I confessed that I don’t pay much attention to what’s fashionable or stylish a few issues ago, which was unfair of me. It’s easier to say that I don’t pay attention to style than it is to explain how I pay attention to style. I notice people first, and what they’re presenting second. Labels don’t get on my radar unless I’m seeing the person attached to them; this person designed this piece. Accessories register as punctuation in a person’s paragraph. Shoes make them taller or unstable or sturdy or reflective. A jacket too short for the suitcoat beneath it makes the person appear a little scattered or unaware.
What a person is wearing only registers with me when it is made significant by the person wearing it.
In the GLBTQ community, A butch presents differently than a femme, but nothing presented allows for assumptions to be made because everyone is allowed to self-identify. Jewelry on men means nothing significant in this day and age, whereas some of it used to indicate membership in this community, both stereotypically and accurately. Punk hair colors and tattoos might mean a person is queer, or just a fan of the look. Colors of leather and latex and hankies (and the Pride flags that go with them) can indicate where someone falls in different groups according to preferences and kink involvement. Beards and bellies on men, and their different ages and sizes, can signify bears, cubs, otters, and the like. Dykes on Bikes might include lesbians as well as transgender people.
When is something considered style and when is it a symbol of belonging to a subculture?
Back in 2002, I pulled a book off a shelf at what was probably a Patina or Bibelot book section; it looks more gifty than book-like: The Art and Power of Being a Lady by Noelle Cleary and Dini Von Mueffling. At the time, I believe I was fundraising for orphans and was probably interested in tearing it apart with my Women’s & Gender Studies major that had been getting dusty on the shelf since graduating from college three years earlier. The word “lady” had never been associated with “power” in my vernacular. Furthermore, I was constructed to find it absurd to want to buy what looked to be a self-help book about becoming a lady, let alone a powerful lady. Would I have to wear pink? Are pantyhose a requirement? Just what did this club require?
As it turns out, I bought the book. It has stayed on my shelf for every move I’ve made and it’s on my table as I write this piece, propped open to the chapter on style. The book is more progressive than I had imagined, basing itself on such a throwback term as “lady.” Despite moving away from gender norms, boxes, and stereotypes, it puts the power in my hands to determine where I’d like to fit in as a woman. And, “lady” is somewhat open to interpretation even though the whole book is based on the word; I find that one could substitute “gentleman” or just plain “decent human being” throughout the piece as it talks about manners and how we treat each other. What’s stuck with me the most through the years is its discussion of style, though. Every lady has style, but it doesn’t all look the same. Classics are chosen over trend, though trend can be incorporated. Overdressing for an occasion is preferred to underdressing as it gives the host the benefit of the doubt that the event should be held in higher esteem than erring toward too casual of an approach. A lady has a “trademark” piece or look that can always be expected of her (mine is probably a dark-framed pair of glasses, likely accompanied by Aveda blonde hair). Lastly, the best accessory is confidence, which is echoed by the sentiments of our style subjects in this issue, Richard, Ben, and Mayda.
Do I want to be a lady? Oh, let me tell you, that’s open for debate on any given day. Do I want to be a decent human being? Every damn day. So, it’s about the nuances between what is style and what is lifestyle. Style might be more about how we appear, lifestyle is likely more about how we conduct our affairs and lives. “Lifestyle” is a loaded term in this community as being gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or queer has been perverted into being a “lifestyle choice” by the people who seek to marginalize this group. But, what about lifestyle in its pure, unadulterated form? Can “lifestyle” be reclaimed as something that is empowering, just like “lady” has been?
It’s something to note that there are two instances in this issue that refer to “passing” in the transgender community. I’ve heard that it was a topic mentioned during Q&A with Janet Mock at the Macalester College SPEAK! function (Lavender Lens, page 16), that things might be easier for Mock since she “passes” so well as a beautiful woman. Then, Ellie Krug refers to “passing” as something that occurred to her, but never would have occurred to her as being something that could happen, in her column called “Oasis” (Skirting the Issues, page 58). When you consider that transitioning from one sexual identity to another, much has to do with appearance and style, and, likely, lifestyle.
Whereas it all starts so simple with an issue on Spring & Summer Style, it all branches into a tall and wide tree or arbor in a forest of diversity. The issue can be as simple or complex as we want it to be–it’s all self-defined. Or, it should be…though we can all agree that plenty of judgment and snap assumptions are made based on how we present ourselves.
Rather than answer many questions, I’m left with an abundance. Where do you see yourself in this conversation? Do you fall into a category of style that matches your lifestyle? Do you reject the terms “lady,” “gentleman,” or “lifestyle?” Are you a person who shows your pride in your culture by wearing your colors? Did you pierce your right ear back in the ‘80s to specifically indicate that you belonged to this community? Do you split lesbians into “butch” and “femme?” Do you have a trademark accessory that you always include? I’m interested. Please share with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would very much appreciate it.
With you and in style,