Photo: Juniper Shalles
Photo: Juniper Shalles

Flying the Flannel

I bought my first blue plaid flannel at K-Mart—it must have been 1987 or ’88, when I was a junior in high school in small-town Illinois. Flannel is any fabric softened by brushing its fibers out into a fuzz called a “nap,” and the first plaid flannel patterns were woven in 16th century Wales from the bluish, white, brown, and black wool from a muted rainbow of sheep. My cheap flannel was cotton with the plaid pattern printed on, and therefore it was a copy of a copy of a copy, as removed from the original as a Xeroxed image of a photograph.

I sort of knew my high school flannel was fake because I’d seen other plaid shirts—sold in upscale outdoorsy stores—that were made from real thread in different colors woven together. I liked the thinness of mine, like I like other fake things I was born into, things I shouldn’t like but do that remind me of the Midwest: Hamburger Helper, mac and cheese from a box, fries from the freezer, food extruded, mass-produced, and wrapped in plastic.

I think flannel would not mind that its essence has been copied, as flannel forgives.

 

In the 1980s Midwest, flannel typically meant metal dudes, but the metal dudes had earned the flannel from their blue-collar fathers. A flannel at school instead of a button-down meant, I want to be comfortable, and this is my dad’s, and Yes, it’s worn and dirty and that’s me, so fuck you. We all stole our clothes from our dads and our older brothers. We all shopped at K-Mart, except for the rich kids.

I was using this fabric to cross over into something, either into boy-land or into the land that was rough: the land of working with one’s hands, the land that was invisible and fading as the Rust Belt withered around us.

The first time I wore my flannel to school, I was hiding the tiniest of rebellions. It covered a T-shirt upon which I’d hand-lettered with fabric paint a message about the perils of nuclear war. I’d copied the quote from a library book, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth: “We look away. We remain calm. We are silent. We hope that the holocaust won’t happen.” Kids in my high school did not wear T-shirts with slogans to save the world. My farm-town high school was known primarily for its football team and its strict discipline, which might be the perfect Red Dawn epitome of the Reagan Years. A Ché Guevara shirt, if anyone had known the face or what it meant, would have earned a suspension or a busted lip. So I covered my rebellion with a flannel for safety. Flannel was an envelope, and my sternum was a shy billboard I could flash and hide. Flannel bulked me up, hid my body, yet let me choose when and what to reveal.

That day, I remember hunching my shoulders as I walked near the school office, pulling the flannel around me. I got into trouble in those days, like everyone did. I was once threatened with suspension for asking why we didn’t have a school newspaper, but I was also an anxious Honors student, a good girl. I walked toward the science hall and the auto shop where the stoners and shop guys hung out—also decked in flannel. We were deep in the corn grid of the Midwest where it ran up against the grid of south Chicagoland. If there was a map to our future and our options, it might well have been as squared and segmented as the intersecting lines across our backs: We were to head straight, turn only at right angles, and not expect too much in the way of variation.

 

Years later, a boyfriend would tell me I should show my body more, that I hid in baggy jeans and big shirts. But that boxiness was freedom.

I’d bought that first flannel in the men’s section of K-Mart, after all, returning to my tomboy roots after a few years of spending my money on the bizarre 1980s Coca-Cola logo apparel, Ocean Pacific T-shirts, and over-zippered jackets and shirts. Flannel appeared as a passageway out, a way to go back.

In high school, a few boys and girls had started wearing the neat New Wave fashion of pressed shirts with the top button closed at the throat. Boys and girls looked the same, with blotches of lipstick and eyeliner on whitened faces. I loved the Cure, but my body wanted more of a mess. The electronica of Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys and their neatly composed outfits lived in a clean space, and next door was where we flannel-clad lived. I must have seen flannel stretched across the shoulders of guitar players whose cassettes I bought—Yo La Tengo and the Pixies and the Replacements. I leaned in to listen and watch their images on the television screen, hoping to decode in the videos any signal that might lead me to a future beyond the girl writhing on the hood of a car in a Whitesnake video. In the music we saw ourselves as something, and flannel came to stand for whatever that something was.

Flannel hid the shape of a woman, yet it revealed as we pushed our breasts against its grid; it protected us from scrutiny. Inside flannel’s soft tent, I could pause and breathe. Days in flannel were the days in which my body would not be sized up nor my energy drained in appeasing responses to flirting and banter. Flannel did not save me, but it stayed with me as a reminder: claiming my own space was possible.

