I have a love-hate relationship with clothing.
If I could wear a rain-slicker in the shower and still get clean, I would gladly do so. I do not like being sans vêtements ever. It is likely related to gender dysphoria, body image and other things. Thus, clothing is highly practical and convenient. It covers our bodies. It keeps us warm in cold weather. It protects us from the elements. I am thankful for clothing when others don’t have it or lack it.
What bothers me about clothing is the social meanings behind it. Clothing and fashion is a fascinating thing to study because it is so closely linked to race, class, gender, weight, disability and sexuality. In a previous post, I talked about my identity as a gender abolitionist. One of the key things which helps to perpetuate the tyrannical binary gender system in everyday life is gendered clothing. Clothing is oppressive along multiple axes of difference.
When I was a student as a private boarding school in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they had a strict dress code. For boys, or those perceived to be, the requirement was dress slacks, a shirt and tie or turtleneck and a blazer. Needless to say, I hated the dress code with a passion. I hated having hegemonic masculinity foisted upon me. I would wear a turtleneck every day, even when it was extremely hot as I refused to wear a shirt and tie. Being forced into the role I did not identify with and being forced to further the gender binary made me angry for my entire four years there. I would carry the blazer around in my bag rather than wear it and some instructors made me take it out and wear it. It is only in the last couple of years that the school got rid of the dress code. Often it was the students themselves who said they wanted to maintain it. Trans students and allies obviously were key in bringing down this oppressive policy and I am glad to hear it.
The dress code was also Western. Western hegemony is global in scope. Colonialism and neocolonialism has installed Western clothing as the norm, particularly the norm of what is considered “dressing up.” I love multicultural dress and think groups wearing the dress of their Ethnic group is beautiful and empowering. Most Western-style dress is incredibly boring and lacks color and comfort.
In addition, clothing is heavily related to class. Clothing is one of the most obvious areas of conspicuous consumption. The emphasis on labels and designers is ubiquitous. “Who are you wearing?” is the question-on-repeat along the Red Carpets of awards season. Clothing in a very fundamental way communicates a person’s social class to others in the social realm.
Related to gender, gender nonconforming queer people are policed based on their sexuality. Femme gay men are told to butch it up while butch lessons are exhorted to be more feminine. All in all, clothing can be a bludgeoning tool to force people into compliance with hegemonic norms and make them into conformists.
With all of that said, it is only part of the story. Clothing can be liberatory. Sartorial expression can be empowering and even subversive. I like clothing that shocks. This could be due to ethnicity, gender, class, weight, disability and sexuality. Like jokes and humor, clothing critique should punch up. While gendered clothing can obviously be very oppressive, when redesigned, retooled and reformulated it can shock the status quo and subvert dominant expectations. A gender ambiguous person wearing a shirt and tie and a skirt is something that is not expected. It potentially states that the whole project of gendered dress is absurd. Another thing that is often not as considered is breaking fashion rules. Wearing horizontal stripes when you’re fat, for instance, or wearing extremely bright colors or colors that intentionally clash. It could also be clothing that highlights one’s disability rather than minimizes it. This too is subverting fashion and helps to break out the monotony of traditional dress and its endless rules.
If gender was abolished as I would like, that does mean everyone would be forced to wear a burlap sack, as I have heard some people state in an attempt to render the project of gender abolitionism into an unappealing one. In fact, sartorial diversity would intensify, increase and expand under gender abolitionism. It’s just that it would not be linked to bodily geography on the chest or between the thighs. The oppressive concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” dress would fall apart and what would become central would be individual self-expression and agency.
Unfortunately radical re-articulations of dress and their relationship to race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and weight are often far off and out of reach. Thus while I am hopeful about liberatory potentialities of fashion subversion, I know that the cultural conditioning and expectations run deep. Being able to step out of line fashion-wise is often a direct result of power and privilege. Time will tell how this area of socio-cultural change shakes out. In the meantime, we can encourage individual acts of bravery and even slight challenges to the sartorial status quo. Wear it with pride and see how many people you can piss off!