Feminists in Clothes: The Literature of Clothes and Gender Presentation

Women in Clothes, Sheila Heti, et. al. Blue Rider Press, 2014.

My heels are bleeding in my stupid new boots. People always tell you when it comes to real leather, that they’ll be so comfortable once you’ve broken them in. I’m starting to think it’s just a scam to try to pass off the higher price tag.

I got these Doc Martens a couple weeks ago as a part of my recent effort to appear even more tough and butch. The 10-hole lace-up, military style boots—the real deal. But now, walking around downtown San Francisco with my short-short hair and keffiyeh, I’m just paranoid that people will think I’m a neo-nazi or some kind of paramilitary resistance fighter. I don’t want to misrepresent myself.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been in this slightly dysphoric identity shift. How do I want to present myself? How do I want to be perceived?

And also: Why do I care how I’m perceived?

Ok, let me back up a little bit…

Every Thug is a Lady, Julia Eff. Pioneers Press, 2012.
Every Thug is a Lady, Julia Eff. Pioneers Press, 2012.

The same day I bought these boots, I bought two books: Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, et al., and Every Thug is a Lady, a zine by Julia Eff. They’re both very different, but both dialogue with some of the themes about gender and appearance I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Gender, appearance, and clothes.

Julia Eff identifies as neutrois — meaning they choose to identify as non-gendered or as a neutral gender. (As with any gender identity, different people using it may define this identity in unique ways).

Eff’s zine is a collage of personal stories and feelings-talk, largely about dysphoria and the everyday challenges of not participating in binary gender. The two first pieces, “Getting Ready for Work: A Drinking Game” and “Places I Buy Clothes, Rated In Terms of Dirty Looks” are effervescent rants about the impossibility of existing and presenting yourself as non-gendered in a world that insists on assigning you to one side or other of a binary. Shopping for clothes and getting dressed in the morning are framed as both deeply personal and political acts. “Take a drink… every time you change t-shirts and debate the inherent gendered traits of each one.” In a world where not even t-shirts are gender-neutral, every dressing decision is ultimately a compromise.

Suddenly, my agony in debating whether I should buy the white sweater versus the off-white sweater doesn’t seem so unfounded.

Julia Eff tries to dress in a way that leans towards no gender, and that is a very hard thing to do. Not just hard as in it’s hard to find decent gender-neutral clothing, which it very much is, but hard as in people will confront you on the street and ask you if you’re a boy or a girl, ask you why you’re dressed that way, ask you if you’re just doing this whole act to upset your parents, to rebel. People will go out of their way to make sure that you conform to their ideas of gender, or else to make sure that you feel like a freak for not doing so.

I am not trans, or neutrois — I’m a cis woman who identifies as a woman and don’t see that preference changing anytime soon. But we all have gender feelings sometimes, even if we don’t identify them as such.

And one of the things that surprised me about Women in Clothes was how little gender feelings like that are talked about. Since an inherent quality of clothes is that they’re gendered, I had expected that quality would be discussed some, in a book about women and their clothes.

Women in Clothes, Sheila Heti, et. al. Blue Rider Press, 2014.
Women in Clothes, Sheila Heti, et. al. Blue Rider Press, 2014.

The book is a giant collection of interviews and survey responses to questions like “What’s your process getting dressed in the morning? What are you considering?” polling women from all over the world and the fashion spectrum. There is a list of “ten dos and don’ts for the teenage Israeli female soldier,” and there is a wonderful list-styled essay by Christen Clifford about being a queerish middle-aged mother that touches on dressing in drag and menopause and dressing masculinely.

But otherwise, the majority of the essays and interviews in the book discuss a certain type of woman. A very New York, Vogue, sort of woman with a paycheck and closet space. A woman who cares about perfume and about tweezing. A classically feminine woman.

