Fears of Androgyny

My e-mail conversation with reader Lianne – the one that sparked this post on dressing with a touch of butch – unearthed a very personal issue for me. Personal, surprising, and definitely relevant, so I wanted to share my quirky little epiphany with you folks.

I hit puberty in the late 80s, and went through high school in the early 90s. Girls my age didn’t really do skirts and dresses back then, at least not in my area. It was all about jeans. Over-sized jeans. Baggy tops, too. And that suited me just fine because pretty much the moment I became aware of my body, I became self-conscious about it.  I wasn’t slim or traditionally pretty, I couldn’t afford the schmancy baggy jeans that the popular girls wore, and even if I could have I wasn’t popular anyway so I’m sure I would’ve just taken flak for being a poseur. Boys mostly avoided me … or adored me from afar, then expressed their feelings in obnoxious and infantile ways that just irked me. And I was a smart, driven over-achiever, which made me the target of teasing from all sides. I did everything I could to be invisible, and over-sized clothes were instrumental in my quest to go unnoticed.

Looking back, nearly all of my clothes from age 11 to age 23 were androgynous, even the more form-fitting ones. OK, a tie-dyed dress or two might’ve snuck in on occasion, but mostly I dressed for gender neutrality. It helped me feel like less of a body, less of a physical entity, to wear clothes that could go either way. Androgyny was a component of my personal shield, a tactic that helped me feel separate from and superior to my disappointing, foreign, inferior physical form.

A few years ago, several commenters asked if I could either link to more resources for androgynous dressing, or wear and post more androgynous outfits myself. I remember feeling affronted. Defensive, even. And I had no idea why at the time, so I kept my feelings to myself, knowing full well that I was overreacting for some reason. Corresponding with Lianne finally shed some light on that reason:

My logic-free emotional core was afraid that if I dipped back into androgynous dressing, I would undo the years of hard work that had brought me to a more peaceful, accepting place with my body. That I’ll fall down a rabbit hole, never wear a skirt again, and start loathing myself just as vigorously as I did when I was 15.  Learning to dress my figure in a way that showed it off set me down the path toward seeing myself as a whole being – heart, mind, soul, AND body. And the style that made all of that possible expressed my personal version of “female”quite strongly, although that wasn’t the declared goal. My style revolved around skirts and cinched waists and heels. I felt good in skirts and cinched waists and heels. And although it is downright weird to believe that donning a fedora, vest, and trousers would make me suddenly hate myself all over again, that, friends, is what I was so afraid of. Androgynous dressing scared the shit out of me because, for years, it had served to simultaneously protect me and hold me back.

 

Since then, my style has shifted. Now I wear more pants than skirts, more jeans than dresses, and – of course – I haven’t spiraled downward into fear of or hatred for my own body. I’ve also learned that androgynous dressing is incredibly important to many individuals grappling with issues of gender identity, and that it is a more meaningful practice than I realized. I do my best to link to androgynous and butch blogs and looks as often as I can, and work to incorporate a range into my own outfits. And I know that sometimes going back can be part of moving forward.

Image via hgogo.

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  • It was this spring that a sudden interest of androginous style came over me.It all started when I realised I like loafers and oxfors style of shoes a lot.Also chambaray shirts and jackets were all over the net and looked so good.Then i discoverd the tomboy style blog and realised that androginous dressing can be many things and it’s basicaly very sexy.I noticed that men are so much attracted by this style.I even noticed that when it’s cold I love androginous style and when it’s summer I love more feminine style! Wow,that was a good question!

  • Well, we all know of my style love affair with Mark Wahlberg. On the weekends, I’m very androgynous, and honestly if I weren’t making the effort to dress “up” a bit, I probably would be during the work week, too. When I started my whole effort to clean up my clothing act last year I did push myself into more feminine territory — kind of without questioning why I felt that that look was the main mode in which I could be “dressed up”. Now I realize I probably should have gone in a less girlie direction because it’s more true to myself.

    At the heart of it, I’m not a very sexual person and never have been. I don’t spend much time thinking about it myself and I don’t spend much time trying to elicit that response from the menfolk. I bristle every time I read a fashion blogger telling me that I “should” jack myself up with super-high heels because that’s the only way a woman’s legs look good. Oh, is it really? Wearing a fairly easygoing dress is one thing, but put me in high heels and a bodycon dress and a lot of makeup and I feel like I should be entering myself in a drag show.

    The significance of androgyny to me is that on some level it’s a statement of how I feel about certain cultural norms that I dislike. The idea that men and women are extremely different (from Mars! from Venus!) and one must costume up to meet others’ expectations about that, the idea that a woman’s main job is to be eye candy for men, yuck to all of it. I’m like the world’s oldest 11-year-old tomboy girl.

    • LE

      I love your comment! I feel the same way.

