Sometimes, the clothes hanging in the closet hold dreams about who we could become.
Clothing is powerful: just as a carefully rolled cuff might speak to an eye for subtlety, or a tiny gold nose ring, a wayward edge, the sweep of a neckline might be a first step toward finally saying "I am a woman."
In the closet, somewhere between the favorite dresses and perfectly worn-in t-shirts, hand-me-downs, this-old-things, and pieces never worn but somehow impossible to throw away, ideas also live. Clothes can help answer questions about who we are, what we value, and what we want to express to the world.
Clothing is an imperfect vehicle to communicate something as complex as identity, and an outfit can misfire. But it’s often the mistakes, the gaps, that can communicate something unknown.
Five people across New Hampshire and Maine open their closets and explain the choices behind their clothing.
On a chilly fall Saturday at Teatotaller, a cafe in Somersworth, Palana Belken threw a clothing swap.
Typically, clothing swaps are informal get-togethers among friends. People bring the clothes hanging in their closets that no longer fit or that they never seem to wear; people try on each other's clothes; and hopefully, everyone goes home with a couple great new pieces.
But Belken's Out of the Closet Pop-Up Swap series is a little different. A collaboration with Feminist Oasis, the events are free and open to the public, but are specifically intended to serve the LGBTQ community in a way that department stores often don’t.
"It’s like... this is the men's section, this is the women's section. There’s no feminine men's section, masculine women’s section, you know? The labels don't do people much good," Belken explained. "The clothing here is not sorted by gender, just by size."
Belken is the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program Organizer at the ACLU-NH and former manager of Teatotaller —she's actually still listed as "Her Majesty" on the staff webpage.
With these clothing swaps, Belken is trying to meet a need that she sees in the community, a need especially acute for transgender people as they’re beginning their gender transition.
"Looking like you want yourself to look is really important," said Belken. "Some people do face that obstacle of not being able to afford a bunch of clothes once they start their transition, and also people who are transitioning are typically throwing out a whole bunch of clothes of another gender."
A gender transition often requires investment in new clothes, while simultaneously purging closets of items that only fit a former gender expression. It's an expensive process, but these parallel cycles could support one another better, Belken says, and she's hoping to bridge that gap with her clothing swap.
"On top of looking at your therapist bill, your doctor bill, you're getting bloodwork done, you need these new medications... you need an entire new wardrobe, which is something most people don't refresh very often," said Belken. "And it is week by week, you’re like, 'what can I afford?' I'm gonna get two pairs of pants this week, that’ll be great. Next week I can get a couple shirts that'll be more of a feminine fit for myself. We're hoping to accelerate that process for some people today."
Belken, a transgender woman, turned over her own wardrobe about three years ago. The last "male-designed" collared shirt she ever purchased was a grey-green collared shirt patterned with foliage.
"I never really even wore it. I got it and pretty quickly after I was like, 'alright, I'm done with ties. I'm done with collared shirts,'" she said.
The shirt hung in her closet, practically brand new, until Belken thought that maybe it could find another life through community: perhaps the shirt would find its way to someone embarking on a gender transition themselves. So, she donated it to the swap.
"It feels so good to get rid of this shirt," she said. "I just wouldn't wear it. It's not my thing."
"Not in my wildest dream did I think I'd become such public figure as I am today," said Gerri Cannon, a transgender woman living in Somersworth.
"I was a person that hid in the shadows. I didn't want people to see me because I wasn't comfortable with myself," continued Cannon. "Now I'm proud of who I am and I let people know. A lot of times, it’s through the clothes I wear."
In January 2019, Cannon became the Honorable Gerri Cannon, New Hampshire State Representative for Strafford County District 18. She loves the community in Somersworth, having settled in the city after a thirty year career at a computer company and stints as a master carpenter and a truck driver.
But before she settled in Somersworth, she raised a family, living and presenting as a man for decades.
"I didn't come out until I was 45, 46... somewhere in that range," said Cannon. "I had known since I was a teenager that I was different. That was back in 1960s. I said, 'you know, this is something that's just wrong with me. It'll go away. I'll graduate from high school. I'll go off to college. I'll get married. We'll have kids.' At each of the points, I said, 'it will go away.'"
It didn’t go away.
Sometimes in these years, when she was alone, Cannon would crossdress.
"When I had free moments, if I was home alone or if I was on the road, I'd go off and buy some women's clothing and just be myself if I was sitting in a hotel room," said Cannon. "Trying to get out of that hotel room for the longest time. I'd open the door, I'd go to walk out, and it was like there was a big pane of bullet proof glass that I couldn't get past."
