Tuesday, April 2, 2013

On Women in Suits: femme, butch, ki ki, and just being yourself

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. 

In this post, when I speak of women who play with gender, I'm speaking of this last category. None of these categories automatically determine where a woman will fit in the other two categories.

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
Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo. Dietrich in a tuxedo is her own special category and about as hot as a human being can be.

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
She's had many imitators, including me, but no-one can even begin to compare.

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.
Bianca Jagger in a Halston suit in the 70s. The 70s women's suit added high heels to the mix, further playing with the contrast of the feminine with the masculine, and further upping the sex appeal of the look.

Barrette: Stylize
The 70s echo in my outfit was what led me to my choice in accessories: huge gold "statement" jewelry, and a splash of tomato-red in a faux snakeskin clutch, both ubiquitous in the late 70s and early 80s.

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.
And, in my imitation of them imitating their own predecessors, I'm playing too. 

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.

Note here how k.d., who doesn't smoke, is pretending to smoke but holds no cigarette. Note how many women in the above photos are smoking. All the songs on this album are about smoking. The title of the album then, is layered with ironies about the multiple meanings of the word "drag."

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!
Some women are just like that. It doesn't mean they want to be men. It doesn't mean they are transsexual and should have a sex change. (That's a different category.) They're just women who have a masculine gender.

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 Modish Matrons and Share In Style.)


  1. What a great post! So insightful and wonderfully put together. You look sensational in your suit. :D I love suits myself; masculine meets femme (and vice versa) is so beautiful to me.

    KD Lang is such an amazing singer, indeed! One of my favorites. And my love for Katharine knowns no end..

  2. Thanks! You're making me blush, you're saying such nice things.

  3. Wonderful post! Dietrich and Hepburn are amazing!

  4. Charlotte as you probably know I LOVE masculine chic! I too remember trying to buy brogues a few years ago without much luck. I bought my first pair in about 1987 (aged 15!) so I've always been a fan. The fact that they're back in fashion means I've been stocking up: I have about six pairs now?!!

    Love your suit btw, this look really suits you hun!

    Catherine x

    1. I have three variations on brogues so far. Plus I plan to stock up on Keds in various colours, especially lavender.

      Thanks for the compliment on the "suit." It's actually not a suit, but is just a bunch of items I thought might work together so I'm glad it looks like a unified suit.

  5. I think the suit "suits" you (couldn't resist). I think it is primarily about how you carry yourself but you also have a body shape that lends itself well to a suit. The red clutch is a perfect pop of color, too!
    Katherine Hepburn and I share the same birthday - different year, of course. I like to think I'm a gutsy broad, too ;-)

    Spashionista (Alicia)

    1. Gusty broad, indeed! Must be said with a thick NYC accent, right? I'm in favour of bringing back the word "tomato" for a curvy woman, as in Frank Sinatra whistling low and saying, "She's a real tomato!"

  6. I love the subtle stripe combinations in your suit look. And very clever use of that "pocket scarf" brooch! I also like the 1970s suits, it seems that there was an influence of both Bonnie and Clyde at that time. Growing up having to wear hand-me-downs out of necessity --and only having an older brother -- I was wearing boy's clothes at an early age. I didn't mind until an incident when an older man thought I was a long-haired boy (this was in the late 1960s) and then I demanded that my mother buy me some girls' clothes! But after the film Annie Hall came out, I was raiding my brother's closet again.
    I haven't hear k.d. lang in ages. That is an amazing performance in the video.

    1. Annie Hall is a whole fashion category unto herself, eh? I'm sure she'll show up as an inspiration in one of my posts some day.

  7. An absolute marvelous post- celebrating dress up, fun in dressing and some good old fashioned, fashion history to boot. Or in your luscious case, to brogue. Rock on, lovely!

  8. And so now I am just reading through your entries (stalking you I guess!). This was just utterly fascinating to me, although I'm not sure that was your intent. I loved all the vintage photos, and even though I consider myself a pretty open person... you taught me a lot of stuff I had never heard before!

    I guess this interests me more and more because of cutting my hair short and the connotations that seems to contain in modern society. Yet with a "boy haircut" I feel more feminine, you know? I think a modern person who does this extremely well is musician Pink. I feel like she could make out with me. Or kick my ass. Or both.

    I really loved this!

  9. I'm glad you found it "fascinating" because I find this stuff fascinating too. I don't know if you read my "about" section, but, in my circles, femininity is often denigrated and one reason I made this blog is to learn to embrace that part of me. I've thought a lot about gender all my life. It's a very complicated and fraught topic.

  10. Fantastic post! Snap up all the brogues that you can afford! Me, I crave some saddle shoes.
    Marlene really is a vision...

    1. Thanks. This was a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Wish I could afford more brogues. Saddle shoes would be a-okay too.

  11. This was fascinating to read! Thanks so much for sending me the link. I'm going to have to dig out and post the pictures of my grandmother in 1920 in male drag. Looking forward to continuing this discussion! (I adore brogues too...still am looking for just the right "wing-tippy" pair.)

    1. I look forward to seeing the photo of your grandmother!

  12. fabulous post, lots of glamour, lots of interesting pics and ideas!! and you look awesome and cool!!