Rejecting gendered smartness

I have always felt that putting on a smart suit felt like a disguise.

For a long time, I’ve assumed that this is because I’m basically a slob and the suit just involves pretending not to be. But in the last year or so I have developed a sharper casual style that is just as comfy as joggers and t-shirt. I still gravitate towards the ultra-casual but less strongly, and I don’t feel like I’m disguised when I wear the sharper version.

Moreover, there are some situations in which being smart, even supersmart, feels natural, too. Going to Glyndebourne to see the opera is one such. But these occasions are occasions, and it is most certainly a case of playing “dress-up”.

This leads to an intriguing conclusion. Looking smart is not the problem, so much as the expectation of looking smart.

Expectations of dress and appearance are intrinsically gendered in modern society. Recently, thinking these things through for the umpteenth time, I thought about the “slobby” look towards which I gravitate, and just why I might do that, and I thought about it specifically in terms of my gender identity and the gendered significance of clothing.

What I realised is that, if all you know about a person is that they wore joggers and a t-shirt, there are no clues as to their gender. A skirt could be worn by a man, but the balance of probabilities is that the wearer identifies as female; and the smarter the skirt suit or dress, the more likely it is. Similarly, describe a “suit and tie” and, it could be a woman but it’s a safer bet to guess “man”. Smart clothes are gendered, much more than casual clothes, and slobby clothes seem to be gendered least plainly. One reason a smart suit feels like a disguise, is that I am disguising myself as “man”.

To be uncomfortable with maleness, but also not fully attracted to femaleness, and to float in-between and back-and-forth; to avoid being automatically gendered by clothing alone: what is the most comfortable and versatile clothing to wear? The simplest answer is to be as casual as possible, to reject smartness.

There are ways in which gendered smartness is challenged: the trouser suit appears to level the field, for example. But the specification of “trousers”, and the fact that it isn’t a “suit and tie”, retains a gendered distinction.

But what if a “trouser suit” and a shirt designed to be worn without a tie (as opposed to the casual open neck, “I’m-not-wearing-a-tie-I’m-too-important-to-have-to” look) were cut specifically for men, with a similar eye for the aesthetic that is brought to women’s clothing? That would be an outfit I could wear happily. Does it exist? Not that I’m aware of. Typing “Unisex trouser suit” into Duckduckgo showed a range of outdoor wear, medical “scrubs”, and African-style clothing (which, being White and European, I’m thinking “not my culture to appropriate!”).

I’m not a fashion designer. I look at the outfits that came up under the image search for “trouser suit” and imagine a low-cut shirt, or blouse, designed to complement and fit the male form. I want it to exist, so that “trouser suit” is a male alternative to “suit and tie”. I want to be a smartly-dressed male-bodied person, without having to be a man.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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