Updated: May 22, 2021
W.Collective x Kaleidoscope
Written by Kaitlyn & Illustrated by Alo Perez '24
I watched my sister adjust a silver dragon cuff earring in the mirror. She lowered her hands and turned to study how it looked.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“It looks cool!” I responded, looking up at the dragon wrapped around her left ear. She removed it and placed it in my hands, and I admired its graceful design. Each time my sister returned home from college, she looked a bit different: she pierced her ears once, twice. She cut her hair shorter and shorter, which inspired me to do the same, much to our mom’s disapproval and my giddy delight. She brought back clothes she no longer needed, as well as her chain and broadsword from her college wushu org. She demonstrated how to wrap and unwrap the chain around her leg, how to strike forward and make loud snaps with the blade.
I savored these moments I shared with her. Watching her put on the dragon earring, I felt awe and excitement, but also curiosity. Where had she gotten it? How did she feel when she wore it? Did she ever wear it in public? And the knowledge that she was trusting me with this secret, this discreet act of rebelliousness while we were alone, evoked a strange mixture of emotions. With an age gap of 11 years stretched between us, I was already aware of the immense distance between my sister and me. And witnessing the evolution of my sister’s fashion visibly reflect her growth in independence and confidence was exciting, but also a stark contrast to my awkwardness and shyness in middle school.
When asked to reflect on what queer fashion means to me, I was a bit ashamed to admit that I don’t know. I don’t even know what fashion in general means to me, since I’ve never really experimented with fashion as a way to express myself and my identity. During the Kaleidoscope x W.Collective collab, thinking about fashion while still ironically dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie made me reflect more on my sisters and queer icons instead of myself. I thought about my sisters’ distinct styles—but also those more private moments, including that afternoon years ago with my older sister and the dragon earring, or nights when my younger sister experiments with makeup by herself, applying strokes of red eye shadow radiating out from under her eyes while everyone else is asleep.
For R. O. Kwon, a bisexual Korean American writer and one of my queer literary icons, applying a centimeter of black eye shadow below her eyes is a daily ritual. She has written about why she chooses to wear black eye shadow every day—and it is glorious. Wearing black eye shadow originated from her frustration when people would often assume she was happy when she wasn’t.
“I began wearing black eye shadow during a period in my life when I realized that how I looked was ill-matched to how I felt,” she writes. And I think it’s powerful to commit to that choice every day—not only because of other people’s perceptions, but also to more accurately align your emotional state with how you present yourself, in a way that makes you feel more powerful and at ease in your own body. Why not express your anger and fatigue through what you wear, in addition to joy and celebration?
Her story continues: “When friends say fierce, I’m glad in part because they’re seeing me not just for who I am, but also for who I want to be.” This is something I’m working toward as well—but part of me also wonders whether this can become exhausting at times. R. O. Kwon writes about wearing black eye shadow every day to counter people’s assumptions about Asian women being docile and submissive. But regardless of what you do, twin caricatures of “submissive Asian girl” and “dragon lady” are still mapped onto your body. You’re still caught in that double bind. To anticipate other people’s assumptions and shape who you are in order to subvert those assumptions can be draining.
In an interview a year after she published her piece on wearing black eye shadow, she reflects on the past three years of her signature black eye shadow and admits, “I feel almost as though I’m costumed as myself sometimes. I want to try something new, but I don’t know what… It feels a little bit like armor. Not in a hostile way, but just something that serves as a very small, very flimsy armor.”
Flimsy suggests futile. And I wonder at what point she started to feel as though she was putting on armor each day that couldn’t protect her. After all, her eye shadow initially stemmed from a desire to express who she was and how she felt. But perhaps wearing the eye shadow to resist people’s tendency to belittle, underestimate, and fetishize Asian women became a daily ritual she was trapped in year after year, until what originated as an expression of who she was evolved into a “costume” that became more difficult to put on every day and see in the mirror. Such is another double bind: R. O. Kwon’s signature black eye shadow has helped her embody a fierceness she aspires for, but it has also become a constraint that makes her feel more disconnected from her own appearance.
In my own journey of exploring what queer fashion means to me, I hope to keep that in mind. To recognize that some days, I might choose to wear something that intentionally counters people’s expectations, but other days, I can wear what makes me feel comfortable and most connected to myself. I want to not only resist other people’s assumptions, but also foster a space where we can set down our armor and celebrate ourselves, to assert we are worthy, powerful, and wondrous.
I agree that I am “not a jigglypuff, not yet a wigglytuff,” as queer Chinese American poet Chen Chen writes in “Summer,” but I hope to experiment with greater creativity and courage in what I wear until someday I will walk into the world and think to myself: “Level of splendiferous in your outfit: 200.”