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Random Thursday Blog: Clothing and Communication

Thursday, April 2, 2015 - 08:49
I love how I can rely on my friends and readers for interesting prompts for the Random Thursday blogs. This one came out of a Twitter conversation on how frustrating I find it to try to shop for work clothes, given the number of intersecting constraints that fall out of my life choices, including the need for bicycle compatibility. (And that’s before we get into my relatively strict preferences for fiber types and color patterns.) When a couple of people mentioned bicycling in skirts and I noted that I Don’t Wear Skirts For Work and that the reasons were complex enough they’d need a blog rather than Twitter, the response was, “OK, do it.” I was born in 1958 in a middle-class American family. That context means a lot of things, but in particular it means that—as a girl—I was put into dresses pretty much from the cradle and that the schools I attended required me to wear dresses at school almost all the way up through the end of high school. (If I recall correctly, they changed the dress code at my high school the very last year I was there.) This did not sit well with me. For the first part of my life, it wasn’t about gender presentation, it was about mobility. The family story goes that I never really crawled “normally”, I started out with a sort of “up on all fours” locomotion with hands and feet rather than hands and knees. Well, duh! Have you ever tried to crawl with skirts on? Once I got to school age, I would change out of dresses as soon as I got home into something more compatible with running around in the yard and building forts out of picnic tables such like. (There’s another vivid memory from this era: one time in kindergarten I decided it would be more practical to wear my shorts and t-shirt underneath my dress to go to school so it would be simpler to change when I got home. I recall being frustrated at not being able to explain the perfectly reasonable logic behind this to my mother’s satisfaction.) It was never so much that I actively disliked dresses—my mother designed and made a lot of my school clothes and I rather liked that—but I disliked compulsory dresses. And as a shy loner I never got into performing femininity as a bonding activity with friends. (No friends.) Long after I was out on my own, there were delicate family battlegrounds about what I was going to wear to special events like weddings and anniversaries. When I got to college, I pretty much ditched skirts entirely as everyday wear and never looked back. Except for costuming, of course. That was also when I discovered historic re-creation and an outlet for the creative sewing I’d always enjoyed. And it was also when I started figuring out that I wasn’t heterosexual. Clothing started getting even more complicated than before. I’m going to skip a lot of the rest of the autobiography and style development and jump to the present status. As a costumer, as a student of social sciences, and as a participant in corporate and academic cultures, I’m strongly aware of the use and unavoidability of clothing as a communication medium and a social signifier. I don’t fight this; I embrace it. But I embrace it on my own terms. When I switched from being just a grad student to being a teaching assistant, I made a massive shift in my wardrobe to symbolize “I am an authority figure and need to show respect for my position.” When I switched from having biotech jobs that entailed scrubs and lab coats to ones that involved desks and meetings, I made a similar shift for similar reasons. I’ve even gone through a few periods where I played with upping my game to blazers and scarves (though that has some practical aspects given the irregular temperature control at in the building). But what I don’t do is wear skirts or dresses. Some of that is practical. Both my grad school time and my corporate time have typically involved a certain amount of bicycle commuting. And—with a nod to my abovementioned friends who are happy riding bicycles in skirts—I’ve never been comfortable doing that, purely on a physical basis. But a lot of it has to do with specific signaling regarding gender relations. It may be simplest to jump over to talking about historic costume first. Most of my historic dress is in the context of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which allows for (let us say gently) a lot of personal expression in the re-creation of historic clothing styles. It was also in my first few years in the SCA that I figured out that it wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested in boys, but I was actively interested in girls. I was way too shy and socially inept to really be able to communicate this directly to other people. But in putting on costumes and trying out personas, I could test the waters. In a modern context, it’s been a long time since jeans and a t-shirt coded as “masculine” (as opposed to coding as “not femme”), but in the context of historic clothing, there are both much clearer distinctions between masculine and feminine styles, and (at least in the SCA) the potential for mixing those signifiers in ways that don’t map directly to modern expectations. From the beginning, I’ve done a lot of cross-dressing in the SCA not only for practicality (mobility, etc.) and for the sheer joy of creating a multiplicity of garment types, but for gender signaling. (See my article on this topic for a much more detailed discussion.) Because the SCA is about a sort of role-playing all the time, there’s a lower bar to trying out (trying on?) different roles than those people expect from you, and thus shaping their expectations. Back when I was still trying to figure out how to come out (which was harder than you might think in the ‘80s if you didn’t actually have a partner to be obvious with), wearing masculine-coded medieval clothing enabled me to break heteronormative expectations in the ways in which I interacted with women…and declined interactions with men. Even now, decades later, when pretty much anybody who knows me by my medieval name knows my sexual orientation, there’s a palpable difference in the sexual overtones of interactions with both men and women based on whether I’m wearing male-coded or female-coded costumes. Even solidly heterosexual women are happy to flirt and make admiring comments when I’m wearing a male-coded costume. And men who barely say hello to me under ordinary circumstances will come up and compliment me when I’m wearing strongly female-coded costumes. And that last point gets back to the topic of modern, everyday clothing. I’m not actually interested in having men notice what I’m wearing or feel that what I’m wearing gives them an invitation to interact with me on the topic of my appearance. I’m not doing it as a display for them. I’m not doing it as a social invitation to them. And frankly it makes me uncomfortable. In the context of the SCA, it’s an amusing sociological observation. At work, at family social functions, going through my everyday life, I choose to wear that shield of clothing that signals my opting out of heteronormativity. (Mind you, I don’t actually wear anything that would be unexpected if worn by a heterosexual woman—but I avoid wearing things that would tend to be interpreted as inviting male attention.) And yet, I do wear dresses. I love wearing dresses. I like swirly skirts and sweeping lines and necklines that show off my awesome collarbones. But I wear them in contexts where I either know or trust the people around me not to interpret them in unintended ways. (I think I surprised my girlfriend by wearing a dress for last year’s Golden Crown Literary Society awards banquet. But you know? A lesbian publishing conference is the perfect example of a place where no one is going to think I’m signaling heteronormativity! It’s probably one of the most comfortable places I know to wear dresses.) But I’m not going to wear them at work, whether I’m bicycling or not.