Autism Blog Three: Making Sense of Fashion

Note: I didn’t ask anyone whether they were happy for their photos to be used in this blog, so I’ve just cut everyone else out of the photos of me.

In my previous two blogs, I introduced myself – a young man on the autistic spectrum – and went through how I think having a condition influences my actions, and how knowing that I’m in some way “different” makes me think about myself. In the next few, I’m going to look at individual subjects and the challenges they pose to my desire to see things in absolute terms. This week’s is fashion. 

Yes, this is the word “Albuquerque”, a leopard, and some writing in what might be an Asian language, or might be nonsense.

Disclaimer: where I wanted to use examples to back up my points, they have taken over to the point where it’s a bit of a fashion memoir, which is something I never thought I would write. It may be the vainest thing anyone has ever posted on the internet.

If I think about the stereotypical aspects of being on the spectrum – wanting to be physically comfortable, perhaps being self-conscious (I certainly am) and wanting to see things in absolute terms when the fashion constantly changes (and is completely subjective) – I would expect that most people with autism wouldn’t take an interest, instead preferring to wear whatever they find comfortable.

Me being the only one wearing a shirt on a night out in Newcastle.

That’s true for some people, but certainly not for everyone. When I went to a careers fair for people with hidden impairments, I wore a blazer, but I saw a lot of brightly coloured hoodies, t-shirts relating to bands or films, dyed hair and few piercings and tattoos. Again, I’m generalising for a  diverse group of people, but a lot of individuals on the spectrum are happy to look alternative.

I didn’t take an interest in fashion until well into my teens, and when I started to, I wanted to divide people into the cool and the not cool- easier said than done. Since then I’ve relaxed about it, but there’s still a balance between being comfortable, using clothes to express the things I love, and looking good.

Several teachers complimented me on this green denim jacket. Is that a good thing?

When I started secondary school, we bought new clothes. I couldn’t have cared less what I wore, as long as I didn’t feel like I stood out too much, so I wore a lot of dark colours, and even wore trackie bottoms to school, because they were comfortable (the shame!) The only opinion I remember expressing was that I didn’t want a hoodie with the word Kickass on it because I didn’t feel I could live up to the standards it was setting for me if questioned.

When I was 16, we bought some stripy shirts and my first suit for the school prom. I’m not sure I’d wear them now, but it was the first time I’d been excited about wearing something that wasn’t a football shirt. Not long afterwards, we went on a shopping trip where my sister and mum encouraged me to embrace a “preppy” look, something that I probably couldn’t have defined at the time and certainly can’t now. I liked the principles of it, though – it involved buying a white shirt, a very nice indigo shirt and a waistcoat, along with some smart trousers.

If I ever win the Booker Prize, I’m going to dress like MCR in 2006.

At the same time, I was falling in love with all things emo, then heavy metal (I didn’t understand the distinctions but I’d say that emos and goths are very fashion conscious, in an alternative way, while metal fans are almost anti-fashion. Long hair, jeans and black hoodies aren’t exactly the most interesting look and fashion-conscious heavy bands like Bring Me The Horizon are often sneered at). I never quite dared let this affect my dress sense though. While I genuinely think My Chemical Romance and other bands that became popular at that time looked amazing, I never joined in because I knew the smart style was a better look for me.

Trying to reconcile being preppy (the shirt and waistcoat) with liking all things metal (the t-shirt is of a Van Gogh painting)

Where fashion becomes relevant to my condition is this: as an autistic person, I like structure and rules, and fashion couldn’t be more subjective. No given colour, material or design is inherently cool, because it’s a matter of taste, and because fashion is constantly changing. Everyone – even my insecure 15-year-old self – knows that nobody should wear socks with sandals in warm weather, but here’s the crazy part – people still do it. What’s the point of having fashion rules if you’re not going to call out the middle-aged men who ignore them? Don’t they know that an autistic teenager from Sheffield might judge them?

