As a child growing up in the United Arab Emirates, I wondered why none of my classmates obsessed over fabrics. I kept a desperate ear out, hoping to find out even one of them was living the same experience. They got fleetingly excited about trends, superhero costumes, and princess dresses, but that was about it.
Everyone hated the school uniform, and envied kids abroad (which, back in the ’80s, specifically meant the world we saw on US and British TV shows) who got to wear their own clothes to school.
My schoolmates’ dislike of our school uniform baffled me. How could they hate wearing the exact same thing every day? I only felt “right” if my clothes came from a very limited assortment of fabrics. The “wrong” fabrics brought out incessant itching and chafing and restlessness.
On our rare non-uniform days, I watched as kids laughed and played and existed naturally in fabrics and shapes I gnashed my teeth at—like brand-new jeans.
I didn’t have the words then to explain why I felt happiest in my uniform: It was familiar, therefore safe? Broken in and butter-soft while still maintaining enough of its shape to cocoon me?
It’s a checklist I understand now. It’s fascinating how clearly you can see your relationship to, well, everything, after the sheer relief of getting an autism diagnosis in your late 30s.
At eight, I was picked along with a number of classmates to give a short choreographed performance for Mother’s Day. In the glorious 80s, March 21 (Mother’s Day in the Arab world), was still cool enough for us to perform outdoors on the playground, with parents and families seated in the shade.
As per the school’s somewhat loose instructions, my mom took me shopping for a gauzy cloud of iridescent white organza. I adored it on the hanger and when trying it on, but during the first rehearsal? It felt viscerally wrong.
I watched my classmates for any signs of discomfort. If anyone else was struggling, they must have been good at masking. Like me.
I understand now what stumped me: Some fabrics look innocently “right.” But when I’m in a store, my brain is experiencing an avalanche of overwhelming sensations. Trying on clothes further clouds this experience. I can’t listen to my brain, which means that my whole life I ended up with countless outfits I couldn’t stand once I got home.
Today, I’m much better at wrangling all of the noise under a lid so I can really hear what my brain is trying to say.
When it lets me, that is.
On weekends, my Egyptian parents used to drop by their favorite Indian fabric store in the then-sleepy UAE emirate of Sharjah. They owned smart ready-made clothes but preferred ones that were tailor-made. My sister and brother would play with each other and fiddle with swatches. I (unbeknownst to everyone) just tried to hang on.
I still remember the spill of warm colors and intricate patterns as the sales clerks expertly flipped open bolt after bolt of gorgeous saree fabrics, a kaleidoscopic cascade of sparkle and color and a rush of swishes and rustles. The onslaught of sensations knocked the breath out of me—even as the mere idea of anything touching me made my skin crawl.
Taffeta, silk brocade, even the canvas seat covers in my mom’s car may have felt exactly right, but I doubt I would’ve been allowed to parade around in those fabrics. I suspect most parents would’ve found the silk jacquard dress my parents bought me the sensible choice, despite my hatred for the way it was too limp to ground me.
I was, of course, only eight and lacked the words to explain it. Now, however, I can take a few moments to breathe and remind myself that the time I spend at the fabric store will end. I will walk safely out. That light at the end of the tunnel is an effective tool that helps me marshal my tattered senses and focus on the task at hand.
Curiously, given the huge part fabric plays in wrecking me or making me feel safe, I still struggle to express exactly what I want to wear. I know that I only feel right in some textured, stiff fabrics that don’t drape or slip, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell what is “cute and flirty” and what is geared for a “night on the town.”
It means I’m not always wearing the right thing for the occasion, but my family and friends know it’s not deliberate. Now, anyone else’s disapproving look slides right off me.
Growing Up, Getting Dressed
You can’t help but develop thick skin when you’re a teen who wears the same thing every day. I could finally do my own shopping, and my poor dad started half-jokingly offering bribes if I’d deign to rotate clothes, instead of washing my only “safe” outfit every night so I could wear it the next day.
My brother joked that people might think I only had the one outfit. It didn’t bother me. The only thing that mattered to me was wearing clothes that “felt right,” and because my teen self thought only a tiny handful of fabrics would do the job, I often had only one working outfit for months in a row.
As a teen, I thought my limited wardrobe was the result of regular body-image issues. I was self-conscious about my baby fat, so I wanted something to hide it. This still didn’t answer the question of why inhabiting my body was hard, but with so much energy going to navigate my daily sensory overload, it was the easiest answer.
Then came my 20s, when I became capable of seeing for myself that body fat was nothing to be self-conscious about. And fabrics still utterly confused me.
