February 15, 2010

Beyond "Lesbian" Fashion

“Forgive me father for I have sinned
I have broken the commandments of the fashion world
Shaming my LGBT brother, with his muscled body and one-of-a-kind tennis shoes
I am without direction, doomed to think impure thoughts
About what clothes I will buy and wear
A mullet atop my head
A flannel shirt and ill-fitting jeans loosely slung on my body”

When I told my mom I was going to write about lesbian fashion for the Our Lives blog she replied “Lesbian fashion? You’ll really be able to write a whole article about that?” My sweet mother is not exactly immersed in current fashion trends, because if she was she’d know that I could write an entire book about lesbian fashion. In the early 1990s K.D. Lang ushered in the era of “lesbian chic.” After that, a distinct “lesbian” style went mainstream. Now LGBT women are an integral part of the fashion world, whether as models, stylists, or fashion bloggers. Unfortunately certain ideals about beauty still persist. Masculine lesbians, no matter how dapper or handsome they are, still don’t get the same positive attention as glamorous fems. In my articles on fashion I will often focus on female masculinity, because I find masculine women as beautiful and fashionable as feminine women.

If you’ve ever seen me traipsing about campus you know fashion is something I have a passing interest in. My style is trendy though subtly androgynous. Though “keeping” up with richly dressed fellow Dukies is not an endeavor I’m proud of, my love of fashion extends beyond just looking like the typical Longchamp toting Duke girl.
I like to think that my style is guided by myriad sources, from street fashion blogs to magazines to music to different cultures. (Sometimes it's just by what I can find at used stores.)I also can’t forget how indebted I am to my fellow queer women. From them I have learned not to be too literally feminine or impractical in my fashion choices. I also learned not to wear clothing that overpowered me, or clothing that was trendy but unflattering. The desire to look good, whether by wearing clothing intended for men or for women, is a hallmark of “lesbian” fashion.

Short-haired, beautifully androgynous women are presented as the “ideal” face of lesbianism. These are the tombois, hipsters, rocker chicks and power lesbians. It’s no surprise that Ellen DeGeneres makes the cut in addition Kate Moennig, Beth Ditto, K.D. Lang, Jackie Warner, Kim Stoltz (!!!!), Joan Jett, Leisha Hailey and Samantha Ronson, What unites all these women? They wear men’s clothing, often in creative ways. Most have short hair. They wear suits, leather, bright colors, muted colors, ties, fedoras, sports-bras, sneakers, low-slung jeans…If fashion is all about contrast then these women are masters of the contrast between masculine and feminine. No gender expression can be overpowering.

Ever since YSL made the first woman’s suit, androgyny has been a fixture of women’s fashion. The right kind of androgyny is difficult to achieve; so difficult that lesbians have an unfortunate history of fashion mishaps. Lesbians are able to wear just about anything they want, from sensible shoes to skirts to camo cargo shorts, and as a result must choose their clothing with great caution. Men on the other hand must not only avoid wearing dresses, skirts and heels, they also have difficulty finding clothing that uses creative proportions or colors. Jean-Paul Gaultier first presented skirts for men in a show in 2006. Now men in skirts (along with men in tights) are common in fashion shows. Street fashion blogs often feature men in high heels and skirts carrying hangbags previously reserved for women. While the fashion world has become more accepting of men who boldly cross gender-lines in their attire, American cities, and especially Duke’s campus, are much less accepting.

If you’re a tomboy you probably have trouble finding clothing that fits. Men’s clothing hides your body while women’s clothing emphasizes it too much. Many fashion lines are now being crated that fill these needs. If you’re the fashion-conscious tomboy with loads of cash, check-out Made Me Clothing. Unbound Apparel sells gender-neutral t-shirts. Dykes In the City carries a wide range of clothing for masculine and queer women. While in our particular moment in time and place a woman in men's clothes in assumed to be a lesbian, masculine clothing choices were not always tied with queerness in America. Other cultures have different ideas about the relationship between gender expression and sexuality. I've noticed that East Asian culture is more accepting of avant-garde fashion for women and women that crosses gender boundaries. Just around Duke's campus I have seen more Asian women dress in men's clothing than any other ethnic group. On a campus where gender expression is severely limited, these women stand out to me.