  • martina

    Hey Sal,

    love your posts and always find your ideas inspiring, but I have to disagree here: androgynously dressing does not mean looking untaken or covered up in baggy, ill-fitting clothes. And I believe that our body tipe and personal sense of style play a big part in the kind of clothes we feel good in. Personally, I feel like one million when I am wearing skinnies, a sharp plazer with a simple tee and flats. I don’t wear much jewelry apart from an oversize men watch. That’s pretty much as masculine as you can go without looking in a costume, but I know that I look good in it (and it’s the kind of look I get complimented on the most). On the other hand, I never feel comfortable being all dolled up in girly ensemble. I can occasionally do a mini or a cute dress, but I always tone it down with some minimalistic, men inspired accessories.
    In the end, I think looking feminine or a bit more androgynous is a personal choice which mostly depends on the personal aesthetics, and has little to do with feeling feminine on a deeper level. And it’s definitely not an excuse for taking bad care of ourselves 🙂

    • Sal

      Ah, I didn’t do a good job of clarifying. Thanks for pointing that out. I dressed in androgynous and baggy clothes as a teen, but I do realize that not all androgynous clothing is baggy and ill-fitting. I’ve added to the post.

  • Sal,

    Thank you for sharing this. I have strong emotional reactions to certian styles of clothing, and I need to think about the reasons behind the emotions. This is just another reason why I LOVE your blog. Not only does it give me style inspiration, it makes me a better all around person!!

  • Katharine

    I love it. It actually makes me sad that my very traditionally feminine body is not terribly friendly to androgynous dressing; the result is usually to make me look shapeless, or extremely large.

    For me, androgynous dressing is nothing to do with hating my body (although, indeed, my body and I do have, shall we say, differences). It’s a — I don’t know, I hesitate to say “political” choice — but it’s kind of a political choice. It affirms my personal reluctance to conform to traditional gender and sexual boundaries.

    It also feels adventurous and freeing to me. If I have the right clothes, for instance, I feel perfectly at liberty to walk around in urban areas alone late at night (something I do often, and have all my life), to go wherever I please, to explore, to talk to anybody. I have no illusions that I “look like a boy”, but I suspect that looking as though I can move freely and confidently helps. I have sometimes found myself in the same urban areas in, for instance, shortish dresses and heels — and even though almost all of my heels are chosen for walking, I KNOW that I am not — quite — as stable, fast, or confident on my feet. And those clothes WILL draw catcalls and verbal aggression.

    I feel confident, strong and attractive in androgynous clothes — generally, much more so than in really, really femme clothing. When I’ve shaved my head, too, I’ve felt very much like myself, AND hot. And, quite honestly, I enjoy getting interest from both men and women.

  • Heather

    I think there is a huge difference between hiding the body with baggy, shapeless clothes that hide curves and wearing attractive gender-neutral clothing that fit the body well. It’s one thing to be ashamed of your body and trying desperately not to call attention to yourself, and quite another to wear clothes that fit your particular gender expression.

    Mind you, I’m a big fan of androgyny in both men and women. Men’s fashion is extremely limited and boring on men. Just my personal taste, though.

    • “I think there is a huge difference between hiding the body with baggy, shapeless clothes that hide curves and wearing attractive gender-neutral clothing that fit the body well.”

      I think this is a GREAT point, and really gets to the heart of this issue, I think. Sal, I wonder if now that you have such confidence in the beauty and sexiness of your body, that when you do try to ride the androgyny train again, you’ll wear pieces that fit and flatter your lovely self. It makes a world of difference.

      (And it’s definitely possible to hide your body with baggy, shapeless, feminine clothing, of course!)

  • I’m kind of neutral about adrogyny :-)) You’re right, it was huge in the 80s/90s and I could never pull the look off simply because my curves scream femininity with pretty much everything I wear.
    Re. your own personal style journey Sal, it sounds like ‘adrogyny’ is a very important place for you to re-visit. And I’m sure there’s an awful lot we could learn from following your journey too :-))

  • I dress femininely, always. I don’t even own pants! (I own some shorts, but no pants).

    I look ridiculous in androgeny – short, wide-shoulders, large bust, it’s not a good look.

    FWIW, I dressed androgenously sometimes as a child of the 70s (not by my choice, my mom was a tomboy and gave me levis and tshirts) and yes, I did get pants’d once “to see if I was a boy or a girl”. But I was 6 and had short hair too, and they were being obnoxious. So. I like to be fair on the “why” – but you won’t catch me in a blazer and jeans anytime soon.

  • I do enjoy the androgynous look. I kinda think it’s a bit sexy, on men and women. There is just something edgy about it.
    I’ve had short hair since basically forever. I think I look really cute in a pixie cut, and once the first couple three and four year old tell you “You hair is like a boy’s” you just get over it. (They don’t know any better, at that age they are just identifying objects) But I’m short and very curvy and effeminate so I was only once mistaken for a boy ( to my knowledge), even in some very androgynous outfits. I would suggest any ladies looking into androgynous dressing get themselves a 3 pack of men’s white t-shirts. Something about them just screams testosterone. With a pair of straight leg or boot cut jeans, and a men’s hat of some kind. (Fedora, or a newsboy hat, just get it in the men’s department)

  • I suspect that you & I are close to the same age – I was a teen during the 90’s and your connecting that style of dressing (specifically baggy & shapeless) with being 15 and hating your body rang true for me. I too look at that type of style and viscerally think ugh – it just represents a time in my life that I’m glad is over. It’s fascinating to examine that more thoroughly and reconsider what androgynous dressing really is, rather than what it represents to me.

