Beyond the Binary: What to Wear, What to Wear

In discussions about nonbinary people and clothing, a lot of conversations revolve around what we should wear; how to perform or present our genders so the general public can read them, and so we can feel comfortable in our own bodies. Since clothing is highly binaristic in nature, this creates real challenges, because any clothing that we could choose to wear is going to be inevitably gendered, and it may be further gendered by the way our bodies fill it out. When I wear men’s shirts, for example, I look like a girl wearing her boyfriend’s shirt.

In my post on nonbinary body image, one of the things I touched upon was the role that antifeminity plays in perceptions of self as a genderqueer person, and, inevitably, in the way we present ourselves to the people around us. A lot of guides on ‘how to dress’ feature very masculine-coded clothing. Nonbinary people should, these guides tell us, wear pants and undershirts, ties and bowler hats, clothing that is very much associated with men. Nonbinary people should also, of course, have lean bodies with few curves and small or nonexistent breasts. There is no room in these guides for fat people or nonbinaries of medium build, for people with large breasts and curvy bodies.

Consequently, when we buy clothes and try to decide what we want to wear, we inevitably encounter snags. I’m a femme. I like wearing skirts and dresses, but I sometimes feel like I am fake, or cheating somehow, when I wear those kinds of things. I’m not doing my part for the team by wearing slacks and a blazer, although I might also wear that on some days, because I feel like it. Gender presentations that might integrate a mixture of items; say, a large, floofy skirt and an undershirt with a sportcoat, are not necessarily read as nonbinary because of attitudes about who wears femme clothing, and how it should be worn.

Fashion guides for us are inevitably limiting because they are often focused on telling us how to look more masculine. Now, some nonbinary people are masculine leaning or want to cultivate a masculine look. Which means they fit in well and feel comfortable with these guides. But for those of us who do not, or for those of us who may move fluidly through several different kinds of presentations, these guides can be a real kick to the self esteem. They can create that niggling sense in the back of your mind that you aren’t real because you don’t dress like ‘they’ tell you to.

I’d personally prefer to push coded clothing more into the neutral zone; there’s no reason men shouldn’t wear skirts and dresses, for example, that people without gender shouldn’t wear big dangly earrings or elaborate curled hairstyles. And the only way to do that is to keep pushing at those boundaries, to wear that coded clothing and deconstruct it, but this can be hard to do when your clothes send a signal against your will. If I’m wearing a dress, people read me as a woman, no matter how I adjust my hairstyle, or if I wear boots with it instead of heels, or if I wear more masculine studs in my ears to change the appearance of my face. Likewise, a masculine nonbinary person who wears jeans and a t-shirt will be read as a man.

One way to degender clothing is to see more inclusion of femme nonbinary people on sites dedicated to nonbinary fashion and identity. To celebrate femme transgender people and to showcase us in all our glory instead of hiding us away and telling us we don’t belong. For masculine genderqueer people to wear dresses when they feel like it instead of being afraid to do so because they worry about the messages it might send. To see more people who might be read on the surface as ‘male’ in skirts and dresses, heels and pearls, with fabulous hair, this would be a good thing that would break people out of the belief that the only way to do nonbinary ‘right’ is to do it in a masculine way, with men’s clothing, with breasts bound.

Clothing is such a complicated thing, and it is so coded and layered with meaning, that we can become quite snarled and tangled in it. Every now and then I convince myself that I should be wearing more clothes designed for men and I go and try some on and look dreadful, because they aren’t cut for my body, and I end up resenting my body, instead of the society that makes me feel like my body is wrong. Or the clothing manufacturers who cut clothing in very specific and limited ways. Or the community that makes it impossible for tailored clothing for queer folks to really be an option; there are places I could go in San Francisco to find clothing that will fit my body, but I can’t find that clothing here because the stores that might be willing to stock it couldn’t sell enough of it to justify the expense.

I love fashion and I love looking at fashion sites, particularly street fashion. I just wish I saw more people like me represented on them. This is partially the fault of creators who do not seek out people who look like me, and it’s partially the fault of the society that hides people like me. If you saw me walking down the street, chances are, most days, you’d think I was a woman and you wouldn’t think anything more of it. If you were a fashion spotter in the street looking for interesting transgender and queer people to photograph, you wouldn’t think to stop me and ask to take my picture.