Deconstructing the binary: The problem with gendered clothing

Cut, color, size and style are just a few things that separate men from women in almost every department store and online shopping platform known today. While this may never directly impact your personal experiences, this does not make shopping easy for everyone. For those going for an androgynous aesthetic, or for those looking to match a nonbinary or nonconforming gender identity, gendered clothing is a nuisance.

I sat down with two Trinity students to learn and talk more about nonconforming fashion. Ren Loewen is a first-year looking to study the sciences. Maddie Kennedy is a junior political science major.

Abigail Wharton: Tell me a little about your gender identity. Does this affect how you buy clothes and what you wear every day?

Ren Loewen: I’m nonbinary, and to me that means that I don’t identify with the male-female dichotomy. I’m somewhere outside of that and androgyny is less fashion and more expressing myself so that my outside matches my inside. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to shop because clothing is designed and cut differently for men and women, so men’s clothing doesn’t fit very well. I usually end up buying and wearing clothing from ‘boyfriend’ lines. I hate the name, but I like the clothes.

Maddie Kennedy: I am a woman, and I have always identified as a woman. However, my style can lean toward more androgynous or soft butch, depending on the day or event. Other days, I will dress super feminine and present pretty typically for my gender. However, I do buy clothes from men’s departments fairly regularly — I prefer looser fitting pants, men’s boots and shoes, and some shirts from the men’s aisle at the thrift store. Some 40 percent of the tops I wear are from men’s departments.

AW: What does your closet look like?

RL: I dress really casually all of the time. Jeans, t-shirts and sweatpants are pretty much all I own for going out anywhere. On the off times I need to be fancy, I have a few button ups and dress shoes I bought in the boy’s section. As for colors, I wear solid color clothes that are usually gray or black because I don’t like to stand out and they’re the easiest colors to find at the cheap stores like H&M or Forever 21.

MK: Ever since finding a stream of fashion that fit me, I have found myself caring a lot more about what I wear and how I look. I tend to wear some form of high-waisted pants or shorts with a tank top, men’s short sleeved button-up, or occasionally a women’s blouse, frequently layering. Other days, I wear a dress with a shirt or jacket layered on top. I like mixing feminine aspects with more masculine aspects, and seem to normally find a ratio between the two that works for me. I’m drawn to simple patterns like stripes and neutral or deep colors.

AW: Where do you shop?

RL: Brands that are made for nonbinary or gender nonconforming people are generally only sold online and are pretty expensive, so I do the best I can with cheap mall stores.

MK: I mostly shop at thrift stores or H&M. Nordstrom Rack if I’m feeling fancy.

AW: What’s the hardest part about clothes? What’s the easiest?

RL: The hardest part of androgyny for me is binding because it’s hot outside and I sweat, so I can only wear them once. I’d like to wear a chest binder every day, but the good ones are upwards of $30, so I’d have to either wash my clothes every two days or buy more binders, and neither is a good option. On the bright side, the easiest part is looking in the mirror and feeling more comfortable with myself when I’m wearing androgynous clothing. Validation is one of the best feelings in the world.

MK: The hardest part is finding fit that I like, in a pattern that I like, at a reasonable cost. I can normally get one or two, but rarely all three. The easiest part is knowing what stores I like, or envisioning outfits. I generally know what I want.

AW: What do you wish more people understood about gender presentation and nonconforming clothing choices?

RL: I want people to understand that there’s an infinite number of ways to express any gender, and androgynous or gender-nonconforming clothing. For a lot of people, it isn’t about fashion. It’s about dressing to feel less anxious and more comfortable in their body. Androgynous clothing is just one way to express myself as a nonbinary person, and feeling validated in my gender and expression of it makes me a more confident, happy person.

MK: I want to say at the outset, that as a person who is generally understood as female at this time and who generally conforms to most gendered presentations, I certainly don’t think my experiences speak for or should be understood as comparing to nonbinary people and people who are fully gender nonconforming.

I am a white girl who wears makeup and has relatively long hair, giving me the privilege of avoiding most vitriol. That being said, when I had short hair, I was called sir almost daily — sometimes innocently, and sometimes with malicious intent. This happened whether I was wearing a button-up and boots or a dress and winged eyeliner.

I think that size and body type have a lot to do with how the queer community understands gender presentation. When people think of what butch fashion is, they might picture Ellen Page in a suit or Shane from “The L Word” — thin women with very straight bodies who wear tight-fitting clothing.

In reality, people with curves dress butch; plus-size people dress butch. Particularly when I had short hair, being 5’11” with hips and strong shoulders meant that I was more frequently interpreted as a masculine person, despite how feminine I might have dressed that day.

Also, understand that dressing outside of your expected gender and appearing outside of your interpreted gender can open you up to ‘outing’ or judgment from the people around you — your clothes can out you and make you vulnerable. It can be a balance for many people between dressing in a way that feels authentic to yourself and feeling safe in the world around them.