Identity

People Show Us the Outfits That Helped Them Embrace Their Inner Femme

"It feels good to think about trying to express my true self for the first time again."

by Christopher Bethell and Zing Tsjeng
Mar 23 2018, 5:07pm

All photos by Christopher Bethell

If you've been anywhere near Tumblr in the last few years, you might have seen an image of the Futch Scale, or one of its many variations. Initially conceived as a kind of continuum scale for lesbians to describe where they fall on the femme-butch spectrum, it has since developed into a long-running internet joke in the LGBTQ community. Anything can and has been categorized on the Futch Scale, including Pokemon, USB cables, and Star Wars characters. (For the record, Admiral Holdo is high femme.)

For queer and gender non-conforming people, femme-ness can be a source of strength and affirmation—a reclaiming of the femininity that is so often used by the outside world against us. But femme-ness doesn't simply relate to dressing up in stereotypically feminine clothing—the sheer popularity of the Futch Scale points to the fact that ideas of femme-ness can vary from person to person. What is one person's high femme can be one person's futch ("femme butch"); it's more about a state of mind, expressed through a multitude of individual traits including but not solely limited to how you dress.

As part of Women's History Month, Broadly asked queer, gender non-conforming, and femme-identified people to show us the first outfit that they felt expressed their inner femme.

Taylor Norton: "I’ve always had fun challenging the normative thinking around gender binarism."

Taylor Norton, 26

How do you identify?
Femme.

Can you describe the first outfit you wore that expressed your femme identity?
The first outfit I wore was a black lace bodysuit, boyfriend jeans, socks that read “Bitches get stuff done,” my floral Dr. Martens, and purple lipstick.

How does the outfit do so?
I’ve always had fun challenging the normative thinking around gender binarism [sic] and find that my clothes echo that sometimes. Lace is associated with being delicate but when I put this bodysuit on I feel sexy and in command of my strength. Because my jeans are boyfriend, they don’t fit me in the traditional sense of flattering my waist, butt, or legs but they allow me to move and dance and be comfortable. They are also a reminder to me that I don’t need a partner to get what I want. I’m kind of known for my socks and was actually given this pair from a very close friend. They make me smile knowing what’s on my feet even though other people can’t read it. Flowers are often depicted as being delicate and ephemeral, but I love the vibrancy of floral prints and feel my shoes express that side of my personality as well. As for my purple lipstick, that’s just me; I can’t do any other color.

When did you first wear this outfit?
I first wore it to my friend’s photo exhibition in London and then we went out dancing after.

How does it make you feel?
Powerful, sexy, like I deserve to be in this body of mine.

Sarah Parsons: "I think for me I'm constantly rediscovering my femme identity."

Sarah Parsons, 21

How do you describe your identity?
I'm queer, which I use as an umbrella term to encompass a lot of things about my identity. I use she/they pronouns interchangeably, so I don't really identify as a man or a woman. I'm somewhere in the midst.

Can you describe the first outfit you wore that expressed your femme identity?
So it's a silk pink night slip. It's vintage La Senza. I think for me I'm constantly rediscovering my femme identity. It's like a constant metamorphosis into feeling more like myself and more in my own skin. I found this in a vintage shop not actually too long ago, maybe last year. It was just before I shaved my head, the first time I wore it after shaving I remember being like, "Oh." Because there's something so feminine and it's so floaty but it's also quite shapeless. You can't see my body under it and I really liked how it contrasted with having no hair. Something clicked the first time I saw that.

What was the context of when you first wore it?
It would have been last summer. I wore it to meet my friend for a drink after I bought it. It floated really beautifully in the wind. But the first time I wore it with a capital "W" was on the day I got my head shaved, which I did for charity. That was such a thunderclap moment of looking in the mirror at the bar and being like "yes!"—all of the pieces were slotting in.

How does it make you feel when you wear it?
Pretty. I love being femme, I love things that are soft, I love things that are nice colors. I kind of abused it, it's got lots of stains on it. I wear it so much because I love it, I wear it everywhere, it's been to every nasty party and every park. It's just so comfortable and you don't have to do anything with it. It just makes me feel really free.

Neil McDonald: "It feels good to think about trying to express my true self for the first time again."

Neil McDonald, 37

How do you identify?
I identify as somewhere around non-binary or genderqueer with trans femme expression.

