Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Flannel Shirt: Hipsters, Dykes, and a Woman's Choice

I first put this outfit together as a gentle mocking of hipsters: the skinny jeans, the immaculate boots, the flannel, but no beard, since I'm a chick. But I quickly found myself instead thinking of the lesbian feminist fashion of yore, and of our collective debt to their brave rebellions. They really did change what it means to be a woman. 

They gave us choice.

But first: the hipsters. I pilfered Beau's wardrobe for this outfit. A few years ago, we picked up some plaid shirts for him at Value Village. I'd noticed a few young men wearing them and I thought they'd look good on him. They do.

This was before hipsters had started to sprout in great multitudes in our city, like mushrooms in our moist and clement climate. I noticed it last September, just as all the young lads returned to university. Since then, Beau's been worried that he looks too much like a hipster himself. He's very careful to keep his beard too short and his barber just a little too authentic (none of these "retro" barbers) for him to qualify as a real hipster.

Call my cynical, but I'm starting to snort a little derisively at the hipster uniform.

Having spent much of my life in the bush (which is what we west coast Canadians call our lush forests), and in a province whose main economy was logging, I can't help but snicker at these fresh scrubbed fellows in their brand new, bright, shiny lumberjack clothes. Before the term "hipster" overtook us here, we were all laughing at this look and calling it Lumberjack Chic. 

Jeans and t-shirt: Reitman's; Boots: Joseph Seibel; Sunglasses, shirt, and jacket: thrift
So, yeah, I set out to mock the hipsters just a little bit, with their self-consciousness ...

... and their perfect hair ...

... and their perfect boots ...

... which really are very nice boots.

It's just all so orchestrated and self-conscious.

Not that there's really anything wrong with that. If you read my blog, you know my outfits are nothing if not orchestrated and self-conscious -- though in the most educated, ironic, and post-modern way, of course, just like the hipsters, right? Well, maybe. I'm not sure. I'm not used to seeing flannel worn ironically.

To me, at least for men, if there are no muscles and calluses to go with the look, it just doesn't feel authentic. I guess it comes of having lived too long amongst loggers and fishermen.

Circa: late 1970s? I found this photo online but couldn't find a lot of information about who these women are. They look very interesting, very young, and very proud.
And for women? Who makes this look authentic? Why, lesbians, obviously! Specifically, it's lesbians circa 1970 to the present.

While Beau was taking these photos of me, our lovely and quite butch neighbour leaned over her balcony to comment on our photo shoot. She liked my boots.


Even before that, the poses I was adopting were far more dyke than they were hipster, because that's what I've known of this look for women. Recall that I came out of the closet at eighteen, back in 1989, when, for lesbians, this look was less a choice than it was a uniform, or that's how it felt to me.

It started around 1970, when many women, not just lesbians, were rejecting societal standards of beauty and femininity, and wore what they wanted to wear, not what they'd been told that they should wear to be acceptable and, most of all, to be attractive to men.

This happened in tandem with the back to the land movement where I suppose denim and plaid just made good, pragmatic sense. If it was good enough for the loggers, it was good enough for us too.

I love the title of this album. It shows such hope, excitement, and liberation in the new feminism, and in lesbian feminism in particular. "There are so many more ways a woman can be," it seems to say, "than the ones we were taught. Look! Look at my freedom."

Some of the earliest members of Olivia Records, which is run by women and produces women's (mostly lesbians') music
I've always loved these women for showing us the ways a woman can be. They may seem a cliché now but what they were doing was nothing short of revolutionary and we shouldn't forget it. In consciously choosing outfits without thinking about how men would react to those outfits, they were saying something very powerful: Women do not need to be attractive to men.

Not only do we not need to be attractive to men, but we don't need men at all. This was the added message of the specifically lesbian feminist movement. If we don't need men for sexual gratification (and any queer woman can tell you that we certainly do not), we're free of men entirely. And, if we're free of men, we are, more importantly, free of all the patriarchal institutions that have kept us down for all these years.

Before you mock or ridicule this message, think of it in its context. These were the women of the baby boomer generation. They had been children in the 50s, and had been taught that their only goal -- their only route to happiness in life -- was to get married and raise children. Men had careers. Men were in politics. Men ran all the companies. Men were the bosses. 

Women stayed home, raised children, and took care of their men -- happily.

Women's only access to this supposed natural female destiny was "catching" a man. Being attractive to men was our ticket, our only ticket, to a shelter, food, companionship, love, sex, children, happiness, and fulfilment.

It's really not very romantic, when you think about it. I often wonder how true love stood a chance in such an environment.

Woe betide the woman (or teenage girl) who, for whatever reason, could not attract men. Her future was bleak, lonely, loveless... meaningless. Not being sexually attractive to men was a tragedy. 

Countless products were directed toward women and young girls to help them become sexually attractive to men. Her "charm" consisted largely of how she looked -- and smelled. (I'd argue that not much has changed, but that's the topic of another post.)

I don't think it occurred to anyone that a woman might not want to be attractive to men. And lesbianism? What's that? If people had even heard of it, and many had not, it was seen as an unnatural perversion, or... wait for it ... something "ugly" women would resort to if men didn't want them, because, naturally, every woman wants a man -- if only she can get one.

Left: a found photo on the internet (if you know her, tell me all about her!); Right: lesbian feminist singer and songwriter, Chris Williamson
In this context, lesbian feminism was utterly mind blowing, and, for some, utterly liberating. Patriarchal standards of feminine beauty were seen as an aspect of keeping women down. They certainly had a point. High heels, girdles, corsets, garters, cumbersome dresses that simply mustn't get dirty... They aren't exactly freeing. It was time to dress for ourselves only, not for men.