  • Erin

    I loved my flannel in the 90s, but definitely wore it over some little white “baby tees” to make it more feminine. And always, the big hair and full face of makeup. 🙂

  • I admire people who can dress androgynously and look beautiful while doing it.

    But for me personally, the tomboyish look is more like a crutch that I fall back on when I’m not feeling good about myself. It’s my way of fading into the background.

    I don’t have the body for belts. I tend to wear pants out of habit, and for practicality. And I can’t wear heels without hurting my feet. And you won’t see me in ruffles or bows.

    But I do try to avoid the menswear and grunge looks. For one thing, I tend to look really frumpy in them. Instead, I tend to opt for somewhat form-fitting things with a soft (not crisp) silhouette.

  • Diana

    I like androgynous style and appreciate it on others, but can’t really pull it off myself, although I’ll certainly use an element or two of it in an outfit. Part of the reason why I can’t pull it off is that I have a very feminine body – big booty, small waist, fairly hourglassy shape – and androgynous styles do not hang right on me.
    I went though high school in the mid 90s but was the outsider who never wore the baggy jeans and flannel shirts. Even back then I had ruffled shirts and floral skirts and pretty shoes. 90s grunge is not a style I really ever think I will aspire to though! The androgynous style I like is more tailored and dressy – think Duran Duran!

    • Kat

      I was just about to say the same sort of thing! I enjoy seeing the look on others, but I think I can’t manage androgynous because of my body shape. I hardly even own any pants, as it’s hard to find cuts that flatter me. (I would love to find a good tailored vest that fits, and I do like a good fedora, but I think they still read as feminine on me.) My personality is far more androgynous than my body, so I’m sure seeing me sometimes comes as a surprise…

  • I’ve always had a definite womanly figure, so dressing androgynously is something I’ve always shied away from. In part I think this has to do with liking more girlish/traditionally feminine looks for myself, as well as feeling better when wearing something that emphasizes my decidedly female figure. The closest I ever get to an androgynous look is a loose oxford shirt (usually tied at the waist though), straight/baggy jeans and Chuck Taylors. Though I haven’t worn that look in years (I’d probably swap the jeans and Chucks out for slim-fit jeans and penny loafers at this point), and it’s not terribly androgynous. I think for me, I just always felt like I was fighting how I really am and look when I try to look androgynous. I love how it looks on other women, but am never 100% comfortable with myself or how I look when I try it. Some women say that wearing skirts and high heels makes them fidgety and self conscious about what they’re wearing; I’m that way with androgynous styles!

  • Irene

    Two words: Marlene Dietrich.

    • Sandie

      That’s just what I was thinking, Irene! I can really see Sal doing a bit of Marlene Dietrich.

      I can’t resist a sultry German.

  • I have always dressed at least somewhat androgynously. I was a tomboy, growing up on a farm, feeding cows, riding horses, driving tractors, rafting on sloughs in the spring, so pants/jeans made more sense than dresses. And I like the look on my ‘short-rectangular-torso-long-legs’ body. I do like dressing more femininely, but for my current lifestyle jeans (skinny, stylish ones, paired with tanks and cropped, fitted blazers) are a better choice. I don’t ever remember my grandmothers wearing pants, not the English-town-raised-Canadian-farm-wife, nor the Canadian-farm-raised-village-shop-owners-wife. My mother (now 86 yrs. young) grew up in a village, and did wear pants sometimes; I have seen pictures from the 1940’s of she and her sisters looking VERY fashionable, in high-waisted cuffed trousers and plaid button-front shirts (think Katherine Hepburn), so I guess there is some family history to this.
    I love your blog. Always inspiring and thought-provoking!

  • Thanks for sharing some personal history, Sal. It sounds like you’ve done a lot of interior work, and now you are more flexible than ever. I like seeing women in the whole range of masculine – feminine gear, although I dress fairly simply. I really like a surprising mix of both elements, like a swirly skirt and heels with a man-talired shirt, or simple jeans with a lace blouse.

  • I like pants and flats, but I don’t really feel like I dress androgynously when I wear them. Maybe it is because of my figure, or other aspects of my personal style like hair and makeup, but even in men’s wear I feel pretty feminine. I do try to flatter my figure and create a feminine silhouette in pants, just because that is how I like to style myself.

  • I’m a lover of pants but i also love dresses with cinched waists. I think you can dress androgynously and still give a feminine look with touches of elements like ruffles, pleats and tailored garments. I personally try to stay away from the unisex looks because some i think look boring and having low cut hair, i dont like people to get confused…lol. Plus, I agree, It does take a while to appreciate your body and wear the ultra feminine dresses if you’ve been used to covering and swallowing your body with clothes and that style is not seen around you normally.

  • Wow, wow, wow. Lightbulb moment! Although I do wear a lot of jeans and pants, I just realized that I’m rather defensive about androgyny too. My mom kept my hair very short when I was young, and dressed me in grey tracksuits – many people mistook me for a boy. I remember saying to people, “I’m a girl, you know!” There was even one instance when I was 18 that I was mistaken for a guy. I have always been very muscular and not very curvy, so I like to dress in a feminine way so as not to look “too butchy.” Thanks for helping me realize where this bias comes from!

