In late August, between a flurry of errands and move-in duffle bags, I find myself meandering through a department store off Rue Saint-Catherine with my parents. While my phone buzzes with Frosh group texts and McGill Outlook emails, my eyes pan out for the perfect Montreal nightlife outfit.
Then I see you.
You are a long-sleeve pink button-down speckled with blue and white roses. You beckon to me from the top shelf of the men’s section. I have seen guys wear shirts like you in the past—muscular men with jet black hair walking in and out of subway cars, their posture perfect, their chins chiselled—but normally I would teach my eyes to drift past them. A shirt like that suits some other, more flamboyant person. I belong in the realm of grey sweaters and khakis, not in technicolour.
Yet I hear my heart racing in my chest, and the pulse of text messages in my pocket, and I understand that I am not in the realm of grey and beige anymore. I am drifting through a foreign department store in a foreign city, and I am surrounded by unfamiliar sights and fashions. This is my chance to reinvent before my feet grip the ground. I grab you by the collar and sheepishly ask the store assistant if I can try you on.
I focus solely on you and me in the mirror, your pink riding over my tan, and I note how we harmonize.
Alone in the dressing room, I drape you over my bony chest and scrawny arms. I bury myself in you, button by button, and then I step back and stare. My hoodie glares at us enviously from the hook, but I afford it no attention. Instead, I focus solely on you and me in the mirror, your pink riding over my tan, and I note how we harmonize.
I purchase you immediately—I knew that extra shift lifeguarding in the summer would pay off!—and you come to occupy a familiar hanger in my dorm room closet.
Classes begin, and soon the weekend rhythm sinks in. I spend the daylight hours in the library sifting through lengthy academic articles and attempting to digest lofty, abstract concepts, and then I come home to you. As laptop chargers and highlighters swap out for shot glasses and cheap BlueTooth speakers, I sense a fluttering in my chest. Not just because I see a night of bouncing in some overcrowded nightclub ahead, but because I know I will experience the festivities with you armouring my torso.
I slip you onto my skin, and I notice my posture change. My shoulders press back and my chin juts inwards. The daytime desire to hunch over and shrink morphs into a nighttime wish to stand out, to make a statement. As I button you up night after night, I reflect upon what I have learnt about what it means to be a young man. I am supposed to shroud myself in black and navy, not pink. I am supposed to measure myself solely by my achievements and strength, certainly not by the fluorescence of my outfit.
Yet I plan to be different. Of course I do; why else would I spend half my summer paycheck on you? I brush my hair back and shave any semblance of facial hair off my upper lip. I am androgynous and awesome! Certainly, no one has ever seen anything like me before: a nineteen year old boy who purposefully rejects the norms of masculine fashion. I open my door to the outside world and expect heads to turn.
People aren’t noticing the petals on my shirt, because next to me is a boy wearing purple nail polish.
But as I venture out into the brightly lit tundra of downtown Montreal, I meet no such reactions. People aren’t noticing the petals on my shirt, because next to me is a boy wearing purple nail polish. Yet they can’t stare too long at him, because nearby a girl in a white pantsuit and bowler hat is stealing the spotlight. The more I look around me, the more I come to realize that I am not so special for breaking these supposedly rigid rules of gendered clothing. I even see half a dozen other men in floral shirts flailing in the crowd…and I think a few of them are in the same frat! I am surprised (and disappointed?) by my fashion non-statement. You tighten around my chest, and for the first time I feel the prick of your thorns.
The transition to university provides young adults with ample opportunities to venture outside their comfort zones. For some, perhaps that simply means making friends outside their hometown. For others, this newfound freedom may result in them embracing an entirely new set of values. For me, I thought I found reinvention through a feminine shirt, and I expected it to revolutionize the way others saw me.
So I owe you an apology, my flowery friend, for I had unrealistic expectations about what you could do. I do not need to use you as a weapon to protest the norms of manhood because, at least in my experience this year at McGill, these norms are loosening much faster than I ever anticipated. I am free to wear what I want without fear of nonconformity or alienation. I can revel in your blue and white roses without attracting unwanted—or even wanted—stares.
You are just a shirt, not a statement. 100% cotton, 0% a nuanced critique against masculinity. You still occupy a hanger in my closet, albeit further back, surrounded by both vibrant and conservative tops. As spring emerges and actual flowers bloom, I pull you out again for the rare occasion of sloppy dancing Now when I button you up, I am no longer preoccupied with thoughts about how others might perceive the roses on my chest.
Instead, I now focus on the music, and I sway to whatever feels natural.