At first, Cannon says she often chose to buy and wear skirtsuits.
"I was a business professional. As a guy, I wore three piece suits and ties every day, until they relaxed the standards," she said.
But occasionally, "there were also the short skirts and fishnet stockings and all that," said Cannon. "You go through puberty all over again, but in another gender and twenty or thirty years older."
"It's funny to be almost thirty years old and three years into puberty." Palana Belken
Others also described the experience of a second puberty, including Palana Belken at the Teatotaller clothing swap. After renouncing menswear and drab pot-leaf-patterned collared shirts, she bought a bright orange Victoria Beckham mod dress.
"There's a few months right at the beginning where you look like a highlighter every day because you're like, 'I'm gonna do whatever I want!' and then you balance it out," said Belken. "You have to be the teenage version of yourself at least for a few months, if not for a few years."
When 30-year-old Reya Jasmin transitioned to a woman's wardrobe, she attempted to communicate a strong sense of femininity in her outfits—but sometimes, she overdid it.
"I had a couple of really ugly long skirts. They were very Little House on the Prairie. They just are not my style," said Jasmin. "No offense to anyone whose style it is! But they don’t look good on me, and they are just not for me."
"We will pick the wrong sizes. We will wear things that are too tight... lots of spandex stuff. It's like... 'no, girl. Don’t do that,'" said Cannon, laughing. "Some things you think are really cool and cute, and then you realize I can't wear that out in public."
A wonderful part of being a woman
At 66, Cannon chooses to factor her age into her fashion decisions. She describes her style as upscale, and she makes an effort to look good every day, even if she's just sitting at home. Her closet is full of swing skirts, lace-trimmed tops, floral-printed dresses, and delightfully soft sweaters.
"I do love clothes that make me feel good, the soft things. The wonderful part of being a woman is you can wear those things," said Cannon, gesturing to an elegant ivory-colored sweater. "I could wear a pink shirt as a guy and pull it off... but to wear something as pretty as that sweater, you never could."
Jaycen, or Jayce, Daigle introduces himself as an Aquarius. He lives in Eliot, Maine, and will turn 31 this winter. A bartender, guitarist, and explorer of holistic wellness, his style is laid-back with an edge. On one January afternoon before heading to work, he wore gauged earrings adorned with tiny octopuses, blue jeans, and a longsleeve maroon t-shirt that matched his stone necklace—plus a baseball cap.
"Always been a hat person, since I was a kid," said Daigle. "I always make a joke that I've had a hat on since I came out of the womb."
Daigle is a transgender man.
"My mother, from a very young age, always told me that I was just a tomboy: I was a girl who liked boy things and that was okay," Daigle explained. "Because she gave me tomboy to hold onto, I just held onto that, and I never questioned my gender."
"The crazier the style, the cooler the person, in my opinion."
As a teenager, Daigle recalls that he'd ride his bike to the skate park at 6 a.m., skate for an hour and a half, go to school, and then come right back to skate until dark. His mother took him shopping at Hot Topic. He wore band t-shirts and parachute pants, and played guitar in a band called All Else Fails.
"It was a music thing. I was really into Ozzy Osbourne," said Daigle. "I dyed my hair hot pink and platinum blond, which matched the hot pink of my guitar, so that was quite the statement."
"That was all I did. I spent all my time just skating and playing music."
But again, he did all this while living as a girl. In his junior year of high school, Daigle got a girlfriend, but both of them had a hard time accepting the label "lesbian."
"It just didn't fit. Neither of us could really figure out why but it just didn't work for us," said Daigle. "But that's what made other people comfortable to label us as."
Daigle shrugged it off thinking, "technically you're not wrong. Whatever. It is what it is." But as Daigle lived with the label, he made a drastic change to his style.
"I went a little bit more—I don’t even want to say it. Kinda... preppy," said Daigle.
As Daigle says the word "preppy," he physically cringes. It’s clear that he does not relate to this word or look at all.
"I think it was the pressure. I didn't know that I was transgender at the time... so it very well could have been me oppressing a side of myself. If I'm going to be a lesbian, I need to show that I'm a girl with a girl, and not trying to be a boy with a girl, you know? Because at that time that wasn't a thing. I didn't even know that was possible," said Daigle.
For Daigle, the "lesbian" label presented a conflict, but since the parameters of the problem were off, his solution—to dress more like a girl—didn't fit.
"My girlfriend at the time and I really didn't know why that didn't work, but later obviously found out that she was still a straight woman who liked men, and I just happened to be a male trapped in a female's body," explained Daigle. "That's why the word lesbian didn't fit: because neither of us were lesbians."