If you’ve ever been to www.xxboys.net, watched an Athens Boys Choir video, or seen Lucas Sliveria of the band The Cliks, you know that transmen are a diverse and attractive bunch. One of the most important clothing items for pre-op or no-op transen are chest binders. Fun fact: Taiwan is leading the world in chest binder production. Queer and trans friendly sex shops tend to sell chest binders, and they are easily found online.

Though I don’t have trouble buying my clothes at non-specialty stores I have had problems with getting my hair cut correctly. I stopped going to cheap hair cutters because I would always get a tame, femmed up version of the hair I desired (even when I brought photographic evidence!) Bianca Jimenez was the first hairstylist I had who understood lesbian haircuts. I told her all my business. I even made her a mix CD of post-punk music! Then one day I called the salon and I was told that she had left. Dejected, I bounced around to different salons; even trying out the local Aveda before I finally came across Doo or Dye, unquestionably the only punk-rock hair salon in San Antonio. (Its motto: 110% pure Texas fury!) I’ve become so attuned to the minutiae of my desired hairstyle that I don’t think it matters who cuts my hair, as long as they aren’t hell-bent on femming me up.

I feel like I have it easy because I’ve been out about my sexuality from an early age. I have an intuitive grasp of “lesbian fashion”- to the point where no one has ever accused of being “too femme” or asked me what I was doing at a gay bar. Has anyone felt like they were being ignored in a queer environment because they didn’t look or act queer enough? Do you feel like you dress in a “lesbian” way even if you don’t intend to? Do you not believe you dress in a “lesbian” way, even if you wear jeans, Converse and t-shirts every day? Do you think that the whole concept of “dressing like a lesbian” is ridiculous, outdated and sexist? What stereotypes pertain to how bisexual and queer women dress? Are they radically different? Finally, from your experience how does gender expression differ from culture to culture?



  1. Ummm Why are there no comments on this yet? This post was amazing, I loved it. I guess I've found that I also have a problem with hair. Although I must say that my "fashion sense" hasn't changed much since coming to Duke (or since tenth grade for that matter, since I still wear a lot of the same clothes from high school...)

    have you tried to get your haircut anywhere in Durham? I'm really scared about keeping up with it.

  2. I'm definitely new to this queer fashion thing, so this post was an eye-opener. I think I'm kind of a paradox - I love cute little dresses and girly shoes as well as jeans, newsboy caps, and Ed Hardy sneakers. I choose what clothing I wear depending on how I feel (or want to feel!) on a given day. It's not primarily about projecting my sexuality. Does that count?

    As for haircuts, while mine is not particularly androgynous, I am VERY picky about it. I've had good luck at Stage 1 on Broad Street. It's kind of expensive, but I thought the end result was worth it. If you go, ask for Adrienne Todd (hopefully she's still there - I haven't been lately). She's a good listener, and she's very good at following the lines of your previous haircut if you're just wanting maintenance.

  3. Jennifer: Thanks for the tip! When it comes to fashion many women, queer or not, are not a monolith. Even women who look really "gay" don't dress like they do solely to project their sexuality. One thing I tried to focus on was how clothing choices work on a subconscious level. If you spend a lot of time with women who dress like the "lesbian ideal" or watch a lot of queer media are you going to copy aspects of their dress without realizing it? I'm primarily seen as a "femme" but I am just as comfortable in men's clothing as long as I consider it fashionable. I think many times I am more aware of what my clothing says about my sexuality than other people are.

  4. I think since my clothing-pointing-to-identity vector ends up at "college faculty" or, shorthanded, "nerd," I'd never thought *too* much about the notion of personal - versus professional - identity coming into play. I hope that if some part of my brain fires off something on the order of, "Wow, X dresses like a " and completes the thought with any number of identities that my soul will reach up and smack it across the medulla... Which is all the more reason to thank you for writing this!

  5. http://hipsterdykes.tumblr.com/Press

  6. Love the blog... and love her earrings!