For us trans and queer people raised as boys, femme aesthetics are often vitally important to self expression – but not always easy to achieve
“Because I am trans feminine and tall; tailoring and adjustments to women’s clothes is very important for me. I recently took something that needed to be fitted to Nordstrom and when I took it to women’s tailoring the woman there looked confused by my presence, suggested I should be in the men’s tailoring area and said ‘I’m sorry – I don’t know where to put you’”.
M Zavos is twenty years old, currently living in Chicago during the early stages of her transition. As I ask her about her experiences of clothing herself, it is clear that she, like many other trans people, is acutely aware of her own sense of style and taste, but also the practical frustrations her identity presents to her enjoyment of fashion in an industry ill-equipped to deal with trans and nonbinary people. Particularly those who were assigned male at birth for whom presenting as feminine is seen as a cultural trespass in a patriarchal world. When I ask M how the exchange in the dressing room made her feel she says “it was just extremely othering”.
Discussing gender variant people in conjunction with fashion already runs the risk of being reductive. Trans identities and androgynous aesthetics are not the same – the world of fashion has embraced androgynous models (some of whom are, in fact, trans); brands like Selfridges’ Agender offers a high end aesthetic of “fashion without boundaries” and Tom Ford has launched his Lips & Boys male lipstick campaign: in it, women models wearing various shades of lipstick turn to kiss male-presenting models who are – surprise! - wearing a matching shade themselves.
The thing fashion campaigns won’t tell you if you are an ordinary male-assigned person (who may not be thin or white like a fashion model) is that the caveat to all femininity – whether it is that of cis women, trans people assigned female at birth or the ‘femme’ person still read by the world as male – is that, in all its forms, femininity attracts invasion and violence from others. At present, any rejoicing in the liberation of aesthetics alone will also be dogged by this lived reality.
Yet, for us trans and queer people raised as boys, femme aesthetics are often vitally important to self expression, recovery from a masculinity imposed upon you and being recognised by the world as truly ‘who you are’. This, given the violence I mentioned, is a paradox and one that informs us when we start to shop and dress for ourselves and develop our own style. Once you start dismantling the gender binary, many universalised “style tips” become redundant, but there are certainly some broad experiences and guidelines that can be extrapolated from shared experiences of fashion and shopping from those who dress femme.
DRESSING “FEMME” DOES NOT (NECESSARILY) MEAN EMULATING CIS WOMEN
A friend’s mother once asked me why “men who cross dress”, her words born of misunderstanding rather than malice, always seem to look exaggeratedly feminine compared to cis women. I offered some suggestions. Firstly, our culture polices masculinity so heavily that feminine style in someone read as male violently disrupts what we are used to seeing (and expect to see) so that it looks “exaggerated” to the world. Much of the “exaggeration” she perceived was, in fact, nothing to do with the person she was looking at but her own gaze and how it had been trained in a patriarchal society.
Travis Alabanza is a nonbinary queer writer and activist. Like me they prefer gender neutral pronouns and present as femme. Like me, Travis also grew up in Bristol and so I am intrigued by how they first began acquiring and dressing in femme clothing – given that when I was growing up I knew no one else who dressed in “women’s clothing” and certainly knew of no shops I felt entirely comfortable shopping in in our shared hometown.
“In my teenage years, eBay was my best friend,” Travis tells me. “When I was 15, I began dressing in sheer and sequins a lot on nights out. I was obsessed with anything see-through – that was my way to access femininity in clothes I bought. I used to order things that were shipped from Hong Kong because the clothes were often shown on both male and female models which gave me better visual clues about dressing my own body.” Travis rightly points to one of the first hurdles for young people wishing to dress in a more feminine style. The vast majority of femme clothing is still marketed as “women’s fashion”. Shopping for queer femme looks begins more cautiously than imitating this precedent and is a process of looking at images of both genders – neither of which are aimed at you – and interpreting what may work for one’s own body and tastes.
