On Clothing & Self

Artwork by Sydney Crawford

Artwork by Sydney Crawford

By Matt Marth

This past winter I stopped enjoying wearing clothes.  Not in the sense that I wanted to go join a nudist colony or anything, but in the sense that I stopped relishing the feeling of matching my socks to my hat or wearing a wacky pullover.  I was uninspired, throwing on sweats more often than I had for the past six or so years. Which was peculiar, and kind of a bummer; I couldn’t really put my finger on what had happened. Perhaps it was just a temporary symptom of the midwinter blues, but I feared I had become old and lame at the ripe age of nineteen.  

It was the least I had cared about clothes since sometime between eighth grade and freshman year, when something clicked in my head that made me start to care a little about what I wore.  Which really wasn’t much. It only meant that I realized that there was nothing keeping me from wearing jeans and Vans instead of worn-out basketball shoes and sweatpants. This realization, as I now realize however, was deeply connected to a broader process of realizing my own sense of self that also began to take place in my early teen years.

As a kid, I spent most of elementary and middle school keeping to myself as much as I could.  I had a solid group of pals, but was quiet and reserved, almost to a fault and rarely let my guard down.  For the most part though I was content and didn’t really think much of my disposition unless a friend’s older brother or a teammate would ask “why are you so quiet dude?” to which I would respond with a shrug and an “ionno.”  Looking back, I didn’t have a very strong sense of self and if someone asked me what I was into I would usually say something along the lines of “sports I guess” because duh, that’s just what boys in well-to-do suburbs are into.

Luckily, however, in middle school things began to change.  I got a job as a golf caddie and was forced to figure out how to have friendly conversations about nothing with rich golf dads.  I realized I was interested in art and checked out books on Magritte and Dalí from the library and read about things like automatism and composition; though I didn’t really understand any of the words, the pictures made sense to me.  I was still relatively soft-spoken at school, but in a confident sort of way, bolstered by a burgeoning sense of self. And indeed, I started to understand my clothes as a potential extension of this emerging self-confidence, and opportunity for self-expression.  All of a sudden I was no longer beholden to the clearance rack at Sports Authority or the hand-me-downs from older cousins.

The style inspirations for my awkward but increasingly confident pubescent self were more or less twofold.  One was the leaders of my church’s youth group, who would often don 90’s NBA jerseys, thrift-store windbreakers, and cuffed pairs of corduroys.  The other was the shaggy haired and skinny jeaned indie musicians like Jack White and Julian Casablancas that I had begun to look up to, and whose style was almost inseparable from their music.

I slowly started cobbling together a new wardrobe and a personal sense of style for myself from the Salvation Army store by my house, countless clearance racks, and the occasional big splurge on whatever streetwear brand I was into at the time.  I still remember going to Marshall’s with my mom early in the fall of freshman year, and buying a pair of black skinny jeans and a light-wash denim jacket. At a Friday night football game that fall, I wore said outfit and got some weird looks from preppy upperclassmen and cheeky comments from the freshmen soccer team–my only friends at that point–but, regardless, I felt good, and strangely so.  

For the remainder of high school, although I had to wear a uniform most days at school, my clothes were a means of figuring myself out.  I slowly amassed a collection of old fleeces, wonky striped button-up shirts, and probably one too many pairs of homemade jorts. I (fortunately) never went full hypebeast but definitely made some questionably pricey purchases, from a pair of Comme des Garçons Converse (which I still wear, to my credit) to more $30+ T-shirts than I’d like to admit.  

By no means were the outfits I was putting together worthy of a spread in GQ, or even my high school’s shitty newspaper.  And looking back, I certainly wasn’t being as edgy or subversive as I may have thought I was; for the most part I was affecting a ‘Listens to Mac Demarco Once’ type look.  Still, my sartorial maturation was deeply intertwined with the still ongoing process of discerning my place in this big, confusing, and sometimes scary world. My ever-evolving closet basically helped me discern who I was and who I wanted to be.

As my interests and values shifted and were refined as high school went on, my sense of style evolved as well.  Sure, I probably would have figured myself out in the absence of a large collection of baseball caps. But with clothing I’ve been able to express myself and articulate my identity in a way that I still struggle to do easily with words.  The beauty of clothing is that it speaks for itself, although I fear that sometimes all mine says is “I’m a basic indie white boy.”

Considering how much I came to value my own sense of style through the second half of my adolescence, it was weird to look into my disheveled drawers in the midst of all the layering opportunities that an Evanston winter provides and feel uninspired.  Fortunately, however, I recently stumbled across the Instagram account @mistermort, which quickly reminded me why I started to love clothing in the first place.

Mister Mort, aka Mordechai Rubinstein, is a self-proclaimed “garmentologist.”  With a sharp yet empathetic eye, his Instagram documents the unique stylings of everyone from construction workers on the subway to fashion-world titans like Ralph Lauren on the red carpet.  After scrolling through his feed for a minute or two, it becomes clear, however, that he’s not really interested in capital-F Fashion in any abstract or objective sense. Rather, he’s invested in the unendingly complex and interesting human beings that crowd this planet and the ways in which their clothing sheds light on who they are, who they’ve been, who they aspire to be.  

Rubinstein’s account reminded me of the subtle but very real ways in which humanity is found in a hand-sewn pair of pants at a Grateful Dead show, a bootleg durag dotted with Louis Vuitton logos, a bright, floral scarf at the bus stop, a huge shining belt-buckle at a rodeo, and on and on and in most places in between.  His IG stories are akin to Humans of NY but there’s no need for long introspective quotes; the cufflinks and hoodies and vests and patches tell the stories on their own.

As my passion for “getting ‘fits off,” as the youths say, was renewed by this IG style guru, I hit the Village Discount Outlet on Clark St. in Andersonville inspired to find some pieces I could make my own, and was not disappointed.  I ended up going home with a weird pair of navy shorts with buttoned pockets on the front, a lovely short-sleeve floral button-down that I found in the women’s section, and an extra wide-fit pair of light-wash jeans. Although it wasn’t quite warm enough to rock the shirt or the shorts outside, it soon would be, and as I tried them on once I got home, I felt like me again.