Beyond the Binary: Getting Dressed

This is a bit of a Western-centric entry in this series, because my experiences lie primarily in the West, where clothing is very much gendered. Thanks to the imposition of Western values on other societies, I think that gendered clothing is probably becoming more of an issue in places where it probably wasn’t in the past, but because the West is what I know, that’s what I’m talking about today.

Clothing. We all need it, for a wide variety of reasons ranging from adornment to conformation with social norms. Chances are reasonably high that you have at least a small array of clothes in your house. You might have some schlubby pants for hanging around the house and doing various messy projects, you have some nicer stuff for going out, perhaps even some fancy dress and formal stuff for more serious occasions. If you’re a cis binary, you’re pretty familiar with the clothes you are supposed to be wearing, because you’ve been raised with them. They might not always be comfortable and you might not always like them, but they aren’t likely to cause a gender crisis when you put them on.

The gendering of clothing goes far beyond “skirts are for girls and pants are for boys,” although this is an obvious example of gendering. Buttons are on different sides in men’s and women’s clothing. Cuts are very different, with women’s garments tending to have a more fitted, tailored look, while men’s tend to be looser. Many clothing manufacturers make “unisex” and “women’s” clothing, underscoring the idea that “women’s clothing” is different and special and unique. Women’s clothing tends to be made with different colors, patterns, and textiles. Chances are high that, seeing something on a hanger, you can tell if it’s meant for a man or a woman.

Now, I do know some cis men who sometimes wear “women’s” clothing, for a variety of reasons. And I know lots of cis women who wear “men’s” clothes because they’re more comfortable, or because they fit better with their expression of gender identity. Some clothing stores have even capitalized on this by making “boyfriend” versions of women’s clothing; men’s clothing tailored for women, basically.

And I think that lots of people play with clothes and presentation in some very fun and interesting ways. I love seeing the ways in which people express themselves through garments, and the creative adjustments to fashion that people make in a wide variety of settings. I really enjoy looking at people who have clearly put some thought into their clothes and into how they are put together, and who pull it off. Whether it’s a wild look I would never wear which works perfectly with someone’s personality and expression, or simply a well-fitted conservative suit with just a hint of flair.

But for gender variant folks, clothing can become a snarled nightmare. Because clothing plays such a critical role in gender presentation, wearing clothes that fit your gender can actually be quite dangerous. Butch women, for example, are sometimes assumed to be men because of what they are wearing, and being outed as a woman can put them in a very unsafe position. Femme men who sometimes opt to wear skirts or other “feminine” clothing are assumed to be gay and mocked or beaten.

I’m not a binary trans person, so I can’t really speak to that experience at all, but given the struggles I experience and have experienced over clothing, I imagine that clothing is a pretty fraught issue for at least some binary trans folks as well as other members of the trans* community. Being told from a young age that you need to wear gendered clothing which conflicts with your gender identity is nothing short of heartbreaking.

For me, clothing is a constant struggle. When I wear skirts and dresses, which I like to do, I am read as a woman. I tend to wear more female-associated clothing in general because I like it and I like the way it fits, but I hate the way that it erases my gender identity as a result of the fact that clothing is so highly gendered. I hate the way that I have to erase myself, no matter what I wear; because of my body, if I wear a dress, I’m read as highly feminine. If I wear cut-off fatigues and a tee-shirt, I’m a butch woman. If I wear jeans and a cardigan, I’m a conservative and sensible sort of woman. I am always a “she” when people see me, no matter what I wear.

I can’t dress in a way which expresses my gender identity because my gender identity is not recognized, and doesn’t really exist, in the eyes of most people. I love dressing up at home and I have tremendous fun playing with clothing and my appearance, but I dread going out. Because I know that everyone who looks at me is gendering me, and I have no visible, clear way to express my gender. I can’t carry around a sign that says “genderqueer” all the time, after all.

I want clothes to be fun. I want to be able to enjoy getting dressed, to browse freely on all the racks in the store without judgment, to get excited about putting together outfits. Instead, every trip out the door takes away another little piece of me.

4 Replies to “Beyond the Binary: Getting Dressed”

  1. Wow. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and I just wanted to say that this is a very different perspective from my own. As a cis girl, I can always count on buying clothes and it not being hard. This really made me think. Thanks for writing your blog.

  2. Oh fuck this is a fraught issue. As you note there aren’t clothes that mark your identity. Nor are there that accurately mark mine. Society and its artifacts being cissexist and binary-normative it is assumed that cis male and cis female are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive categories. (Fun Fact: I’ve run across statistics textbooks that use male and female as examples to illustrate these concepts. Jerks.)

    For trans* folk who are mostly binary this can be good in that wearing marked clothes can help keep you safe. It can be dangerous in that wearing marked clothes when you have genitals that cis binary folk assume mark you as another gender[1] can be illegal in some places. You can be ungendered and discriminated against and assaulted in all kinds of ways.

    Me personally: I have some triggers around clothing; some of my emotional abuse had to do with what I wanted to wear–which was tangled up in being gender-variant too so that’s… let’s say having an independent identity was not encouraged. Before I started coming out as trans* I was too feminine and needed to dress and act more masculine. Now I’m not feminine enough. My abusive grandmother gave me some stellar unsolicited style advice for my outwardly-lady-type self: “You don’t want to look like a whore.” Um.

    I also like to play with gendered clothes from a not-quite-fetish perspective. It’s sexy but not every time I do it is about sex is what I mean? I especially like suits and ties and look good in them. I just like it better now that it’s cross-dressing and not trying to bury who I am.

    [1] We need better language to de-center cis binary power structures because this shit is ridiculous. I want to not have things like ‘the wrong gender’ and ‘the other gender’ be the first words that come to mind and have to edit myself even more than I already do. It is somewhat frustrating.

  3. “I can’t dress in a way which expresses my gender identity because my gender identity is not recognized, and doesn’t really exist, in the eyes of most people. I love dressing up at home and I have tremendous fun playing with clothing and my appearance, but I dread going out. Because I know that everyone who looks at me is gendering me, and I have no visible, clear way to express my gender. I can’t carry around a sign that says “genderqueer” all the time, after all.”

    Do you wish that you lived in a society where certain articles of clothing or ways of wearing clothes are clearly interpreted by society at large as being genderqueer, in the same way that high heels are read feminine (for example) in Western society? Or do you disagree with the entire business of assigning gender attributes to inanimate objects?

  4. That’s a good question, joed. I personally would like to see less gendering of clothing; the high heel example is a great one, as I wear heels pretty much all the time. If things like heels/skirts/dresses were not universally read as feminine in the United States, I would find getting dressed much more pleasant because I enjoy wearing all of those things. It’s not so much that I want to have clothing which I can wear as a gender marker, but that I want clothing to stop being gendered, and that I want people not to gender automatically along a cis binary.

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