Deconstructing the Idea of Gendered Clothing

Deconstructing the Idea of Gendered Clothing


If I haven’t made my being transgender blaringly obvious through some of the previous articles I’ve written for this publication, let me take a moment to state this very clearly and explicitly so: I am transgender. I was born male but identify as female, and am transitioning to be physically female. There it is. This information is not required to understand my frustration, but it does help.

Although I prefer to dress in a mostly androgynous way, there are a select few wardrobe choices I make that are decidedly “feminine,” the best example of this being leggings, which I regularly wear.

It took a while for me to feel comfortable wearing what I wanted to in public – self-consciousness is hard to avoid. Unsurprisingly, my choice of clothing may throw those who perceive me as being male. I’m well aware that it probably results in plenty of double-takes, stares, smirks behind my back et cetera. Recently, walking around Chelsea in leggings, a particularly femme cardigan and a t-shirt, an older man muttered “f-ggot” under his breath as I walked past.

That was not the first time I have been called that just based on my appearance, and it is a problem in and of itself, but my frustration stems from the fact that my choice in clothing elicits any reaction at all. As I have suggested, most of it seems to come from the image of a seemingly male person (could you imagine?) wearing clothes that are decidedly feminine.

As much as some people would like to deny them, here are some simple undebatable facts. One: sex and gender are two completely different things. Two: gender is a spectrum. Three: gender identity and gender expression have the potential to exist at any two respective points on the spectrum. Now that we understand that, let’s talk about how clothing feeds into stigma about expression.

Whether or not it’s something about which we actively think about or not, what we wear and are exposed to is strictly catered to on the basis of gender. Go to the kids section of any clothing store and you’ll see what I’m talking about and what plenty of other articles and researchers have been pointing out for years. Common motifs of boys’ clothing are superheroes, trucks and airplanes; girls’ clothing, meanwhile, is all about “being pretty.” This means bombardment with bright colors like pink and association with cutesy things like cats, princesses and fairies.

From newborn to about three or four years old, this isn’t as much of an issue. Most babies wear similar basic clothes. After that, however, when a child begins to develop a sense of identity, the ideas of hard-lined gender are constantly reinforced in their minds. This results in a common cultural consensus on what is expected of boys and girls.

What’s interesting about this, though, is that it appears most of the clear push for this strict gender code comes during childhood. As we grow older, we develop ideas about what men wear and what women wear based on our environments. This means that in adult clothing, the cues for gender are more subtle. How a shirt is cut, how it fits a person’s torso, the fabric and the achieved look all factor into whether said shirt belongs in the “men’s” section or the “women’s” section, just based on patterns we have seen from birth in assigning gender to items.

For the most part, though, the criteria for assigning gender to an article of clothing are completely arbitrary. Yes, some clothes are meant to be more fitting for a female body than a man’s, but the vast expanse of clothing is mostly not bound by limits like this. Just because women historically wear dresses does not preclude men from wearing them. The only thing that will stop a man from wearing a dress is the societal stigma we’ve built around defying gender expression.

And thus we come full circle back to the original issue. In my case, I get criticism for seemingly being male and wearing feminine clothing. Me being me, I’m going to wear whatever I want and whatever I feel comfortable in. It turns out that what I feel comfortable in is a feminine expression. Until I reach a point in hormone replacement therapy where my face also looks completely feminine, I’m going to have to deal with the collective judging by people who think I should “be a man” and not “dress like a girl.” But the point is that when we erase all preconceptions about clothing, we are simply left with just that: clothing. Not gendered, not meant for one type or another, open to all. The idea of dressing like a girl only exists because we feed into it, and it falls apart upon examination. This is the case with all clothing and any ideas we may have about gender expression through fashion. The gender spectrum is fluid, and trying to rigidify it through clothing is impossible. We can’t police such a subjective thing as fashion forever, and especially not by these standards.