Lessons from the non-binary clothes closet

In a moment of cultural dissonance, I stopped by a newsstand and saw, on the cover of a fashion magazine, poet Amanda Gorman in a Louis Vuitton dress with the banner: "Fashion, we missed you!" 

Then I walked a block and had my hair cut by a stylist who was wearing gender-free clothes: a crew neck tee, jeans, sneakers, beanie. Both Gorman and the stylist are striking, but presented so differently.  

From the park to the coffee shop, a noticeable segment of humanity is firmly in fleece hoodies, loose, slightly cropped trousers, fatigue jackets, boxy tees, overshirts. A dart is harder to find than a collar stay. The ubiquity of these clothes has sparked a consideration of how I express gender through what I wear.

During my late twenties through mid-thirties, I would occasionally be mistaken for a male. I was tall, small-busted, had an Annie Lennox-style cut.  (The incidents happened when I wore my anorak, I say defensively.)  The "sirs" rolled off like raindrops on waxed cotton, but one Sunday afternoon I went to a house party in my hip new Japanese denim jeans and a black tee (isn't black always appropriate?), probably with brogues. The hostess, Kate, told me later that a man asked her if I was "a boy or a girl." I doubt I ever wore those jeans again.

I was single; under that tee beat a straight heart eager to be warmed by a man's attentions. For subsequent parties, I slid into my caramel suede mini and knee-high turquoise boots: worked every time. Yes, sisters, I bought in, literally.

In those years, my friends and I welded sex to gender and expected this accord unless at an El Convento Rico drag show. Most important, though, was the matter of sexual orientation. Our routine when we spotted a potential date was to determine first if someone were single, and second, gay or straight. A common attitude toward bisexuals was that they would eventually land on one side and best friend-zoned till they declared.

We thought that clothes, hair, and gait formed a billboard that we could read even in dim light, and if we got it wrong, it was the billboard's fault for flashing erroneous information. It did not occur to us that signals might be deliberately muted, and even viewed as none of our business. Of course it was, when we were rolling up three-digit salon bills on our end of the deal. 

There were women who wore non-gendered clothing (called "unisex") and who rejected the most obvious feminine cues. They were freequenlty read as lesbians, yet another superficial act of stereotyping. As Mark Twain said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know for sure that just ain't so." 

Jil Sander trouser suit

Even certain designer clothes that were strictly-cut in neutral colours could garner that assessment, as I found out when I bought an impeccable black Jil Sander trouser suit. 

Forty years later, I see far more persons (whether non-binary or not) in gender-free clothing, drawn to the aesthetic to make a statement or feel less constrained. Their presence has encouraged me to wear only the clothing I enjoy

Thea Porter dress, The British Museum

I once thought I had to wear shapewear that gave me angry welts, heels that hobbled. For years, I shook hands with my personal devil of discomfort, pantyhose. And yet, I loved the swish of a Thea Porter chiffon dress, the sensual hug of lingerie, and a club-wear pencil skirt slashed high front and back. 

I sometimes fall asleep thinking of my favourite clothes over the past half-century, and they do not include a flannel shirt.

This year, though, I've worn more androgynous clothing than usual; I wrote this post in black jeans, a charcoal long-sleeved crewneck tee, a pair of sneakers and small ruby earrings. Once we walk into restaurants or friends' homes again, I will reach for the more feminine things in my closet. For me, "dressing up" leads to more gender conformity.

Living around some neighbours who dress without adherence to those Big Two gender stereotypes has led me to examine my conditioning, the influence of culture, and the times. They have pumped some aesthetic oxygen into the mix. Retailers are on it; this is Kotn's camel sweatshirt:

I don't wish to trivialize the significant issues of identity, and the personal costs of challenging entrenched systems. I am far more affected by relationships than by clothes—but I've noticed that what I sometimes choose has changed, and not because of my own reckoning. 

Just as I was influenced by the patchwork velvets of the '60s and football-sized shoulderpads of the '70s, there's a zeitgeist now. Unlike Isabel Stone's New York Times essay, "There Are No Fashion Rules Anymore", I do not see the pandemic as the primary influence. More is afoot than working-from-home here.

