Fashion is one of the most personal ways in which people express themselves, which leads to the question: how do people cope when fashion extends from the personal to the social?
This is a particular concern of the LGBTQ+ community who, as a minority group, often face stereotyping based solely on preconceived ideas about superficialities. However, there is a strong tradition of relying on visual rather than verbal cues when communicating queerness because of how discussion was suppressed even after 1967, the year homosexuality in England and Wales was legalised. There was often no safe space to talk about being gay, so people had to show it. Unlike other minorities – which sometimes have visual markers like skin colour, traditional dress or even just anatomy – being queer is invisible. This explains the rise of the ‘handkerchief code’; a system of coloured handkerchiefs that, depending on which pocket they were tucked into, indicate various sexual fetishes and preferences. This was popular in the 1970s queer male community and would be used to let other men know what you were looking for. Curiously, nowadays this seems to have been superseded by a new code – one that I’m sure most people are familiar with – the code of stereotypes.
I discussed self-identification and presentation with a number of queer women and non-binary people from around Oxford. The notion of ‘coding’ came up a few times. Catrin told me that “I definitely dress slightly differently when I go to Plush compared with when I go to other clubs – usually with more colour and more eye makeup”. Perhaps the keyword here is ‘more’. As gay people we embrace the things that diverge from the norm. Maggie similarly notes that when she goes out she might wear “a choker, some glitter, and a tiara”. Although many people see a night-out as the perfect excuse to dress up, these kind of accessories transcend the average apparel seen at Bridge or Park End, and are definitely a very bold and brave fashion choice.
The freedom of queer girls to assume more masculine traits is another thing Maggie hits on, saying she will wear “some kind of ‘male’ clothing” and have short hair. This is definitely something I can relate to. Having been a stubborn tomboy all the way up to puberty, I remember feeling that skirts and dresses just weren’t right for me, and even now I am very apprehensive of wearing blouses, frills, or anything too feminine. Saying this, however, I would never consider myself as ‘butch’, possibly because this is such a problematic label. As flimsy as gender roles are, there is still a great deal of stigma circling girls who don’t look like girls, and ‘butch’ is very often seen as an aggressive encroachment on male customs. Therefore ‘butch’ straight girls are often delegated to being just ‘one of the lads’, erasing their gender identity.
However, for queer girls and non-binary folks, dressing ‘butch’ is the most prolific stereotype. Think short hair, short nails, beanie hats and a whole lot of plaid, probably accompanied by a game of softball. Although this is a fantastic look that many girls rock, for others a lack of ‘butchness’ is just another way their sexuality is made to seem invalid. Marzia told me that, growing up, she faced many micro-aggressions stemming from her non-butch appearance, from both the queer community (“If you keep dressing as a femme and hitting on femmes you’ll never get laid”) and the rest of the world (“If you don’t dress like a lesbian how do I know I shouldn’t hit on you?”). The confusion of the speakers in the last comment suggests that the idea of ‘femme’ girls is not so well-known outside of LGBTQ+ circles. For those who don’t know, it is simply a gay girl who dresses in a traditionally feminine way.
A lot of ‘femmes’ experience a sense of social displacement as a result of the situations described by Marzia. Feeling “not gay enough” is something Courtney can relate to. She adds “I always get told I can’t be gay because I dress like a straight girl”. The idea that the way you dress corroborates your sexuality is so bizarre yet all too common and the term “not gay enough” strengthens the perception of there being one ultimate state of gayness that you’re either in or you’re not. Of course this is completely untrue. Sexuality isn’t categorical, it’s on a spectrum, and those who don’t identify as one of the polar-opposites, such as the bi- and demisexuals, are often left feeling under-represented and overlooked.
Catrin agrees that, being pansexual, “I don’t feel there’s any kind of stereotypical expression for my sexuality”. She finds this both positive and negative; on the one hand, there are fewer clichés to be confined and restricted by, but on the other hand she can also feel “not gay enough”. This is a sentiment that resonated within all the discussions I had. It’s very understandable that if you want your sexuality to be taken seriously, you feel the need to over-compensate in order to reach a level that cannot be ignored and cannot be argued with. Serin made me aware of a similar issue. Being genderqueer, they said that “I feel a certain pressure to dress androgynously enough so that people don’t misgender me”. Time and time again, the word ‘enough’ comes up, almost as if there’s a way to quantify your identity. In dressing androgynously, there is the simultaneous shaking off of traditional gender labels, and the cementing of a new one.
Serin carried on: “I’ll always remember my mum telling me one day that you have to be careful of the way you dress or people might get the wrong idea”. Imagine a young person being told that the way they were representing themselves was incorrect. It’s hard to fight against such entrenched ideas of right and wrong. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid them altogether, which is why Marzia admits she embraced being categorised as a ‘goth’ in her youth because it was less trouble. Lucy, non-binary and pan, sums up the experience; “I definitely express a lot of myself through my appearance, sometimes wanting to look a certain way voluntarily, or sometimes feeling forced to do so”. The two are often synonymous in the minefield of exploring your sexuality, and this has ultimately produced a wide and varied culture of self-expression within the LGBTQ+ community.