 

The smell of flannel—a musty sweetness—entwines with another vanished smell: the particular plastic smell of unwrapping the shrink-wrap from a new cassette, the slight give as you fold open the case, the cassette itself so new it almost seems moist, just born; then you pop it into the cassette player on the dashboard and it speaks, it sings, while you slip out the liner notes, folded over and over like a note passed in school, to read the lyrics, the acknowledgments, the secret messages meant only for you in the shelter of your dirty car.

I purchased my first Sex Pistols cassette at Sam Goody’s in the mall in Joliet when I was in eighth grade. A few weeks before, a semi-scary boy in my class held his headphones up to my ears and let me hear the melodic screaming. I listened and immediately loved it, which made no sense, because I had also been a devoted fan of Huey Lewis and the News. But the screaming and tonal almost-chanting—“I…wanna beeeeee…anarchy!”—opened a flower in my chest I had not known was closed. I wanted to be fierce; I wanted the map for that. I loved that angry sound, which cut through the sleepiness of Precious Moments figurines and cheerleader tryouts and student council and eyeshadow and Love’s Baby Soft. So I became a Mathlete who loved the Dead Kennedys, a mall rat who dutifully asked her mom if she could go to punk shows and stayed home when Mom said no—which was probably not too punk rock of me.

Last year while my husband and I were driving, he had a right-wing hate-spew radio station on. He enjoyed listening to them as comedy, but I often found myself yelling at them as if they could hear me, like a dog barking at a UPS truck. On that day, the host Andrew Wilkow made a comment that he was fond of punk music.

I sat up straight and pounded the dashboard with my fist and yelled at the radio, “You can’t talk about punk rock!”

I flamed with rage as if my nation had been invaded. I could almost feel the tiny particles of spit winging their way toward the radio as I shook my head like a dog flapping its jowls. My husband looked over with his eyebrows up. I sat back, wide-eyed. We both laughed nervously, regarding me as if I had grown another head: The Punk Rock Nationalist.

Who can talk about punk rock? I tell him punk has never been right-wing, but of course I am wrong. I only have to remember scowling at the skinheads with the red shoelaces pogoing at shows in Minneapolis. Yet I know I am also right.

I myself have sneered at the narrow constraints of punk culture, if it even exists anymore, the conformity in non-conformity. Whatever. Screw punk if it would ever tell me I wasn’t punk rock. I will fight anyone for the right to be part of a nation that never wanted to be a nation.

 

The official shorthand is that flannel equals grunge. But the punk kids I knew decorated their flannels with spikes, drew on them, layered their ripped flannels under their leather jackets. Grunge was not a name I heard until later. There was “punk” and there was “alternative” and there was “metal.” Bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana were “Seattle” but also kind of “metal” (Soundgarden) or “punk” (Nirvana). They all fit loosely under the term “alternative,” which I would argue encompassed any band that appeared on the MTV show “120 Minutes.”

Michael Lavine, who co-wrote the 2009 book Grunge with Thurston Moore, claims that the music that would later be identified as “grunge” ruled from 1983 to 1993. A Wikipedia entry says of flannel shirts: “popular grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam us[ed] them as one of their trademarks of their shaggy look,” but Lavine writes that flannel wasn’t packaging or trademark: “that was just how they dressed.” In Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge, Kyle Anderson writes about the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “One of the things that stands out is the fact that Kurt is wearing a flannel shirt. Soon flannel would become a generic identifier for all the kids who were embracing ‘slacker’ culture, but that wasn’t true when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was made.”

That video came out in 1991. At the time, I’d been wearing flannel studiously for four years, as had many kids around me. This timeline confusion underlines that tender time in my life when I was trying to map out where I fit, in a place that is often invisible, among a group of people who are often thought to mean not much at all.

The grunge era embraced slacker culture, but few cultural retrospectives mention the backdrop of the bombs raining on Iraq during Operation Desert Shield, which lasted from August 2, 1990 to January 17, 1991. Analysis of “slacker” culture rarely captures the protests against the Gulf War or rarely raises the question of whether young people felt hopeless in the face of a shock-and-awe war as televised spectacle—in other words, what “slackers” wanted to drop out of.

The United States continued the legacy of geographic protectorates in order to assure its supply of oil from the Middle East. In the early 1990s we shipped our young people over to Iraq with their Pearl Jam and Nirvana cassettes; who knows if any of them brought flannels with them. The ones who weren’t fighting watched from our living rooms as Dan Rather broadcast with stunning traces of light behind him as the bombs of a “shock and awe” attack rained down. We pulled our flannels tight around our shoulders that winter, not knowing that the word “flannel” can also be a verb, meaning “to talk evasively to; flatter in order to mislead.”  We came into flannel in a time of war, as the Cold War bled seamlessly into our endless intrusions in the Middle East. We stood on street corners with our wilting signs for peace in the driving snow. Before the age of the Internet, we watched on the evening news for coverage of our carefully planned demonstrations and huge marches, and we saw nothing. We learned how to write press releases about the anti-war demonstrations that we faxed off into the void. We were called “slackers” because we dressed down and wanted to opt out, but we only slacked in depression and exhaustion after screaming to be heard. My generation cried into our flannel shirts, understanding that childhood had been over for a long while.

