Illustrations by Lauren Kaelin
I am standing in the brain-bleaching fluorescent lighting of Century 21, lightly fingering a pair of red lace underwear. A store employee peers at me over the rack. My face goes hot and I move away from the lingerie without direction, looking around wildly for my wife, who has disappeared amongst the jumpsuits, far away.
“Come in with me,” she says. Lauren, my wife of three years, wants me to join her where I am not sure I should: the women’s dressing room. Her thought process is about efficiency and simplicity. We’re ladies, heck yeah; come in so she doesn’t have to go shouting around the store for me to tell her how this fits once she gets into it (but really, she will expectantly brush her long curls from her neck and turn away from me, because she needs me to zip her up).
I sit on the padded benches, a distant cousin to the fainting couch, positioned in the middle of a kaleidoscope-like circle of changing rooms, with floor length mirrors flashing each time a door is opened and I am revealed. I feel more naked than any of the half-dressed women trying on daring new looks; I want to cover my head and shriek “I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable!” So worried I will be found out, called out, asked to leave.
The reality is that I have never been asked to leave (I use this phrase fliply and with a great deal of privilege as a white cis woman, as anyone who has been “asked to leave” knows that it’s not really a request). I have blithely been informed that “this is the women’s bathroom” and gotten a long look or two, but none of the dire consequences I fear have ever come to pass. Is this my fault? Is this my own paranoia? I am, clearly, an anxious person, but this faulty apologia bangs around in my head every time I enter a clothing store: I should genuflect to the straight cis women whose lives I am barging in on with my sharply queer haircut and tattoos. This is begotten from a lifetime of gendernormative shaming seared into my being. Here I am, gaslighting myself, and all I want to do is buy some clothes.
In high school, my sprite-like best friend Manz (short for Amanda) and I spent a disturbing amount of time at Wal-Mart. After crashing carts in the Old Navy parking lot, spying on a friend’s twentysomething boyfriend who was a manager there and was almost always cheating on her, the only other option was the other 24-hour joint: Denny’s, across the street from the carpet liquidator and next door to the lumberyard. Denny’s, which used to be a Perkin’s, which used to be another diner, served coffee that was somehow concurrently muddy and thin. Sometimes, we got fries.
While wandering around Wal-Mart near midnight, waiting for the paper in the registers to be changed so we could buy a deck of cards, we moseyed into the men’s underwear section. Manz and I goaded each other in a loud double-dare-style spectacle, overtaken by nervousness, when neither of us could admit that we both were fascinated by the secret otherness of undergarments purportedly worn by members of a gender not our own. The efficiency of the packaging was almost shocking in its masculinity: the color scheme varied from the monochromatic military-issue palette of whites, greys and blues only to veer into a sassy, indelicate red that would be worn by absolutely no male (fathers or brothers) with whose underwearing habits we were even tangentially familiar. We couldn’t look away.
Manz had an idea, thank god. I was about to become a petrified permanent statute amongst the boxers and the gold-toes. Let’s buy some tube socks and tighty-whiteys and some tie dye! It’ll be hilarious! I nearly blacked out from the anxiety buying men’s underwear caused me that night in the yawning discount retailer. The employee working the singular register shot us a half-hearted side-eye but gave it up almost immediately as he, like all workers of the world, are never surprised or impressed by any item any teenager buys.
If the act of purchasing men’s briefs in person — having the items inserted into the psyche of a total stranger behind a register thus creating the suggestion of ascribing those garments to my corporeal self — nearly choked the life from teenage me, then actually slipping them over my scrawny thighs alone in my room had the opposite effect. Manz and I had done a pretty half-assed job dying them with just one inky blue dye and not enough time to cure — of course, we just couldn’t wait. I never did ask Manz exactly what was supposed to be “hilarious” about a couple of fourteen-year-old girls wearing men’s underwear without anyone else knowing (they were concealed in a fortress of excess denim by those stalwart late ’90s icons, JNCO jeans) but the “joke” was never the point, I know now. Wearing those grey-marbled briefs while sitting in bio class, ignoring the proper spelling of mitochondria, knowing my secret was mine, made me feel the most me and the most vulnerable I had ever been.
The efficiency of the packaging was almost shocking in its masculinity: the color scheme varied from the monochromatic military-issue palette of whites, greys and blues only to veer into a sassy, indelicate red that would be worn by absolutely no male (fathers or brothers) with whose underwearing habits we were even tangentially familiar. We couldn’t look away.
My elation was suffocated almost completely when, a week later, my mother discovered these new emblems of freedom in the laundry and placed them thoughtlessly in my little brother’s dresser drawer, assuming they belonged to him. The churning of my silent angst went unnoticed by the other members of my family, who went on living their lives, unaware of my sartorial awakening.
I only have 20 minutes. I’ve had three interviews this week and a lunch with a client. Since my wardrobe consists almost entirely of crew-neck sweatshirts and raw denim, I have exhausted my shallow suit collection and am staring down the barrel of another interview tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Secaucus. I’ll need to leave my Brooklyn apartment by 7:15 a.m., meaning I’ll have to have had at least two cups of coffee before that, which means… well, it means I have to buy a new suit, today, now, on my lunch break.
