In elementary school I went through a phase where I wouldn’t wear dresses. My second-wave feminist mother took me to the children’s thrift store and bought me plum velvet dress pants and a salmon satin shirt.
Window shopping with my mom last year, I pointed out a moon-silver suit in the window of a grand store and wondered if it was a shade too close to white to be worn as a wedding guest. Without answering my question she told me I was too straight to wear a suit, that lesbians had worked too hard for the right to wear suits for a “straight bitch” like me to tap-dance in like the poseur I was. It didn’t seem worth it to correct her, there in the middle of 5th avenue.
It hardly needs to be said in the age of instagram identity formation that clothes are symbols, and queer dress aesthetics have always served a communicative function beyond style, gender expression, or social commentary. Queer fashion does all of that, and more, but it is also a bat symbol used to facilitate connection and build community. I can sympathize with any resentment that might be felt towards those aesthetics being coopted by straight mainstream fashion: without context, queerness, or acknowledgement.
Here are some things that I do. I tie my rainbow sneakers and wonder if they’re the queer signifier I meant them to be, or if their meaning has been lost in the piles of rainbow synthetic fabrics pumped out by H&M and Forever 21 over the past year. I feel an unfair pang of disappointment when they are complimented by straight women. I study the cool gay women I see like I’m a teenager trying to figure out how to act; how to get my sleeves to stay rolled up. I google “soft butch,” and when that’s clearly not right I google “hard femme” to see if that is a thing. It’s a thing. It’s not me.
Another thing I do is look at pictures of women wearing suits. For a garment set that is in some ways strictly defined, a suit can be so fluid. A simple black tuxedo can be anywhere on the spectrum from butch to femme depending on how you wear it. It’s powerful, but fancy. It’s decadent and practical. Strong and forgiving. Classic and modern. Exactly as sexy as you want it to be. It’s easy to find pictures of women in suits in 2019. I don’t have to search twitter for suit appreciation posts in honor of besuited Evan Rachel Wood, Janelle Monáe, Kristen Stewart, Tessa Thompson, Lena Waithe, Cara Delevingne or Ellen Page. They are given to me by the internet on a fairly regular basis. Fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo have been referring to this trend as the “Lady Suit,” but that phrasing feels too narrowly femme when a week ago Zendaya won the fashion news cycle by wearing the same men’s suit that Michael B. Jordan had worn to an Oscar party last February.
It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see Ellen Page looking so cool and so comfortable after so many years of pained and cramped looking red carpet photos. Wonderful to have Janelle Monáe work in suiting with a limited color palette for so long to show us how much creativity could be found within those constraints. Wonderful to have red carpet suits that go beyond a sexy low-cut blazer without anything underneath. I thrill when Evan Rachel Wood looks like Greta Garbo but I am equally turned on when Kristen Stewart looks like a rich kid drop-out wearing their mother’s Chanel jacket and their father’s shoes. Velvet blazers, leather pants, brocade sets, shawl collars, highlighter-neons, pussy bows, and sex in the limo dishevel. All these women. Kaleidoscopic queerness. Google it. We are finally at a time where there are enough out queer women in positions of fame that you can spend hours without repeating a suit.
So what do we do with Cate Blanchett? What do we do with Blake Lively?
The last few years have been a good time for straight actresses wearing suits. Blanchett worked some very lovely suiting to promote the regally romantic lesbian drama Carol (2015), but it was really on the press tour for Ocean’s 8 (2017) that the suit parade really began. The internet adored pictures of Kristen Stewart staring at Blanchett longingly at Cannes, as they both wore impeccably coordinated pastel suits in front of a French marina or something. Blanchett’s character in the movie, Lou, wore suits as well – glittery sexy rock-n-roll confections – and the chemistry between her and Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean was rich and full of a deep potential that felt simultaneously exciting to poke at and ultimately disappointingly unexplored. A year later Blake Lively, previously known for backless takes on classic femme Hollywood glamour, learned the sartorial power of suiting on the set of A Simple Favor; another movie that felt stubborn for not being a gay movie considering how gay it got. Suddenly we get tweets like this one from @Cait_Greer : “Blake Lively’s outfits in A Simple Favor are astoundingly, gorgeously gay. The gayest. I think if she and Cate Blanchett wore suits in the same room the world might explode in gay.”
