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Suiting Up: Notes from a Fashion (and Gender) Nonconformist

Suiting Up: Notes from a Fashion (and Gender) Nonconformist
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By Stephanie Schroeder

As a woman who doesn’t like “girly” attire, I find the conflation of gender with clothing incredibly restricting – as well as stupid. How can there even be such strict categories as “women’s clothes” and “men’s clothes”? As far as I’m concerned, clothing is clothing and whoever wears it sets the tone.

I buy some “women’s” clothes because they make room for my breasts and hips. I purchase some “men’s” clothes because they are better made, less expensive and often the only way I can find something that is 100 percent cotton and not a synthetic blend, which makes me itch.

Dress codes, workplace and otherwise, also make me itch, but intellectually. In a society so very proud of its supposed freedoms from, the U.S. is highly restrictive and extremely righteous when codifying both fashion and gender norms.

It occurs to me that corporate dress codes are more akin to a costume ball, a frivolous indulgence, than anything related to work. And costumewear is not very practical in an office, especially for support staff, who are often down on their hands and knees fixing some executive’s computer because they can’t even plug it in or carrying heavy boxes and unpacking office supplies. How practical is a suit and tie or a skirt or dress for these jobs, which generally have the strictest of dress codes? A suit is to me much like a straight jacket and a tie like a noose; a skirt in this environment is impracticable and the shoes that must fashionably accompany them are very difficult to walk in and usually uncomfortable.

In other workplaces a uniform makes sense. For, say operating room medical personnel where scrubs are practical, or firefighters, for whom heavy fireproof gear is necessary for protection. Actually, a uniform is a practical answer to the costume of the systematized office dress code that is often sexist, expensive to maintain, and often uncomfortable even when not unconstitutional. And, mostly, the “required” office attire of today has nothing whatsoever to do with the job description.

There are instances where, in not following a specific dress code, especially in corporate offices and especially in the banking and legal professions, employees might find themselves cast out, and even unemployed, if they do not conform.

I couldn’t conform and quit last my job so I would no longer have to wear dress pants and pretend to be the kind of “girl” my boss wanted me to be. She actually offered to buy me suitable clothing. Uh huh. She called me into her office and told me she needed me to be, more, uhm, professional when I attended meetings. “I don’t want to offend you,” she started. “I’ll buy you a suit,” she said. “Just pick out a pantsuit you will feel comfortable in and two tops,” she told me. Pantsuit? Who says that? A suit is suit – a jacket with a skirt or with pants. They are both suits. Pantsuit! How very Hillary Clinton.

And a top. She said a top. Is a top a blouse, because I cannot wear blouses. I hate feeling constrained by the buttoned cuff tight around my wrist and blouses always gape around my breasts.

“I don’t want to do this,” I thought to myself.

So I quit.

In 2015, at a time when a growing number of individuals like myself, a tomboy, for lack of a better description, hover at a point on the sexuality and/or gender-expression spectrum where dressing in traditionally gendered clothing is uncomfortable and even identity-negating, the question of how non-conformist professionals can find suitable professional wardrobes for the corporate environment is a big one.

Sex and gender discrimination is what is really going on. Sexism, that is, coded as ‘cultural norms’ and this sexism is generally upheld in court cases about workplace attire, which is completely disingenuous, and also socially wrongheaded.

The issue of sex and gender also gets muddled when courts rule, as they have, that sex differential dress codes are okay. Then, in instances where transwomen are mandated to dress like men, which is at odds with their gender identity, there is not much they can do legally.

Ruthann Robson, Professor at City University of New York School of Law, wrote a very interesting and accessible book out about the law and socially and legally acceptable attire. Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes examines laws around dress ranging from early taxes on textiles to the more recent banning of religious headwear.

Personally, I’m very interested in how gender and sexuality interplay with fashion.

Fran Dunaway, CEO/Co-Founder of TomboyX, a line of clothing that fills in the space between men’s wear and women’s wear, is very positive. “I think that this whole tomboy explosion, androgynous fashion, trans positive movement is happening because feminism is on the rise again, homophobia is on the decline and the fear of lesbianism isn’t used to keep women fearful of exhibiting masculinity. That’s exciting to see and be a part of.”

Conversely, some men are embracing “feminine” attire.

Just last month, teen rapper and actor Jaden Smith made headlines by wearing a dress, with reactions ranging from enormous support from fans, a snotty and homophobic pun about “swerving” by GQ, an “exclusive” from a Hollywood gossip site giving his “reasons” (because in our society he must justify his “female” attire), to this Yahoo article indicating his dress is both a trendy fashion statement as well as the action of a iconoclast, a person who is secure and values his individuality. Other articles heralded his challenging of gender stereotypes among other speculation. In fact, Jaden Smith is very likely just being himself and making himself comfortable in an uncomfortable world.

This story of a 68-year-old married man who prefers dresses is of note as well. My sister posted this piece on Facebook and remarked, “I really like this story. This guy has a happy life, even though people are mean to him, because he is true to himself. For the people who worry that he wears a dress, why do they care? It’s not hurting anyone.”

I’m extremely wary of the use of the terms masculinity and femininity, that, same as demarcating women’s clothes and men’s clothes, are limiting concepts in terms of both dress and behavior.

As I walk through the second half-century on earth, I want to be free of restrictive and controlling language, just as I want to be free of restrictive and uncomfortable clothing.




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