Featured Artwork: Rocco Baviera
A Short Story About Fashion and Homelessness
It was a few days before my 25th birthday and I decided to have my party early because all my friends were going to be with their families for Thanksgiving. It was an unusually cold November night; in fact, it was November 16th, 2013, and the high was 48 degrees. That night we danced, laughed and drank. We did all the things one would do to celebrate a 25th birthday in DC. The night was not necessarily memorable; what was memorable is how I felt when I walked outside of the club and pulled a Black and Mild out of the inner pocket of my gray Ralph Lauren peacoat. I shielded the flame of my lighter from a sudden gust of cold wind and puffed on my cigar. Here I was, celebrating my birthday, but more importantly, I looked good while doing it. I took notice of the different neon colors beaming from various night club signs. The smoke from the cigar and the frigid night air mixed around in my lungs as I savored the feeling.
As I continued to puff on my cigar, I brushed some ash off of my white and blue Calvin Klein sweater and dusted invisible dust off my dark wash Seven For All Mankind jeans. I checked the time on my rose gold Fossil watch, it was a little after 2 AM. I puffed in the last little bit of my cigar as my friends stumbled out of the club. As we made our way to our caravan of cars, one of my best friends put his arm around me — “Do you feel as good as you look?” he said playfully, while semi-drunk.
The friend that put his arm around me is the reason why I was wearing the outfit I was wearing that night. We worked at Nordstrom together in the early days of our friendship. He always had style; even on the days when he wore a plain thermal shirt and cargo pants, there was a sense of effortless style that oozed from him. On this night, he was wearing a heavy North Face jacket, a Burberry plaid shirt, and Mek jeans.
To truly understand this story, I must go a little further back in time.
One day, while we were standing around the sales floor and placing censors on merchandise, I came across the grey Ralph Lauren jacket.
“That’s you right there!” he said, showing all his teeth while laughing. “Try it on,” he pointed to a mirror in the back with his chin. I took the jacket off the wooden hanger and maneuvered my way through the various customers on the floor. When I put on the jacket, something in my brain switched on, I’d never owned anything like it. My style at this point in my life was Nike shoes and a matching shirt. There was no real reason for me to buy this coat. I checked the price and placed the jacket back on the wooden hanger. I slowly shook my head walked back to continue putting censors on clothes.
“That jacket was made for you man, stop playing,” my friend said while taking the jacket off the hanger. He opened it, motioning me to put it on again as he helped me.
He guided me to the mirror and forced me to look at myself. In that moment I was self-aware, more self-aware than I have ever been in my entire life. I studied myself. I studied my height, my width, the length of my arms, how the jacket rested right below my thighs. My friend talked me into buying the coat, but in all honesty, I did not need much convincing after the second time I tried it on. I started to build my wardrobe around this jacket: a pair of black wool pants from Banana Republic, a checkered blue and white shirt from The Gap. Thanks to Will Smith in Hitch, I purchased a light green Lacoste polo, and then a salmon pink Lacoste polo, which he wore in Seven Pounds.
Before I go any further, allow me to take the time to explain the fashion in Washington DC. I grew up wearing DC “urban” brands like Abstracts and Solbiato. In high school, I would save what I could to afford a new shirt from Abstracts. There was even a time I walked into a shoe store in PG Plaza and bought a pair of shoes from DC rapper Wale, who worked at a shoe store in the mall. His song, “Nike Boots”, was truly a testament to Black fashion in DC. We were big on New Balance 929s, the original Kevin Garrnett’s and Charles Barkley’s when they came out. There was a phase where everyone had a glitter SpongeBob shirt, one of those shirts where SpongeBob was holding a huge cellphone and a stack of cash. How can I forget the throwback jersey movement? If you had the matching hat, you could get into any nightclub you wanted to. That was the DC fashion I grew up around and embraced with all my heart.
As I got older and finished school, I learned the power of fashion, the judgment people pass based on what you wear. There was a life that I wanted and society told me to change the way I dress. I learned that the first time I stepped foot inside a government building. When I left my full-time job at Nordstrom to intern with the District of Columbia Child Protection Service, there was not a day that I felt like I belonged. I wore a pair of black Rockport dress shoes, and they felt more like a pair of Nike Country sneakers, but on the outside, they screamed “I’m in college” or “please respect me.” I owned a few pairs of dress pants during that time; there was a pair of brown dress pants from Target I wore a lot in those days. Seeing people wearing pocket squares and tie clips, there was something I was missing. What I really needed was a suit.
On a Saturday afternoon, my friend and I (the same friend as earlier in the story) returned to the same Nordstrom to go suit shopping. We called a former co-worker who still worked there to help us pick out quality suits. As we browsed, I picked up a gray Calvin Klein suit, tired it on, and let the tailor work her magic. My friend, with a little bit more money than me, picked a blue and black Joseph Abboud suit. As he was trying on his suit and getting it tailored, I pulled out my Blackberry out of boredom and scanned the store. I could see all the different departments as I leaned against a floor fixture. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman looking in my direction and for a brief second, we locked eyes.
My heart skipped a beat and I looked away as fast as I could. In all honesty, I wanted my heart to skip a beat again, so I looked up for a second time to see if she would too… she did. She was wearing a light purple button-up shirt under a black blazer and black pants. Her Steve Madden wedges are what I remember the most, they were metallic gray and purple with a strap over the top. She was browsing the display shoes in the women’s shoes’ department, hovering around the Uggs. Men’s shoes and women’s shoes at this Nordstrom were next to each other, giving me the perfect reason to at the very least, get close enough to make casual conversation.
