I'm a Cis-Man Who Likes to Shop in the Women's Section: No, This Isn't a Drag Race
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a seasonal position at Zara to help put some more money in my pocket — well, OK. That's not entirely true. I did it for the discount (even if it's only a measly 15 percent). So, one could say that I'm basically working to be paid in articles of clothing, effectively putting more money into their pockets than my own... but I digress. One of the things I love about Zara is that the innovative details featured in their men's line are seldom found in that price range; another is that their inventory cycles through so quickly that you don't have to worry about seeing five other dudes with that cool graphic tee you just bought the other day. Yeah, I mean, we all know that it's hard to find clothing for men that is really different. And I'm not even talking about those tailor-made original pieces. I was never that boujie. That being said, I have always been privy to the fact that variety in menswear pales in comparison to the limitless selection of designs, cuts, adornments, and styles in womenswear — you name any one of the more general fashion terms, and you can rest assured that you'll find some version of what you're looking for in the women's section, in at least six different hues or patterns.
I acknowledged this at an early age, playing the part of "reluctant accomplice" to the hours and hours and hours spent by my mother in those (oh, so infinite) sections of her favorite clothing stores. The reluctance would fade away, though (whether this was initially a desire or just a means of survival is still unknown), and, "like mother, like son," this same acute affinity for shopping was eventually realized. It was my naiveté which bore the hope that I, like my mother and the other women in my life, would be allotted a similar abundance of choice when I began my own epic journey down the beaten path of style, an arduously long pilgrimage made in order to develop the sense of fashion that would best correlate to my personality. But that hope turned out to be false. Why? Because men's clothes S-U-C-K-E-D.
It wasn't until my first relationship with another man (long story short: I was 18, in college, in love, in some random commuter town in New Jersey, and incapable of being honest with myself about what I really wanted — oh, and it lasted for about a year and a half before I was able to see through my own romantically grandiose delusions and realize that he was essentially just a rebound) that I first blazed my shopping trail into the women's section. I honestly still don't know why it took me so long to come onto the idea. I mean, I had absolutely no qualms with it; I didn't think twice about doing it once it was in my mind. I guess I had just never thought of it as a possibility because it wasn't something that I was used to seeing. (This is why representation is such a huge topic in social activism!) In any case, my ex — who had one younger brother, five older sisters, and had been working in the fashion retail industry for a couple of years already — came into the ownership of a handful of women's clothing items, and because we ended up moving in together and luckily had the opportunity to share each other's clothes, I was introduced to a whole new world... a dazzling place that I had actually already known, but for some reason had never really explored for myself.
And all of a sudden, my love for shopping was reborn, rekindled with its fire burning stronger than ever. I had no limits, no boundaries. I walked into the women's section that first time like a completely different person, and in that moment I swear I was infinite. And everybody else around me saw it, too. But as I walked from garment rack to garment rack, perusing with unbridled joy through all of my many options, the looks and glances become ever more lingering, at times stealthily laced with disgust or contempt or just plain old confusion.
But why were they confused? I was shopping for the exact same thing they were: something that would look good on me, plain and simple. I wasn't just going to pick out any silk top with a plunging neckline and sequin detailing and call it a day — no. I was in it, in it to win it, the game. I wasn't about to go back to the men's section with my tail between my legs; there was nothing waiting for me back there, nothing I hadn't already seen before... and I was willing to take my chances on clothing styles that weren't necessarily made for my body type if it meant that I'd have more to work with as I continued to hone my fashion sense. So, hands acting as my machete, I continued to shop in the women's section. I still do to this day, and I love the clothing I have chanced upon because of that openness I allowed myself. I love my style. But you know what I don't love? Those looks I still get.
Like this one.
And this one...
AND THIS ONE.
See, what my fellow shoppers are failing to recognize in these moments is that fashion has always been more uniform and insular than not. No matter what era it was, no matter which ancient civilization we're talking about, there was always a trend that was followed; there was always a fundamental fashion line that the society would use as its guide and that each archetype would then particularize for its own specific needs. It is only as of late that there's been any straying away from this fashion model, and I abhor that I must point out that this progress is pretty much exclusive to the women's section. Note that I do not use the word progress here lightly: there has been enough writing done on the symbiotic relationship between the Women's Rights Movement and fashion-forwardness to suggest that style has an unarguable effect on societal perceptions and consequently, social change. What began with the fight for women's suffrage and ended with flappers was only the start of a long process of gender role decompression in the fashion industry — for women.
