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.