When I wear a dress, I am wearing a woman’s dress. Not because the dress indicates that I am a woman, but because it’s my dress and I am a woman. If I decide that I’m not a fan of this dress anymore and I give it to a man, the dress becomes a man’s dress, because it’s his dress and he is a man.
Clothing has no gender.
Any person wearing any individual garment – no matter how pink and frilly, no matter how macho – is the gender that they say that they are. What they’re wearing doesn’t change their gender. Dresses do not indicate woman-ness – though they can indicate femininity – and ties don’t indicate man-ness – though they can indicate masculinity.
Whoah, whoah, what’s the difference between woman-ness and femininity? What makes someone a woman, if not femininity?
Well, woman is a gender. I can’t tell you exactly what a gender is, because that’s a really complicated wibbly wobbly question where the answer depends a lot on who you’re asking. But at the short of it, gender – woman, in my case – is a state of being. I am a woman. It is something that I am. It’s part of my existence, my identity. It’s relevant to how I occupy space in the world. Woman is my gender identity.
Femininity is a way of presenting in a manner that stereotypically embodies woman-ness, but by no means encompasses or even explains woman-ness.
Hm, that was a bit chewy. Let’s try that again. Back in undergrad, when I shaved my head, bound my chest, and wore baggy jeans every day, I was still a woman. I wasn’t very feminine, because I didn’t present in ways that stereotypically represent what women are expected to do, but I never stopped being a woman. I was, in fact, pretty masculine – I presented in ways that stereotypically represent what men are expected to do (look macho) – but I was still a woman, and woman was my gender identity.
So, I was presenting masculine, and I was a woman.
At this stage in my life I tend to present feminine, and I am still a woman. If you scroll through my selfies, you’ll see that the days I choose to share my photo with friends are the days when I look the most feminine. I love showing off my scarves and make-up and cute bobbed haircut. It’s a way I’m excited to present as. But the scarves, make-up, and hair aren’t what make me a woman. The thing that makes me a woman is my innate knowledge of myself. I just know I’m a woman. It’s always been part of my identity.
A man who wears make-up, skirts, and has long hair, is still a man. He’s a man because he knows that he is a man, and his man-ness – his gender – is not affected by the clothes he wears. He may be presenting in a feminine manner, by wearing clothes that embody a stereotypical view of womanhood, but his gender identity doesn’t change.
Masculinity and femininity aren’t genders, they’re behaviors and presentations. They are rooted in stereotypical gendered experiences, but we have joyfully reached a point in existence where we know that we can separate the presentation from the experience. So I can separate my feminine presentation from my woman’s experiences.
(This is also really culture specific – I imagine that most of the people reading this are from the US or other Western countries, and our views of gender presentation are pretty rigidly formed by Western colonial culture. In a culture where men wear things that we could call dresses, they’re not presenting in a feminine manner. We might think that they are, but that’s our external view imposing our values and expectations on them, even if it’s kept in our own heads.)
Now that we’re all on the same page that gender identity isn’t the same thing as gender presentation, let’s talk nuance.
Everything I’ve just laid out is a fairly binary explanation of masculinity/femininity and man/woman. So how does this work when we think about people with non-binary gender identities?
Well to start off, clothing *still* has no gender. If an agender person wears button downs and trousers, they may be presenting in a masculine fashion, but they still have no gender. If a genderqueer person wears a dress and heels, they’re not a woman. Some non-binary people dress in masculine or feminine presenting ways, and that doesn’t change their gender.
They may present in a specific way because it’s socially easier to dress in a way that matches people’s expectations (assigned female people presenting feminine, assigned male people presenting masculine), or because it’s comfortable (someone enjoys skirts because they feel nice on their legs, someone else enjoys wearing baggy jeans while doing manual labor), or because it looks and feels special to them (things like make-up and dapper outfits). Some people might present in specific ways to make an interpersonal impact (a shaved head or specific make-up to look queer) or to align with their self-image (lots of people make some drastic presentation differences when they move away from controlling families, or when they end a relationship, or when they come out as queer). Someone might be mostly a man or usually a man, and present masculine, but unless they identify as a man, they’re still non-binary.
It’s not just clothing. Bodies don’t have gender, either! Someone could have all of the secondary sex characteristics of a man – beard, adam’s apple, etc – and if they tell you that they’re non-binary, or if they tell you that they’re a woman, that is true. There are a lot of reasons why someone may not medically transition, socially transition, or change their gender presentation, but none of those affect what someone’s gender is.
But back to clothing.
Something that’s frustrating for a lot of non-binary individuals is how difficult it is to dress in an androgynous way. Androgynous presentation would indicate *neither* masculine or feminine presentation or *both* masculine and feminine presentation. This is tough because when most people think “androgynous,” they actually picture masculine. Specifically, they picture someone whose body says “woman!” to them, but whose clothes say “man!”
This is hard on non-binary folks who don’t have a way to signal their gender using clothes, unless they’re thin, assigned female, white, and enjoy wearing blazers. How do fat people, Black people, people with facial hair, people with long hair, disabled people, etc. show that they’re non-binary with their clothes?
By the way, I know this goes counter to what I said above, when I explained that clothes doesn’t indicate gender. That’s true. It’s doesn’t necessarily indicate gender, but some people want to present in a manner that highlights their gender. And if someone who’s genderqueer or genderfluid wants to *showcase* their gender through a combination of masculine and feminine presentation, that’s their right!
So one of the ways that non-binary folks can present androgyny is actually though the work of binary people! If binary people made the conscious effort to rethink androgyny, then the people dressing in an androgynous manner would find support in their presentation goals. So photographers, artists, fashion designers: when your vision calls for androgyny, give me people with beards and lipstick alongside your people with breasts in blazers. Let’s see someone using a mobility device with their breasts bound, wearing a skirt. Show me models of color wearing more variations on gendered clothes. Let’s fill the internet with a broader view of androgyny!
It’s also easier for people who look like they were assigned female at birth to get away with androgyny without social repercussions, because the feminist movement allowed women to move into masculine presenting space, when it comes to fashion. If I wear pants and a vest, no one is going to think that I’m dressing like a man. I generally won’t get jeered at for wearing a tie. That’s within my prerogative, to dress in that manner and not have my gender or gender presentation confused. But if a cis man wears a dress, suddenly he’s messing with gender norms. Because allowable femininity has shifted, while allowable masculinity has been frozen in place for more than half a century.
Some of the ways that people with male secondary sex characteristics (and therefore who are likely to be mistaken for men by people who don’t know much about gender) can “get away” with some feminine presentation without social repercussion could be by wearing soft colors or bright patterns, which aren’t generally allowed to men, but aren’t quite in the gender-transgression forbidden territory. They could wear shirts sold in the women’s section in stores, that fit in a more feminine way, but without outwardly flagging as “dressing like a girl,” and facing possible social fallout.
There are SO MANY factors that influence what kinds of clothes someone wears. From comfort to price to social safety to gender and self-image alignment. Some folks may deliberately dress in ways that showcase their gender, because they find a particular gender presentation to feel like a good match for their gender identity, and some people might dress to not get fired.
Clothes don’t have a gender. People have gender, and what they wear doesn’t tell you what their gender is. But that doesn’t mean that you can tell someone “no, you’re not a woman just because you’re wearing a dress. You’re a man wearing a dress! And that’s okay!” That’s some faux open-minded transphobic bullshit. It’s not accepting to support someone to wear gender-non conforming clothes, if what you’re actually doing is denying their gender.
So. Clothes don’t have gender, and trust people to know what their gender is. Literally no one knows better than you what your own gender is, and the same goes for everyone else.