When I was a kid, I used to play dress-up make-believe with my friends Deeda and Susie. When all three of us played together, Deeda and Susie would typically get into a fight about who got to be the princess and who had to be the queen. But when it was just two of us playing, there weren’t any arguments — because I was always happy to be the prince. I suppose I could gas on about my incipient queer identity or how masculine roles have greater agency… and part of that is true. But it’s also true that the prince’s outfit in the costume box was just mega-cool. A gold lame tunic. Who doesn’t like a gold lame tunic? Major swagger. Way better than mint green chiffon.
When I was in third grade, there was this obnoxious boy who used to ambush girls and pull up their dresses and skirts. Most of the other girls responded with elaborate plans to always travel in pairs or groups. (Incipient sisterhood, I suppose.) I responded by wearing pants. Every day. And I got into the habit. I didn’t wear a dress again until sixth grade (except for special occasions like the Nutcracker or something). In fact, for years I insisted that I was never going to wear a dress again as long as I lived. I insisted it right up to Christmas in sixth grade, when I got an awesome mini-dress someone brought me from Greece, and I decided, “Yeah, okay, this doesn’t suck.”
When I started doing historical costuming and dancing at historical re-creation dances about fifteen years ago, I almost immediately gravitated to male drag. Part of that was that I’d rather dance lead, and I’d rather dance with other women, and male drag was an easy way to signal that. (That’s part of why I liked being the prince, too — at the end of the story, the prince gets the princess). And part of it was that male drag was a way of feeling sexy and sexually transgressive when my weight was up and I wasn’t feeling conventionally attractive. But part of it was… what? I’m not sure. It just felt more like me.
All this may seem deeply weird to people who know me. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, butch. My visual presentation is almost always unmistakably female. I almost never leave the house without makeup. My go-to outfits are dresses and skirts: that’s what I automatically reach for when I look in my closet in the morning, and I have to consciously remind myself that jeans or trousers are also an option. Even when I do go out in jeans and a T-shirt or tank top, I typically dress it up with a little jewelry. Apart from historical or other costuming, about the only time I seriously butch it up is at the gym.
But while my visual style is usually unmistakably female, it’s very rarely what I would call “feminine.” I don’t like lace; I don’t like pastels; I don’t like flowy, pre-Raphaelite lines; I don’t like floral prints unless they’re in a strong, abstract graphic. I like straight lines. Angles. Tailored jackets. Racerback tops. Aggressive colors. Boots. Even my wicked heels tend to be on the pushy, power-slut side rather than the delicate little sandal side. Sure, I like a flirty little dress — and I like it a whole lot better with boots and a black leather jacket.
And I love mixing it up. I love a racerbank muscle tank with a little black skirt. I love an elegant dress with a military-style coat. I love jeans and a tank top with sparkly jewelry and a fresh manicure. I love a severely tailored jacket with patterned black stockings and an almost-too-short skirt. I love a cheerful sundress with knee-high pirate boots. I love sleek, sleeveless dresses that show off my muscles.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call my usual look “genderfuck.” But it’s strongly informed by genderfuck. It’s definitely on the masculine end of the conventionally female spectrum. And I like that. I like taking the usual markers of “masculinity = power,” and saying, “Fuck that. I am all woman, and I am taking these markers and making them my own. Markers of power don’t belong to masculinity or to men. They belong to me. And if you try to take them away from me, I will fuck you up.”
And I strongly suspect that, as I get older, I’m going to butch it up even more, and go more overt with the genderfuck. Fashion and sexuality and aging are a huge topic for me, a topic I’ve written about before and plan to write more on soon, and I’m not going to get into much detail about it here. But that whole thing I said earlier about how, when I was fat, male drag was a way of feeling sexy and sexually transgressive even though I wasn’t conventionally attractive? I think that could work as I get older, too. A sixty-year old woman in a Marlene Dietrich tuxedo? That is smokin’ hot. It’s hot if she’s doing it straight-up butch; it’s hot if she’s doing it in black eyeliner and cherry-red lipstick. I would hit that in a second.
Anyway. I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I guess I just want to say: Fashion and gender — weird. Fascinating. Complicated. Hot. And most of all — big fun.
And I’m curious about how this works for the rest of you. Of any gender or gender presentation. Women who dress more feminine than I do; women who are more butch than I am; women whose gender presentation is more fluid and varied than mine; men who like to play with gender; men who might like to play with gender more but feel uncomfortable with it; men who are happy presenting themselves as masculine but still find this topic interesting; transpeople; people who don’t identify as conventionally gendered; queers; straights… everybody. How does this stuff play out for you? I think this is weird and fascinating and complicated and hot and fun, and I want to know how it is for the rest of the world.