  • pope suburban

    I like men’s fashion, but it makes me, personally, look like a tool when I attempt it. At least with pants and shirts; I rock a mean men’s boot and I love men’s watches and hats. The shirts and pants just don’t work well on me because there isn’t much of a way to make them hang right. But hey, that’s great, because I can just throw on my boot-cut jeans with my masculine accessories and get the best of both worlds.

    One of my personal style icons is a friend of mine who is/was FtM transgendered. She’s not sure that’s so at this point, but the years she spent planning to transition and trying to pass as male had the inadvertent effect of making her the androgynous style god. She’s got incredibly good taste to start with, and she incorporates things like vests and suspenders and biker boots into outfits I couldn’t even imagine in the first place. I am totally sold on the idea thanks to her. It’s a fantastic look and you can do so much with it, and it can really allow for some serious self-expression. I associate androgynous dressing with being a whole person because of her, in large part; being comfortable doing that meant she was comfortable with showing the world who she is. It was really important in addition to looking fabulous.

    I wouldn’t say I’ve ever dressed androgynously, but plain? Yes. Crew-neck t-shirts and jeans year ’round were what I did until very recently, for the same reasons as you went for the baggies, Sal. The jeans might have been cut for ladies, but I can’t say as the whole look said anything but “Meh. Direct your attentions elsewhere.” And people did. And that actually kind of sucked. So here I am, learning to wear dresses and finding out they work better than I ever thought they would. I’ll never give up my jeans and t-shirts, but I am okay with them not making up 100% of my daily wardrobe.

  • Thank you for this post!
    Interesting that you used to equate “androgynous” with “bulky/shapeless”. Possibly, it’s a language thing, but the word “androgynous” became part of my English vocabulary quite late and still has “edgy” flair, as opposed to plain “men’s clothes” (which I wore a lot as teen/young adult).

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about androgyny in dress lately. I must say that most of my style related fetishes come from menswear (cuff links, pocket squares, bow-ties, oxford shirts and brogues, kilts, trouser suits – you name it) and only two absolutely female objects (pointed-toe shoes and flared skirts). Every spring I’m very strongly drawn to menswear inspired outfits, except for this year. The difference is: I got a rather short haircut for the first time in about 12 years. And I discovered that I struggle with my typical closet staples and come back to you page (and a couple other, expressly feminine style bloggers) more and more to looks for inspiration and regain. Still not quite there yet:) (Here are the before and after pics, if you’re curious: http://lj.julymonday.net/looks/IMG_7758.jpg,/ http://lj.julymonday.net/looks/IMG_7770.jpg)

    (Surely, this comment turned out to be about me and not your original topic – my apologies, free associations method definitely takes me into offtopic land very fast)

  • What Irene said! Marlena! Katherine Hepburn, androgyny can be really really sexy. In a way I think it is providing a counterpoint to your obvious femininity, and in a way makes it more obvious.

    • pope suburban

      Oh, and let us not forget Tilda Swinton. She rocks the androgynous look so, so well, both in the movies and just kicking around town.

  • I am, and always have been, drawn to more gender-neutral styles. I wear my fair share of dresses and skirts and heels, but never feel more comfortable, sexy, and confident than I do in jeans, oxfords, and a sweater. I did go through a phase when I tried to cover myself up to hide a body that I hated, but it was more about the size and shape of the clothing than the style, so I never really associated androgynous style with that phase of my life (though I could never bring myself now to wear men’s boardshorts and layered tees…).

    To me, androgyny is incredibly sexy, and it’s as much about politically reclaiming images of female sexuality, in traditionally un-feminine forms, as it is about comfort and style. As a woman with short hair, a rectangular shape, and a somewhat gender-neutral style, I still find myself to be beautiful, feminine, and utterly stylish. 🙂

    Fabulous post, Sal.

  • Mona

    Thank you for this post. I also grew up in the age before the fitted T-Shirt before women, and it took me a long time to accept myself as already pretty. I never really fit in and did not dare to wear popular things. Looking back at photos I did dress oddly – cigarette pants, 90’s blazers, almost proto-hipster, and I will gladly ignore my vest over T-shirt period (not the edgy version, the awkward one). Based on my body shape it never looked androgynous despite the “meanswear”. Now I dress as a “girly-girl” according to my friends, and just as you I would be hesitant to go back to things I wore when not confident. On the other hand, the confidence gained over the years should allow me to try out everything I would like to, but I still like to play it safe, and still do not wear jewelry or nail polish, as I feel it is too feminine for me. Do you think the current availability of very feminine clothing affects your view back? Even the over-knee stocking craze of the late 90s (that I did not dare trying) was much less sexy then current teen clothing, where everything seems to be a mini dress. Question: Is it a good thing that it is harder to hide in oversized/androgynous clothing for teenage girls today?

    • “Is it a good thing that it is harder to hide in oversized/androgynous clothing for teenage girls today?”

      No.

      To qualify that, I’m 22 and spent my teenage years feeling alienated by fashion because everything seemed designed to show off my body. At times I would shop in the mens’ or boys’ departments, not out of a wish to look androgynous, but because those were the only places I could find a sweater that didn’t cling to every curve, or shorts with more than a 3″ inseam. At 16, I skipped the end-of-year school dance (prom equivalent) because I wasn’t confident enough to wear an evening dress. The irony is that I love style and find traditionally feminine aesthetics very appealing, yet I’ve spent most of the last decade in baggy sweaters and jeans.