I’m down to 19 minutes because I’ve burned through precious seconds standing in the middle of this Banana Republic squinting to see where the women’s “professional” section might be. I am avoiding contact with salespeople as much as possible, but the math in my head tells me the fastest way to finish this task is to ask for help.
I approach a gentleman I want to believe is gay, hoping he’ll be a softer touch. I don’t know about the identity assumption, but he is gunning for his commission and not shy about it. This is what I had been hoping to avoid. I begin to sweat through my shirt and my voice becomes that of a mouse with a cold.
“I need a suit. For an interview. Dark blue, preferably.”
He looks at me, forcing a smile, ready to chirp; but when he opens his mouth no sound comes out. His eyes show his doubt; he clasps his hands together to buy more time. I toss him a lifeline.
“I usually wear an eight in women’s. Maybe a six in the pants.” He sighs gratefully and we begin a guided tour around the store, him nabbing my size in the most basic, ankle-length “pant suits” I point out while I vigorously shoot down any suggestion of a wide leg or flourishes of any kind.
Finally, I’m alone in the dressing room with a rackful of dark suits. Twelve minutes. The jacket I shrug on is the size of women’s clothing I understand is meant to fit my cisgender body “properly;” the length does not swallow me and the jacket does not balloon around my chest. It feels a tad tight in the shoulders, though, and I wonder if it’s the cut or my growing discomfort.
A knock at the door. “Everything alright?”
I ask for a size up, partly because I think I need it and partly to make him go away. I need some peace to discern if this fit is mimicking the menswear I admire but that doesn’t outwardly fit my body. I know I’m relegated to shopping in the “women’s” section, combing inventory for that elusive combination that will not drown my frame (condescendingly labeled “petite” by the grudgingly binary fashion industry) but doesn’t go out of its way to add “feminine” punctuation (see: ruching, three-quarter-length sleeves, weird non-functional tiny belts).
Another knock. He holds out the jacket. I move to push the door closed and he stops me. “I know you didn’t ask for this, but I thought, since you’re trying on a bunch, why not give this a go.”
It is a skirt. A navy blue pencil skirt. It is a skirt I would find wrapped around the fine thighs of a woman I would want to fuck.
I look at him. And I take the jacket. “This should be fine, thanks.” Five minutes.
Another knock. He holds out the jacket. I move to push the door closed and he stops me. “I know you didn’t ask for this, but I thought, since you’re trying on a bunch, why not give this a go.” It is a skirt. A navy blue pencil skirt. It is a skirt I would find wrapped around the fine thighs of a woman I would want to fuck.
I buy the jacket without trying it on. Three hundred dollars later, I wear the wrong-sized suit, engulfing my hands and puddling at my shoes, to Secaucus. I take a bus and then walk three quarters of a mile to the media offices of a national sports organization. For once, I don’t sweat through my shirt, but I don’t get the job.
I wasn’t prepared for 85 degrees and nobody walks here. Lauren and I are actively sweating, having walked a mile and a half from our friends’ place in Los Feliz to the Silverlake location of Wildfang, a Portland-based queer-courting clothing company that has just opened its Los Angeles location.
We get inside, and Lauren immediately makes friends. We are in California for the opening of the first outpost of the Brooklyn-based ice cream company that Lauren works for; she discusses locations and general contractors and California regulations with the retail director behind the counter while I browse the endless patterned button-ups and enamel pins.
Inspired by this bastion of queer style expanding its brick and mortar locations, I consider buying a dusty rose camp shirt with GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS embroidered over the left breast. Lauren wants to buy her very first suit, and I am touched by the intersection of our interests, knowing that wearing a suit means very different things to each of us. Lauren happily accepts the retail director’s offer to help her find her size. I lurk behind a far rack, letting this feminine connection move organically, marveling at the ease between the two of them and basking in the safety this queer-as-hell spot provides me.
A family of tourists, from Sweden I think, peels off of Sunset Boulevard, bumbling into the store with full shopping bags already in hand. A mother, a father, a straw-haired toddler in a busy pink dress. The woman and the child find something in the back of the store and subserviently occupy themselves as the father, the man, stalks around the store, trying to get his bearings.
I examine the hard plastic cat-shaped keychain sold as a self-defense accessory as the man strides up to the register expecting help, knowing his questions will be answered without any hesitation. My eyes dart to his strong posture and hands set proprietarily on the counter.
“What kind of store is this?” He asks. Lauren is in the dressing room and I know I should go see how things are coming along, but I linger.
“Oh, this is just a clothing store. You see.” The retail director is the picture of magnanimity. She smiles hard.
The man follows her gesturing hand, sees me, turns back. “Where are the men’s clothes?” he asks nakedly. A simple question he can’t believe he has to ask, but he can’t seem to figure it out.
“Oh, they’re all kind of mixed in.” She has caved, maybe a little, but in the name of retail. I respect this decision.
The man nods, not understanding. He does another wide lap around the store, still not getting it, then waves a hearty goodbye to the retail director, as if she needs this closure from him. The feeling is palpable when they are gone; we are safe, we are alone, show yourselves. This was never for him. Finally.
Lauren emerges from the dressing room in a slate blue suit looking like she’s ready to run the world. “Buy it,” I say.