Daigle's preppy experiment didn’t make sense, so it didn’t last long. Eventually, after he graduated from high school, another girlfriend introduced him to a documentary about growing up transgender. He recognized himself and decided to transition.
"It was like, this is me. I have to do this," said Daigle.
Uncomfortable with the feminine shape of his body, Daigle wore baggy t-shirts until he discovered binders: compression vests that flatten the chest. It was "a savior to get back to my old style," Daigle said, allowing him to wear well-fitting t-shirts until he got top surgery.
Daigle spent the rest of his twenties working in restaurants and travelling before returning to Maine. These days, he keeps his closet tidy and orderly—a row of flat-bill skater hats, a collection of stone necklaces hanging above the mirror, a little tin of gauges—everything out in the open and on display.
"I'm finally at a point in my life where what I wear isn't a thing anymore," said Daigle. "I mean, it is! But now I have all the clothes that I genuinely want."
"I don't want to fit in society's box."
Daigle's openness and comfort seems present in other parts of his life, too. For instance, he specifically identifies not as a man, but as a transman.
"A lot of the world would be like, well, why don’t you just call yourself a man? Why would you identify as transgender man? You pass. You’ve had surgery. Your documents all say male. Why do you still identify as a transgender male and not just a man?" said Daigle.
Daigle explained that putting "trans" in front of the word "man" is a stamp of pride. Perhaps after being mislabeled as a tomboy and lesbian, he refuses to be reduced to the wrong label again. For him, removing “trans” from his identity would be a form of erasure.
"My personality completely reflects the fact that I was once a woman, and an adult woman at that. I was 19, almost 20 years-old when I transitioned," Daigle said. "I had already been respected and disrespected just for being a woman. Now I've been respected and disrespected as a man, simply for being a man. To slight either of those experiences by just fitting me into this box society wants me to fit in just doesn’t make sense."
Reya and Maggie Jasmin live in Plaistow, New Hampshire, with their three-year-old toddler, Alex. For them, Reya's gender transition was a journey they went through together, as a couple. Reya, 30, began her transition just last year.
"Clothes really started it for me. Clothes were what helped me realize who I was," said Reya.
One night, the Jasmins had a few friends over for a casual evening of video games, "dumb Youtube videos," and makeup. Reya had expressed an interest in women's clothing, so one of their friends brought a few pieces for her to try on.
"Oh, boy. I was wearing a black corset with black tights and knee-length pleather heeled boots," Reya said.
"And a miniskirt," Maggie added. "A black leather miniskirt."
"It was definitely an adjustment because I had never seen her in women's clothes before, never mind something with cleavage," said Maggie, laughing. "So, it was definitely something that took a hot minute to get used to. For me, it was not an automatic, 'oh wow, that's cool.' It was: 'whoa, okay'. This is something that I need to think over and patch into my idea of who I'm married to."
It was a big change, but Maggie wasn’t starting from zero: she’s non-gender-conforming in the way she dresses.
"My closet... I have lace shirts and dresses, but I also have suits," said Maggie. "There are definitely days when I go boy-mode. I have a snapback on and a button-down, and I look like a bad boyfriend in the summertime."
On the day we met, Maggie wore high-waisted orange velvet pants and a white crop-top tee with the word "BABES" on repeat in block letters. She describes her style as “futch”—a combination of femme and butch—and she’s pretty deliberate in the how those aesthetics can be used to send a message.
"If I don’t want anyone to talk to me, I will dress like trash," said Maggie.
Often, she says, these outfits and attitudes fall on gendered lines, especially in southern New Hampshire.
"It was like finally finding clothes that fit after wearing too tight clothing for all your life, or maybe seeing color for the first time." Reya Jasmin
Maggie was already quite aware of how deeply gender, clothes, and identity intersect, so after Reya officially came out as trans, and after a few months of conversation, she nudged Reya to finally make the leap to start Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
"She could tell I was ready, and she was ready, but I was waiting for no reason," said Reya. "She was like, just do it."
It was time to build a whole new wardrobe from scratch. The process was novel not only because of her transition, but also because Reya had been totally disinterested in fashion: when she wore men's clothing, she says her wardrobe was mostly work clothes and slouchy weekend wear.
"I was wearing the wrong clothes. I was wearing clothes that were just completely not made for me. They were made for men, and I wasn't," she said.
Maggie along with Reya’s mom took her shopping.
