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The power of dress: Expressing gender identity through fashion

Clothing defines our lives, but what happens when you don't fit everyone else's definition? You write your own.

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Drew Hofbauer in chair

Drew Hofbauer says his mother has always had an influence on his style. Here he sports a vintage Christian Dior top of hers that he used to wear while playing dress-up as a child. 

Set in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, the wooded enclave of Bel Air on the westside of Los Angeles is my home. Since the time I was brought home from Cedars-Sinai hospital swaddled in Baby Dior, I’ve had the unique experience of witnessing the height of luxury and extravagance. Yachts, custom automobiles, mansions, ornate furnishings — you name it, I’ve seen it. Bel Air, one part of the trifecta that includes Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills, makes up what is known as the “Platinum Triangle,” an informal designation of three adjacent neighborhoods at the top of affluence.

I introduce myself this way as context for how I, as a gay man, see fashion, clothing, identity, presentation and gender. People say we’re a product of our surroundings, that there’s something to be said for the way we grow up. I can say there is truth in this sentiment.

When I was 5 years old, I began to experiment with clothing. This was 1994 Los Angeles, where permed hair, extravagant jewelry, sky-high heels and bright colors reigned. Rodeo Drive was a playground, and Neiman Marcus was its annex. On the lollipop palm-lined street where I lived, days were filled with sunshine and the faint smell of the ocean breeze carried by the Santa Ana winds. My mother, forever a style icon in my eyes (think Jane Birkin or Grace Kelley), had a palatial closet. I helped myself to the glorious contents of the open boxes and exposed fabrics draped over every surface. To put it simply, I dressed myself as I saw fit. As that 5-year-old I strutted through the Tudor-style manse wearing nothing but jewelry and a pair of my mother’s Manolos. I remember feeling glamorous. I remember feeling powerful, and most of all, I remember feeling like the truest version of myself.

Or maybe it was what I didn’t feel: I didn’t feel that there was anything wrong with wearing Mikimoto and Manolos, and neither did my mother, to whom I’ll forever be grateful. Rather than snatching her designer items off me, she ran for the camera and became my personal photographer, stylist and champion. The photos she snapped show me posing in the kitchen like some overly accessorized cherub.

Gender, as we’ve come to know it, is a social construct. More and more people — particularly members of Generation Z — are realizing this, according to a 2016 market research study by the Innovation Group. Results from the study show that 56% of 13- to-20-year-olds said that they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as they, them or ze, and that over 30% of Gen Z respondents strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to.

When the gender binary begins to dissolve, what happens to traditionally gendered clothing? Is a shirt purchased in the men’s department but worn by a woman still a men’s shirt? No, it’s just a shirt. Here, too, the Gen Zers are breaking the binary: in the same Innovation Group study only 44% say they always bought clothes designed for their own gender, versus 54% of millennials answering the same question.

As younger consumers demand a disruption of the fashion binary, brands from Gucci to Target are listening. Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, told The New York Times in 2015 he believes we’re seeing “a seismic shift in fashion, a widening acceptance of a style with no boundaries — one that reflects the way young people dress.” This, along with the fact that The Council of Fashion Designers of America, a trade group of about 500 leading American designers, added the first unisex and nonbinary category to the New York Fashion Week calendar in 2018, hints at lines being blurred and binaries transcended.

Gendered clothing is being disrupted by consumers and fashion brands alike, but prescribed expectations for women’s and men’s clothing didn’t come from thin air.

One of the most influential frameworks of gendered fashion is sports. We all know what I’m talking about: girls in short black spandex on the volleyball court or wearing flouncy skirts as they sprint down lacrosse fields or work on their tennis serves. Women sporting full faces of makeup and ponytail ribbons on the softball diamond, their mascara smudged by sweat. All of this while men’s basketball shorts swish comfortably around the knees and football padding bulks up already muscular men, lending them a certain Hulk-like masculinity. There are ways athletes are supposed to look, according to society, and their uniforms help to achieve that goal. Male athletes should look fit, and the same goes for women. But too often female athletes are conditioned to also look sexy and traditionally feminine as they slide across turf or throw their bodies on the ground to keep a ball in play.

Drew Hofbauer headshot

Drew Hofbauer likes to play with color and texture in his everyday outfits. Here, he wears a Dries van Noten chain-link sweater. 

The sport I grew up with however, didn’t fit these fashion norms. I competed in three-day eventing, which is an equestrian sport that requires different outfits for each portion or day of competition. The casual riding gear consisted of a tucked-in polo, belt, spandex breeches with leather around the knees and buttocks and heeled leather boots that covered my calves and ended at the knee. For years, I was hesitant to wear this riding attire in public. Although I rode my two horses six days a week and was extremely comfortable in my gear, cultural notions about what I should be wearing as a young boy lessened my natural confidence.

The number of looks and comments from men about how riding was “girl stuff” were enough to make me always feel out of place. I hated when my mother made purposeful stops on the drive home from practice, but I later realized these errands were her way of showing me not to be ashamed of who I was or what I wore. Those days spent in my riding gear made me question the very subtext of our society. Why was “girl stuff” wrong for a boy? And who cares? Once I freed myself from the rigid confines of what other people thought I was supposed to wear, I was able to see a wider world of possibility in my wardrobe.

Inside on the outside

Everyone's clothes are different, and the way they wear their clothes can help express their identities, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. 

