I wore boy’s/men’s clothing for 37 years and it almost killed me. Over the past day or so a story has been making the rounds titled “I wore men’s clothes for a month – and it changed my life” (https://www.thefword.org.uk/2017/01/i-wore-mens-clothes-for-a-month-and-it-changed-my-life/) by Lucy Rycroft-Smith As a story of self discovery it is fantastic. The author discovers that she prefers what society considers to be masculine clothing. I am genuinely pleased she found what works for her! In addition, she talks about her experiences and feelings through the month. What is mostly missing, however, is an analysis of the privileging of masculinity. She does touch on the confidence factor and how women’s clothing is often uncomfortable and does not have useful pockets. Yet, smashing the patriarchy, in the context of the article, is about wearing men’s clothing and being confident. If smashing the patriarchy requires me to wear clothing that does not appeal to me and is more “unisex” (read more masculine) then I want none of that brand of feminism.
Yes, the piece mentioned above is the perspective of one person. Yet this is a person, apparently cisgender and straight (although it’s possible she’s bi) who pushed the boundaries of what society deems acceptable for her to wear. She also seems to come from a place of significant privilege. Both of these perspectives guide her view of clothing. Clothing is, and always has been, something that falls into the realm of both private and public discourse. Society provides definitions and standards of ‘acceptable’ dress for men and women. Any straying from these standards is frowned on. Women’s clothing is problematic, to say the least. Sizes are not standard, cuts are not standard, and it takes far too long to find clothing that fits. And there are the pockets, or lack thereof. I agree fully with Rycroft-Smith’s observations on these. One of my personal best clothing finds was a cargo skirt with lots of good pockets. My view of clothing is, by necessity, quite different from Rycroft-Smith’s.
For a variety of reasons I don’t wear trousers. Currently, I don’t even own any. I wear skirts most of the time, and occasionally a dress. The reason? They work best for me and I find them the most comfortable. As a trans woman I face the expectation that I am supposed to pass as cisgender and be feminine. For trans women wearing trousers and being more masculine presenting means being accused of not really being trans. If we go too feminine we’re seen as caricatures of women and not really women either. More practically, however, I do not wear trousers because the way they feel on my legs feels wrong. This is not smashing the patriarchy, this is taking care of my own sensory needs. At the same time, there is a pressure to conform to societal expectations of what women should wear.
When I am teaching, speaking, presenting workshops, and engaging publicly I tend to wear what is often considered ‘business casual’. In part this is to maintain a certain ‘look’ that is associated with me. Further, it does not require a lot of extra energy when deciding what to wear. All of this is, of course, informed by societal expectations on what is considered to be ‘professional’. Most, if not all, of us make judgements about people based on what they are wearing, particularly if it is the first time meeting or seeing someone. These judgements are based on white, western, patriarchal society and its influences on us. Usually, we do not even realise we are doing it. You may say, “but this only happens in places and organisations that are straight and cisgender!” You would be wrong.
Assumptions about clothing and the privileging of masculine presentation is alive and well in LGTB+ spaces just as much as in straight cisgender spaces. Perhaps even more so. I have seen this at play many times at LGBT events, organisations, and in LGBT communities. The voices that are elevated are usually the ones who are more masculine presenting. To check if this is only my perception I have asked others if they have noticed it. The answer is almost always yes. Those that have not noticed usually come back later, after having started to pay attention, and confirmed this. Smashing the patriarchy? Perhaps. Yet, it is still privileging the masculine over the feminine and treating those who are more feminine as second class. This privileging of masculinity is insidious and prevalent.
When I say, “I wore boy’s/men’s clothing for 37 years and it almost killed me” it is not hyperbole. It is true. I was trying to live up to the expectations of being a man. I was trying to be the man because I was taught by society that one should be masculine and not feminine. That being a woman was to be lesser. That to be a woman when one was already male was the epitome of wrongness. I was, at various points, having serious suicidal ideation. Society overtly and implicitly drove home this message. Clothing was, and is, a large part of this messaging.
What we wear and why has answers that are at the same time both complex and simple. Have you thought about your clothing choices and the factors that go into them? Please share your thoughts in the comments.