Talk us through the first outfit that expressed your femme identity.
The first outfit I wore out was this checked shirt-dress. I obviously was quite nervous and it took a lot of time to build up the confidence to go outside like this. I had no experience of wearing what may be described as women's clothes. So I had no idea what fitted my body, what shapes of things I could wear. Obviously, having an assigned male body, all of my shape and bulges don't necessarily fit into a lot of traditional women's clothes so it's taken a long time to work that out. But in this first outfit and first time out, it was something I could trick myself into thinking that I might just be able to be out there in this dress and people wouldn't notice me too much. I felt it wasn't too different to what a gay guy might wear when just looking at my top half. That checked shirt vibe. It's what I was most comfortable in at that time; helping me get to the tube station and not having to deal with some of the potential street harassment that I'd built up in my head.

When did you wear this outfit?
First time it was going to my first trans support group. I thought if there was an opportunity for people to see my genuine gender expression that this was it. I'd spent many years wanting to express myself like this so to finally do so felt so freeing.

How does wearing it make you feel?
I haven't worn it again in about 18 months or more. It feels good to think about trying to express my true self for the first time again. It was a long journey leading to this moment and I've got a long journey ahead of me but I'm so happy for people to see me as I see myself.

Katayoun Jalili: "At the moment I'm trying to figure out what femme even means for me."

Katayoun Jalili, 22

How do you identify?
I identify as genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, I guess. But non-binary is getting a bit too overused at the moment. I like keeping it unique, so I feel like genderqueer is pretty good.

Talk me through the first outfit that expressed your femme-ness.
I think for me it's a lot of fluffy, faux fur and a lot of mesh and toplessness. I think it's really hard for a piece of texture or clothing to give that femme feeling. I think you have to have it in your head as well and for it to be who you are for you to feel okay about it. If you're not in the right headspace then you could wear the same outfit and feel different. For me, I think it was when I bought this jacket and I just felt like it was the most beautiful thing. I just told the woman who was selling it to me—and it's really embarrassing, I said, "I want it to give me a wrath" and she was like, "What?" I explained that I just wanted to feel powerful and to feel like no one was going to fuck with me. That for me was what being femme is about, being in charge of it, and that's why it's different to femininity.

What was the context of when you first wore it?
I went to this Latinx night called Maricumbia which one of my friends used to run. It was a small party celebrating Latinx culture and I just had my hair done. I wore the jacket, I thought this isn't going to be a massive party and they're all going to be my friends but I still want to feel great. Everyone was like "you look amazing" and I was like, "I know"—I paid good money for this, I better look amazing.

How does it make you feel?
I still wear this outfit on occasion but it's now become more of my drag and when I want to be hyper-femme. At the moment I'm trying to figure out what femme even means for me. I think sometimes I'd rather just wear something that's not associated with femme-ness, that I want to be as neutral as possible. As I said, I think it's all about what is in your head, so at the moment I would wear it to a big party event where I want to look really, really glam. I wouldn't wear it on a day-to-day basis.

Biju: "My thing has always been that I don’t care, I wasn't doing it for anyone else."

Biju, 24

How do you identify?
I think as of now, I wouldn't really identify as anything, mostly because my relationship with gender has been changing a lot. But I don't reject the woman label, because it’s not necessarily something that makes me deeply uncomfortable – I guess the closest definition would be agender.

Can you describe the first outfit you wore that expressed your femme identity?
I'd say that it was a couple of outfits, probably around the time that I would have been 15 or 16. During that time I was quite obsessed with 30s style femininity and pin-ups because I felt like it was a type of alternative feminine identity that had a space for me and my body type, in a way that the androgynous fashion I liked didn’t. So I embraced the extreme opposite, which was this over-the-top, hyper-sexualized femininity.

Whenever I would go to parties or when I performed, I would wear corsets, ripped v-neck t-shirts, tulle skirts and very high heels. I would wear a dog collar that I got in a pet shop. I'd wear a huge, red rose in my hair and bandanas, hair nets, that kind of stuff—thigh highs, lots of aspects traditional cabaret style. Even in school I would wear lots of eyeliner and experiment with makeup—I think I started doing that at age 12.

But I never saw this as a way to allure people or be “sexy”—quite the contrary, really. A lot of people would say, "No one likes that, everyone thinks this is ugly, boys won't like that, it’s too much, too extreme." My thing has always been that I don’t care, I wasn't doing it for anyone else. I don't have any interest in what boys think or don't think.

What was the context of when you first wore it?
It was during school times— I didn’t exactly have the best time, but I didn't have the vocabulary to understand how I felt about the way I was being treated. I’d cut my hair quite early in life, I think I was about 10—so from that moment on I’d get a lot of people questioning my sexuality and being awful about it. So I didn’t really have the experience of not being pointed out as “other” in terms of sexual identity.

