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‘How my love of trainers dug me out of depression’: On menswear, masculinity, and mental health

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Sam Diss
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For years, I dressed like absolute shit.

Age 1-7: fine. I wore primary colour jumpsuits covered in silver star-whooshes or purple trackies and orange polo shirts like I was on Barney The Dinosaur.

Age 7-13: also good. I wore a pair of Puma King astroturfs and a West Ham shirt and a huge smile for almost the entire time.

Age 14: I first flirted with the idea of being interested in fashion. I begged my parents for money, and with the little they could give me, I would buy mostly fake gear from Romford Market. I wore Nike Air Force Ones (not fake) and 110s (fake) and electric blue TN shellsuits (not fake) with white piping. I had a baby blue neoprene Schott jacket with velour lining (fake). I had my name stitched in white onto a pair of adidas Predator Mania football boots (not fake). I had white polo shirt with a Burberry checkered collar (somehow also not fake) and a gorgeous blue leather Jacobs & Co. watch with a bedazzled bezel and a multi-coloured face (so fake that I don’t even think it could tell the time). 

It was a good year that came and went quickly. Youthful naivety gave way to a hormone tsunami and I quickly retreated into myself. I begged my mum to give it all away, skin crawling at the attention it garnered.

From then on, I wore exactly as much as was required of me: dressing nice enough that I wouldn’t get picked on and beaten up but not so nice that I would get picked on and beaten up. I claimed no hobbies (save football) or subculture, no interests or forms of self-expression: I just wanted to be invisible.

Age 15-21: total shit.

That's me at sports day in 1996. I had just lost at long-jump, I think.

This toxic plain somehow manifested itself as a succession of bad haircuts and clothes that simply did not fit me and looked awful. My wardrobe was cheap denim, nylon knitwear, Superdry t-shirts, and jackets from Burton combined with a pair of oxblood pleather boat shoes.

(I was going to include a picture of myself in this attire and realised that I had deleted every single one. There weren’t many to begin with, as I was not a fan of being in photographs at that time, but there was pretty much nothing left once I’d spent an hour destroying them, diligently deleting each one off Facebook while head-locked by anxiety, usually at about 3am. So here is an artist’s interpretation of me under a pile of Superdry shirts like that bit in American Beauty to illustrate that time period.) 

Illustration by Gary Ogden.

So yeah, that was it. I wore nothing else. I just did not care what I looked like. Far from setting me free, it made me felt like a zombie.

When I left school and started work, my class and lack of further education became evident to me in a way I had not considered previously. I didn’t fit in, and the self-preservation of my school years came in handy once more. Badly-paid job after badly-paid job, working long hours for doomed shopping television channel after doomed shopping channel, cemented my creativity into a box that I left well underground. It was easier to leave it there to gather dust and ebb away than to face it.

It wasn’t until I got into writing and found a job that I enjoyed, with people from a similar background to mine (often a needle in a haystack occurrence in this industry), that I longed to express myself again.

You know how some people like to embrace their “creativity” by talking your ear off at a party about art or really, really earnestly playing the guitar at you? I started smaller. I started with a pair of grey and white Nike Roshe Run.

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There they are, look.

Probably the most maligned, played-out silhouette in recent memory. But back then, before everyone had them, they were, to me, the Dog’s Bollocks. They were my first concession to glee.

It took me about two weeks to build up the confidence to buy a pair in the first place. Even online, the idea of buying a pair of running shoes to wear with non-running clothes felt wild and exciting, almost forbidden. When they arrived, I felt that I had been let into the club with all the cool kids and it blew my mind. Here I was, this stupid kid: I didn’t need to be really tall or have big muscles or learn how to really, really earnestly play the guitar. I knew how Tumblr worked and could afford to siphon £65 off my monthly wage to buy a pair of quite plain grey mesh Nike trainers from Office. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I belonged to something: a little club for people who quite liked trainers.

I had the taste for blood and devoured blogs full of the fashion, growing fat and strong on the milk of the stylish. I became especially addicted to Fuck Yeah, Menswear - a sporadically updated men’s style blog that was self-effacing and funny, poking at everything menswear stood for while still believing in it, supporting it, and showing you the way to go. They described it as “Bespoke Knowledge for the Crispy Gentleman”, revelling in the fact that in fashion, like Hollywood, nobody really knows anything except this one secret: clothes are fun and dumb and not something to be scared of.

I know I was in a position of privilege at this time and many aren’t as fortunate. But I don’t know how I would’ve dug myself out of the depressive trench I was in without a pair of trainers for a shovel.

I was soon buying a new pair of trainers every week, not yet brave enough to branch out into fashion that sat on my body ‘proper’ but still pumping all of my money into this soul-nourishing venture. I know I was in a position of privilege at this time and many aren’t as fortunate. I was afforded the luxury of paying very cheap rent at home thanks to my supportive family, and had only beer, lunch, and travel expenses to take out of my wage packet. But I don’t know how I would’ve dug myself out of the depressive trench I was in without a pair of trainers for a shovel.

Trainers were key to me unlocking a love for fashion, as they are for many men. They’re an easy in: reasonably cheap; instantly accessible; and coming with plenty of credibility in their importance to counter-culture. You could easily brush them off as “Oh, they’re just a pair of trainers, ain’t they?” while also coveting them in private; prepping them, stroking and brushing them like a thoroughbred horse. They were an icon of Masculinity - an item of action - and yet felt like something left of that: trainers allowed me to embrace fashion in a way that felt safe from ridicule. Plus your dad could sorta get his head ‘round them.

