|Trousers: Reitmans; Shoes: Aldo; Blazer, vest, shirt, and clutch: thrift|
When I put this outfit together, I was mostly just having fun. I'm so femme that wearing a man-tailored suit (or an approximation thereof) is, for me, a kind of costume. I'm play-acting at masculinity... except that it doesn't make me look masculine at all.
Before I continue, I should probably clear something up. Sexuality, sex, and gender, are three entirely different things.
To put it very simply:
Sex = biology, the plumbing one is born with, the combination of sex chromosomes. (There are, of course, also inter-sexed and transsexual people.)
Sexuality = heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and various blendings thereof. Sexual preference.
Gender = masculine or feminine and any blending thereof. One's sex -- male or female -- need not determine one's gender -- masculine or feminine.
|I didn't know we had an audience here until I looked at the photos. Check out the fellas in the doorway of the legion hall.|
For example, my sex is female, my gender is feminine, and my sexuality is bisexual. Suit or no suit, I couldn't look masculine if I tried, but I've no particular desire to try. In queer parlance, this makes me femme, whereas a very masculine woman is often referred to as butch.
Okay, now we can get back to the more interesting topic at hand: women in men's suits.
In a way, a suit on some women only accentuates their femininity and I think that's how it works for me. The juxtaposition of my feminine mannerisms with the masculine references in the outfit somehow highlights my femininity, like a black makes white look whiter, and white makes black look blacker.
I did have a more fluidly gendered woman in mind when I put this outfit together though:
|The incomparable Marlene Dietrich in a suit|
|It was a happy accident that the brooch kind of mimics the look of a pocket handkerchief, a must for any sharp dressed woman or man in a suit. Gold and diamond ring: Birks; Brooch, bangle, and earrings: vintage|
Dietrich was well aware of the sex appeal of her gender play. She began her career as a performer in the cabarets of Berlin between the world wars when both gender play and homosexuality were, if not exactly in vogue, then certainly staples of the cabaret scene. (For more on the Berlin cabaret scene, check out Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin by Barbara Ulrich.)
She made no secret of her bisexuality.
Indeed, the kiss she plants on a woman's lips in this clip from the 1930 movie, Morocco, is thought to be the first lesbian kiss in the movies, though I wonder if it really is the very first.
There can be no doubt that Madonna and her stylist had Dietrich and her kin in mind when they put together this stunning 1991 shoot for The Rolling Stone.
It is clearly meant to look like the photos were taken around 1930 and the fluid genders of those photographed are ripped right from the cabaret stages of Berlin at the time.
Madonna is no stranger to messing with gender and sexuality. This stage performance with Britney Spears (pre-meltdown) Christina Aguilera, and Missy Elliot owes a hell of a lot to the above scene from Morocco, as well as to Madonna's own earlier work.
Say what you will about Madonna, but she did a lot in the 80s and early 90s to shine light on queer culture -- both gender non-conformism and homosexuality -- and is, herself, bisexual.
What I'm trying to say here, I think, is that messing with gender is nothing new. Shakespeare loved to do it. Marlene Dietrich did it. Loads of people did it and do it, and I think it's great.
Yet, for years, when I'd go to a shoe store and say, "Give me shoes like Katharine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich would have worn with suits," I'd receive blank and even hostile stares. What the hell was I talking about?
This is what I was talking about: Katharine Hepburn in a pair of brogues. Only a major fashion icon and wonderful gender renegade. Only that. That's all.
I remember seeing this image on a postcard in a women's bookstore in Montreal when I was coming out of the closet in 1989. It made me swoon. I would eye it from across the room, afraid to even touch it, lest the shop keepers realize I might be a lesbian. It's hard to even imagine now what made me so nervous and shy.
The image was sexy to me not because Hepburn looks like a man here. She doesn't. The very sharpness of the suit accentuates the feminine lines of her face and body and that's attractive. And she was willing to play with gender roles, not simply accept the gender assigned to her based on her biological sex. Though she was heterosexual, this gender rebellion was and is sexy to me.
Brogues and man-styled women's shoes are enjoying a vogue these days so I'm finally able to imitate Hepburn when I get dressed. I hope such shoes do not go out of style as completely as they are now in style because I have been craving such shoes for over twenty years. I don't want to have to store them in my closet for another twenty years to come.
As with Dietrich in a tuxedo, I can only ever do a pale and sorry imitation of Hepburn in a suit. I mean, my God, look at that ease, that poise, that... movie star quality.
I just ain't got it.
But the bracelet and that shirt cuff bring me to yet another inspiration that was in my mind as I got dressed on this day:
|Jagger is on the left, but both women sport man-tailoring juxtaposed with their femininity.|
The look was decidedly feminine. These women are not trying to look like men. They're not even trying to look masculine. They're playing.
|I've only just started wearing clip-on earrings. I've always assumed that they are painful to wear but I was wrong. Now that I know this, a world of possibilities in vintage costume jewelry has opened up to me.|
For me, femininity is not so much in the clothes as it is in the carriage, the mannerisms of a person, and my mannerisms are decidedly feminine. The clothes do not make the butch or the femme. The carriage does. (Though I'm sure there are those who would disagree.)
But, of course, not all women are one or the other. Marlene Dietrich could be very feminine just as easily as she could be masculine.
And Katharine Hepburn could look just as stunning in a dress as she could in a suit.
Here, in the same Rolling Stones shoot as above, Madonna proves her ability to "go both ways" in terms of gender, though I don't think she can do so as successfully as Dietrich could.
In 1950s lesbian culture, women who could pull off both butch and femme were known as "ki ki" and they were considered pretty rare.
I'm certainly not ki ki.
Neither are butch women.
Singer k.d. lang is pretty clearly butch and she often opts for dapper suits and ties. But even when she wears a dress, and she sometimes does, she does not appear feminine. Just as a man-tailored suit only serves to amplify my femininity, a dress only highlights her masculinity.
|Two butch women in the 1950s. I sooo want to polish those saddle shoes!|
And there's nothing wrong with that.
It's not an easy life, I imagine, given societal prejudices and confusions about gender. The writer Radclyffe Hall wrote about these struggles in some of her work, while embodying butchly handsomeness in her appearance.
At the end of the day, I still think it's far less about what a woman wears than about how she carries herself physically. Hepburn in her suits still had a feminine carriage in her body.
In my suit, the way I move my hands is still very femme...
... especially when compared to k.d. lang's hands as she sings.
The way we each hold our bodies and move may or may not be a choice. My mannerisms feel natural to me, as I'm sure lang's do for her. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter if it's a choice or not. Just do and be what feels right.
And, incidentally, if you have not yet had the pleasure of hearing k.d. lang sing, you are in for a real treat. She is incredible, especially live. Here she is singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics. She refused to lip sync. With a voice like this, there's no need.
And do listen all the way to the end for the cherry on top.
So that's my little polemic on women in suits, butch, femme, ki ki, and being whoever the hell you want to be. I hope you didn't find it too preachy.
Note: Because of how quickly we have been gaining rights, at the ripe old age of 42, I am already an old lady in the queer world. Some of my terms and ideas here may be considered hopelessly out-dated by the youngsters these days. I hope they'll cut me some slack as I will and do for them.
(I'm sharing this with Share In Style.)