I think as well because of the way my body is, with my boobs or my thighs, a lot of people would comment on it, even as I was really young. It made me really uncomfortable, not only because it was undesired attention, but also because I didn't really know what to do with that. I didn't have an interest in appealing to people, especially not masculine people, in being “sexy.” Not beyond the context of performance, anyway.

At the same time I liked punk music, but everyone in it was really skinny, so... Not me. So when I found out about Suicide Girls and pinups and stuff, I realized that these people had the same body as I did, but they were still considered weird, and I could embrace that type of weird. As you do when you're a teenager, I started to seek out clothes and emulate what I saw in the people I liked.

How does it make you feel to be wearing a similar outfit again?
Surprisingly, I feel quite uncomfortable. I think because nowadays my self-consciousness about my boobs has become less prominent and it's no longer something that I feel a need to push myself in, to say, “THEY’RE HERE.” Wearing something that shows them so prominently is very weird to me because now I wear button-up shirts and suits. All of these clothes are things that I have in my wardrobe still so it's not like I wouldn't wear them, but I wouldn’t wear this top with a short skirt—I would wear it with trousers. I would feel the need to balance them out. Because now I understand which bits of the extreme femininity I like and identify it, instead of being a teenager and trying all these things at once.

Ms Mohammed: "It's all about being yourself as much as possible and presenting yourself in an authentic way."

Ms Mohammed, "ageless"

How do you identify?
I guess I'm a cis queer woman, femme-identified. I wasn't always so.

Describe the first outfit you had that expressed your femme identity.
It would have been a dress, very close to what I have on today. I was really into zippers. It was a conscious decision because I used to be a tomboy. Which no one can believe because I'm so girly now.

There weren't really that many feminine heroines when we were growing up. So if I wanted to be strong and the person who saves the day, I just assumed that you had to be as masculine as possible to do that. And then I realized when I got old enough that that was just internalized misogyny. Then it became this statement that I was going to do everything I was going to do in heels and dresses and lipstick. So it's all very reactionary and rebellious, but I kind of am.

When did you first wear it?
Probably gay clubbing. I say “clubbing” but these were word of mouth secret parties I was lucky enough to attend during my coming out years in the 2000s. It was the gay men in my small LGBT community in Trinidad that would encourage that. They'd say, "You have such great tits, show off your tits! Put this on, try that." They really helped me to embrace my femininity. They gave me the space to explore new identities via drag and costume that I wouldn't have necessarily come to myself. They helped femme-ify me and I’m forever grateful.

How does the outfit make you feel?
It's a bit like armour—especially the makeup, I think. It's called warpaint because it's the act of getting ready and deciding how you're going to express yourself and your identity out in the world. Yeah, it's all about being yourself as much as possible and presenting yourself in an authentic way.

Lewis Walters: "I'm a strong believer in winter's trousers becoming summer's shorts."

Lewis Walters, 25

How do you identify?
I'm genderqueer.

Can you describe the first outfit you wore that expressed your femme identity?
The first outfit I wore was a pair of black dungarees. I was wearing a lot of black bandanas at the time as I was just growing my hair, so I had to tie it up. It was still a lot of black because goths die hard. It was just dungarees which were quite fitted, t-shirts and stuff. A fair few accessories and earrings as well.

How does the outfit help you express your femme-ness?
I think the outfit was really good because there was so much in life that was happening, a lot of things were changing. It really expressed my femme identity because it's an item of clothing that is – and I hate the term, unisex. It is that andrognyous feeling that anyone can wear these. I think they were in the girl's section at H&M... No, they were in the girls' section because I had to put a fly into them. That was a time of being around some really cool femmes who taught me how to do that. Being free to learn new skills and pick up some new tricks from some really rad femmes was such a transformative time. I really enjoyed that. I accidentally broke two sewing machines in the anarchist bookshop in Amsterdam sewing the dungarees. I went just to sew a patch on and fix the flies and broke both doing so.

What was the context of when you first wore it?
I had just moved to Amsterdam and it was kind of rough not having anywhere to live. But I was swooped up by these amazing queers and femmes. People that legitimately saved my life. There's such a bond and they're my Amsterdam family.

How does the outfit make you feel now?
It's different to how it was because I cut off the legs. I'm a strong believer in winter's trousers becoming summer's shorts. That's kind of how I live my life, everything gets cut up at some point. It makes me nostalgic but it also makes me feel still so powerful. It's a workers' thing, dungarees and overalls, so it's like you take on the power of them.

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