      There is tremendous pressure on teenage girls to a) look conventionally flawless and b) wear clothing that displays their bodies. In a culture where large segments of the popular media are dedicated to body-shaming women, it’s understandable that some girls choose to hide.

      • Mona

        Thank you for your reply, which is very insightful. I hope you did not think of my question offensive, I do understand the wish to hide. I am about a decade older than you, and some things have changed, others not so much. I do think there is a lot more pressure now to look “hot” at all times, but I wonder if every generation thinks that of one beforer. I grew up in Germany, which in some ways seems more laid back about appearance (e.g. most female TV announcers look relatively normal) and fashion tends to be more sensible/sporty, but there are other sorts of pressures (being tall, athletic ect.)

  • Anne

    I have always been a lover of the menswear look and I feel I still have a tomboy mentality, even if my wardrobe doesn’t lean that way as much any more. Androgynous, however, is not a label I would ever use to describe myself . I have taken some style cues from Kate and Audrey, as well as Lauren Bacall and Jackie O. These women, in my opinion, did a great job of blending the ease and crispness of menswear with their own brand of femininity.

    I think my own style took a more feminine turn after the birth of my second son (when I realized these new childbearing hips were just not going away) It ramped up some more after I cut my hair off.

    I may be completely wrong here but it’s my guess that an androgynous look is more popular with young women that those of us well acquainted with our 40’s and 50’s. It is a look that suits the young and willowy. I’m fully aware that my estrogen is taking a nose dive and I’m not sure if I want my fashion choices to back that up.

  • MJ

    As others have alluded to, I think there are different ways to do androgyny or more menswear inspired looks. I’d look like a total dork in a grunge look but I love a pair of trousers with a button up & vest with some loafers.
    I do struggle with my non-waif body which society would tell me does not lend itself to androgyny but I think I can do it with more of a Hepburn vibe. And that’s awesome.

  • Rad

    I dress why quite a bit of “tomboy” influences. (There’s a great blog on my blogroll called “Tomboy style.” It’s a bit preppy, but I enjoy the looks). I feel like that’s my M.O., and that I dabble in more retro and feminine looks for fun. However, simple, classic menswear influence and comfortable but chic looks are my ideal.
    I think there is a big difference to embracing oversized, baggy, and sexless dressing of the 1990s to style, masculine influence chic outfits that I imagine you’d wear today. Like a vest, fitted white shirt, menswear fabric pencil skirt, wingtip heels, and suspenders. Very Sally Bowles, very feminine yet masculine. Or perhaps a small men’s shirt, tucked into slender cut ankle pants, worn with dainty ballet flats. A Mr. Rogers cardigan, scarf, and a straight cut mini-skirt with boots. It’s the unexpected combinations that interest me most.

  • I always associated androgyny with conservative, menswear-inspired silhouettes such as pants, oxford shirts, loafers, ties, blazers and the like. The body is covered up, tailored, flat and angular. For a woman, that included binding the breasts, slicking down hair and avoiding anything smacking of feminine overtones, including cosmetics and jewelry.

    Due to crippling issues with bad body image, I avoided dresses and skirts for years. I hated wearing clothes that accentuated my womanly shape, and typically stuck to jeans, flat shoes, baggy chinos and shapeless tops. I had dreams of losing enough weight to flatten my chest and vanquish my curves. Ideally, I wanted to look like a prepubescent child – straight up and down. Looking back, I realize now that I was indeed embracing an androgynous style.

    Now that I’m in recovery, I find myself reaching for skirts and dresses A LOT. In fact, I hate wearing jeans. I abhor shapeless silhouettes. I can only blame my increased body confidence for this.

    Perhaps, once I feel solidly recovered, I’ll incorporate androgynous elements back into my wardrobe. It’d be nice to be able to embrace all kinds of looks, without any manifestations of insecurity and discomfort.

  • Anna

    I have until recently always been a pants person. Being very tall and having slender, boyish hips has made me feel at home in all sorts of skinny pants. I would not call the look androgynous because even if I have stayed away from girly tops I have often wore simple v-neck sweaters that show off my cleavage in combination with long hair and a pearl necklace. The individual clothing items could just as well have fitted a man but the boobs, hair and jewelry made it feminine. I am on a mission to start learning to wear skirts and dresses but I find I am drawn to simple designs in bold colors or pencil skirts in neutral colors. I have always felt very feminine but I am not at ease with anything cute or girly, it needs to be more of the bold and sexy.

  • Wow, what an epiphany that must’ve been! I always wondered why you steered so wide of androgynous looks for yourself, even though you’ve often complimented mine, and even though I think you could wear them with panache yourself. I think androgynous dressing has come a LONG way since the 90’s, and also, I feel like many of those looks were more gender-neutral and asexual, rather than a playful appropriation of menswear by women. Does that make sense? Women wearing a traditional man’s items like a tie strikes me as somehow different than shapeless garments designed to hide all traces of ANY gender.

    • I totally agree with this point about 90s dressing. I used to wear this stuff also and there was a huge difference between that and when I was purposefully dressing “like a guy”.