This connected me to generations of queer people who commandeered fashion as their own weapon for equality — and even as their own secret code. The handkerchief code gained popularity in the 1970s as a way for gay men to communicate their sexual availability and preferences. Men placed hankies in their back pockets, which signaled different fetishes or positions depending on the hanky’s placement and color. The code, which lives on today, played a crucial role in the advancement and preservation of LGBTQ+ communities before and during the Gay Liberation Movement. This is not to say that everything you’ve heard about coded clothing and sexuality is true — no, not every bisexual person cuffs their jeans — but it is to say that clothes are more than fabric stitched together.

I’ve long said that clothing is our second skin. We live every day of our lives in it. It gives us an outlet for expression, presentation and representation. For me, I stand differently, walk differently and even talk differently given the outfit I choose to wear. All black? Maybe I’m feeling punk. Shades of nude? That morning I woke up feeling lighter. Of course, clothing is not a one-size-fits-all mood ring, but it speaks to the larger topic of how integral dress is to our selfhood. Clothes allow us to become chameleons, changing to fit our moods.

From a young age, Ariel of The Little Mermaid was my style icon. And as soon as I could dress myself, I made my own style choices. What I wanted to wear was what I was going to wear. Mismatched. Tag-less. Couture. Whatever. I draped a red towel around my head and I was in a whole new world — all thanks to the power of dress. 

Style Spotlight: Dani Major

Dani Major is an MU music major from Platte City. I talked with them about gender, presentation, sex and sexuality, as well as societal norms that dictate wardrobe and style.

Pronouns: They/them

First thing they put on in the morning: Binder

Who is your style icon?

Lady Gaga

Does your outward presentation affect your expression in clothing?

My outward expression of gender does go directly with my clothing and fashion choices. It is one of the quickest ways to express myself and to reflect what I feel on the inside on the outside. It helps other people perceive me in a way that’s close to the way I perceive myself.

Not everybody is aware of that function of clothing or uses clothing like that, but a lot of transgender people and a lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community are aware of it because they’re so desperate for adequate means of expression.

For me, once I realized that it was a lot easier to pick my clothing in the morning, it was a lot easier to be comfortable with my body and be happy with what I saw.

When did your dress evolution happen?

My style evolution began when I started dressing a lot more androgynously. Even before I started binding my chest, I started wearing clothes that made my body more malleable to the outward eye. Specifically, once I started wearing men’s shorts, I was like, ‘Oh this feels so much better.’ It’s not even that they’re so much longer or wider — it’s just the extra room in the pelvic area that helps my hips to not be so accentuated.

It’s really crazy because as gendered as our clothing industry is, nothing is really men’s or women’s. Everyone’s bodies are so different and look so different in different cuts that we can’t gender clothing. Once the fashion industry understands that, it’ll change forever.

Other than clothing, are there ways you altered your physical appearance to fit your gender identity?

Once I found some terms, research and academic talk about what I was experiencing, it helped me to understand myself more and start making small changes, and I immediately noticed a reaction from people around me. I stopped shaving my legs, and it makes the contours of my body look different. I used to hate the way I looked when I wore ankle socks, and now I don’t mind it because of that small physical change.

What do you think of the ways brands are approaching "gender neutral" or androgynous fashion?

“Gender neutral” and “androgynous” are words and phrases that people tend to associate with shapeless, colorless monotone. A lot of these clothes don’t even tell you anything about a person — they’re personality-less. But that’s not how it is. Androgyny does not mean absent. It’s not the absence of gender, it is the blend of gender.

Jaramie Echternach Q&A

Jaramie Echternach is a freshman at Moberly Area Community College and a Columbia native. We spoke over the phone and talked about her exploration of gender and her ever-evolving style.

Pronouns: she/her

First thing she puts on in the morning: boxers and a sports bra

Who is your style icon?

Billie Eilish because of how comfortable she is in her clothes and how she is a little grungy. I like her use of color and accessories. I would consider myself a mix of Billie and David from Schitt’s Creek. He has a simple, classic, masculine style.

How has your style evolved throughout your life?

I shop in both sections — men’s and women’s. I mostly wear masculine clothing, but there are definitely some more feminine pieces now that I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with who I am. I don’t feel like when I was a kid. As a kid, I felt the need to avoid pink and purple stuff at all costs because I just wanted to wear camo and cargo. But then I got older, and now I have pink shirts that I find really cute and I’m cool with wearing some more feminine pieces, but I’m still mostly comfortable with traditionally “masculine” clothing.

What do you think about fashion brands approaching "gender neutral," "gender fluid" or androgynous clothing?

It’s great because I don’t think that clothing has a sex or gender. It’s just some fabric that you choose to put on yourself and begin the day. I don’t know why people make such a big deal out of it. Besides the fact of wanting to look how you want — make a big deal out of that — but as far as what I’m wearing and whether or not it makes you uncomfortable that I’m wearing a suit to a wedding… I’m not going to change to make everybody else in the room comfortable because that’ll make me uncomfortable. I have all types of friends and we’re all types of things: men wearing skirts and women wearing suits, and I don’t think it matters.

What is your relationship to your own wardrobe like?

I love clothes, and I love buying clothes for myself, especially now that I’m so much more comfortable with what I wear. I can really wear what makes me happy instead of looking at other people and wishing I could wear what they have on.

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