Several nights ago, I had the good fortune to acquire, at the very last minute, a pair of tickets to a special showing of Labyrinth at the Brattle Theatre. I took Jazmin with me, and pointed out that, being a Bowie tribute taking place down in Harvard Square -- a place crawling with self-aware weirdos even when the weirdo community isn't in active mourning -- at least a few people in the crowd were likely to dress up. If she wanted to wear any of the evening gowns she'd snagged when she modeled for one of my dearest designers, that event might be a good time.

I wore trousers, boots, a ruffled blouse, and a long coat with satin lapels, topped with a fedora. Menswear, basically. Minimal makeup. I do not drag up especially well. I probably could, if cast as male and given time to work on that specific character, but in general, the note I hit is less Billy Tipton than Marlene Dietrich. I'm still distinctly me, just in clothing of a style that's traditionally considered more masculine than feminine.

David Bowie was the first time I ran into a male entertainer and realized that I could nick his fashion sense wholesale, make absolutely no alterations for my personal gender identity, and be equally fucking fabulous.

I realize that sounds petty. Of all the things you could say about an artist who spent almost fifty years of his life making music and kicking holes in pop culture, going with "He was a really snappy dresser," seems pithy. Our society has an especially difficult time with it. You're denigrated if you don't meet what are honestly some pretty arbitrary standards of beauty, on the basis that if you just had more willpower you'd get there. But pour all that willpower into it, and you're denigrated again on the basis that only vain and shallow people care about appearances.

There's no way to win. Especially if appearances are important to you. There's no good way to explain the difference between 'I feel inadequate for not meeting beauty standards' and 'if I cannot make the outfit look the way I want it to, my brain itches the entire day'. I gather most people think they're the same thing.

Bowie was always beautifully turned out. Didn't matter whether he was happy, sad, busy, resting, out of his head on drugs, or just deeply disquieted by everything about the 1980s. It was clearly important to him. It wasn't really about being shocking; even when he's in a traditionally masculine suit, he's had it done in shiny burgundy, and when he takes the jacket off he's wearing matching sleeve garters. It's about being meticulous and feeling appropriately finished.

I don't know why other people dress up, but I do it because it's part of the ritual that prepares me for going out and dealing with humans. A trip to CVS for shampoo and chocolate really just requires pants and whatever outerwear the weather dictates, but whenever I go out and do something front-facing -- work doors at a theater or reception at the studio, attend an event, talk to producers -- where I'm going to have to interact with people face-to-face in some sort of meaningful way, I am far more comfortable with makeup and a collection of clothes that has been put together as an actual, coordinated outfit. I don't think I'm unfit for human company without them, but they do serve a purpose. I'm essentially going out in character as someone who is heavily based on me, but has a lot more energy for tedious small talk, and a lot less of a tendency to sit in a corner and watch the all the aliens do their strange social dance. It completes the transformation.

I don't know why Bowie did it either; there are some intimations, especially early on, that it was for more or less the same reasons I do, but I don't know for sure, and he's no longer around to ask. I do know that Bowie always looked enviably at home in everything he wore, no matter how outrageous it was. I got the distinct feeling, especially after watching him do his own face backstage, that this stemmed from the fact that he knew exactly what it looked like, because he'd meant to do that.

The fact that "I meant to do that" is an integral part of the success of any outfit is something that most people don't think to point out to you, ever. It turns out to apply to a lot of things, some of them rather important. The attitude that reassures people that you should absolutely be wearing whatever it is you're wearing also tends to reassure them that you should absolutely be doing whatever it is you're doing, or standing wherever it is you're standing, or walking through whatever door you're walking through, and so on and so forth. "I meant to do that" also trumps "that looks weird" a surprisingly large amount of the time, and not just with clothes. It works for minor things, like recovering after you've screwed something up on stage, but also for more important ones. The more you wander through life acting like there's nothing wrong with the books you read or the songs you sing or the thing you've done to your hair, the more people will treat you like that's true.

It was an important lesson to absorb. I'm glad I managed to cadge it from someone who turned out to be a decent, if very strange and brightly-colored, human being; it's also a thing that can be taken advantage of if you're sociopathic. I'd like to think I wouldn't have listened as well to an asshole, but that also means I'd be missing half of my social skills, because I wouldn't have had any idea how to learn them by just fucking up with grace.

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