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“Nice dress, bitch!” he called out.
I was walking along the curb outside a shady little gay club in Philly. I had on a pink and green chiffon Chaiken Tinkerbell-cut dress I’d picked up at a thrift store.
To get the message, I turned on my inductive reasoning skills, which by age 20 I’d honed enough to get through a night.
Okay, I thought. Gay club. He’s not hitting on me. It’s a club, so I’m not overdressed. And “bitch” sometimes means “strong independent woman” ...Yes! That’s a compliment!
I looked back at him and smiled. “Thanks!”
Compliments like that mean more than face value to me. I’m autistic. I know I don’t always make a good impression. When you say you like something I’m wearing, you’re telling me I’ve managed to convey a little of that cool, charming person I think I am inside. The one I can’t quite translate into language or motion. I’ve always used fashion as a tacit form of communication. And, like other forms of autistic communication, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
I’d run that night’s get-up past my friend Mario. He was my first popular friend: the most sought-after twink in school. Mario dug my inadvertent pomp. He thought it was camp. He even liked the necklace I’d made: cotton candy-colored jade beads from one of those bead stores in Chinatown.
“Don’t wear that!” a tough-love friend had snapped at me six months earlier. “Don’t wear that necklace to the Lambda Chi party.”
He was wrong. Both Mario and the sage in the Hi, You’ll Do shirt outside the club thought I was on point. I’d arrived.
I’ve identified deeply with clothes for as long as I can remember. When I was four, I had this little purple tulle dress. I wore it every day. My mom had to come in my room when I was sleeping to take it out and wash it because I wouldn’t let it out of my sight. It’s common for autistic kids to get attached to objects. But that dress was different. I put it on and became me.
Clothes became something different by middle school. You didn’t have to be a good person. All you had to do was go to Limited Too. These girls said I could join their clique if I shopped there. I bought the baby tees. The Technicolor shorts. Those expensive empire waist dresses with the glittery vines up the sides. I bought it all. It didn’t work. But I learned something. I could do something the cool kids did. They could retract their offer to let me join the Pastels, but they couldn’t take my style away.
The thing about autistic people, though, is that we don’t really have a sense of proportion. I thought I had to dress larger than life. I wore ‘90s strappy heels from the Nine West outlet with those skanky black skorts from Rave. People noticed my clothes. But it wasn’t the right kind of attention. I kind of knew that, but I stood my ground. I was Fashion Queen now. Which was a hell of a lot better than being the weird girl.
By high school, I started to see myself as this kind of sexy, dandy wit who stood alone as much sartorially as I did in every other way. Some days I wore professorial corduroys and blazers, and other days I wore those ‘40s-cut Betsey dresses like a candy femme fatale. Autistic people tend to like categories of things. Sometimes we collect things. I have ten pairs of corduroy pants and 17 Lacoste shirts. eBay is my friend.
In my freshman year of college, I used to wear a long cashmere cable-knit duster to class like a rich bitch bathrobe. This Kenyan exchange student told me I was the only white girl he’d seen who knows how to dress. It was a pickup line. I knew it was a pickup line. But to me it meant so much more.
I still hadn’t quite honed my social skills enough at that point to match the occasion, though. I remember getting a message in my Honesty Box on Facebook (remember those?) toward the end of college that said “You still dress well. And more appropriately than you used to.”
It feels weird now, knowing how inappropriately bombastic I must have looked. But there’s good things about not being self-aware. You can be completely, fully, 100 percent yourself. I wore whatever the fuck I wanted, when the fuck ever I wanted to wear it. To the world, it looked like Asperger’s. But to me, it felt like freedom.
After college, I started working at an upscale consignment store. The owner was an eccentric Cool Girl in her 40s. She had what I wanted: charisma. I decided to pull a slick move and tell her I’d sold “a lot” of clothes on eBay (translation: 12 items) to get the job. Autistic people don’t like to lie. We’re not very good at it, either. But it worked.
By that point, I was social enough to get invited to house parties. I had a group of friends. At the store, I learned that I could read people’s demeanors a bit. At least enough to pick out used shoes or Hillary Clinton-style vintage St. John suits for them. I knew what color someone wanted. I could tell if she was edgy or soft. I used to not be able to read body language. I’m pretty sure I still can’t. But I have learned to pick up on some of those little idiosyncrasies that give people pride, that make them who they are.
“How do you do this?” one of them asked. “How did you know what I want?” I was on top of a cloud.
I moved to New York a few years ago for fashion school. It wasn’t a bad experience. The people aren’t evil. They’re just brusque. Like most people who moved here to make something of themselves. They’re brusque and they never wear color. I felt like a bumpkin all over again.
Working in the industry changed my orientation toward style, too. Fashion people want to control their image. Fashion is all about control. But people with autism will be the first ones to tell you how little control any of us actually have.
I’m trying to take my writing work more seriously now. That, and working on some mental health issues that I never got around to resolving. I’m more comfortable with myself, and so I want to look comfortable. I rarely wear anything that doesn’t look like I’ve just fallen out of bed. Long paisley Free People skirts. Black jeans. Baggy sweaters. Hats. Weekend casual, my fashion professor would say.
For me, fashion doesn’t have to be aggressive anymore. But my heart still skips a beat when I put an outfit together that I love. My style used to say Here I am. Now it says This is me.