FASHION BOTH REFLECTS AND SHAPES YOUR IDENTITY
When people ask me how I first started transgressing gender boundaries, I usually answer that it was very gradual but it felt like I fell into it – almost by accident. The experience for young femmes appears to be the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Josh who is 23 and lives in Santa Cruz, California tells me, “I have a day job at my neighbourhood health food store and we have a nutrition and body care section with beauty products, etc. When I first starting working there, I felt like playing with the lipstick samples that were on display, and that's when everything really changed for me. A great lipstick will change the way you see yourself forever”.
Josh already identified as queer, but the parameters of their own queerness grew and changed and they explored fashion: “I’ve learned it's very important to know your body and how to make it appear however you wish. For example, I learned to wear loose clothing to obscure my stocky frame and I’ve stopped wearing pants and started wearing tights and leggings to accentuate a feminine silhouette on my bottom half.”
“In my teenage years, eBay was my best friend. When I was 15, I began dressing in sheer and sequins a lot on nights out. I was obsessed with anything see-through – that was my way to access femininity in clothes”
For those undergoing physical transition, assertions of femininity may shift as their body undergoes physical changes which leave them less reliant on clothes alone to express their gender identity. M Zavos, 20, tells me that as in the three months since she began female hormone treatment the physical changes she is beginning to experience are also affecting the way she shops and dresses: “I’m starting to feel more comfortable in simpler items like polar necks and sweaters which I simply wouldn’t have before because it’s easier to feel and be recognised as feminine in them now.” However, this presents new challenges – she explains to me that she would love to go for a bra fitting but says, “the prospect totally fills me with anxiety.”
LOOKING FEMME IS EXPENSIVE
This is the biggest bitch of queer feminine fashion and the biggest misrepresentation the high fashion world makes to ordinary people. Looking femme is highly expensive and, in fact, trans people will often be poorer than their cis counterparts. I am a privileged, middle class person and even I balk at how much clothes and make-up can cost me. The beauty industry is expensive for all women, but for trans feminine people without the extra cost and effort involved in dressing femme, the realities of physical masculinity – jawlines, beard shadow etc – become more evident and the world quickly reverts to reading you as masculine. For those trans people with dysphoria, this can be distressing and more generally it can increase the likelihood of violence – for example, if femme clothes do not marry up a person’s face.
There are also some mundane practical considerations. Femmes may not also be able to dress how they wish to all the time. If they are young, school and parental disapproval may mean they still have to dress as boys for long periods. Even in adult life, fear of mockery in the workplace may still impose limitations. A cis woman and a trans/non-binary femme may both have the same budget and look at the same pair of expensive shoes: the former may justify the cost to herself, promising she will wear them enough to warrant it. The latter may not be able to do this: unsure how much opportunity they will have to actually wear heels, thereby justifying the purchase.
“I learned to wear loose clothing to obscure my stocky frame and I've stopped wearing pants and started wearing tights/leggings to accentuate a feminine silhouette on my bottom half”
Travis and I both find ourselves agreeing that, of all British stores, Primark is in fact one of the kindest to queer femmes. M Zavos, says the same of Target – a north American equivalent. Almost all male-assigned femmes I speak to mention eBay. The reason is clear: cost and anonymity in the shopping experience. Primark stores are large and busy – I found that as a nervous student it was easier to browse the women’s section without stares and things were cheap enough to buy without the awkwardness of using a fitting room to ensure my money wasn’t wasted. At a far remove from the boutique high end fashion brands loudly placing themselves at the forefront of the trans movement, it is often the least expensive and most universally affordable chains which are kindest to gender non conforming people.
Travis also offers further suggestions: “If you’re poor and femme, much of your ‘shopping’ experience is about being resourceful. I’m lucky to have cis women friends who I can organise clothes swaps with and in London there are some online queer groups which have organised clothes swap events for people to meet up and do this to acquire new looks.” As with eBay, the internet remains the greatest friend to those looking for femme style in a retail industry that does not acknowledge us or remains hostile.
