Student Blog: Fashion, Fear and Gender Freedom
One of the earliest looks I can remember piecing together consisted of this heavily sequinned pink ballerina dress, paired with these silky lilac fairy wings, a fake pearl necklace (because who is going to want a kid running about in real peals on their neck, the disaster that would end in) and a star shaped magical wand adorned with hot pink plastic hearts. Dressing up in this ballerina fairy princess number made me feel unstoppable, but so did dressing up in cargo shorts and vest tops from the boy’s section and having people tell me ‘you look like a boy in that’ felt way more like a compliment then insult to me. As time went on I ditched the fairy princess and cargo shorts vest looks and went through every single phase in the book. From 11-13 I altered between wanting to look like Avril Lavigne one day then Taylor Swift the next. 14-16 the full-on emo phase hit, which as cringe as it was, was also a really fun time in my personal style history and then my style just became an eclectic mix of eras, prints and colour.
It was at 19 however I realised the way I was dressing had gone back to switching between high-femme looks, as I would leave the house in a bright orange wig, red beret, black dresses and my all-time favourite thigh high red latex go-go boots (as iconic as they sound) and then the next day be wearing the loosest jeans and t-shirts I could find with a beanie and platform boots instead of heeled ones, even at times drawing on facial hair with eyeshadow. I began feeling a bitter taste in my mouth when people called me she/her, a girl, a woman and wished my chest was flat and figure was straighter. Each time I put on wigs and heels, I felt like I was getting into drag and putting on this beautiful high femme persona rather than wanting to look feminine because I felt like ‘such a strong independent woman’. So, I logged into Facebook one day during 2017 and posted a status saying ‘they/them pronouns from now on thanks’. I thought the almost 100 likes I got on that post was a big start of something new, but only a handful of close friends used they/them pronouns for me. A lot of people on the other hand seemed to think using they/them pronouns when referring to me was their choice and that hurt. I was told “you can be a woman with short hair and look masculine without being non-binary you know” and that “you’re just looking for another reason to be unhappy with yourself”. So, I quickly ran back into the non-binary closest, still happy to play about with gender outwardly but trying to force myself internally to be a ‘woman’ to be a ‘she/her’, I was again someone’s girlfriend or someone’s sister.
I ignored the disconnect I felt from my body and how much worse being labelled with feminine terms had begun to make me feel. I focused on trying to follow current women's fashion trends and kept telling myself being a woman in the fashion industry is going to be exciting and how it’s super empowering that the fashion industry is becoming far more woman dominated, which is a great thing and I’m always here for feminism and girls uplifting each other but, I was forcing myself to live someone else's truth. Not mine. Around September time last year, I re-came out as non-binary on Instagram, putting my pronouns in my social media bios, exhausted by this false womanhood I never once felt internally that I had been forcing myself to live. Outwardly, as you can gather by this, I love mixing up masculine and feminine elements and clothes have the power to do that. But inwardly, it didn’t feel like there was any gender there anymore. I never once felt like a guy, even on the more masculine days and even on the days I wished my body could be shaped differently, and no matter how hard I tried to live as a girl, in this supposed ‘girl’ body, I never once felt like one. Turns out you can be agender (a person who sees themselves as neither a man nor woman).
You see more queer and LGBTQ+ voices being lifted up by the fashion industry today and I know students on my degree who have done assignments on how we can offer way more than oversized shirts and baggy tracksuit bottoms for consumers who want to buy from a gender-neutral collection and actually asked and listened to non-binary and transgender about what they would like to see from the industry. There are so many beautiful steps being taken to make the fashion industry as inclusive as possible. Yet there is still fear. It feels as if unless you’re establishing yourself as an outspoken non-binary character within the industry (which I am still so here for) you get left out of the conversation. It’s another day of thinking ‘how many times am I going to have to hear myself being called' she today’ or ‘is my new boss one of those people who thinks it's grammatically incorrect for someone to go by they/them?’. Yes, the fashion industry is taking beautiful steps towards being more inclusive but there are so many more anxiety filled steps that it takes to simply exist as non-binary.
I do have a lot of gratitude towards fashion though for allowing me to go from a fairy princess to some scrawny looking cartoon network character in cargo shorts and for the looks I could throw together that made me realise my outward appearance goes a lot deeper than simply wanting to play about with gender roles as if they were a costume, to the point I noticed that inside there is no gender there. Going from dressing up, to university, to then knowing you need to come out, it’s a lot. But, you reach a point where no matter how fearful you may be of letting the world know how you feel and who you are and that your pronouns are they/them and that you’re not cisgender, is so much more freeing than deciding to walk back into that non-binary closest filled with moths, worn fabrics and a forced identity. Coming out in this world has never been easy or simple, but the more of us who chose to live our authentic queer truths, the easier it might be for the next non-binary fashion marketing student who simply just wants to live their best they/them life.
By Em Cosgrove