There were flaws in this argument and I can hear you raising them. Chief among these flaws is the fact that some women really do like feminine attire. I happen to be one of those women. But I know it's a choice and I have my feminist forebears to thank for that.

Above, Dior models with Dior himself; Below, the Berkeley Women's Music Collective in the 70s
At the same time as women were realizing that they could dress as they wanted to, and sleep with women if they wanted to, they were also learning that women are capable of much more than they had been led to believe. All that time saved on primping could be used instead to create women's co-ops, women's communes, women's collectives, all with the aim of making women self-sufficient, and teaching women all the things they could do if they just believed they could.

Women could be more then "just" housewives. They too could have careers, be in politics, run companies, and be bosses (though many chose to opt out of hierarchical structures entirely, saying that they were, in essence, patriarchal.) 

I get it. I really get it. I think some of these lessons are ones women need to hear all over again these days. How many times, recently, have you heard women reassure each other about their curvy bodies by saying, "Well, men like a little curve." Is that all that matters when we look at our own bodies? Is what men like our only measure of whether we are beautiful? I surely hope not!

I'm happy to see that there's a new wave of young feminists out there. We need them. Some lessons need to be learned over and over again. (Of course, these new feminists are also tackling other issues, like rape culture, which, as a child sex trafficking survivor, I know all too well.)

All that said, there was a certain conformity about dyke fashion that I, personally, found restrictive. It seems like any movement, mainstream or radically counter-culture, ends up becoming somewhat conformist. 

This was a real problem for me when I first came out of the closet at the tender age of eighteen. In a half-hearted way, I tried to fit in by wearing less feminine clothes, but dyke fashion wasn't really my thing and I quickly reverted to my preferred sartorial sense. I got flack for it. At best, I was assumed heterosexual. The first time I went to a lesbian bar, the bartender asked my friend and I if we knew we were in a lesbian bar. I did not fit in.

Because of femininity, at worst, I was condescendingly told that I was too stupid to realize that I was a dupe to patriarchal standards of beauty, that I was dressing for men, and that I was not liberated. It was quite devastating. 

From what I can see of lesbian culture now, this has changed a lot. If a woman prefers a more feminine style of dress, this is just fine, or so it would seem.

This is not to say that the stereotypical dyke look is not still popular. It is. But I think queer women now feel more free to choose the looks that suit them best, and they can still fit in. This is as it should be.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against the dyke look. In my day, I fell mighty hard for some mighty butchly women. 

When a young k.d. lang came into the store where I was working, way back in 1989, she was so sexy, I literally trembled, and I made sure to touch her hand when I gave her her change. I wished I could just jump over the counter, fall at her sexy feet, and say, "I'm one of you!" (Teenagers are dramatic like that.) I came out a few months later.

It is said that, upon meeting k.d. lang, Madonna remarked, "Elvis is alive... and she's beautiful!"

The stereotypical dyke look can be hot. It's true; butch was and is beautiful. (So is femme. So are any number of positions on the gender spectrum.) But that's the thing: it's a great look for some queer women, especially butch women, but it's not for everyone. It wasn't for me. 

I think it must be tremendously liberating for some women to finally don less feminine attire, finally dressing as they want to dress, not as they're told to dress.

From time to time, it even feels liberating for me to wear such clothes. But it feels like a costume which, let's face it, is what it is for me. Do I look natural here? Not really. Constipated maybe. Natural, not so much.

Every now and then, it is me, but not often. It's all about choice, all the different ways ways a woman can be, authentically, truly herself, dressing for herself and nobody else. And, no matter what your identity, whether you know it or not, lesbian feminists helped give you that choice.

(I'm sharing this radical suggestion on Modish Matrons, and Visible Mondays at Patti's Not Dead Yet.)


  1. All those 70's photos remind me of my high school yearbook. At Emma Willard, my alma mater, the girly girls were the exception. Flannels and Levi's were de rigueur. I'm really glad that I went to an all girls' high school. Got a stellar education and made lifelong friends.

    I snicker at the hipsters too, especially the guys. Their boots are too pristine. And the facial hair sculptures! Don't get me started!

    1. That's interesting. I went to alternative high schools where the boys looked like girls and so did the girls, except for the girls who looked like boys... In other words, gender was fluid and, to me, that's just normal.

  2. I grew up in Ithaca, New York. In 1968 (when I was 8 years old) my uniform was construction boots, Levi's, wife beater shirt (terrible term) and my collection of flannel shirts. If I wore a dress it was over the jeans and boots.

    1. I loved my denim overalls but, if I wasn't in the mood to climb trees that day, I loved my little frocks and ribbons too.

  3. Me too, like Anne I'm reminded of my high school years. The vintage ads are really terrifying, to think what I barely escaped! Thanks for sharing with Visible Monday.

    1. I know, Patti. To think what we escaped, in part thanks to the women I write about in this post. They were, perhaps, overly optimistic, as most youth are, but they did accomplish a lot.

  4. Don't get me started on the hipsters! Bushy is a bearded forester from way back...bearded since 18. He is worried he'll be mistaken for one, but he's not meticulous enough for that! He'll hate that ;-)
    I toowent through this look in my gender search, and also decided it wasn't for me. Too boring and not enough drape. But neither is completely femme. So I'm carving my own little creative space somewhere in the middle. I'm inspired by tribal dress and African men's dresses/robes at the moment. xo Jazzy Jack

    1. That's cool! For me, gender must be something to play with or it becomes a cage. I may be very femme but I do not adhere to much of the gendered behaviour or interests prescribed to cis women. This is an ongoing struggle for Beau and me as we plan our wedding and try to get various professionals to understand that we are not interested in playing gender roles in the planning or in the day itself. It's like we're speaking a foreign language to them!