Two artists, writers, and trailblazers talk frankly about fashion’s complex relationship with gender
At a time when trans rights are more under threat than ever, the spring 2019 issue of Dazed takes a stand for for the global creativity of the LGBTQIA+ communities and infinite forms of identity. Here, American performance artist, poet, and activist Alok Vaid-Menon joins British writer, editor and model Jamie Windust for an intimate conversation about what fashion means to them as non-binary people.
Jamie Windust: A question that I get asked a lot is where I begin, when it comes to creating an outfit. For me, it always comes from a place of rebellion, and that level of ‘Why not?’ Where do you begin when you're creating an outfit?
Alok Vaid-Menon: So unfortunately it's winter now, and one constraint that I haven't been able to challenge is weather. The colder it is, the less photos I take of myself. I think about what I'm doing that day in terms of travel – will I be outside a lot? Will I be home late at night? I have to anticipate my capacity to safety plan through harassment because living in New York City, it's a daily obstacle for me. If I'm going to be coming home late at night alone I won't wear a dress or heels. I think I'd be so much more creative day to day if I didn't have to make those considerations – but that’s why getting dressed for photo shoots and performances feel the most aligned with my style.
Jamie Windust: When we talk about safe queer spaces, we can be a lot more elaborate with how we're presenting. I studied fashion business for three years and I found it really interesting, because the whole time I was studying it... non binary identities have been around for centuries, but it was at a precipice in fashion, specifically gender non-conformity was becoming quite a trend. What I found really interesting at that time that I’d been serving these looks for quite some time, (but) because the business world was telling us we were in fashion, these brands were using us to sell. How do you think that mainstream clothes can do better for us?
Alok Vaid-Menon: In the US, a lot of what passes as gender neutral clothing is just masc, and it’s typically formless, shapeless, no real prints. So I think the first step is assessing past mistakes like the Vogue Gigi and Zayn cover – like, the idea of a skirt and dress is never seen as ‘gender neutral’. I've seen very few initiatives – besides Fluide, the make-up brand – that are actually thinking about what society calls ‘feminine’ as potentially ‘gender neutral’. That's about misogyny, and I wanna see that shift. And I actually want to see non-binary designers uplifted. I feel like so many times, the people that are making money from the ‘gender neutral’ term continue to be cis designers, and non-binary models, stylists or designers are not present in those campaigns.
Jamie Windust: When we worked together last year, I made sure that it was a queer project; if we're going to use non-binary subjects, then we need to make sure that the designer is non-binary, and the photographer too. It’s important that if you do something that's about us then it has to come from us, from behind the camera as well as in front. Otherwise it doesn't have any level of authenticity to it.
Alok Vaid-Menon: I feel like a lot of what I'm trying to do with my fashion is that I spent my whole life feeling suppressed, not just in terms of my gender and sexuality, but also my creativity. I felt like there were appropriate spaces to be creative, like at a gallery or on stage it was always finite, but what I like about style is that I can bring my creativity anywhere I go. Even when you’re going to get a cup of coffee, you're bringing art into that space. So much of the ways that I survive is that I feel like I have a relationship with my creativity, in a world that is constantly trying to dispossess me of it. I think a misconception about non-binary fashion is that we try and dress this way for other people, but I find that a lot of us have an intimate relationships with how we look. How do your style and aesthetic make you feel?
Jamie Windust: Once I’ve crafted an outfit or created a look it makes me feel instantly confident. I never lose the confidence of creating an amazing look, but the public scrutiny and the suppression of me (rises), and so anxiety levels rise along with that. I dress for occasions – today for example, I was going to a posh part of London, so I put on a suit and tie, but my version of a suit and tie, so a bright yellow suit, bright yellow coat. It gave me strength surrounded by all these cis white men. There was somebody on my train in a kilt, and I was in a skirt, and I was amazed by the reaction I got compared to this man in a kilt. That's so telling and interesting for me.
“For us, fashion has never been apolitical; what we wear determines what kind of violence we're experiencing” – Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon: I think that what's so important about gender neutral fashion conversations right now… it’s the Ezra Miller-fication of gender nonconformity, like, when do we celebrate it? Conventionally beautiful, muscular, masculine white people will wear gender non-conforming articles of clothing – but when we do it everyday, we don't get that (celebration). Whenever I see these photo shoots, I'm happy, but I'm also like, ‘Would you wear that on the train though?’ What I want to see brands do more is take a public stance against transphobia. Because for us, fashion has never been apolitical; what we wear determines what kind of violence we're experiencing.
Jamie Windust: I know you’ve designed clothes before – what level of freedom does that give you, how do you feel emotionally when you're designing clothes?
Alok Vaid-Menon: It’s my favourite thing in the world actually, as a little kid I always wanted to be a fashion designer, I would take towels and wrap them round my body and just imagine the kind of looks i would get. I started doing my own design work like two years ago, and I just completed my third collection. The thing I love most is that so often I'll go into the women's section and my shoulders will be too wide, or I'll go into the men’s section and I’ll feel like it doesn't really accentuate the part of me that I want to accentuate. When it comes to designing my own stuff, I can feel like this is meant for me and not meant for a man or woman.
I really believe that fashion is about world-making, showing people that another world is possible. So much of the media framing around gender non-conforming (people) is that we're tragic and self-hating. But I want to create clothes that are colourful and resonant and show people what my joy looks like.
Jamie Windust: That’s so beautiful, because it's crafted for our bodies. You don't see that on the high street, gender non-conforming people's bodies don't necessarily fit into the confines of those designs. It still baffles me that brands use us for their campaigns, but you go on their websites, and it’s still a gendered shopping experience. People immediately other us. If we break that down, and create a truly neutral shopping and living experience, it would make everyone's lives easier.
Alok Vaid-Menon: What has been your relationship with what society calls "men’s clothes", because for me, at the beginning of coming into my gender, I really felt like I had something to prove, and made my presentation hyper-femme. But now I'm looking back at my bow ties and skinny ties that I used to wear, and thinking, ‘Why not?’ When I was recently performing in India, this designer sent me both traditionally "male" Indian clothes and "women’s" clothes. And I actually I put on some heels and lipstick with the "male" clothes and felt completely like myself.
Jamie Windust: Actually, when I'm wearing a traditionally masculine outfit, I almost feel it's more powerful, because it’s more subversive and more arrogant. Especially in the winter months, my style becomes different. I tend to wear "masculine" clothing. Some people would think that if you identify as femme then we'd turn our noses up at "man" clothes, but the only clothes that I turn my nose up at are beige clothes or trainers. People forget that we're not playing dress-up, I can choose all the clothes from anywhere. Sometimes wearing a suit with a four-inch heel is actually a lot more empowering that a lot of other outfits.
Alok Vaid-Menon: That's where I think the cis double standard is. Like, when cis women wear pants, we don't challenge their entire gender, but when we (wear pants), there's so much pressure. I've also had to learn that I can't make my gender into something that's externally validated, because it will always fail. People will always misperceive me – it’s like, how do I find the balance between wanting people to not misgender me, but then also prioritising my own creative freedom? Our gender shouldn't be determined by what we wear.
Jamie Windust: Absolutely, and I've had conversations like that about make-up. For me, make-up is a huge part of my gender expression and a lot of people ask me, ‘Why can you not just go a day without it?’ It's important to note that it's not synonymous with my gender identity, but it's still a huge part. It's about knowing however we visually present ourselves to society, our identity is still valid. Even rotten days when I don't wear make-up and wear pyjamas, I'm still as non-binary as I was the previous wearing a ball gown and stiletto.