And the thing is, they’re not wrong. Those movies were gay as hell. Blake Lively’s costume designer did a whole number on me. Cate Blanchett’s whole thing does a number on me. Whether or not the actors portraying those characters were gay, the costuming (in which I am also including all the promotional drag) was playing with queer signifiers in a purposeful deliberate way. I think the question then becomes not whether or not a straight celebrity can create a queer affect — they can, and you can be as lustful or covetous of it as you feel — but whether or not using that affect outside of the character that they’re playing is appropriative (the question of whether queer characters should only be played by queer actors is another question). It can feel appropriative. I want suits to continue to signify something queer: something gay or something gender nonconforming or something outside of femme heterosexuality. It is as much a part of their appeal to me as is their comfort, or elegance, or the fact that separates fit me more easily than a dress. Of course, gender presentation is a separate thing from sexuality, but the part of me that wants suiting to be a free-floating aesthetic is the same part that is worried that I will be disqualified from wearing them because I am straight-partnered), and because coming out to my mom has always felt like a hassle that I didn’t want to deal with when I haven’t had a relationship with a woman long or official enough (I won’t say meaningful) to make it worth having, like, a conversation (hey mom). But who, exactly, is going to make this ruling judgement other than myself? The society police?
This tension between authentic and interloper has long defined the conversation around bisexuality in culture and in my own identity formation. My boyfriend and other friends refer to me as bi, and it doesn’t bother me but it’s never what I say in my head (queer feels right and good). I wonder if this would be different if I hadn’t spent my adolescence watching TV characters declare their bisexuality in bloodless clinical confessions before disappearing from the town of Tree Hill once sweeps was over. There is often a presumption of inauthenticity surrounding bi people; an assumption of performance or closetedness. These assumptions are often bound up in gender presentation: bi femmes are straight girls looking for male attention and bi butches are just lesbians who haven’t committed yet. Even knowing, even being, these tropes are pervasive. It’s why I always forget that Jane Lynch is bi (or at least more fluid than she is labeled). The kids are so much queer-er now — I’ve heard — but my own gayness often feels stuck in the 90’s when the romantic lead of my favorite lesbian rom-com ends up with a man at the end because she “wasn’t gay enough.”
I have dressed up as Marlene Dietrich for Halloween, as Westley from The Princess Bride twice, and as Oscar Wilde… also twice, and wearing the pants from the suit my father got married in. I still don’t have a suit of my own, despite the amount of time I have wasted looking at ones for sale online. Part of this due to practical issues. Suits are expensive; much more so than the leather skirts from thrift stores that have become my formal go-tos. They are also emphatically not made for curvy bodies, and my body is all convex lines. Tailoring is (see above) expensive, and tailors who feel comfortable altering women’s suits are hard to find. There are companies now who specialize in bespoke suiting for cis women and trans folk, and they do beautiful, sexy, important craftsmanship, but those companies are (see above) expensive and tend to create garments on the more butch end of the spectrum whereas my desire has always been to look like a very femme male poet (think Laurie from Little Women). I worry that my impulses aren’t correct. I worry I’m interloping.
Why don’t I afford the same credit to myself that I do to bisexual celebrities? So many of the women I listed above claim that space, and it never makes me doubt their authenticity as queer women. Evan Rachel Wood choosing to only wear suits on the red carpet for a year as part of a deliberate choice to promote bisexual visibility makes sense to me as a symbol. If anything, the suits that these women wear affirm their sexuality for me. I am guilty of far more suspicion towards high-femme presenting bisexual celebrities like Megan Fox. The notion that femmes, and bisexual femmes especially, are faking or performing queerness for a straight audience is so prevalent that it’s difficult not to slip into sometimes when my critical brain is down. I turn it against myself; the unfair feelings that I have towards Fox and others are my own worries about overstepping reflected outward. In this way, queer signifiers can be limiting and exclusionary. Applied like this they overlay a binary to queerness. There is a benefit to expanding our idea of what queer fashion could look like. Looking at photos of the Ocean’s 8 press tour I was embarrassed at how my initial queer fashion lust had hyperfocused on Blanchett when Sarah Paulson was right there the whole time; wearing strange, slightly-off proportions and acid green pipe cleaner dresses that might not read as categorically gay as a suit does, but are queer in their transgression, unbeholden to gender or fashion norms, and in their unconventional decadence. Opening the boundaries of what substantiates queer fashion could open a door between lesbian togs and a spectrum of other expressions. Again, I’m afraid I want it both ways. I hope for a queering of queer fashion and also for the preservation of old symbols, old cultures. I desire suits for their queerness, and I deny myself suits because I am suspicious of my own.