What about you? Any reflections about how gender has affected your choice of clothing will add to our consideration of one of the most dramatic social shifts of this century.



LauraH said…
Very interesting post. You've prompted me to think about my clothing choices in a new way.

Since I was always a pants person rather than a skirt/dress person, that drove my choices but I certainly never thought in gender terms. Since I was and am somewhat on the heavy side, my main focus was finding clothes that fit which I would enjoy wearing - not always the same thing! Clothes were mainly a source of frustration and self criticism, colour and accessories were a source of joy and happiness. Maybe that's where the gender based choices came in.

Have to say that even though I favour a skimming, looser fit, to me most current gender neutral clothing says potato sack rather than relaxed. The boxiness of the pieces looks better on men than on women.

BTW I too was addressed as 'sir' on several occasions!
Leslie M said…
I have always been a jeans and t-shirt person, but large breasts always kept the gender questions at bay…except in the 70s at a gay bar when I was asked how I got them “to look so real”, assuming I was in the show. My mother was a big proponent of makeup when I was young and that stuck with me until recently. Red lipstick, especially. But, even makeup has crossed gender barriers. Gender equality, I thought, when I saw my first makeup man behind the Estée Lauder counter at the department store. Now, Alex Rodriguez has started his own makeup line. It has always been out there, though. OMG, how sexy was Rocky Horror in fishnets? Steven Tyler in Aerosmith with flowing scarves and makeup? Harry Styles can wear a dress on the cover of Vogue, I can wear whatever I want, which still includes a dress that skims my girdle-less bod, on occasion. I think it is fabulous.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: That "clothes were mainly a source of frustration and self-criticism", oh yeah— that 'ideal' of the slim (but still shapely) young model messed with a lot of us! Even my girlfriends who •did• fit those unachievable model bodies were wracked with doubt and worry. I wish I could say every enby I have met is free from body issues, but that is not true. Any time we latch onto the notion of "the ideal", we are headed for dissatisfaction.

Leslie M: Harry Styles can really wear pearls too, along with Jason Momoa. Jason.... Where was I? Uh, makeup. I have long said I did not understand how women maintained they were "a mess" without makeup. I used to say, no woman thinks, "Wow, what's up with Steve? He isn't wearing any eye shadow today." Now i might have to walk that back! It IS fabulous to wear whatever you want!
Jane in London said…
Thinking back, as a young teenager in the early '70s we all, boys and girls, wore exactly the same uniform of cotton loon pants, scoop neck long sleeve t-shirt and velvet blazer.

Fed on a heady diet of Bowie, Bolan and British Glam Rock, we comfortably accepted the boys wearing eye liner and lipstick, and 'gender fluidity' was just something that was around.

Of course, all of that then morphed into the more hard-edged '80s, when male and female clothing seemed to become far more polarised.

In between, we had the Laura Ashley/Lady Di phase in Britain, when we women all dived into the ruffled blouse with velvet knickerbockers combo - a strangely asexual look, in retrospect. Gosh, this stuff is complicated isn't it!

I have never been mistaken for a boy and, thinking about it, I realise I would have found that really quite disturbing had it happened to me. I'm not entirely sure why...

