Gender. [part 3]
[part 1] [part 2]
Fashion as gender expression.
The first time I remember thinking about gender was in middle school. I was teased about my toughskins and general gender non-conformance. Before that, I had girly clothes, but looked at them like dress-up. I had a box of hand-made fabric costumes that were colorful and spangly, and I loved them. I would wear a long floral dress because I liked the way the sleeves were shaped like butterflies. But my favorite clothing was inspired by Mork. Rainbow suspenders, jeans, a colorful shirt, and a floppy denim cap. My role model was not just not-a-girl, but not-human. (It wasn’t the humor that attracted me, as I was a pretty serious kid.)
I decided to study up on fashion, and started reading Vogue and other magazines regularly. I learned the cues. I started dressing ahead of the curve, and the most popular girls started imitating me. I developed a strong fashion aesthetic. And I started being teased for that. “Miss Vogue.” That’s when I realized that I was an outsider in some less tangible way.
Still, I approached fashion as dress-up. All through high school, people found my fashion schizophrenia either fascinating or confusing. One day, I’d be a Madonna-wannabe or gothy, the next I’d be retro-50s, the next new romantic or new wave. I was creative, and liked to re-purpose clothing. I stole several items from my dad’s closet. He has an electric purple dress-shirt he never wore. I’d pair it with a dark red tie, black pants, and then throw on his grandfather’s dressing gown—heavy, embroidered with dragons, and wear it like an overcoat. I took his old boy scout shirt, and sewed my girl scout patches onto it, and then added some pins like a peace sign, and would wear it with a headband, like a kid-version of a Vietnam vet turned hippie.
This eventually developed into something less costumy, but I never lost the sense of playing dress-up. In college, I wore a lot of men’s shirts and jackets, but often in more feminine ways. There was often a play of gender, but because I liked the playfulness of that—not usually as a conscious statement.
When I was in college, there was a period of time when I dressed up as a drag queen to go out dancing. Pleather skirt, tinsel wig, fringed gloves, false eyelashes. Or I’d wear my “Truman Capote” outfit: a suit with a massive scarf and a fedora. I was dating a gay man (who ended up becoming my commonlaw husband), and he would take me to back-room bars, where I watched while he played.
I wondered if I were a gay man in a woman’s body…and even, after my husband died, spent some time living as a gay man. It never quite fit, and I felt like I was claiming something that didn’t belong to me… like proclaiming my native American heritage, despite never being raised in those traditions. It was me/not me.
A few years later, I lost some weight and went through a highly sexually active phase. During this time, I reveled in male attention: and I learned to play up my femininity as a way of getting it. Much like I did in junior high, I studied it—but this time paying attention to things like sexual cues. I learned to walk in heels, developed a way of swinging my hips. I embraced my womanhood.
Now, I’m shifting—and, I think, finally finding a way of dressing and acting that is less reactive. Less about how others perceive me, or what reactions I get, than coming into my own. I still like dresses once in a while (and think more men would wear dresses and skirts if they knew how comfortable they can be), but mostly wear comfortable slacks, often with colorful shirts and maybe a bracelet. It is a casual artsy version of woman-in-a-suit.