by Kendra Dawsey
Gendered clothing is a huge facet of our society. It was only in the past hundred years that a woman wearing pants was considered socially acceptable, and it was instilled in me at an early age that men do not wear dresses and women do. These ideas stem from transmisogyny, homophobia, strict gender roles and really salty unfashionable people. If you ask anyone why things had to be this way, would they have a practical reason for it? Or would they make up some weird gender-normative shit about women giving birth or doing housework more easily in a dress?
On an average summer day, I wear dresses because they are usually much easier to put on than pants. Regardless, the association of dresses with femininity is still a part of our culture. People will inevitably think of me as more feminine and gentle just based on this dress as opposed to sweaty and desiring air ventilation.
Then, with wearing a dress, comes all of the rules of how to wear a dress: cross your legs, don’t sit on the floor, don’t ride a bike, and the list goes on. I didn’t really understand these rules as a child and I still have to remind myself not to “manspread” in a skirt. All in all, it is a struggle to have your clothing reflect how you really feel and would like to operate in society.
If I had a hand in deciding how clothing worked, it would be socially acceptable for everyone to wear dresses. They are incredibly comfortable and the act of wearing one shouldn’t be viewed by others as an assault on masculinity or androgyny. Unfortunately, I am not yet ruler of the world and so clothes remain categorized primarily by gender.
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But I’ve realized that, even in the nicest of dresses, I don’t feel particularly feminine. That got me thinking: do I feel feminine at all?
As black women in a white supremacist, patriarchal world, our worth in the eyes of others is predicated on our ability to stun. That’s right. Have a job interview with a WASP whose money is probably as deep as his wrinkles? Conjugate your verbs according to Standard English, wear your best work outfit, and make sure your weave is down to your shoulders so that your short hair isn’t read as “masculine”. Seeing an apartment? Wear a dress that matches your skin tone, and name drop your Ivy League education so the landlord knows you are “safe”. Land a tutoring job in Westport, Connecticut? Watch all of your white co-workers show up to the job in sweatshirts while you are wearing a dress shirt and slacks.
Of course, it is socially accepted that everyone has to look nice for a job interview, but black people have to look extra nice. You have to look twice as professional because blackness is already seen as unprofessional, unclean, untidy. My mother taught me this early. She’d scold me before school if my hair was even the slightest bit unbrushed or uncombed. Once, when I was a teen, rushing out to my friend who was waiting in the driveway, my mother plopped me down between her legs and fixed my hair, like our routine ten years prior. “If your hair is a mess, they’ll think of you as just another nigger.”
When I was about ten, my mother and her long time friend put me through what they called “diva training.” They dragged me to the nail salon, to the mall, and to the hair salon so that they could instruct me on the ways of divadom. I followed them with confused half-interest. It was kinda cool they were buying clothes for me, but I usually messed up my manicures within seconds of leaving the nail salons and didn’t have the patience to sit underneath dryers. Even so, I did it. I guess this is what it means to be a diva, I thought. I guess this is what I have to do to be a fabulous girl.
Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like I got anything from those diva trainings until I need to make some money. Then, I exfoliate and moisturize my skin, find a pair of earrings that perfectly match my outfit, dig out my years old eyeliner and then get ready to stun as a black woman. Not only a black woman but as an acceptable, feminine black woman.
I think I absorbed very early that black women are usually considered ugly, specifically because of a perceived lack of femininity. Remember that Psychology Today article that hypothesized black women are objectively less attractive than women of other races because we have more testosterone? Most recently, people insulted Serena Williams after her Wimbledon win by calling her a man because they were afraid of her strength. Black women are supposedly loud, we take up space, we are angry, and so I shrunk myself, wore skirts and spoke in a quiet voice to seem more ladylike.
Sometimes, I think I’m too good at this. Once, I wore a dress because it was the only outfit I had washed, and slapped on lipstick that I found in the tornado of my room. Then I trudged to my therapist’s office. “Oh, you look so nice! You seem to be doing a lot better!” she said. Never mind that I cried myself to sleep that night and nearly dialed the suicide hotline three times that week. I was just wearing a dress.
I wear a dress because I know I’ll look good to other people, even if I don’t feel good myself. I wear dresses to show off my ass when I don’t even feel like going to the club, because it might help me get drinks and compliments. I wear dresses to seem proper or desirable. Man, I am so good at looking good and feminine, but there are so many other ways to look good.
Gender is so much more than clothing, but currently it seems that we don’t have many other ways to express that part of ourselves to the outside world. The line between employment and unemployment, acceptance and exile, and violence and peace, often hinges on the clothes one wears, especially for trans and gender non-conforming individuals. I dream of a world where there is no shame in outfits, there is no harassment from clothes, and some unfashionable, ambiguous butch doesn’t have to be ladylike in a dress.
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