SHOPS CAN DO BETTER
Once I’ve arrived at the till, I have regularly been asked if clothes I am buying in Topshop or other mainstream retailers are for my mum or my girlfriend. It has taken years to build up the courage to flick my hair and say “No. Actually they’re for me: I’m one of those “transvestites”, after years of simply leaving the store for fear of precisely this exchange. When I was 19, two staff members laughed at me as I held up blouses in a mirror. In my view this simply should be unacceptable – employers should realise transphobia in gendered retail departments will continue to lose them custom and this is something they must now reflect in staff training.
There’s a reason that buying online is preferable to many trans and non-binary femmes. As Josh says, “I went into shopping in a women's section for the first time with the worst expectations. It was at Forever 21, and it was almost as if I was in a museum where I wasn't allowed to touch the garments on display, and even standing in this vicinity was enough to put me in dangerous waters. It felt like a collective of stares were trying to tear me apart.”
Shopping itself is often a stressful and anxious experience – if we are truly at a transgender ‘tipping point’ as the fashion media insists, this greater acceptance of “fashion without limits” has yet to trickle down to the high street shopping experience. A clear example is fitting rooms – still often segregated on gender – despite the fact that all fitting rooms are individual cubicles. In 2016, I’d like to see more retailers examine their customer experience with transgender people more clearly in view.
“FEMME” FASHION IS AS DIVERSE AS THE PEOPLE WHO WEAR IT
Even mainstream fashion for cis women is already plagued by certain hierarchies – as women of colour and plus size women regularly find in their own shopping experiences. A truly liberating moment for trans femme fashion must also realise that, where it accepts androgyny, fashion will still try to impose its own value system – of whiteness and thinness – on us.
What is understood to be and is read as “femme” is also variable according to race and culture, for example. As Travis explains: “I often think queer black folk have to work harder to be seen as femme. In white patriarchy my blackness is associated with masculinity and so when people see ‘black’ and ‘femme’ they see two things together that shouldn’t be.”
In speaking to Travis, I realise that despite us both identifying as “femme” and discussing “looking femme” – what that means to me is inescapably informed by my whiteness. For example, I mention I’m currently growing my hair out. “I think hair is an easier way for white people to access their femininity” Travis says. They explain that in growing their own hair out, they’re considering the gendered interpretations of their own, tight Afro curls, “in lots of examples I look to in black cis womanhood – for example, women like Angela Davis – that hair is coded by white, Eurocentric standards as masculine. So that’s what I’m currently contending with in presenting as a black femme which is perhaps different to white femmes I know.”
“If we are truly at a transgender ‘tipping point’ as the fashion media insists, this greater acceptance of “fashion without limits” has yet to trickle down to the high street shopping experience”
There are few voices on non-Western and non-white trans femininity in the mainstream. Transfeminine South Asian artist Alok Vaid-Menon has written on trans femininity and race and particularly the challenges they encounter reading as femme while simultaneously retaining body and facial hair and challenging white, Western beauty standards. Similarly, African American film maker Jamal Terron’s upcoming film No Fats No Femmes examines beauty and desire “through the personal narratives of five Black and Brown queer, trans, fat, femme, and disabled people.”
Reflecting on this diversity, even within an already marginalised group challenging wider society’s preconceived notions of what is beautiful and stylish, I am struck by Josh in California’s story of the first time they wore something feminine: “was a long curly wig that my mom would wear every Halloween as part of her costume as this sort of ‘hippie witch’. I stole it and I’d wear it in public places for a short amount of time just to get a thrill out of turning heads and quietly shocking those around me.”
Like Josh stealing the wig, there can be both the thrill and trepidation in the sense one is ‘stealing’ a femininity that does not belong to you. Significantly, however, the femininity the wig offered did not belong ‘naturally’ to Josh’s mother either. It was a constructed femininity both used – differently, perhaps – to access a cultural archetype of what is feminine (the flowing hair) for brief periods. Like a flowing wig, femininity inherently belongs to no one. Knowing this means that rejoicing in the frivolity and freedom of being femme can be personally liberating. But this liberation can only be shared by allowing all choose to dress themselves in it equal access and recognition, regardless of how they came by it or choose to wear it.