 

The nice thing about a cheap flannel shirt was that, for a time, it was all you needed: nightgown, shirt, jacket, handkerchief, napkin, robe, sweater. Flannel was my animal skin. When I left home for college, flannel’s muted colors allowed me to blend into various new flannel flocks. From neo-hippie geology majors and environmental activists to the punk-rock and alternative crowds at the music shows in Minneapolis to the anarchists. The women all wore tank tops with no bras and, of course, a flannel over the top. They used the sleeves as the ends of a knot, securing the flannel around their middles. The blue jeans of my twenties were practically falling off my ass, more holes than cotton fabric, but my superpowers—what little I had—were contained in the girdle of a flannel, its sleeves knotted around my waist, its bulk hanging behind me like a cape. The extra layer of fabric around my hips felt like protection, and the girl I was at twenty could tie a flannel around her waist and rock.

“Flying the Flannel” is a song by a band named fIREHOSE. I flailed and head-banged to that and other songs at their show in Minneapolis, maybe in 1992, and as soon as the club got steamy with sweat I’d take the sleeves and over-under them into a knot at my pelvis. I pulled a muscle in my neck from headbanging and pogoing. Afterward, we stepped into the cold, frozen and soaked and heated and steaming and laughing, shining under the street lamps.

Sweating and headbanging at First Ave. in Minneapolis, you could soak through a tank top or t-shirt, and even the flannel around your waist would get soaked with the sweat that poured from your body in the whirling mosh pit flung with glistening limbs. There was the joy of collision with no obligation. You could be physical, ecstatic as a Sufi, and it wouldn’t matter for a second that you were a girl. We danced with our elbows out to jab muscled assholes who got too violent. We laughed at stories about girls who brought hatpins to the pit to poke at jerks who thought dancing was Fight Club. Flannel was the closest thing to a flag of my nation, a nation that does not exist, a nation I feel the ultimate nostalgia about because it was never claimed territory.

Now flannel is quaint, old enough to be a set-piece, like wearing a monocle—or reclaimed as an element of the “lumbersexual” look. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency published “List: Positions of the Kama Sutra for Midwesterners,” which made fun of Midwesterners for wearing flannel “unironically.” Does a certain segment of the country shoulder a garment not knowing that the garment speaks, that the garment is a sign? I believe that even those who wore it for warmth and functionality knew it was a kind of flag: of class, of hard work. Then we chose it, the secondary nation—but not for the sake of irony. We chose it out of love for where we came from. Copying is not irony. Copying can be tribute. Copying is making something new from what you have.

If my flannel shirt could have sung a song, it would have been gridded like the fretboard of a guitar, a song criss-crossed with strains of social class and region and ruralism mixed with its opposite—kids trying to create art and doing things that maybe their working and lower-middle-class parents would freak out about. Yet those kids, if I am right, might have said that flannel did not mean making fun of where they came from. Instead flannel was used to make something new without jettisoning the marks of class and work.

If there was irony at all in a flannel as it was worn by these bands, I believe the shirt and its lumberjack reputation turned into a question when worn by Fugazi, who sang songs urging people to wake up, to stop treating girls like shit, or even the Dead Milkmen with their plaintive mayhem, or even Kurt Cobain with his dresses. The question was whether there could ever be a different kind of man than the men our boys were being grown to become, and a different kind of woman.

These days my flannels rest like old dogs in a bin in my closet, and I don’t wear them much. Sliding my arm through a flannel sleeve is tiring, like riding time backwards—the shirt becomes a demanding friend that wants me to live on the edge. I shake one out on an overcast day when I have forgotten who I am. The flannel comforts but also urges me to be the woman I dreamed I would become.

When I slip on a flannel, I feel the cape too, a reminder of fully inflated lungs, elation, and anarchistic joy. I also feel the wistful sadness of the girl who needed to hide from so much. I am that girl still, the one who might not have imagined how the grid and the shapes of the future would adhere to her body.

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1 Comment

  • Kirk Wisland says:

    I love this essay. I was a little closer to New Wave than Flannel, but I’m sure we moshed at the same early-90s First Ave shows…

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