Jane in London

Allison said…
My three year old grandson is in love with pink, adores his pink pyjamas and glitter boots which he found at Value Village and had to have. His parents allow him to be who he is but he is also thrilled by diggers, back hoes and anything heavy construction related. They go along with that obsession as well. The point being that children really don’t distinguish between male/female masculin/feminine. My grandson had a onesie emblazoned with BELLY ROLLS NOT GENDER ROLES! Society teaches children that boys wear this and girls wear that. I admire my son and DIL for not pushing the stereotypes. I have lesbian friends who married each other in wedding gowns and I have straight friends who married each other in tuxedos both couples looked fabulous and were expressing themselves in that moment. Fashion allows us to express who we are…our values, our tastes, our personal style and, if we want, our sexual orientation. It can also allow us to enter neutral territory as well.
As a young woman I wore my hair very short but with my hourglass figure I seldom was taken for a male. One day after returning from the salon my father commented that my hairstyle looked ‘gamine’. I had no idea what he meant and asked my brother who stated ‘ I think it means you look butch’. I asked my then boyfriend who confided that it wouldn’t hurt to let it grow a few inches…I may add that HIS hair flowed past his shoulders in amazing waves..funny..I had never asked HIM to cut it. Ha fashion is one discussion but hair is a whole other mood!!
Janet D said…
As a Western woman living in the Arabian Gulf a few years back and having to walk the family dog each day, I was an easy target for harassment. I tried the woman's traditional abaya and shayla which just made it a whole lot worse, so eventually adopted a daytime look consisting of combat/camouflage pants from the working menswear section of Carrefour, Timberland boots, a straight bottom-covering linen tunic, a red and white shemagh finished off with a pair of inscrutable Chanel wraparound sunglasses. Unless a pigtail plait managed to escape from the shemagh, I was able to walk undisturbed. The freedom was intoxicating!

A few years on and now in my early sixties I take style inspiration from women like Georgia O'Keeffe and Eve Arnold. Great to see more bespoke tailoring for women showing up these days too.

Janet in Cambridge
Mardel said…
Love this post and the comments. Gender dressing and roles are for the most part taught, not genetic, and I would hope that we could eventually evolve enough to let it go. Yes I do realize that is naive. People should just wear what they love unless they have a career/job that requires a uniform, and if they don't like a uniform they shouldn't chose the career. I know that sounds narrow minded.

It does strike me however that of the two people in the boxy caramel sweater and pants, the man is well styled and looks attractive and it looks like every effort was made to make the woman look unattractive and uncomfortable. I am assuming the is the bias of either the photographer or the journalistic source. Interesting, though, how even when we say we promote one thing, stuff sneaks out.
Laura J said…
I too enjoy this post and comments. Androgynous dressing is very appealing as I could never quite understand the tropes of”feminine dressing” ruffles??
@Mardel, I looked at the photos again and I’m wonder 2 things …conscious effort to make the woman not typicall alluring or an effort to show the garment more clearly?
Venasque said…
I have always worn what I liked. I've always liked fashion and followed it to the degree that interested me. I went to dress design school when I was young and began making my own clothes as a teenager. When I could not find what I wanted in shops, I just made it for myself. Of course my taste has changed over the years and is fairly settled now.

I've never thought of my clothing as androgynous but it seems to be according to what you have written. I'm not a girly girl but I do like feminine things and luxurious fabrics. I always wear jewellery and makeup. It has been a great burden (all things being relative) not to have been able to have my hair cut and coloured the last year and a half. I do envy you going to the stylist. I have been cutting it myself and it looks fine (as Alison's father said it's gamine, which I'd have taken as a compliment) but I hate hate hate not having it coloured. It was platinum and no I'm not trying that at home.

I've only ever been taken for a man once when I was working in the garden and a man stopped by to talk and called me bud. When I stood up, he was covered with embarrassment.
Duchesse said…
Jane in London: I'm a decade older, so the Bowie look was reserved for clubbing because we had to "dress for success" on the job . Those ' 70s scoopnecks and trousers were cut to show the secondary sexual characteristics, whether male or female. The current gender-neutral clothing is far less so— just try to find a crop top among them.

Historically there have been periods where men and women dressed in the same modest clothes (Mao-era China is one), but this is a time where it is chosen, not imposed by a government or by religious edict.

it definitely disturbed me to be mistaken for a man, because i wanted to attract them. Pretty straightforward, pun intended.

Allison: Loved your image of your grandson! Ah, hair, another signifier. Remember the Barbarians song "Are You a Boy are Are You a Girl?"? "With your long long blonde hair, you look like a girl... You're either a girl, or you come from Liverpool..."

Janet D: Dressing to conform to cultural and religious requirements is another arena of gender and sex-related expression. An Iranian friend would come to borrow my clothes before going home to visit family, because they were at least two sizes bigger than her size, so long and boxy. Your default costume, modest but also strong, was a good compromise.

