As those of us who have spent a fair amount of time curating our "looks" will tell you, it can be hard to separate who you are from what you wear. When dating, these sartorial signifiers become even more important as you carefully curate your lady drag so strangers pick up what you're putting out. Combat boots and fishnets might say, "I'm sexy, tough, and will have the beer and shot combo" while a long velvet dress might say, "knowledge of romantic literature required for wooing." Yes, these are stereotypes, but they can be true — not because what we wear automatically makes us a certain way, but because people can use their sartorial choices to signify who they are.
My personal style vacillates between Victorian-mourning-meets-Wild-West and 80's glam metal, but the connecting thread has always been a flirtation with the dark side without taking myself too seriously. Because fashion can speak so loudly, I've always wondered: what would happen if I changed how I dress when trying to meet guys? What kind of men would I attract? How would my self-esteem and sexual confidence be affected?
Since dressing like you don't give a damn about style is suddenly de rigueur (thanks, normcore), I decided to do a complete 180 from my normal look to see if swapping my loud city style for something a little more suburban, conservative, and, well, unoriginal would change my IRL dating game. For my experiment, I went out to three different hook up bars where "basic bro" types hang out, dressed as "basic" as I could muster, and then returned later dressed like myself (or swashbuckling metal maiden, as I like to call it).
My first task was finding the right clothing. When I looked through my closet, I realized I owned few outfits that would cut it. Although I'd worked in an office setting for years, I had thrown those relics of conservatism out when I switched to freelance. And thus began my trip to KMart.
You would be surprised how hard it is to dress boring these days. Half the outfits in KMart were part of Nicki Minaj's new line, and they were all kinds of neon, sparkly and spandex. Honestly, I might have bought a few pieces for real if I wasn't already on a dedicated mission. Leaving that seductive side of the women's section behind, I stumbled upon racks of sale items, some of which had been "designed" by none other than Selena Gomez. I picked up a sweater from her line, threw in a multi-colored dress by Bongo, and got a blue, plaid flannel shirt, too. I figured I could mix and match those with separates borrowed from friends, and while I would still be pretty far off from "real" normcore (which is more Seinfeld than sorority girl), I decided to create my own version for the experiment. The rules were as follows: if I found it hideously humdrum and if it wasn't all black, it was a go.
After checking out, I started to get ready for the night ahead. I was excited to see what secrets of the normals I could uncover with my new disguises. However, I don't actually make much of a distinction between "normal" and "weird" when it comes to people, because everyone is each of those in their own ways. These unexpressive fashions may be the vanilla missionary to my stylistic BDSM, but dressing "normal" doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the interests or qualities of the person wearing the clothes. Though, as noted above, people can choose to dress to telegraph their identities to the world (like I do), in my experience, the biggest weirdos rarely advertise. What did these basic bros have to teach me? I was about to find out.
Experiment 1: Irish Sports Bar In Midtown Manhattan
My first "casual chic" outing was to the bar Stout in midtown Manhattan. An Irish sports bar seemed like a conventional person's paradise and my friends who worked in the area agreed when I inquired about the clientele. Arriving all dressed down in light makeup, painted on eyebrows (I shave my real ones off), grey stretch pants and a cream colored sweater, I felt like everyone had to be staring at me because I looked so incredibly plain. (That's not really how it works, but you'll have to excuse my paranoia. It was my first time.)
The familiar crutches of black leather, visible tattoos, and hot pink lipstick were nowhere to be found and their absence had me a little panicky. When I entered the bar it was pretty packed, so I went to the bathroom to check myself out and calm down. While in the line, I notice five or six other women who were dressed nearly identically to me. I began to feel like I was in a Kafka novel and that I was completely interchangeable with anybody else in the bar with a vagina.
I eventually went back upstairs, straddled a stool, and ordered a cider. It seemed like that was a pretty basic drink, and it went well with the vibe I was putting out. After watching basketball on TV for a while, I felt my existential crisis raise its head again. I texted a female friend to allay my anxiety. "This is hard, I feel so naked," I wrote. As someone who has go-go danced in a bra and thong in a room full of strangers, you'd think that would be hard to do.
I started to believe that anyone nearby would smell the fear on me and be driven away, but just as I was going to duck and run, an older man sidled up next to me. He seemed really eager to talk, and after offering to buy me a drink, proceeded to tell me about his favorite place to ski in Vermont, his wife's hobbies, and his daughter's major in college. It was the kind of "lonely old guy" chit-chat you expect from someone waiting to take the train back to Long Island, so I humored him. He even compared me to his daughter at one point. Clearly, I was just a nice girl, easy to approach and talk about nothing in particular with. After a few hours in the bar with no other interactions, I headed home to prepare my other look.
When I returned to Stout a night later, I felt equally strange, just in a different way. I looked like I belonged in a gothic rodeo, not a sports bar, but nevertheless forced my way in. At least this time I felt comfortable in my own skin, dressed with lugubrious fanfare. I walked up to the bar, and two guys in suits smiled at me and made room for me to order a drink. Then, a guy in a basketball jersey walked up and commented on my hat, winked, and walked away. After that, an extremely drunk guy in a white button up and khakis tottered up, started spewing pick up line jibberish in my face, and the bouncer had to ask him to take a hike.
I was not surprised. In my usual garb and in a place like this, I am a creep magnet. Guys assume I am DTF and ready for anything. And maybe I am with the right person, but definitely not with your average patron at an Irish sports bar. I sat through a few more aggressive come ons and awkward leers before I finally left.