Whenever my best friend from university and I went shopping, she’d walk into a store, try on a bunch of outfits, and walk out with a haul of the latest trends. Like most people, her only considerations were whether she liked the way she looked in them and whether she could afford them. Not once was fabric (or rather, its mental itch) one of her deciding factors.
I, on the other hand, have spent my life wondering why chiffon is viscerally aggravating, whereas tulle makes my heart sing. Both are light as air, although tulle has a subtle yet reassuring crunch to it that anchors me, while chiffon is too unmoored. Maybe it’s not just texture but also the fact that chiffon (like crepe) develops a deeply unpleasant smell even before you get home. Maybe it’s both qualities.
Sometimes it’s a matter of how “loud” a fabric looks to me. Point me at a random store and I guarantee you it’ll carry a top with a paisley print. I’d bought far too much paisley before I realized I always ended up giving the items away. Never again: one glance at the swirl of shapes chasing each other madly all over my blouse fills me with unease.
It was just two years ago that I realized that I loathe leather handbags. Shopping for a friend’s birthday gift, I kept looking at these curious accessories and trying to work out their puzzle: always so pretty to look at, but never any good once you bought them, slipping and creaking as if finding me just as obnoxious as I found them.
Then, in a movie-style flashback, I saw the dozens of brand-new leather handbags I’d given away over the years.
In contrast, I thought of my lovely collection of purses made of other materials that I used until they were literally falling apart. Denim. Canvas. Some nylon Kipling bags: cue glaringly obvious lightbulb moment, decades overdue.
(Paradoxically, I adore leather jackets. Their squeak? Music to my directionally-challenged ears.)
Knowledge is indeed power. I just retired the last Kipling handbag I’d been happily using for years, and this time I knew what to look for when buying a new one. For the first time in decades, I didn’t slink into the leather section and stand there dejected.
Why did it take me so long to piece it all together?
Brain-timing, I think. My brain was finally ready to see it.
Looking back, I realize how much my lifetime wardrobe would have expanded if I knew what fabrics to avoid—and how to approach shopping.
Today, I give my brain time to process the material that’s in front of me, even if it means multiple trips to the same store. Typically, only the “bad” will jump at me first: the drapy, slinky, delicate anathema that leaves my brain and skin itchier and itchier, accosting me with distressing sensations.
So I try to remember what I like in advance, for those times when my brain screeches to a halt. I keep pictures of the “good-stiff,” textured fabrics on my phone. Snapshots of me in one of my happy outfits remind me that the spun sugar of organza is fine under a guipure jacket/cardigan invention I dream up. However, the design should be moderately sized, with nice chunks of simple embroidery to weigh it down (without crowding it up) and keep me safe in my body.
When shopping, I pat little square keepsakes, hacked-off old clothes that I loved to death, and my brain settles. The right pieces have been in front of me all along, but when I look around the store now, I can “see” them.
Now that I’ve been enlightened by my diagnosis, developing incredibly valuable tools for getting myself dressed, the next question is: how do I share the knowledge nobody knew to share with me? How do I ensure my 11-year-old and 15-year-old, for instance, know they can voice their comfort (or lack thereof) with a certain fabric, even if they don’t have the words yet? How do I show them that simply feeling uncomfortable is valid, no explanation necessary?
The Next Generation
As it turns out, I was already equipping my children with these tools without even knowing it. Years ago, when I sat my kids down for what I thought would be a life-changing conversation about voicing their feelings, they found it hilarious. They know they can simply say something feels “wrong” when they’re shopping with friends or family. They know how to look for what they like to wear, and how to avoid what irritates them, even if it looks “safe” (but they also know not to beat themselves up when they buy something hoping that maybe this time, it would work).
This is exactly why I’m writing this. I know that there are people out there looking at 1830s taffeta gowns wistfully because taffeta feels so right. It doesn’t slink up and down like oil on your skin. It stays where it is. I can trust it. I know where I am with taffeta.
I’m positive I’m not the only one who can admire graceful jersey skirts, delicate pointelle tops in pretty pastel colors, and elegant silk shirts—just as long as they’re on someone else.
I may never get to do a grocery run in a billowy taffeta cape over a damask dress, safe and secure like I’m wearing a weighted blanket, and I may never stop masking enough to just buy some delightfully stiff upholstery fabric and have it made into a shirt, or an entire wardrobe.
But I know what I like now, and with that comes relief. I know what fabrics make me happy. More importantly, I know what fabrics both look and feel wrong, and what look irresistible yet still feel wrong. I can steer clear of it all. I am finally, at 42, able to find what to wear so I can properly inhabit my body.Become a Patron!
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