I’m not a fashion plate. In the pandemic world and comfortable middle age, I consider myself pretty flashy if I manage to wear a button-down shirt and pants that fit.
But for a while in my wayward youth, I tried desperately, like almost everyone else does, to assemble an identity through what I wore. I loosely hung out with the theatre kids, nerds and punks and punk-adjacent in high school, and then with the leftie liberals and enviromentalists in my Mississippi college days.
There’s photos of me wearing horribly elaborate Duran Duran cosplay gear in the late ‘80s, at least one image of me in parachute pants MC Hammer-style (thankfully suppressed by court order) and several unfortunate pictures of my experiments in tie-dye.
Through it all, through my college years and on afterwards, I had one constant companion in my quest to define myself through fashion – See my vest. I bought a black suede vest sometime around the end of high school, and man, I wore that thing constantly for nearly a decade.
It was my “Nik vest,” my attempt to stand out from the crowd in the strange world of the American South, where I was already the “weird California dude.” I’m not sure why I latched on to the vest, but I thought vests were cool – they seemed like something you’d see Christian Slater wear in Heathers, or maybe Stephen Malkmus in a Pavement video.
The vest was flexible – with a t-shirt it was grunge, with a nice shirt it was passably fancy. I wore it everywhere – there’s photos of me in New York City at the World Trade Center towers with it, at comic conventions in the Midwest, at university and parties and weddings.
My friends gently mocked me for wearing it; I wore it so much that when I drew my daily college comic strip “Jip,” I made one of the characters (the cool one of course) constantly wear a vest and immediately got called out for the obvious attempt to homage myself.
I wore that vest to pretend I was the kind of person I wanted to be, some kind of vaguely mysterious cool arty creative type. I succeeded at that mission perhaps 0.2% of the time I wore the vest, but I kept wearing it. Besides, it was comfortable and gave me extra pockets.
I stopped wearing the vest quite so much in the mid-1990s after I graduated university and went on to start working as a journalist. It vanished entirely somewhere around the millennium – I don’t know, I imagine I was feeling vaguely embarrassed by it and it was also probably kind of worn out after nearly 10 years (suede was not easy to keep clean) and in another moment of stark self-invention, I chucked it.
I kind of wish I’d kept it now, not that I’d wear it in public in 2021 … But it was a symbol of who I was and who I was trying to be, and it’s sometimes worth keeping hold of those things to remember yourself by.