with those brands, and when I tried to wear them, I felt like I looked ridiculous. Not wanting to further alienate myself from people I already felt disconnected from, I choose to wear rugby shirts and straight cut jeans hoping that would help hide my queerness. Much like putting concealer over a pimple you have already squeezed, it did not.

"By the time I reached high school I had discovered the treasure trove that was the old Style.com (RIP) and instantly fell in love with everything that Hedi Slimane had done for Dior Homme. The summer before my senior year, I took an internship in Manhattan and on an afternoon off, I purchased a pair of Levi's women's white skinny jeans. On a balmy day in September, 2009, I wore them with a black T-shirt, black patent leather dress shoes, and a skinny black belt. I strode into my high school ready for my outfit to let everyone know that I was a gay man, that I loved fashion, and that I would rather get beat up than have to wear straight legged jeans again."

- Hunter Abrams
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