Costuming, Norms, Social Performance, and Media Reinforcement Thereof

One of the many things that I’ve been tossing around in my brain lately is a complex series of thinkythoughts about costuming and performance, very much tied in with ideas about gender performance. When I was guest posting at Feministe, I wrote a post discussing media reinforcement of the norms surrounding costuming, performance, and gender, and suffice it to say that there is a lot more where that came from because this is a complex and highly nuanced issue, one that unfortunately a lot of people don’t bring very much nuance to in discussions about it.

Costuming is fraught and complex, and sometimes it seems like there is no way to win. There are a lot of attitudes in prescriptive feminism about how the clothes that people wear are somehow capitulating to the patriarchy, except that sometimes it seems like all clothes are tied in to the patriarchy. If you cover or wear modest dress you are letting the patriarchy win. If you wear feminised clothing, you are performing for the patriarchy. Going nude isn’t an option either. And, conversely, you have the staunch choice feminists declaring that whatever they are wearing at a given moment is completely free of loaded social implications because they are choosing to wear it.

And, of course, none of these lively and sometimes entertaining debates touch, at all, upon the struggles with costuming for transgender people and people of nonbinary gender. Dressing for me is a loaded choice. Sometimes I want to femme up, because I am feeling femmey and because I really like to play with garments like dresses and skirts. To do so is to erase my gender identity, however; I will be read as a woman. I struggled greatly recently when I was trying to decide what to wear on the trip to the City because I wanted to be comfortable and I knew it would be hot, and the clothes I had that were most suitable were highly femmey; I ended up in a dress and heels and was pleased with my choice, even though I was well aware that people were reading me as a Woman On Display since the dress showed a fair amount of cleavage.

Sometimes I feel more androgynous. I put on a binder (haha, as though anything could contain the Rack of Doom) and I wear a suit. I don’t really have a body that plays nicely with clothes specifically designed for men, but I can wear things that have been artfully tailored and sometimes with my hair in a ponytail and a bowler hat on I reach that delicious,┬ádelirious, high state for me, where it is readily apparent that people are trying to gender me and failing, cannot decide which side of the binary I fit on. That is the kind of costuming I love the best, the kind that affirms my gender identity and who I am, that makes me feel alive and right with the world because I have become unreadable.

Costuming and gender performance are complex. They do not happen inside a vacuum. They cannot. Having a body that is easily read as female is a privilege because it allows me to subside into the background in unsafe spaces. I can wear a skirt and a frilly top and I am read as ‘female’ and I am not threatening, I am quiet and small and just being in a space doesn’t endanger me. I hate that. I hate it because I think that no one should be forced to compromise between safety and identity, between happiness and security, because every time that I am casually misgendered, forced onto the binary and pinned there, I feel like I am being flayed alive.

And thus I watch the disputes that erupt over costuming with a great deal of curiosity. To me, costuming is a fascinating and complex thing. It is performance. It is survival. It can be fun. It can be pure, unadulterated misery, the trans man putting on a dress and pearls to go to work because he’s not out, the lawyer who feels comfortable in sweats squeezing into a pair of pumps and a pencil skirt to appear in court, the paramedic fighting the poorly tailored uniform that does not fit and will not fit and hating the exposure that comes with it.

Clothing isn’t simple. It’s not as simple as ‘if you choose to do [this], you are capitulating to the patriarchy.’ When we live in a world where survival is still very much predicated by costuming no matter what people in privileged bubbles seem to think, I am the last one to police how people choose to dress. I am the last one to question gender performance when my relationship with my own gender performance is so complicated and I hate the gendering that goes along with so many clothes.

When I wear heels, it’s not a neutral act. But it’s not quite the act that some people seem to think it is. Until we can break out of these dichotomies, right/wrong, girl/boy, good/bad, feminist/antifeminist, we can’t have a serious discussion about costuming and gender performance, let alone the role that the media plays in reinforcing costuming and social performance. Until a feminist can show up for a photo shoot wearing what ou wears normally and be shot just as she is, we can’t talk about how feminists are presented in the media without being aware of the fact that everything is cultivated and curated. Nothing isn’t loaded. Nothing is as it seems, not the picture at the head of the bio, not the photographs in the glossy magazines, not the person you see walking down the street wearing a hijab.