"The two of us would just be throwing things into the dressing room, like, 'try this, do you need another size? Try this!' So it was a lot of fun," said Maggie. "It was a lot of trying to get her to express, 'yes, I like this' [or], 'no, I don't think I like this,' and say what I could see on her face when she came out of the dressing room. If she came out of the dressing room, she was kind of slouching or wasn't looking happy, I could tell that was not the right garment. But when she would come out of the dressing room and she was standing a little bit taller, then I knew that was something we should probably get and take home."
"I think it was and still is a struggle," said Reya. "Part of it is just trying to figure out not only what I think looks good on myself, but trying to wear things that other people think look good on me, too."
"I was constantly looking especially for Maggie's approval because I wanted to make sure not only that I liked [how] I looked, but that she liked [how] I looked, too, because it's big adjustment for both of us. And I wanted to make sure, and still want to make sure, that we find each other attractive," explained Reya.
As she built her wardrobe, Reya went through a purge, sweeping her closet of almost everything from pre-transition. She did end up keeping a suit because, as she said, women look really good in suits ("I don't know if you've seen the Men In Black International trailer... everyone in it looks amazing").
As soon as Reya feels confident that she’ll pass as woman in a jacket, she’ll be wearing it.
Kim Cummings dressed in a rush on a busy afternoon of errands. Her outfit: leggings, running shoes, a pink crop-top, and a 22-inch wig.
"Very casual... besides the hair," she said.
Cummings is a 19-year-old transwoman from Somersworth, New Hampshire. She recently moved to Georgia, hoping to pursue fashion in school—Kim Kardashian is one of her major inspirations.
Cummings has a sophisticated understanding of the different levels on which clothes can function. For instance, these days she describes her style sometimes as "snatched," other times, as “mom-chic."
"For me, fashion can be ugly, but it can be kind of cute. Like ugly, tacky, cute. So that's kind of my new vibe: like, a mom that has a mini-van. She's casual and is on-the-go... so a nice mule, a nice jean, and a plain shirt," said Cummings, who, to be clear, is not a mom. "Just mom vibes always."
Cummings is a bit of a public figure in Somersworth. A long-time frequenter of Teatotaller, the cafe where Palana Belken held her clothing swap, Cummings has been featured prominently in Teatotaller’s ad campaigns, most notably on a big billboard outside of the downtown.
Cummings had not yet transitioned when she appeared on the billboards, so she appeared as a femme man, reclining in a bubble-gum-pink crop top in one photo.
Emmett Soldati and Cummings (at the time, Michael) discuss another Teatotaller billboard via Seacoastonline
"The tagline was: I like my men like I Iike my coffee," said Cummings. "And people were very shocked to see a man posing... I don’t want to say sexually, but posing in a way that a woman would. Because it wasn't a normal thing in Somersworth. It just wasn't."
"Fashion... has allowed me to feel limitless."
Cummings is a few months into her transition now, but her style has been pretty feminine since at least sixth grade.
"My first conscious, I guess, rebellion with clothing was probably short shorts," said Cummings. "I was just like, 'I don't want to wear long shorts. I'm not about to do that.' So, I think they were from Kohl's or something. They were men's originally. They were a khaki, so I rolled them up so they looked like girl shorts. And that was my style in sixth grade. Probably wasn't the best, but it improved."
After short shorts came crop tops, and then heels.
"Growing up, I always felt just not as masculine," said Cummings. "I can recall texting my friend and telling him that I wanted to to wear heels. I think it was Kim Kardashian's gold strappy heels or something, and I texted him a pic."
But even after receiving support and affirmation from a friend, Cummings said she felt ashamed. She held off on the heels for months, building her courage.
"With anything, I always say, fear means go. You have to do it. Anything I was scared about, I felt like I would have to do, so might as well just do it," said Cummings.
The day finally came when Cummings couldn't wait any longer. It was summer and she was in Charlotte Russe.
"I got these bootie heels that I wouldn't wear now. They were zipper-up, a little chunk wood wedge. Matte black. I can recall leaving the store—I was like, 'oh my god, did i just buy these? No way,'" said Cummings.
They sat in her closet for two weeks, until she says she just had to wear them.
"I can recall coming down my stairs, and I was like, 'oh my god, this is it," said Cummings. "So, clonking down my stairs and then my sister sees me. She's like... 'what are you wearing?' And I'm like, 'it is what it is!'"
Cummings left the house to meet up with friends. They loved the look.
"That’s what fashion originally was for me... conquering my fears," said Cummings.
"It's like this rush. It's this head rush, it's this body rush. You're like: I am invincible. It's almost magic, honestly."