How Plaid Helped Shape My Queer Identity

Writer Erica Lenti talks about her very first plaid shirt, what inspired the purchase and how it helped her find her teenage queer self

Lenti’s very first plaid shirt

When I was 14, all of my idols wore plaid. Twin sister indie duo Tegan and Sara often sported comfy flannels, monochrome in colour and buttoned up to their necks, sleeves rolled. Ellen Page wasn’t out yet, but still rocked a collection of reds and blues layered over crew necks. And every cute lesbian on Tumblr seemed to own a plaid shirt in every colour of the rainbow.

I wanted to be part of the plaid club. It was 2007, I had just come out to my mother, and I was dating a girl for the first time. And while my friends dressed in all-black everything (it was the height of the emo era), I gravitated toward the colourful pattern.

Wearing plaid, as the stereotype goes, is a lesbian identifier—and one that helped me own that part of my identity. Before embracing the tried-and-true print, I was decked out in my brother’s hand-me-downs, shopping in the boy’s department for ball caps and baggy Adidas track pants. As I got older, I wanted a style that fit somewhere between my tomboy aesthetic and my burgeoning femininity. The plaid shirt was the perfect medium during those early days: The patterns were basic. The colour schemes were subtle, simple. And the shirts would fall on a unisex border, helping me keep one foot in the female dress that society (and, more significantly, my high-school peers) expected of me and another wading into the world of butchier male aesthetic.

My coming-out journey was not an easy one, overshadowed by Catholic school bullies who whispered on our bus rides home and vandalized my locker. There was no escaping their hatefulness; I couldn’t change my sexual identity—but I could own it. So I decided to embrace the stereotypes, because in the throes of high school torment, it seemed easier to box myself in than to explain the emotional nuances of coming out. I would don my gay uniform like armour: plaid shirts and any band tees featuring queer artists that I could get my hands on.

So on a cold Sunday in 2007, I walked into Stitches—a fast-fashion boutique you used to find in every suburban mall—in the north Toronto shopping centre where I spent my weekends, determined to find my first plaid shirt.

Hanging on a rack beside the cash desk, I spotted it: navy-and-white checked, in a diagonal pattern, distressed with black buttons. I would pair it with my American Apparel hoodie, my tight black jeans, and my slip-on Vans sneakers. I would walk around my high school looking like my idols.

With plaid, what you see is what you get. There are no frills. It’s how I wanted to feel about my sexual identity—I wanted to be nonchalant about it, to allow a single, simple garment to define one of the most complex parts of me, despite the fact that coming out was the most trying and difficult process of my young life. It also represents coziness and comfort, and in that way embodies what I longed for as a teen freshly out of the closet: I wanted to be part of the queer community, and feel comfortable with my identity.

As New York-based journalist and editor June Thomas points out, queer women were often the first among urban women to wear more “masculine” apparel—trousers, dress shirts, denim—making plaid part of our heritage. “Jeans and flannel shirts were one of the first outfits that [lesbians] could get away with wearing on the streets of the city” during the 1940s, Thomas adds. Traditionally associated with lumberjacks and farmhands, plaid signifies a certain rugged strength and power.

It’s also a more temporary signifier of sexual orientation than past ones: If lesbians in the ’40s and ’50s got nautical star tattoos to identify themselves to one another, lesbians today can throw a flannel shirt over a white tee and ripped jeans à la the L Word’s Shane as a nod to their sexuality. (In recent years, plaid became more of a fast-fashion trend, making the rest of the stereotypical lesbian ensemble—beanies, baggy jeans, overalls, and so on—all the more important.)

A decade later, I have accumulated dozens more plaid shirts, in an array of colours, textures and materials. But my love for plaid is no longer rooted in the lesbian stereotype. Instead, it tells the story of my growth since I purchased that first shirt more than a decade ago. It’s part of my history, but it’s also part of the history of many queer women.

A friend of mine jokes that a Google search of “lesbian plaid” will yield millions of results, a history of our greatest fashion staple. And a quick scan of social media is proof: “Plaid is the official clothing of the lesbian community,” jokes one user on Twitter. “My school outfits consist of band merch and plaid shirts, and if that doesn’t make me a lesbian then I don’t know what does,” writes another. It’s a bond, whether grounded in humour or not, that brings the community together. It’s something I’m reminded of each time I button up my favourite flannel.