As I got closer, I could smell her Chanel perfume — she appreciates the classics, I thought to myself. I was so busy thinking of what she was wearing and her perfume that I had walked two steps away from her and had no idea what I was going to say. I pulled my Blackberry out of my pocket out of nervousness and dropped it as she was slowly making her way around a display table towards me, still admiring a pair of Uggs. I am sure she would not have looked up if I didn’t say, “oh shit,” when I dropped my phone.
“Good thing you’ve got a good case,” she said as I bent down to pick up my phone.
I wish I could remember what I wore that day, the day we met, but I do remember what I wore on our first date. I had on a mustard brown Hugo Boss polo, a dark brown blazer (the brand slips my mind), and a pair of dark brown and cranberry plaid dress pants from Banana Republic. What she was wearing that night has drifted from my memory; in fact, I can’t remember anything she wore except for the first time I saw her and the last time I saw her. We dated for five months, and things ended badly. Our relationship concluded with my standing outside of her house wearing a plain white button-up tucked into a pair of blue dress pants. With flowers in hand, I begged her to listen to me, to understand why I did what I did, and to give me a second chance. She stood in the doorway, her curly hair tied back in a bun. Her burgundy hoodie with “Howard University” stitched on in big block font. Her Adidas track pants had a metallic strip that ran across the side. She told me she didn’t do second chances and slowly closed the door.
After that, I had a string of failures and unfortunate events befall upon me. The most unfortunate of events had me stuffing my clothes in trash bags after losing my job. No matter the label, everything was stuffed haphazardly into bags as I found myself sleeping outside in a park in DC for a few nights and finally in the living room of my uncle’s house. During this time, I was very careful of how I treated my clothes. It used to be, when I had a stain on a pair of pants, I would just wash them or take them to the clearers. I would only drink water when wearing certain clothes, coffee was no longer a staple in my diet, ketchup was now a distant memory. The majority of my clothes I sold, but I kept enough to get me through a regular work week if I was to get a job. My plan was to recycle the same three pairs of pants and five shirts until my first paycheck and rebuild my wardrobe.
Riding the bus “home” one day, I received a call from the National Cathedral asking me to come in for an interview for the seasonal position I’d applied to. The day of the interview, I ironed a pair of brown pants and a white shirt I bought from Target. Nothing spectacular, but I wanted something new for such a special interview. When I entered the Cathedral, I was allowed to walk around for a bit before my interview. Walking into the National Cathedral was one of the most intimidating moments in my life. When you enter, it feels like you’re being swallowed by history, your own inadequacies, and God. The structure is massive; high ceilings, stain glass windows, and a different image of Jesus every four steps.
During the interview, I must have said something impressive, because they offered me the job and wanted me to start the next day. Slowly I began to rebuild my wardrobe, replacing items I’d sold and buying new items, items I’d always wanted. Finally, I was able to obtain stabling housing — housing that had a view of the Capitol from the balcony. Here I was once again, on top of the world, but this time there was a bitter taste in my mouth. As I stood on my balcony, wrapped in my Ralph Lauren robe, sipping on a cup of coffee as the sun set on the Capitol, there was a bitter taste in my mouth.
After a serious amount of self-reflection, I learned that the bitterness I had was resentment and entitlement. Here I was, the well-dressed college graduate — why did I have go through all of this? I did everything right, I followed the rules, but life did not, and I wanted to blame someone for me having to sell most of my possessions just to stay afloat.
I never lost my awareness of fashion during this entire period of my life. There was never a time during my homelessness that I was not acutely aware of how I dressed. People are highly superficial and how you dress usually dictates how you are treated, but more importantly, it dictated how I felt about myself. This is by no means a decree for respectability politics. As a student of history, I cannot escape the images of Black people being lynched, but even then I was aware that Black people were usually lynched while wearing their “Sunday’s Best.”
We tend to like our homeless people to look homeless, to play their proper role in society and wear the clothing that proves that they are indeed homeless. Robbing people of their dignity, expecting them to have a certain look as if they are in a position to beg for money for food, clothing, or shelter. The visibility of homelessness and poverty makes some uncomfortable, but not to the point of action. So what about me? Riding the train to the homeless shelter wearing designer jeans and a Calvin Klein sweater seems like an oxymoron to some. For me, it was simply hanging on to a thread of my dignity, even it was nothing more than a false capitalist symbol of success.
Years later, I would land a job a few blocks from the White House. A dream job for some, but for me, it was simply work; work that just happened to be in a very prime location. I played basketball on the same court as President Obama, motorcades whizzed past me at least twice a day, and I could see Marine One land from my office window. Late one night, as I left the office and walked outside, a couple of Secret Service officers were at their post. My day was long and tiresome and I took my pink and blue Tommy Hilfiger tie off and stuffed it in my pocket, exposing a bit of my neck. It had just finished raining and the light from the street lamps and traffic signals reflected on the multiple puddles on the ground. Waiting to cross the street, I stopped at the corner and caught a glimpse of myself in the window next to me.
I glanced down at my rose gold Fossil watch; I had replaced the one I had sold with the exact same model. My watch read 11:30 PM. I glanced back up to see my reflection and a rush of bitterness and resentment rushed into my mouth. The truth is, I never could feel as good as I look.