Experiment 2: Czech Pub In Queens
My "sexy dress" experiment took place at a Olde Prague Pub in Astoria, where I had once witnessed some more conventional types hooking up. The "normal" dress I initially wore had a pattern that I found particularly displeasing, but the cut was flattering, so I didn't feel as out of sorts as I did at Stout. I decided to hit Olde Prague around 8 p.m., just when it was filling up. I parked myself at the bar, put out some smiley "come talk to me" energy, and waited. Since I had already normed it up once before, I was feeling a bit less stressed this time.
After a few hours, I made small talk with a girl next to me wearing a light blue wrap dress and a peacoat. She looked similarly basic, so perhaps that's evidence that I "fit in" with her crowd. The whole time I felt like an awkward sociologist, despite being good at reciting my story: I worked in finance and really liked Maroon Five. (OK, that last part wasn't something I said, but I was prepared, just in case.) She seemed nice, telling me about her problems with meeting good guys in New York, but as there didn't seem to be anyone of the XY persuasion biting — sometimes going out alone is the worst way to meet people — I eventually left.
I returned to Olde Prague a week later, goth glammed up with a floor-length leather duster ready for anything. I got quite a few stares as I walked in before buying a drink and scoping the crowd. It only took a few minutes before a guy walked up to me, asking if I lived nearby. He was Irish (from Ireland), wearing jeans a hoodie, and had just moved to the neighborhood. I kept up the conversation, answering his questions about New York City, where to eat, where to hang out, and which Radiohead albums I liked.
After a half hour of chatting he was standing uncomfortably close, telling me that if I was to go visit Ireland, I should check out a town called Dingle. (I couldn't make this stuff up.) Before he started to get too handsy — his crotch kept bumping into me — I decided that I had had enough for the night. If I had been interested, it's probably fair to say I could have gotten some action. But, alas, I was not.
Experiment 3: Tiki Bar In Downtown Manhattan
For my "casual" experiment I decided to hit The Rusty Knot off the West Side Highway. Numerous friends told me it's a major pick up spot for the "normals," even though it's pretty hipstery with its nautical tiki decor. (Hipster = "normal" anyways, right?) When I walked in, I saw people split off in corners, flirting their hearts out. Dressed in the first flannel shirt I've probably ever worn in my entire life, my nerves got the better of me yet again, as I tried to figure out how one walks confidently while wearing relaxed fit blue jeans. I may as well have been dressed in a trash bag (and I don't mean some Missy Elliott trash bag chic either).
At the bar, I got a Zombie cocktail (hey, when in Tiki-land) and took in the admittedly cute atmosphere while looking at the dudes on display. The bartender was a tall, voluptuous woman with tattoos and I felt so uncool getting my drink dressed like a lady lumberjack. Not that anyone would judge me for what I was wearing — wait, who am I kidding, we judge everyone by what they are wearing — but I still felt queasy at the prospect of being seen as something I was not.
Doing this experiment made me realize not only how hard it is to manufacture meeting guys when you want to, but also how hard it is to change your time-tested behaviors patterns, many of which are dictated by dress. I waited around for an hour and a half, but the night seemed to be overrun with couples and I didn't have any luck.
When I returned to The Rusty Knot in my natural garb, I felt, as ever, completely at ease. Some might think wearing a cop hat is a bit ridiculous unless it's Halloween or you're a male stripper, but I've been sporting this bad boy since 2002, so it felt like business-as-usual. I had had more success getting attention with my "weird" outfits thus far, so I imagined I would have the same luck this evening. While I got many stares as I walked in and while I waited at the bar, I did not receive any actual bites (aside from a guy in a suit touching the tattoo on my arm — it's a skeleton with breasts — and making a lewd comment.) Like the time before, I hung out for nearly two hours, and decided to call it quits. Perhaps I picked the wrong nights to hit this supposed hook up haven.
My Conclusions: Express Yo'self
The most notable result of this dating experiment has been a huge dose of compassion for women who don't express themselves uniquely through fashion. It is extremely hard to make a first impression IRL based on nothing but your physical appearance when you're wearing a totally toned down outfit. (This is where online dating would come in handy, obviously.)
I also hadn't quite realized the extent I rely on my individual style to feel secure. Sure, there is a lot more to me than clothing, but I have crafted a persona since childhood that incorporates outlandish elements to repel the wrong people and attract the right ones. Unfortunately, that goal is not always achieved, and sometimes my look gives guys carte blanche to approach me and make assumptions about my sexual behavior based on my clothing.
In my experience, many of the types of bro-y guys that you'll find at a sports bar or pub will assume that if you look "alternative" in any way you are a "slut," and this experiment only confirmed that. I've been called a "freak" many times when wearing my usual garb in public, as the preppy, business types eye me up and down lasciviously. In fact, I've been hit on aggressively by these kinds of men way more than I have been by guys who dress like me. And when I say hit on, I mean these guys are looking for an easy lay, NOT a date. That's a story for another article, but it's interesting the way opposites always seem to attract in a somewhat fetishistic way. When I start talking to them, they are usually floored that I have a Master's degree and can actually string sentences together.
New York is a very competitive pool for dating, so it's important to note that this study would probably have gone differently if I was in, say, Omaha. Perhaps my run-of-the-mill outfits wouldn't have garnered as much non-sexual, non-threatening attention as they did if I was in Nebraska. Maybe there in my flannel I'd be a totally hot piece! But I digress...
As Alexander McQueen once said, "Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment." Throughout this experiment, I felt trapped in the conventional clothes. In tech terms, they just couldn't handle my bandwith. I need outfits that can fully express my effusive, technicolor energy, so without them, I lose some of my mojo. Some people may be able to rely solely on their sparkling personalities or knowledge of pop culture to get by, but me? I need my clothes.