And after a century's worth of fashion trends had skillfully acted on and reacted to the tenacity of the feminist struggle and success, women's fashion has somehow come out more revolutionized than the movement itself, given the many "controversial" topics still waiting for resolutions within the judicial system to this day (e.g. pro-life vs. pro-choice). "Menswear" didn't have to be "only that which men can wear" anymore with the advent of the women's pant. Trousers gave way to bloomers... pantsuits became a thing... "brassiere" was shortened to "bra" for easy access. And nowadays, you can go into any nearby clothing store, head over to the denim section in the women's department, and find yourself a nice, loose pair of "boyfriend" jeans.
The long and riddled history of trousers aside, there is a point to be made here: women were initially subjugated into their uniformity through oppression and self-perpetuation to later free themselves (still processing...) of it; men, on the other hand, had always chosen to be uniform while allowing themselves the option to be more open with their fashion choices only under certain circumstances, i.e. on stage, usurping the role of a female character. The boy player of the Medieval and Renaissance Eras took the liberty of dressing in women's clothing for a performance to better represent the role he was acting out. In this particular setting, suspending your disbelief was not only permissible but heavily encouraged. Thus, the audience saw the actor no longer as the young adolescent boy he might have been, but instead as the female character he was portraying, and under these circumstances, cross-dressing was deemed neither reproachable nor revolutionary. It was just another uniform to wear. Fast forward a little closer to the present, and you come to a topic that borders on the same principles: doing drag.
While no one can argue against what the struggle of the drag community has done for LGBTQIA rights, one must (as in all cases, hopefully) take a critical look at its historical contexts and subsequent implications. While women's fashion witnessed a gradually increasing circumference of its boundary line congruent to the increasing acquisition of civil rights for its wearers, men had always had their privilege, including the right to wear whatever they wanted — it didn't take a century's worth of fighting (as it did for women — to still be here today, fighting) for their rights. And in such an unnervingly effortless way that it would seem to be more perceptive than even the most socially active activists, the men's fashion industry duly noted this lack of development; it hasn't changed because it didn't need to. Cross-dressing is still perceived through a suspension of disbelief (albeit prolonged), still often thought of only as a performance put on by boy players. Because all men did not fight for the right to be free to wear what they want — because, under the right circumstances, they already believed that they had that right — we have arrived to a state of societal perception today in which men wearing women's clothing is considered just another uniform — a funny costume — and one that is immediately associated with sexual preferences and RuPaul's drag race. And then ask yourself: what does that mean for a homosexual cis-male like me, with no real inclination to do drag, when I waltz into the women's section without this perception in mind?
There is a deep, deep issue here: the fact that I can't shop for a skirt without immediately being categorized as a "drag queen" in people's minds is not unrelated to the fragility of heterosexuality today; that there is no middle ground given to men in fashion, that acceptance of androgyny is still so scarce and a cis-male or trans-woman must choose to dress either in "female" uniform or in "male" uniform — these notions are not unrelated to the stigmatization of bisexuality, as I see that it is still commonly regarded as a myth in most circles. And all of these problems are only elements of the weightier masculine consequence of sexism, even as it continues to be blindly perpetuated through the gender binary system, even as we let it continue to dictate our perceptions of not only others, but ourselves. I don't know about you, but I'm over it. Like, really. And so is Ru.
A decent part of my childhood was lived as a video-gaming recluse, and now I can't say that I'm upset with that. In my young and unbiased eyes, RPG games like Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts represented other dimensions of fashion for men — even as they sadly over-fetishized women's clothing and bodies — and opened up my mind to the possibility that men could dress in more than jeans and a t-shirt. I came to believe that, in my future, I had an infinite amount of options available; all I had to do was choose from them. And that's still true. It's always been that way. I am — we are infinite. So, guys... I think it's our time now. Everyone else has been fighting the good fight against sexist oppression, and we have done nothing more to contribute than become allies, because we've believed that we personally had nothing to fight for. But we were dead wrong. The same system that keeps cis-women and trans-men struggling against double standards is the one that keeps us locked up all the same within the constructs of its gender duality, the one that leaves gender-queer people out of the loop completely. Dudes, our privilege has dictated our power of perception for far too long. And it's about time we take it back, don't you think?
(Just to give you a tiny glimpse into my youth, here's 11 hours worth of every cut-scene in my favorite game of all time... aka bliss.)
Images: Justin Robert Thomas Smith (2); Giphy