,,,and how dresses became a form of self-expression
I excitedly told my friend that I got a dress in preparation for my summer job. She tagged along with me to the mall as I searched for tights to make my dress office-appropriate.
“How do you purchase tights?” she asked me.
I told her that I had no idea as it was my first time purchasing skin-toned tights for a dress. I had no skirts or dresses among the business clothes I owned. I always wore trousers for conferences and past office jobs.
She inquired why this was so. Her question made me think.
I’ve thought about it. My answer is that I have since learnt that it is alright to express both my femininity and masculinity however I like, for expressing any point or end of the gender spectrum does not compromise who I am.
I disliked wearing dresses throughout my teenage years. I believe that I found them too feminine. My refusal to express femininity began towards the end of elementary school, when I began to disregard practices often considered feminine, including the concern for clothes and appearances.
When I was about eleven, I began heavily leaning on a particular sweater that my mum got for me. I wore it so frequently that one of my uncles thought that my mum was spoiling my brother and ignoring me, as my brother had a vast array of clothing, whereas I always showed up to family functions in the same green sweater. Afterwards (months or years, I cannot recall), my mother pleaded with me to at least wear a few other items for her sake.
I started tying back my hair in a low ponytail from that age as well. By many people’s measures, the look was not flattering, especially as I had started wearing glasses recently as well. I began to look like the stereotype of a studious bookworm. I carried on with this appearance throughout most of my high school years.
Alongside rejecting feminine practices of maintaining the appearance of many girls my age, I rejected the most undeniably feminine articles of clothing: skirts and dresses. For almost every special occasion in those years from age eleven to seventeen, I donned trousers.
My rejection of what most girls my age did with their hair or wore was purposeful. I was well aware that doing this marked me as different. Family members and peers alike had suggested that I ought to wear more feminine clothing sometimes or be more feminine. I proceeded with my hair in a ponytail, classic-framed glasses, and trousers despite their remarks.
The painful part of recalling my memories on this subject is that I recall the sadness that I experienced. Part of this sadness was a result of the suggestions of others to be more feminine. It was frustrating when someone, a female cousin my age who was by all looks feminine or a male classmate of mine, suggested that I ought to do something (feminine) that I didn’t feel comfortable with.
At the same time, part of my sadness was from my own disappointed hopes. I would also dream of wearing dresses and being girly. I dreamed of high school debuts and finding romance. I looked enviously at my female classmates who showed their beautifully slim legs when they wore shorts, while I wore longer bermuda shorts and capris. I thought that dresses with lace detailing around the neckline were beautiful. I spent hours poring over pages of dresses like these online in preparation for events in my high school graduation year. I watched hours of beauty guru videos on makeup and hair, without trying out anything that I saw.
I chose not to realize these desires to express femininity because I was afraid of people making a big deal out of my change. I was afraid that expressing femininity would risk the identity I had presented. For as long as teenage me could remember, I believed that I was known for being sensible, with my hair perpetually tied back and with my disinterest in shopping. Suddenly appearing in a dress or even changing my haircut would signal some significant change about me and my priorities.
The few rare occasions where I did wear a dress or skirt confirmed my expectations about the reactions of those around me. People remarked on the change. The remarks were all compliments, but that didn’t matter in my head to me. What mattered is that people noticed that I was not myself. Being feminine had disrupted their sense of me.
Worse still, I internally felt very much like what others observed about my exterior: that “you’re not yourself.” Each time I wore a dress or skirt, I felt like I wasn’t myself in not a particularly great way. I had fun on those occasions, but I subsequently wore those dresses perhaps once or twice more. My discontinuation of wearing feminine clothing reflected my discomfort with being disassociated with my identity, which I had built upon a rejection of femininity.
I think that understanding that it is alright to express my masculinity and femininity however I like, rather than to attempt to meet expectations of others, is how I stopped rejecting dresses and skirts.
A few years ago, I learnt that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary. This helped me embrace my discomfort with dresses and know that it is alright to prefer trousers.
Still, I shied away from dresses. I adopted make-up and heels, even on casual occasions, but only to build a clean, simple look with an edge. I was still hesitant about expressing a greater degree of femininity in my appearance.
That is why purchasing a dress for work in this almost decade-long period of refusing dresses is a big difference. This movement towards more feminine clothing accompanies other recent increases in feminine practices. In contrast to the how I have not put on more make-up products than eyeliner and face products in the past years, the past few weeks have proven quite different. I have been spending time on one odd day or two every week doing my hair and make up. I have used my flat iron, which I have owned for five years, more times in the past few weeks to curl my hair than I have ever curled my hair ever in my life. I have whipped out the makeup guru cult-status Urban Decay Naked2 eyeshadow palette that I got three years ago (probably expired – don’t do this at home, readers) and used it almost every week this past month. That’s an exponential growth in use as I’ve probably used it the same number of times in the past three years.
A Queer Eye episode has helped me articulate why I am more voluntarily presenting my femininity lately. In the episode, the Fab Five assist a gay man, who hesitated wearing more “feminine” clothes for fear of being associated as being gay. They offer advice and reassurance that it is alright to dress however you like on the gender spectrum. The message they convey to the client is that dressing yourself to feel and present your best, genuine self is what’s important; rather than dressing to protect yourself from what you think that others may think of you.
In essence, I feel now that expressing my femininity does not risk my identity. Thus, from understanding that it is alright to not express femininity though I am a woman, I have evolved to knowing that it alright to present myself as sometimes feminine if I so choose. Without this fear of how others’ perceptions of me will change, I feel more liberated to express all sorts of me. I wear dresses when I want. I do my hair when I want. I practice my eyeshadow when I want. I put on bright red lipstick or a subdued matte shade like an Instagram influencer. I do all this even when I have no one to see or when I have people to see; because I want to.
The same me will also spend hours looking at Vagabond shoes (not a paid endorsement) because I adore the masculine shapes they put into shoes sized for women. For a presentation in class, I will adopt a trend donned by K-pop male singers of wearing a turtleneck under a partially-buttoned blouse, all atop a smart pair of trousers.
I will express myself in feminine and masculine ways because I want to. I have purchased a dress for work because I want to explore what styling options I get with a dress. And most importantly of all, I purchased it because I can feel like my own self in that dress.
A big shoutout and thank you to the friend whose question about why I haven’t worn dresses prompted this post. She’s always been a dedicated reader and supporter of this blog. She has provided the inspiration for several of my recent posts – she’s the same friend who got me thinking about why I feel that I am not ready for a relationship. I am grateful for her thought provoking questions. Not only do they get me thinking, her questions show that she’s a very thoughtful and curious person who is genuinely interested in the things that I do. Sending you love, you know who.