I try very hard not to be a hypocrite, and I am glad for my self-awareness, and I also regret how much I held myself back from exploring the feelings I had towards women out of a fear of being a tease, changing my mind, or otherwise treading on ground where I either didn’t belong or belonged in a way that was so liminal that I was better off just leaving it alone and not bothering anyone. I spent twelve years of my life lying to myself and living in exile from a community that no one was policing but me. It was easy to justify so many things as long as I wasn’t actually physically intimate with other women. The Halloween costumes could be justified. The songs I wrote about how I wasn’t going to kiss my friends could be justified. I watched Kissing Jessica Stein every time it came on TV and ignored how strongly it resonated. It can all still be justified and it is often tempting to do so because the feeling that I’m an imposter still lingers, despite everything that I now know and have discussed with myself, my friends, my partner, and the internet. I don’t know that it will ever go away, but I’ve gotten better at allowing myself the queer signifiers that make me the most happy. My rainbow sneakers, my unshaven underarms, chopping my own hair into a bisexual bob. Maybe one day a tuxedo shirt that sits where it’s supposed to over my huge boobs, without even one hidden safety pin to keep it from gaping.
Society Cop IV: Your Mom’s A Society Cop
I have always loved wearing women’s suit jackets, and they have never fitted me correctly. But I do so admire a woman who can make it work.
Natasha, this was beautifully written, and lots to think about.
I relate to so much of what you’re saying on presentation and the fear to not have “earned it”. I hope you get the chance and the opportunity to experiment with beautiful pieces that some divinity will have dropped in the secondhand shop right before your eyes, just for you. So that you, now, might be the inspiration for a baby-bi somewhere to get out there and suit up in turn.
And should this piece be a good opportunity to come out to your mom, hi to her, too.
Although it does really bother me she called you ‘straight bitch’ and ‘poseur’ and I hope you could fume over it with some good friend afterwards.
This resonated with me so much. I too am a curvy bi/queer femme in a straight seeming relationship, though I think being black complicates how well I fit within a heteronormative context. I too struggle with loving those old signifiers that made me who am and provided me with a more complete history, while also wanting to not be constrained by those highly specific images (which again, is complicated by race). I am also constantly trying to fight the internalised biphobia that makes me feel like an interloper in my own identity and community.
I also want a beautiful, intricate suit that I can’t afford to tailor to my body, that makes me look less like a dapper butch (which honestly, I swoon over), and more like 1920s pansy. My gender presentation is complex, as I am non-binary, a fact which took decades to realise and understand. I feel most comfortable in a femmeness that is more closely aligned with an effete masculinity (so I felt the femme male poet mention deep in my core). So yeah, thank you for sharing.
This was a touching reveal and very helpful, situating queerness and fashion, and naming out loud the (straight) appropriation of a truly vital semaphore.
Your description of Sarah Paulson is phenomenal ! Yes to all of it, subversion hiding in plain sight.
Human fashion is so very very weird. Nature didn’t do us any favours by making us hairless and featherless AND at the same time, totally paranoid and uptight about our appearance. Seriously. Will we ever get over ourselves and just HAVE FUN ?
Wow this articulates so many of my style feelings! I wore a floral patterned, women’s cut suit for the first time recently and I felt comfortable and sexy and the reaction was really positive, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit like a fraud – wondering whether I should have “committed” more with a more masculine style, or if being there with my male-presenting partner made me look like a straight woman trying to be edgy. Especially when I noticed the dapper butch who was there with her girlfriend.
For me, coming out was at first a license to explore a less femme style, get a side shave, etc, and then I slowly began to get nervous because what if I was appropriating it from the lesbians? I *panicked* when I learned about the bi bob because I had a short boyish crop and did that mean I’d gone too far in trying to signal my queerness? Was I a walking disappointment waiting to happen??? I’m mostly over that now and you can pry my hairstyle from my cold dead hands, but the internalised “not queer enough” stuff is still very much there. This is a really thorough exploration of it, props!
I fucking love women in suits