The Necessity of Queering Clothes
Creating a personal vernacular is exactly what it means to be queer to me. To take apart the ill-fitting wholes and put the pieces back together in a way that displays not only the parts of your body that you love but the parts of your personality, for better or worse, that you love too.
When I first started dressing myself in the men’s section, it wasn’t about the unbridled access to polo shirts, nor the myriad sweaters one is supposed to collect for all seasons, and it was most certainly not for the opportunity to get an up-close look at a pair of cargo shorts. It was a practical choice to get clothes that were the right size and shape to cover my body, and that were neutral enough in style that I could use them to say something about myself, instead of them sending their own messages about me.
Though in the beginning, the only thing my clothing said about me was that I didn’t know the actual shape of my body and clearly didn’t like it. The thing about women’s clothing was that it presumed to know where my tits were located, and what shape my waist was, and how I wanted them displayed to the world. In fact, I have a belly in place of a waist and I’m not into my tits being displayed in public. On the other hand, men’s clothing, while certainly more flexible, also assumed I had no tits, no hips, no thighs, and no desire for anyone to know the shape of my body, unless it was my forearm—that was a perfectly good body part to show off.
There’s a process you go through when things aren’t made for you, where you have to learn the language of the things that will work for you anyway. Sometimes it’s a visual language, like spotting the square shape of jackets that “hit at the waist” a.k.a. my hips, and other times it’s knowing that the term “relaxed fit” means I might be able to close a men’s button-up over my boobs, and that if I roll up the short sleeves that hang to my elbow, I might achieve the effortless summer look I’m going for.
When it comes to picking out flattering items to wear in an unexpected manner, few people do better than one of my best-dressed friends and girlfriend, Phoebe. The last time we shopped together I watched her circle her favorite thrift store casually holding up lace-up leather pants and tiny sweaters she might squeeze into. “It’s about knowing your body and what you want to show off,” she told me, as she motioned to her chest and hips. I watched as she transformed a pair of regular, dad-looking corduroy hiking shorts into a pair of skin-tight hot pants that barely contained her ass. She’s pulled off similar moves with denim vests that turn into busty, balconette crop-tops, or overalls that become low-rise, belly-baring bottoms. She manages to make sexy outfits out of everything from an old kid’s t-shirt to mechanic coveralls.
My friend Vinh-Paul builds his own queer style, occasionally with items from the women’s section, but more often these days by repurposing menswear. The limitations of women’s wear have started to show and he’s unhappy with the ways they don’t quite fit—namely that the shoulders aren’t wide enough, and everything needs to be a little bit longer. But he borrows from the different ways that women’s wear is revealing and playful: low necklines, tightness over thighs and hips, suggestively showing off calves and shoulders. I’m impressed with how he’s carefully worn down his Rocko’s Modern Life tank from Target into a breezy, sheer, sensual top.
It’s a common practice for most people I know to queer their clothing in some way. Partly because not a lot of bodies have clothes designed specifically for them, and partly because even when they are, these styles might not express the people our bodies contain. Which is to say, that I originally developed my queer style out of a sense of practicality, but it quickly became clear to me how fun it was to dress myself when the right parts of me were revealed. When I learned to love the breadth of my shoulders and the thickness of my thighs, the cute bounce of my belly, I was no longer satisfied with being hidden. I wanted to stand out, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to power clash all day every day. I wanted to wear frilly lace with cut-offs, and velvet with a windbreaker, and a ripped, neon shirt with a cable-knit sweater.
It also felt so right to wear clothing in a way it wasn’t intended, especially as someone who felt never quite intended in the world. I think that’s exactly why I feel compelled, still, to present myself with such attention and care, to intentionally show other people how to read me, how to treat me, who I am—that I can totally start your charcoal grill, but I’d rather drink a Paloma and appreciate your ass while you do it. Not everyone is going to receive this message, but the ones who are looking, the right ones, will. We’ll spot each other across the room at parties—the way Vinh-Paul and I met—offer a quick reverent gesture at our hair and instantly recognize each other as family.
This creating of a personal vernacular is exactly what it means to be queer to me. To take apart the ill-fitting wholes and put the pieces back together in a way that displays not only the parts of your body that you love, but the parts of your personality, for better or worse, that you love too. There’s a lot of effort and time that goes into learning how to actually present yourself, to say what you mean, not what you think you should say, nor what people necessarily want to see from you—and this goes double for people of color.
So while there are plenty of awesome brands that intentionally design clothing that’s unconcerned with old-fashioned notions of menswear or womenswear and who do specifically design for queer people — like LA-based No Sesso, 8 Palms, 69 Worldwide, and Radino, or the Chicago-based Rebirth Garments — even these fabulous looks are not the same as building your own queer style. To queer something is not just to oppose convention, but to play with it, and each individual has a different balance of genders to express, different relationships with conventions to invert and stretch. It’s why everyone was so taken with Billy Porter’s tuxedo gown at the 2019 Oscar’s — because it was very him, and very Pose.
I thought about these ideas endlessly this June, during a Pride month that felt to me, unprecedentedly flooded with corporations looking to cash in. Every year Target is flooded with garish rainbow onesies and the Gap sends me emails about their brand-new rainbow t-shirt collection. As if Pride were a costume, as if we only look gay in June as if queerness can be purchased as if those of us who even bother to celebrate at a party would be caught dead in anything less than our most carefully curated, skankiest looks, which also involve our grandparents’ hand-me-downs. But this year, everyone had pride campaigns: coffee roasters, food delivery apps, bus companies, even Amazon. I don’t believe these companies know what truly supporting queer communities would look like if they tried. They just hope to come out looking cool and to make some extra cash.
Which isn’t surprising, really. What I do hope, against all capitalist odds, is that the growing popularity of marketing to queer people means more of the general public will recognize the labor and love that goes into the queer journey from being invisible, uncomfortable, and afraid, to free, composed, and worthy of attention. That it’s not easy to make your own place in the world. That keeping your looks fresh is about being able to see beyond what you know. And it will become clear that nobody who loves themselves needs to wear cargo shorts when they could just wear a cute fannypack.
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