  • When I was young, and quite feminine in silhouette, I loved to dress in a slightly androgynous manner. Now, as I age, and my waistline is so much less defined, I find I add more traditional feminine details. It’s about comfort in one’s identity, I believe, however that manifests. There’s a certain balance I’m happy with – as my body changes so do my clothes.

    I completely understand your feelings about all this.

  • rb

    I have the same visceral reaction as you to even the thought of androgynous dressing. But I don’t come from a past of having dressed that way, at all. I was one of those little girls who only wore dresses, and I grew up the same. The only period of my life where I regularly wore jeans was in high school, and they were anything but androgynous. I grew up in the era of skin-tight “designer” jeans, where it was considered a proper fit only if you had to lie down to be able to zip them up.

    I think I don’t like the idea of dressing androgynously because I’m tall and somewhat broad. I don’t want to be mistaken for a man. 🙂

  • I 2nd, (3rd or 4th?) the feeling that androgynous clothing (fedora, vest, wide leg slacks) can look and feel “costumey” so I’ve avoided it over the years. That being said, I thought that androgynous dressing encompasses all clothing that’s gender neutral. In that sense jeans and tees with oxfords would count as androgynous and I feel totally comfortable in an outfit like that. I still feel attractive as long as my clothes fit and aren’t baggy. My hair, make-up and boobage make it clear that I’m a girl (which is an image I like to project) so I don’t feel weird at all. I would, however, feel goofy in a suit with tie. I think there are plenty of women that can pull it off stunningly, but it’s never been my thing.

    Being a chubby, unpopular, sci-fi reader as a child meant that I too hid in big t-shirts and jeans. I think my biggest issue now is that I hate wearing jeans with tennis shoes and/or an over-sized shirt. It’s less to do with androgyny as it is an avoidance of hiding and looking frumpy like I know I used to. If I HAVE to wear something like that (Fridays at work we are REQUIRED to wear a hideous ill-fitting polo with jeans) I feel uncomfortable all day.

  • hm i think i have some defensiveness about androgynous clothing too…i don’t think i ever wore it, really, because as some others say it doesn’t suit my body. but i do have some feminist issues with it too, as in, i think if i dressed androgynously i would be rejecting the feminine as less valuable. i know there are lots of ways to look at that, and great, sexy, feminine icons with androgynous style such as Marlene. i also know some androgynous dressers feel they do so for feminist reasons as well, rejecting the patriarchal boxes traditional feminine clothing can put women into. and there is definitely something to that.

    just for me, though, i have always been interesting in never hiding or disguising the fact that i am a woman, and demanding respect nevertheless. i think that is why i resist androgynous clothing – i would feel like i was giving into the idea that something is better because it is masculine. just my opinion though, and i don’t necessarily project that idea onto others who dress androgynously (at least i hope i don’t).

    • Sal

      Anna, what an interesting perspective. I think I’ve heard the opposite more often: That dressing in an overtly femme manner can be construed as bowing to patriarchal notions of what womanhood looks like. (As you mentioned.) I love your take on it! I think dressing androgynously can have a myriad of implications and be driven by infinite philosophies, but I’d never considered that avoiding androgyny might be a proud declaration of powerful femininity.

      • thanks Sal! there is a book that made me very thoughtful on this issue, the whole issue of feminism and fashion really, called Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism. i don’t think i quite buy everything she says, but if you are ever interested, it was a really good read!

  • Tennessee Williams believed that androgyny was the highest form of human beauty, something my husband joke about together. He, with his slight frame, delicate features and long fair hair (his, his sister, and all of his cousins grew their hair in childhood to make wigs for an aunt rendered bald by a childhood scalping – by machine) and I, with my tomboy ways and short pixie cut, were both mistaken for the opposite gender as children. It’s an old tender sensitivity that I think makes our union all the more perfect for being shared.

    That said, I’m a pretty feminine dresser for the professional world and a casual tomboy on the weekends, or when university isn’t in session, though my “feminine” wardrobe also includes beloved and much-worn wingtips, fedoras, vests, and other garments that usually are earmarked “masculine” or at least for the “tomboy.” Nevertheless, most folks who only know one side of me literally can’t fathom the other, which I find interesting – and I never really bother to think about it much any more. And neither self is more “me” than the other, really: the feminine dresser is the side of me that likes fashion, especially romantic fashion, and the tomboy is my casual self, the person I am when I’m not thinking about who I am, and probably me at my most comfortable, if only because I don’t feel that my activities are in any way limited by my clothes – I can climb a tree, dig in the garden, or get down on my hands and knees and scrub a floor without needing to change (and I like physical labour, if that isn’t coming through, so there’s a lot of all of these activities when I’m in “free time”).

  • I like the idea of it and I wish I pulled it off more often. The trick is the fit – usually clothes that are androg or butch are fitted for men’s bodies (or at least straight up/down bodies, not curves). I used to dress primarily in little boys’ clothes when I first came out as queer (where gender presentation was more important than actually dressing well) and even then I had to hunt and peck to find things that fit – often wearing a sportsbra.