I am not condemning the book for this, and I’m certainly not condemning classically feminine-presenting women. I think the writers set out to mostly discuss majority women’s fashion. For their interviews they were approaching mostly women who had relatively untroubled gender identities. I suppose the book that I was looking for, hoping for, was something more like Feminists in Clothes. I wanted more of a look into the psychology and social pressures duking it out in the world of women’s clothes, more of a “why does the world consider this sexy, but this not? Why is it that large breasts used to be more desirable, but now smaller breasts are in style? Why do we stand and move and act differently in different clothes? What does the male gaze have to do with all of this? And how do the clothes we’re wearing affect the way people treat us? ”

Because the clothes we’re wearing and the way we present ourselves make such a huge difference in how we act and in how people act towards us, whether we’re aware of it or not. This is a point that was driven home to me in a very real way as I’ve been slowly changing the way I dress and, as a matter of course, the way I conduct myself in public.

Over the past few years I’ve been consciously adopting a much more butch way of dressing. When I stopped wearing padded bras and buzzed my hair into a flat top, things changed drastically: the amount of attention I got from men plummeted. Encouraged by this, I started wearing boots and a binder every day, and I started getting called sir by mistake on a regular basis. Neither of these things upset me  — in fact, I feel more confident and unburdened in this new mode. I feel more like myself.

For me, transitioning into a butch style has been a self-discovery process. I feel more comfortable in my clothes, and in my skin, now. The new boots will take some getting used to, but I’ve always been willing to suffer for fashion. It feels like a suffering for the sake of a greater comfort.

What I’m saying is, I would like to hear more about non-binary folks’ experiences getting dressed and buying clothes. I’d like to hear from people who have had experiences similar to mine, where finding a particular mode of dressing was like a positive identity-shifting experience. I’d also like to hear from the people for whom getting dressed in the morning is still a deeply personal struggle. Every Thug Is a Lady is a good example of that, but it just scratched the surface. I want some more.

Because those experiences of dysphoria and alienation within the gendered world of clothing are important for all of us to hear, but especially for those of us who are feeling similar emotions. I wish I had received any kind of guidance or support when buying my first binder, or when me and my then-girlfriend were harassed by a stranger in Chicago for dressing “like boys.” I wish somebody had given me a primer on “lipstick lesbians” or on dressing “hard femme,” and on how both of those things are just convenient labels and don’t need to be restrictive or definitive.

So please send me your recommendations, folks. I would like to see the books, zines, essays and blog posts about getting dressed as a non-binary person. I want the good experiences and the bad. Because every experience is important, and every experience can be a resource to somebody else going through the same thing.

Robin Babb

Robin Babb

Robin is a freelance writer and feminist killjoy living in Albuquerque, NM. She reads lots of comics, and lots of other things too. She secretly hopes that she can still get a good cappuccino after the revolution.

11 thoughts on “Feminists in Clothes: The Literature of Clothes and Gender Presentation

  1. As someone who continues to struggle with clothing and gender presentation on a near daily basis, I am SO HEARTENED to read your words, Robin. Al, Robin: you must write those books!

  2. Feminists in Clothes sounds like a great idea for a zine! One of the things I find especially absurd about commercial clothing is the need to genderize EVERYTHING. Why do we have to have men’s socks and women’s socks? Men’s sneakers and women’s sneakers? Even men’s Doc Martins and women’s Doc Martins. It says a lot about how obsessed our culture is with gender and how little we tolerate gender ambiguity. Fighting against that is a revolutionary act. I share your hope that more feminists and non-binary people will write about this subject.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read Women in Clothes. But I’d definitely like to read Feminists in Clothes, too (that’s what I look for in fashion blogging, tbh, and don’t always find it but enjoy it deeply when I do)

    1. Yes, def read it Claire! I didn’t not like it, honestly, I just came into it hoping for something different than what it is.

  4. Robin.
    I see you were not as pleased with Women in Clothes as I was.
    But yessss. I want to read a book all about butch women in clothes. Maybe this is my destiny.

    As always, this is a great piece.


          also I want to write a book about the subtleties of dyke hairstyles, we can work this into our schedule, yes?

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