Furthermore, what’s cool in one neighbourhood, subculture or group of friends will be different in another. As a teenager, my sister decided not to wear fleeces any more because she didn’t like them (we were a family that went on a lot of walks). Yet I’ve met people who love hiking and climbing and occasionally wear fleeces in a non-outdoorsy context. Don’t they know better? Or do they not care? Are they therefore uncool, regardless of their achievements and social skills? Or are they so cool that they can get away with breaking the rules? How cool do you have to be to do that?

My favourite shirt, which I lost in Hoi An.

Armed with my new shirts, I started looking at the way other people dressed at school differently and found it confusing.  If my shirts were a better look than trackies and hoodies, didn’t that mean that I was outdoing some of the cool kids? What was the point of having things that were cool, and that weren’t, if nobody enforced it? Or were the rules different for different people, and if so, how did you know which ones applied to you?

By the time I went to uni I realised that fashion could be viewed as a game. Before freshers’ week, I bought a jumper with a geometric pattern on it. In my mind, it seemed obvious that sleek, smooth clothes (such as the much-maligned trackies, maybe on some level I thought that everyone wanted to be a secret agent) should be cool, and jumpers/anything knitted, risked looking a bit frumpy, old and immobile, so shouldn’t be cool. It seemed odd to me that jumpers were genuinely cool in 2010, including some quite chunky ones. With this in mind, I bought one that I knew was objectively quite silly, but did correspond to the fashion of the time. It worked and people said nice things about it. When I left it at home for a term, my sister wore it, and she’s much cooler than me (I think).

The jumper. Everyone seems to like it.

Keeping the preppy thing going worked up to a point, but my taste in music always nagged at it. I have a very nerdy desire to rep whatever I like through my clothes. I know wearing a thick black hoodie that I bought at Rock im Park festival in Germany makes me look like a moody teenager, and I know band t-shirts are usually black (all the good ones, anyway) and often not a very nice fit, and don’t go with the rest of my style. But I also want to tell everyone about my favourite bands, so I meet an awkward compromise – the t-shirt in itself might be a cool design but the style that it implies is not. And I would never wear a shirt and waistcoat to a rock concert.

When I lived in Germany, if something was in the wash and I had to wear colours that clashed as a result, nobody said anything. Eventually I came to the conclusion that many people were less fashion conscious than I am, and since then, haven’t worried about it.

The running top and shorts earned me an end of season “Most Outrageous Garment” award.

Moving to Vietnam and subsequently backpacking through Thailand and Cambodia opened the door to dressing almost more flamboyantly. As an expat, I wanted to at once embrace the backpacker thing (because, in fairness, travelling around Asia on your own is pretty cool) and at the same time, I didn’t want to be a stereotype. Nobody wants to be the guy with the dreads from The Inbetweeners 2. So I bought some baggy elephant pants, (pyjama-type trousers with the teardroppy henna-style shapes) and an elephant-patterned shirt that’s objectively quite silly, but that I do like and will wear on warm days (and I insist that when paired with chinos and a jumper, it’s not too jarring).

The beach in Hoi An. The hat has the nonsensical message “love H (heart shape) the moment”.

On top of that, Hanoi isn’t in a European country and the clothes there aren’t necessarily as nice. When I bought new clothes in Vietnam, they were a bit different from what I would choose in a Sheffield high street. Vietnamese fashion is unlikely to catch on in the west – pyjamas and a conical hat at your market stall, ladies? How about wearing a raincoat in boiling hot conditions to avoid getting a tan? Or a motorbike helmet with a hole in the back to let your ponytail out?

A t-shirt from the Vietnamese high street shop “X-Men”

At the end of the day, the existence of a diverse range of styles can be really positive. Taking an interest in how you dress can be a way for people to set themselves apart, or deliberately fit in. I’m lucky to have gone to a school where nobody tried to bully me for my clothes and I understand that for a lot of teenagers, fashion can be a minefield, so I can appreciate why someone might prefer to ignore it. I’m fortunate to have figured out that fashion is something I know I don’t have to worry about but that can be rewarding to engage with.

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