    You might want to check out Dapper Q if you’re doing to do a post on androg dressing; I think they’re a good resource: http://www.dapperq.com/

  • Cel

    I recently found an old photo of myself, from back when I was 15. I’m wearing jeans and a band t-shirt, and I still wore glasses back then. I was shocked. I had completely forgotten what I looked like. Now I KNOW I had breasts back then, considerably large breasts. And yet you cannot tell AT ALL in this photo. I showed it to some friends and they all said I looked like a pudgy boy (not meant in a mean way, and I agreed!) I actually find that, now, on myself, androgynous dressing is just not good. It’s hiding all the parts of me that I have come to love, and I don’t want to go through that all over again. Maybe we have a bit of the same fear? I’ve only just started learning to love myself though, maybe a ways down the line I’ll have time for androgyny again.

  • I rarely dress androgynously, but that’s because the women’s stuff is cut differently from the men’s and I find it unattractive on me. Just not something I’m comfortable in. I do feel like it makes me look butch because I have a somewhat masculine look anyway.

    HOWEVER. I love wearing actual men’s clothes. It’s pretty much a direct link to my sexy self. I particularly like to wear head to toe men’s casual — t-shirt, jeans, even underwear. It feels powerful….and forbidden. And infinitely sexier than heels. I’ve never gone out of the house dressed this way, though, mainly because I don’t want to get beaten up. I live in a relatively wealthy suburb and they’re all about conformity. I get enough raised eyebrows when I wear a Misfits t-shirt.

  • Most of the time I wear jeans, t-shirts and Converse high-tops, so I suppose that counts. I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to up my game, particularly at work. The main reason I started reading fashion blogs is that I don’t have good instincts about what kinds of feminine clothes to buy and wear.

  • I have played with androgyny in my adult life. Twice I have shaved my head–a #4 buzz and enjoyed immensely being mistaken for a male. To me, the key is what one wants to DO in the clothing they wear. For most of my adult life, jeans and a t have been the default. I celebrate the fact that women apparently have more choice in clothing and it is simply fun to play with presentation.

    As for the difference between androgyny and butch–it is in the way one carries themselves and not in the clothing at all.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, Sal! Thank you for posting this. (Long time reader, first time commenter.)

    For me, andogynous clothing = SEX.

    Why? Well, after reading your insightful post, I’m pretty sure it’s because a) I wore androgynous clothing as a teenager and b) I was more highly sexed as a teenager.

    I loved the way the baggy jeans hung off my hips. I loved the way the loose plaid buttondowns moved with me. I loved the way my boobs looked in I loved the strength and command of wearing the clompy Doc Marten’s… like I could cock my head at a guy, smile, and he’d be putty in my hands.

    (That was on the GOOD days, of course. And, naturally, I caked my lips in dark brown/burgundy lipstick. Le sigh. Also, I was big-time into Kung Fu, where I got to spar with hot boys all the time… so the clothes-you-can-move-in=SEX thing made a lot of sense.)

    So… now that I’ve *ahem* fleshed out and I can’t really wear, I can’t really wear androgyous clothing like I used to. I’ve learned to walk in heels, and am doing my best to embrace my inner Joan… but my god, I envy my thin friends who can really rock the slacks and white buttondowns..

  • I think we’re around the same age – since I also experienced the baggy clothes of the 90s! I think of that more as grunge than androgynous 😉 I actually feel most comfortable in somewhat androgynous looks. I love dresses and simple skirts for their comfort and ease in the warmer months, but the looks that I really love are flat shoes or boots, with fitted bottoms, a jacket and a tee that covers up my cleavage. Those are the kind of clothes that make me forget about my clothes, in the best possible way, know what I mean?

  • I came to admire Margaret Howell and menswear-inspired clothing sort of early on, feeling that the clean, androgynous look was the best thing for a skinny, flat-chested girl. Since I was boyish, I figured that boyish styles would suit me the best. I am still drawn to androgynous looks even if my personal style has become a lot more experimental, feminine and more-is-more. I think I see androgynous clothing as some kind of a back-up these days. I would go as far as to say that androgyny is the skeleton of my personal style, even if most people can’t see it. It’s the stuff I wore when I became aware of my own unique beauty, it is the stuff I wore when I learned to love my figure.

  • As a girl who really considers herself “one of the boys” (I played soccer and rugby in college, had a really short Audrey Hepburn haircut and have always been thin — aka small boobs) I know that there were times my dress choice was questioned especially because I really dig menswear influenced clothing. I own a ton of boy-blazers, literally men’s jackets and not the ones cut to fit women, men’s jeans and trousers, and other accessories like hats, ties, watches…

    I’ve since grown my hair out and started dressing in a more feminine way but will still incorporate pieces into my otherwise very girly look. I wore a pair of men’s J.Crew khakis on this post of my blog:

    http://thebitchlorette.net/?p=55

  • Glamdoc

    Here in Scandinavia the androgynous thing is huge. The combo fedoras, long slouchy blazers, tight pants, statement necklace or bangles and heels or oxford flats is everywhere. I find that this looks better on taller, more streamlined girls than on me, since I´m 5´3 and have a very feminine shape. I wish I could ´own´ that type of outfit, but what dawned on me would be perfect for me is this: wide, straight legged pants, fitted white shirt that nips in at the waist with top three buttons open, and perhaps a fitted vest.

