I grew up wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs and the multi-color striped t-shirts my grandmother sewed for me in bulk. When she retired from working at a garment factory in Los Angeles, she drew her own patterns onto newspaper and sewed me more shirts and skirts—onto which I drew fake labels so that they wouldn’t seem homemade. In elementary school, I dreamed of one day going to the local Ross: Dress for Less! all by myself and combing through the racks, buying the slippery clothing I’d seen in catalogs and commercials: baby-doll shirts, tulle skirts, cotton long-sleeves with fake necklaces and belts printed on them. I hated wearing my brother’s jersey shorts, the fabric lapping at my shins. 

Ironically, once I grew older, what I wanted most was to dress like my brother: I longed for his white wife beaters, beat-up flip-flops, black stud earrings. I no longer prayed to the pages of Limited Too catalogues, the photoshoots of girls playing in fake snow, the pink tie-dyed shorts that changed color every time you washed them. Instead, I spent every night lying on the lower bunk of our bed, looking up at the yellowed bottom of my brother’s mattress, crafting a future self in his shadow. I imagine wearing my brother’s shorts with the fake Nike logo printed on the left leg, his old Pokémon t-shirt handed down from our cousins in Taiwan, the yellow Lance Armstrong rubber wristband he’d gotten for free at the YMCA. I would be wearing soccer cleats, like the kind my brother ogled in the window of Budget Sports. I adopted his wants, leashed them to me. I plagiarized the shape of his desires. At night, on the lower bunk, I dreamed of girls who called me by my brother’s name, tugging at the waistband of his shorts, girls who didn’t lean back from me and say we shouldn’t be doing this

Clothing was the first conduit for my queer imagination. It was the first thing I ever remembered wanting, and the first thing that allowed me to imagine a deviant future for myself. One day, I told myself, I will wear what I want. To me, that was the ultimate act of agency and self-creation. My skirt sets and the candied pages of those catalogs were other people’s projections, but what I wanted was to be a thief, to steal into another self. I remember stealing my brother’s tank tops and wearing them in the bathroom, distressed that they were as long as dresses. I imagined a future where I would be his height, my hair short and bristled, the hem exactly at my hip. Speculation, to me, is always a queer act, a transformative act, an act of care. I hope that in the future, the one we forge outside of capitalism, we will dress how we want, whatever that means. We will don our desires. We will give birth to ourselves. 

K-Ming Chang

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

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