Clothes can be a way to cultivate a self and feel empowered in one's gender. But the fashion industry doesn't make it easy to find items as flattering as they are liberating.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
“Excuse me, sir? I found a couple pairs in the size you were looking for,” the saleswoman at a well-known shoe warehouse told me recently. “They’re pumps, not ankle boots, though.” She held out a pair of glossy teal heels with a sharp toe, having scoured the shelves and storeroom for any shoe that might fit me, period. When I tried them on, I felt like a caricature of a high-powered businesswoman—they fit my narrow feet, but they were a far cry from the taupe-colored low-heeled ankle boots l was looking for.
“Sir,” though, fit even less comfortably than the pumps. What was it about my eye makeup, leggings, and thigh-length sweater that said I wanted to be called “Sir”?
The twinge of discomfort that followed is one of the small taxes the world extracts from people who don’t play by the rules of gender. It was clear the warehouse that I went to, one of several stores where I’d been trying to track down elusive ankle boots for fall, just didn’t have what I was looking for. But I didn’t want to shop online. Part of the joy of shopping for me is in feeling the textures of fabric, seeing the stitching across a leather shoe vamp, trying on styles that I find attractive but would be reluctant to wear, like heeled oxfords in show-off blue. (Eventually I caved and ordered a glut of shoes off Amazon, almost all of which I sent back.)
It was just one of many situations in which I’d encountered difficulty shopping for shoes and clothes as a gender-nonconforming (GNC) person. And I’m far from alone.
The indignities GNC people often encounter when shopping for clothes has led many to loathe the experience altogether, like Roxy Sticks, a trans woman and a textile designer from Seattle. “Especially at first, I found it really unpleasant being in stores that were explicitly gendered with clearly defined menswear and womenswear sections, like Target,” she said.
For Sticks, finding clothing that’s both flattering and empowering is difficult, both socially and emotionally. Jaden Smith may grace Louis Vuitton womenswear campaigns in self-aware knee-length black skirts, but most GNC people don’t have expert stylists at their disposal. “There are very few resources, in my experience, for helping transfemme people shop,” said Sticks. “Few answers to questions like, ‘How do I shop?’ ‘What kinds of things do I look for?’ ‘How do I find cuts and styles that pair with my body?’”
The answers one does find frequently include some compromise. “When I have to go into a shoe store and they’re like, ‘What size are you?’ I just give them both men’s and women’s sizes,” said Marshall Luther, a genderqueer person from North Carolina. “I did this the other day when I was buying Vans. Vans are advertised as a pretty unisex shoe, but they’re still divided by size systems and by colors.”
Such binaries, however, can also be a sort of rallying point, a way to spark progressive conversations about what fashion can look like post-gender. “Why do we even have different sizes for so-called men and women’s shoes? It sucks because the fashion industry can totally exclude trans and GNC people,” said Luther. “But it’s not only gender nonconforming folks that feel this exclusion. My guess is that a lot of women feel very similarly about certain clothes and the need to perform femininity in certain ways.”
Sofia Yarberry is genderqueer, masculine-presenting and an erstwhile California surfer. They said the baggy fits of Carhartt clothing and relatively gender-neutral looks of skater brands, like Altamont and Wildfang, have provided some refuge from the nagging problem of sizing. “There are a few other androgynous or genderqueer brands that I like, like Dapper Boi,” they noted. “Even though they cater to the queer body, which is amazing, they tend to be prohibitively expensive, so it usually ends up being easier for me to just find men’s extra-small.”
“I grew up in southern California, and everyone—all the boys, that is—wore board shorts,” Yarberry said. “I remember my mom finally letting me buy board shorts—knee-length, surfer brand, really terrible board short—and thinking they were the coolest thing I had ever owned in my whole life. I wore those shorts all summer; they were bright blue with a little comb for surf wax that was attached to the back pocket, which is ridiculous, because I wasn’t even surfing at the time.” Those shorts, alongside other pieces they remembered fondly, like a skater jacket, allowed them to start shaping their own identity from within the skater and surfer communities. Far from an insignificant accessory, that surf-wax comb became a serious request for recognition.
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The fashion industry, through editorial photo spreads, Cosmo questionnaires and photoshopped advertisements, inherently asks us to tailor our bodies to its gendered demands. And though GNC people aren’t the only group putting pressure on the fashion industry to be more inclusive—for instance, the war for larger sizes and plus-size models has been underway for years—GNC people refuse one of fashion’s most deeply entrenched and primary demands: the gender binary.
Paul Tran, a transfeminine editor and poet from San Diego, told me they find a distinct pleasure in upsetting clothing and gender categories; they said they first learned the power fashion can hold from their mother, a Vietnamese immigrant. “She moved to the States in 1989 and got a job as a seamstress and an apron factory worker,” Tran said. “Every weekend we would take the bus downtown to this mall where we would look at storefronts, go into Macy’s and touch and try on things we could never afford. She would study and replicate them later and, at her most devious, sell them with false tags.” Tran said their mother taught them to undermine the biases and prejudices of society through clothes, using them as “empowerment—although an empowerment that borrowed from elitist and classist assumptions about beauty and identity.”
Ultimately, choosing one’s outfit is never simply a question of becoming comfortable enough with one’s body to wear whatever you like—one’s shirts, shoes and hats always carry an extraordinary amount of meaning and emotional complexity for the wearer. “I wear a hat all the time, especially if I'm around a lot of people,” said Red, a writer pursuing their MFA, playing with the brim of their brown mechanic’s cap. “First of all, I look fucking good in hats. Second, I feel like it gives me a little extra protection—it's like a talisman for me. But a baseball cap is also a recognized symbol of masculinity, which I think about a lot when I get dressed or when I’m pondering my sex life or how I walk in the world. Like, how do I stay true to the parts of myself that feel right while wearing things coded as masculine, and do that without participating in the devaluation of femininity?”
Some days, dressing up as a GNC person is all about wearing those shoes, that hat, and one’s shimmer and shine outside in the world, just knowing they make you look fucking great. And it’s not about anything in particular your clothes do for you, necessarily—it’s that they open a little window and give you a way to exist in a place that’s not your skin. “All of the stories I write are about being seen, about light hitting people, about sequins,” Red told me. “The question I have to ask is, who do I need to love me? I know that's me—I need to be able to see me when I look in the mirror.”
“Clothes are how I can cultivate a face,” Tran told me. Clothing is not a mask, they said, but a way of “teaching the world how to treat you. Every time I go into a store and pick out what I want to wear, every time I get ready for the day, it’s because I’m seeing the possibilities and the potential of who I can be.”
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