    Androgynous dressing (=hiding) in my early teens rings so true for me as well. Am grateful I´ll never have to go through those years ever again.

    On a different note; I wish wearing a TIE wasnt´s so obvious, bec I love to wear one and used to have a few that I hardly ever dared to wear. In med school all exams were oral, and we had to dress up, so one time I wore the above (wide straight pants that hugged my bum a bit, white shirt), but with a tie. And boy did that get me lots and lots of (partially) unwanted attention. This was in the first year of school, and graduating 6 years later the guys in my class still reminisced about that outfit. Perhaps tight shirt and a tie is just too Playboy.

  • This resonated big time for me. Hopefully this will make sense…

    I can’t remember being a particularly girly. I lived on a farm, wore hand-me down trousers (my father’s) or grey work jeans (boys), flannel shirts and elastic sided work boots. I had short hair and was mistaken for a boy at cattle shows. I wore a dress to my high school formal and had no idea about all the grooming ritual – like shaving, makeup, hair. I must have felt terribly awkward. I also had a brother who ran me down – stupid and ugly, according to him. That’s an internal voice I keep working on stilling.

    I went to uni (“dumb, huh? I’ll show you”), graduated, have held down steady jobs for over 24 years. 2 long term boyfriends, one husband (together 13 years) and finally accepting I’m attractive.

    BUT. I’ve also spent most of those years in jeans, a lot of it dressed to hide. Not just my body (if you aren’t seen as attractive, you’re less likely to be abused),but also my self. Some of that has surfaced in long, stifling bouts of black depression.

    Is there a point to this ramble? Possibly just that clothing can be armour. What we put that armour on against is very personal. Sometimes clothing is just that – practical, got to get out in public and not get arrested for indecency/scaring the horses. And sometimes it’s a celebration of who we are and how we feel.

    But aside from all that – thanks so much for this blog. It’s made me think, helped me challenge myself and helped me find pleasure in caring for myself.

  • Nikki

    I like androgynous style. I’m not going to say I love it or hate it but I do like being able to mix it into my wardrobe. One of my favorite outfits to wear to work is a pair of black dress pants with a button front collared shirt and black vest with black shoes. To top it all off, I wear one of my husband’s ties (which he has to tie for me because I don’t know how) which I obviously keep underneath the vest. This way I feel very womanly because of my more form fitting vest but the tie gives it an androgynous feel to it that I enjoy. I’ve learned to treat them as accessories, not sex specific clothing.

  • Anne

    There is always something androgynous in my style. If nothing else, it’s the poise (and short hair). It feels masculine to me. Usually, the more androgynous I’m dressed (or even straight *ahem* out dressed as a man, moustache and all), the sexier I feel. I feel more wholly me when I’m a step boywards in my style. When wearing pants (and flats) I almost invariably also walk like a man.

  • Fascinating and deeply personal post. I commend you for your introspection and self-awareness. You prove the point that how we dress is incredibly important to our identity and view of ourselves. Which makes fashion-blogs more relevant than ever.

  • Oddball

    Everyone has a different definition for androgeny, tomboyish or as I’ve been referred to even though I am straight, lesbian (!) attire these days. Since my hair is down to my butt it isn’t hard for me to wear a fedora or my dad’s leather cowboy hat with flat motorcycle or vintage military boot styles and jeans. Makeup always keeps me from looking too boyish but short hair looks horrible on me and I couldn’t go head to toe Victor/Victoria without Julie Andrew’s voice and cheekbones to keep from looking frumpy. Frilly, flowery stuff just isn’t comfortable anymore and I don’t really like to wear the girly things so much. Baggy, unflattering pants and shirts that aren’t somewhat fitted just look sloppy to me rather than androgynous- Marlene Dietrich really made menswear look so classy and glamorous.

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  • Mabel

    Even though I was born male btwn the legs/ fmle between the ears I love to dress to the edge. little eyeshadow, gloss baggy womans t slip panties and thighhighs. very cozy, hair well I cant do much with it. Hate mens underwear, love frilly dresses and heels. Its a state of mind really

  • Ronnie

    I L O V E androgyny. I simply adore it. It makes me feel stronger and more capable I guess. But but yeah… I need it in my style. Finally got some money and I went out and bought camo print skinny jeans and a couple neutral coloured muscle tees. My form of androgynous counts on items that are girls in one way and tomboyish in others. I wear glittery pink skate shoes. My other pair of shoes is a wedge sneakers, the only jewellery I even own are earrings and I won’t wear my skirt without my leather motorcycle styled jacket. I have a pixie crop. Hell I even sit like a boy most the time. My style simply would not be my style without a hell of a lot of androgyny paired with a splash of girlieness. Also as for makeup, I like creating a flawless finish to my skin, nude lips mascara and the lightest most subtle eyeshadow I can find. When I dressed up for a fancy school dress I refused to do anything with my then long hair and begged mom not to make me wear makeup. When I was a kid I sometimes wore my brothers old clothes. My take on androgyny is not formless baggy clothes. Boyish cuts with girly accents colors or prints and boyish patterns and colors etc on a classically girly silhouette or simply gender neutral type styles. Oh and throw in the odd girly item here and there :p