Mardel: Interesting what people see in those two photos. I thought the woman looked deadpan on purpose, a choice to not present her in the smiley-model trope. Then I realized Amanda Gorman is not smiling either. Does that indicate a decision to no longer to objectify women as pretty, upbeat, likeable? I don't know.

Laura J: I have always intensely disliked ruffles, bows and lavish frills on grown women. I used to think of it as over the top feminine but some years ago I began to see it as infantilization. While I generally resist edicts, I will assert that if a dress style offered in the children's department is made in adult sizes, avoid it.

Mardel said…
Duchesse, you have made me think, yet again. I like the idea of intentional dead-pan face, and I agree whole heartedly with the idea of ceasing to objectify women as pretty, upbeat and likable, primarily because those qualities, as they are often applied to women, are very constricting. Still. The contrast rankles. Perhaps I need to delve more deeply into my own psychological response.

I too dislike ruffles and frills on grown women, especially bows, but admit I have seen some gathered dresses, mostly of the exaggerated a-line or modified-tent shape, that I like. I am certain this is partially because I live in a hot and humid part of the world and they are the closest thing to wearing nothing I can imagine. I was reminded yesterday of how much I dislike "mommy and me" dresses as well, mostly because they are so often modeled on the child's dress, and promote the idea that women are really just overgrown little dolls.
Laura J said…
Re: ruffles! I ended up sewing my own maternity clothes as all that was available in the early 80s were puff sleeved and ruffled…and not one in black!
The non-binary stuff makes me think of Le Cagibi (a nearby "non-binary" café). There is really a generation gap as well as a genderation gap, as no lesbian friend of mine would be caught there... But it must be a refuge for some.

Busty and hippy whether I was slim or chubby, I was never once taken for male, despite my black jeans or other sombre boho clothing. The one benefit to my recent illness was that I lost quite a bit of weight, though that left some holes in my pared-down wardrobe.

Like high-heels (originally for riding) ruffs and ruffles played a major role in male clothing, as a class and occupational marker. I can't abide them either. Or baby pastels...

Very compelling topic!
Lynn said…
Raised in the American South makeup was a significant coming of age event signaling sometime in the mid teens that a young woman was ready to show interest in young men as long as it was also coupled with appropriate dresses. "Slacks" were only for leisure in the late 1960's- early 1970's. Today I rarely wear dresses and find them uncomfortable, but makeup is a must! I always hated ruffles, bows and pastels and wore black as soon as I could, but at 5'2" and small no one ever though I was male.

I think women have more freedom today in dressing than men do especially in the workplace. My sons can wear what they want at home and socially, but not at work. Perhaps that explains the interest in tattoos and other forms of body art that can be removed or covered.
materfamilias said…
This is such a rich and thoughtful and encouraging and open and . . . oh, so many adjective . . . post, that I wish I weren't reading it two days after posting, right before my Italian lesson is supposed to start. I doubt I'll find my way back here in time to comment more, but know that I'm thinking about it. Not so much because the ideas are new to me (I taught several trans or gender-fluid students over the years, noted their struggles; a former nephew now identifies as non-binary and we've all switched name and pronouns as best we can to support them; my daughter and son have no problem if their pre-school sons want to dress in their sister's gorgeous sequined hand-me-downs for the day -- well, they might feel a twinge or two, but they get on with what's right) . . . but because I think it's so important for women with our kind of privilege, especially ones as articulate as you, to help clear this space for those who need it . . . And, as you write so convincingly, in doing so, we find space as well, for our own bodies. xo Thank you!
materfamilias said…
And, whoops, you see what happened there, right? Going to be late to my Zoom meeting now ;-)
And lovely to see materfamias!
Puzzled said…
I LOVE ruffles and bows....and lace...chiffon...but ONLY in black...with skinny jeans and short boots. I like to wear an ultra fem blouse under my favorite leather jacket. The contrast is important. As well, with a tee and sneaks, I like a drop earing with red lippy. Top all this with a soft pixie haircut. It's fun, creative and versatile. Lots of vintage. Touches of Chanel...think of Kristen Stewart.

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