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My dad, usually a man given to harsh life-lessoning and shouting at me for not saving money, got what I was doing straight away. He supported my making myself happy by turning my bedroom into a cardboard box warehouse full of trainers I’d only ever wear a handful of times with a wry, knowing smile and only the occasional eye on my bank statement. (I pretended not to see the already-opened letters from my bank, happy to know someone cared). My dad’s past as a man of style unfurled itself quickly, unexpectedly, like one of those pop-up tents at a festival. His background working in a vintage clothes store in pre-gentrification Shoreditch, white denim with army surplus jackets and Chuck Taylor All Stars, cowboy boots and expensive sunglasses, flashy silk socks with tasseled loafers - all, until this point, unknown to me. We thumbed through pictures; this wasn’t the man I knew now, in his worn-out polo shirts and waterproofs. This wasn’t his way of saying “I’ve been there” but it was at least a quick “I get it”.

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Without the threat of my parents kicking off at me spending most of my train fare on shoes, I decided to branch out. Investing in myself as a human being worthy of owning nice jackets. There’s a long tradition of people from a working class background overspending on clothes as a way of almost social climbing, that terrace culture call of: “No, I don't have a fancy job in the city or a new car, but I will save up and buy this very expensive coat.”

So much of my anxieties have been around barriers of entry, of feeling good enough, smart enough, cool enough, to do something. Nobody could stop me buying something that made me feel good.

But despite channeling as much Fuck Yeah, Menswear as my body could handle, entering brick-and-mortar fashion stores remained an intimidating experience. I would take a deep breath and enter, feeling the eyes of every sales assistant, every manager, every customer burning into the side of my face. I’d get really hot and have to leave immediately.

It wasn’t until I broke my clothing duck online that I began to feel confident enough to stride into a shop. The first thing I bought was a beautiful ink blue corduroy overshirt from MHL by Margaret Howell. Which I caught from an Oi Polloi 50% sale for £75. When it arrived, shabby material wrapped in tissue paper inside a branded box, I felt like I had begun assembling a uniform, a suit of armor, that I could wear in front of anyone and feel like I was cool or like I would belong. I still wear it all the time. It means so much to me, that shirt, even now as it starts to wear and thin a little at the elbows.

It was a massive turning point, opening up a world of “you know, you could be cool - or at least nobody will know you’re not cool in this”, giving me license to walk into bars without feeling judged, to meet people without feeling like they would laugh at me, to go into a trendy menswear shop without feeling like I was going to be thrown out.

So I went back to those same stores I was so scared of entering. Thankfully they all stocked trainers - still my safety blanket - so I would enter the shop and head straight for that wall. I can buy trainers, I thought to myself. I understand that I am allowed to wear trainers, that I am wearing them right now, that nobody will laugh at me for looking at trainers. Thank god for trainers. And then, once that wall was exhausted, I would… ever so subtly… sidestep across the floor… until I just... so... happened to be face-to-face with a rail of clothing. I was stealing glances at the items on their hangers like a teenager sneaking a peek at some nudey mags in the newsagents while browsing a copy of FourFourTwo.

Once I had bought one or two, I went full tilt before they could stop me. In the coming months I overcompensated and bought as many jackets, shirts, overshirts, shackets, zip-ups, topcoats, parkas, waterproofs, and windbreakers as I could: from Barbour, Our Legacy, Arpenteur, Oliver Spencer, Folk, Filson, Blurhms, Portuguese Flannel, Woolrich, Norse Projects, APC, Baracuta, Garbstore, Engineered Garments, and YMC, and one from a Japanese brand called Blue Blue Japan which was made of hand-dyed indigo twill and bled navy over every item I owned and every body part it touched.

While I almost always bought them on sale, I quickly found myself absolutely broke. I had to stop and, with their purpose served and my life in a better place, reassess my situation.

Here's me touching the top of the Louvre!

For a while I weaned myself off jackets with a few other obsessions: suit trousers; selvedge jeans; chinos; vintage sweatshirts; dozens of pairs of exactly the same pair of boxers. Luckily none took (besides the underwear) and I realised that just looking at the pictures of clothes was enough. Dissecting the styles, breaking it down to its elements, its reasons and unreasons. Why colours worked, why certain fits flattered what bits. The training wheels could come off. I felt like didn’t have to fill up a pothole with jackets anymore; feeling like I no longer had anything to prove - the hole now levelled - I could just walk over it.

I still find myself drawn to fashion in times of personal crisis. Just recently, after an afternoon fraught with frustration, I bought myself a pair of fresh Reebok Workout Vintage trainers and a black cotton blouson jacket. When I got them home, I wore both immediately, ripping them out of the packaging, sitting back on my bed and finally letting out a deep breath.

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You could think about it like smoking cigarettes when stress gets too much and maybe it fits: think about the price of a pair of Workouts like it is eight boxes of twenty fags or two big rounds of drinks, only way less detrimental to my health.

And when I feel anxiety creep up, I will abscond to the loos, slowly unlace and relace my trainers until the panic subsides, soothed by the mechanical nature of the exercise and the notion that you always know where you stand with a nice pair of trainers:

On your two feet, looking fucking great.

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Sam Diss

The Associate Editor of New Projects at ShortList, Sam enjoys making up words to annoy editors, writing features about sports, music, weird things, and cool people, and listening to Mark Morrison's 'Return Of The Mack'. He's also a fairly capable centreback. Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamDiss

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