I Speak Through My Clothes

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Wolfgang Krodel – Adam and Eve

Everyone uses clothing to tell a story about themselves. We dress to communicate our identity, religion, gender, marital status, tribe or clan, sub-culture, profession, and/or social status. Some people dress to blend in and others dress to stand out. We expect that everyone will understand the meaning of our choices. Conversely, we expect to read others accurately.

Humans first started to wear clothing 170,000 years ago (warning: tied to the evolution of body lice). They made garments to protect themselves from the cold, the sun, rain, thorns, insects, and poison plants. The first evidence of ornamental clothing or jewelry is from 75,000 years ago. As humans developed better skills at farming, tanning, weaving, sewing, and metal working, they created more durable, comfortable, and decorative clothing. Clothing laws were not far behind.

The Bible has many rules about clothing. It prohibits women from wearing men’s clothing and men from wearing women’s clothing. There is a prohibition on wearing cloth woven from a mix of linen and wool. There are prohibitions on flaunting your wealth. There are modesty codes to prove piety and restrict sexuality. These rules are the Judeo-Christian origins of contemporary gender policing.

The aristocracy and the clergy created sumptuary laws to visibly separate us from them. There should be no confusing who is who. The Romans had rules about who could wear purple and who could wear silk. In 16th century England, Queen Elizabeth I required the poor and working classes to dress in rough fabric, dull colors, and with little adornment. The law limited access to fabrics, furs, accessories, dyes, precious metals, and jewels (see chart at the bottom of the post). The laws required that your clothing match your station in life.

New York is diverse. There are a lot of immigrants. There are a lot of religious people. There are a lot of subcultures. There are a lot of eccentrics. Different people follow different rules.

I follow my own rules. One of them is that I don’t wear T-shirts with graphics or text on them. No sports teams, craft beers, or political slogans. It is a holdover from when I started binding and I didn’t want anyone staring at my chest. I was strictly into solid color T’s. After losing weight and having top surgery, I’ve starting wearing horizontal stripes again. I don’t wear baseball caps (facing forward or backward), henleys, ties, scarves, or bold prints (no Hawaiian shirts). I don’t wear women’s clothing.

I speak through my clothes. My gender expression is clearly and unambiguously masculine. I want my appearance to say that I’m not a corporate tool. I’m unconventional. I’m neat, clean, and well-groomed. I pay attention to what I’m wearing. I like the outdoors even though I live in the city. I’m from the East Coast but I’m not from a wealthy family. I value comfort over fashion. I prefer classic to ostentatious. I’m financially solid.

I dress to please myself. I can control what people see but I can not control how they interpret it. Fortunately, in New York, I’m not breaking any laws. Instead, I’m breaking the social contract that assumes that gender is binary, unambiguous, and not to be played with. Some people are upset by my breaking it. Some people are offended by it. Some people get tongue-tied while trying to figure it out. Some people roll with it, which gives me hope.

Notes: The title for this post is a 1973 quote from Umberto Eco, as referenced by Dick Hebdige in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style.

Below is a chart of the clothing laws under Queen Elizabeth 1 in England:


9 thoughts on “I Speak Through My Clothes

  1. Mrs Fever

    Each part of the country has its own norms and expectations around clothing. Where I grew up, it was not a “rule” but people looked askance (or frowned scornfully) if you failed to “dress up” for certain things: church, wedding or baby showers, going out to dinner at particular restaurants, attending a play, etc. People dressed for work according to the collar – how blue or how white – and Casual Fridays in office environments meant wearing khakis or going without pantyhose. Never denim and absolutely never shorts.

    Those are not things I gave much thought to when I was younger; it was just The Way Things Were, and I stuck to jeans on weekends while keeping to the ‘dress code’ that was aporopriate for the other facets of my life.

    And then I moved.

    It was a jolt to realize that, for people in this area, “dressing up” means “wearing jeans without holes.” CEOs wear tennis shoes and baseball caps to work. Yoga Wear is practically haute couture.

    It took a few years for me to adjust my wardrobe down about 12 notches and begin to blend. What was once normal workwear for me (suits, skirts, fashion tops, heels, jewelryetc.) caused constant raised eyebrows and near-daily questions along the lines of, “Wow. Where are YOU going? You’re so… Dressed up.

    I flew back to my home state last summer to attend a wedding, and it wasn’t until I looked around and realized what other people were wearing that I realized how *not-like-them* I’d become. I was, to my ‘new’ sartorial perspective, “dressed up” in linen pants, a not-plain knit top, and sandals. The rest of the crowd, however (except for my butchest aunt – thank you, auntie!), was dressed… Well, like they were going to prom. (Or perhaps to a royal wedding. Or the christening of England’s new prince.)

    I just rolled with it, but it got me thinking. And, as our perceptions about people are often based on appearances, it made me wonder a bit about how I was perceived by the fancy-pants crowd. The thing is, I know full well their *actual* status(es) (education, socioeconomics, religion, etc); most of them have no real clue about mine. Odds are, the perception did not match the reality.

    Which is a reaaaallllly long way of saying, “What you THINK you see is not necessarily what you get.” Especially when it comes to clothing, I think. The messages we send are not likely to be read with an eye that grasps the language in which we are communicating.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Sorry for the delay responding (we have out of town guests and they are staying in my “office”) and I hate answering by iPhone because of “auto correct”.
      You made some really great points – when I travel outside the US I think people see my Americanism (or Westernism) first, and mostly they see male because I am wearing clothes that women don’t wear in their society.
      We went to a summer wedding in Lenox MA where the dress code was “Dress to Impress” and another in San Jose, CA where it was “California Casual” which totally confused both of us. There are some advantages of black tie (at least for butches).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is fun pushing the limit, and trying to find accessories that fit your self-image. I have a sneaker fetish, and a shirt fetish – and I feel more grounded when I am wearing clothing that fits my body and my identity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. writerspilecki

        When I started to wear cufflinks, I bought a few French cuff shirts. They are hard to find here in the States, at least for women. I started buying English shirts and the quality and the feel of the fabric is fantastic.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Terese Beatty

    My supervisor (a mental health clinician) frequently comments that I and others are “dressed like a man” when wearing docker style pants and dress shirts. “I’m unconventional. I’m neat, clean, and well-groomed”- As well as comfortable, your statement describes my style of dress. Apparently to be viewed as a woman, one has to wear flowers and pink. Individuals should not be judged by their outward appearance, especially not by counselors.


    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      In the history of gendered clothing it is only since the 1970’s that professional women have been able to wear pants to work – and many corporate offices still frown upon it. Still, men are more policed than women in terms of dressing gender appropriately – and they have a very narrow range of clothing to choose from. It is kind of ridiculous – imagine a straight male counselor wearing a pink flowered shirt with a Peter Pan collar….


    2. writerspilecki

      I frequently will wear pink when I am also doing a more masculine of center look, so yesterday I wore black pants, blazer and shoes, with a pink shirt, silver cufflinks and a pink pocket square. I felt very dapper and kinda girly at the same time. Leave ’em guessing, I say!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cairtheand

    Great post.

    I used to wear tees with band prints on them, but I also noticed becoming more “plain” (don´t know if that´s the right word for it). I quit most jewelry and started wearing clothes of one colour too. Don´t want to attract any unecessary attention.

    I wear baseball caps as a way to hide. If people are going to put me through visual examination, at least I can put the visor over my eyes and pretend they aren´t looking. It´s interesting to wonder what would happen to way of clothing after transition. I do think that once I feel more comfortable, I might start wearing bandshirts again.

    Liked by 1 person


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