I bought my first purse today. For me. And it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.
This is not a groundbreaking moment for humans. Many men have carried purses before and I’m sure they will after me. But in that moment walking out of the store carrying my brand new bag (and it’s pink to boot), I felt like I had taken a step closer to me. For about…ever, I haven’t really felt right in the very limited selection of men’s clothing and accessories that are offered in store after store after store. Putting on a pair of jeans always felt off. I never thought they looked right, and always enviably looked on to the women’s sections that were vastly larger than the section I was “supposed” to shop in. I wanted the selection of colors, I wanted the options of pants that didn’t just hang off my chicken legs or sit oddly around my hips, and most of all, I wanted a bag that made everything I wore pop.
When I was in high school that kind of gender fluidity in clothing was not allowed. I distinctly remember when messenger bags became a thing and boys who carried them were made fun of for carrying a “murse.” For those who might not have been privy to the fashion trends of the early-2000s, messenger bags are essentially cloth briefcases with a long strap. Apparently that strap triggered blaring alarms in the Heteronormative Headquarters of America and sent the modified briefcase into purse territory, making it a *huge no-no* for anyone with a penis to carry. So I retired my messenger bag for a backpack and never again thought of expressing myself through fashion in anything that could remotely be considered feminine because of what people might say.
Within the last year, something shifted. After going through my 20s still not being satisfied with my look or the limited options for men, I took a step into what those Heteronormative Headquarters would call Enemy Territory. I looked through racks of women’s pants and tried on a few pairs. I would be lying if I said there weren’t feelings of shame mixed in with elation at seeing what something other than jeans or trousers looked like on my body. Eventually the elation won out.
The first pant style I’ve embraced from the women’s section that I feel fit me better than any pair of jeans ever did are leggings. I like that they hug my legs instead of hang off them and that they go real well with my favorite style of boot. But I still let the Gender Police influence my outfit decisions by pairing those leggings with oversized shirts so the shirt sort of swallowed me up. And while I longingly saved pages of purses on the internet that I would have liked to pair with my new outfits, I still never, ever, ever would have thought of actually carrying one out in public. They are so glaringly obvious, and it doesn’t matter how oversized that oversized shirt gets, it ain’t never gonna cover up the purse that *boy* is carrying.
Then I came across Jen Wang’s graphic novel THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER. As the name suggests, it’s about a prince and the relationship that develops with a dressmaker. His dressmaker. The prince dresses in drag at nights because he can’t help the part of him that is so drawn to expressing himself through women’s fashion. Like me, the prince is scared gender-restricting-pantsless at the thought of anyone figuring out his secret. But, without giving too much away because I want you all to read this book and whoop and gasp and laugh and cry at everything that happens in this book, ultimately the prince is happiest when he’s just himself. And I absolutely adore how Wang shows that the clothing you decide to wear has nothing to do with being a “correct” man or woman, but everything to do with how you feel best expressing yourself. The restraints on what we say a man or woman can wear are just arbitrary.
THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER was the first major piece of art I’d consumed that really made me think I could be brave enough to wear or carry whatever I want, whenever I want. Then the very next week I saw the documentary The Gospel According to André about André Leon Talley, a legendary fashion icon and longtime editor of Vogue. I fell in love with his personality and sense of epic caftan style when he was a judge on America’s Next Top Model a few years ago. In the documentary, you see photos of André throughout his life and hear him tell stories about growing up in the South as a flashy and flamboyant young black man. Despite the looks and hatred that came his way, André stayed true to himself and turned into the legend that he is now.
The back-to-back “you be you” messages in THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER and The Gospel According to André made me wonder why on God’s green culottes I was worrying so much about what other people thought about what I wore.
So I went out and bought that nowhere-to-hide purse, and I’m never looking back. I’m only looking forward. Forward to this whole new section of clothing options that my head and my heart now realize I can finally utilize and embrace however I want. Forward to hopefully becoming an inspiration like Jen Wang and André Leon Talley and their work was for me. All the manuscripts I have on submission right now are in some way about gender inclusivity, body acceptance, the power of femininity and accepting all sexualities. I hope to be an example for boys and girls and kids who don’t identify with either of those genders who feel constrained by what Heteronormative Headquarters tell them are the “right” things to wear, the “right” way to express themselves, the “right” way to express their gender, the “right” way to express their heart.
And I’ll do it one purse and one book at a time.