For me, it all started with boys’ jeans in junior high. Guess jeans were all the rage—the really tight ones with the zippered legs, which looked great on the average girl. But on me, already towering above my classmates in elementary school, they looked, I was told repeatedly, like high waters. Where’s the flood? I was asked one billion times.
To compensate, I wore double socks—convenient, as they were also horribly in fashion—to make up the difference. But on me this looked as if I were wearing leg warmers at all times, which for a majority of humid months in the South is cause for even greater hilarity. All this sent me to the boy’s section at the department store, where Levi’s beckoned, mercifully, in actual measurements that meant something reliable on your body. You could get long jeans. In 34 length. That fit.
OK, so they didn’t fit, per se. They were baggy in all the wrong places. I was scrawny in all the wrong places. I swam in them. But they were long, by god, and it was love at first concept, the idea of jeans so faithful to the entire length of my leg that they scraped along the concrete floor, catching dirt, tearing at the hem, and looking authentically lived in. I almost never took them off.
Next up, white undershirts, the thin, clingy business man’s t-shirt in packs of six. I could never decide how much my attraction for jeans and white t-shirts was about wanting to actually be a boy—something I entertained in daydreams often in adolescence—or simply about being enamored of how comfortable they seemed in their skin. Either way, this was my uniform for a long time, one of the few solutions I mastered in real time to the complications of adolescent identity.
Turns out, it was also a uniform of social change. In a history of unisex fashion at The Atlantic, fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman Campbell traces gender-neutral clothing’s rise alongside social change in the 20th century, from a visual symbol in the culture wars to a ubiquitous presence in modern fashion. She writes:
As Freud put it: “When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty.” Had Freud lived through the 20th century instead of the 19th, he might have had good cause for hesitation. In an era when gender norms—and many other norms—were being questioned and dismantled, unisex clothing was the uniform of choice for soldiers in the culture wars.
In her new book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, the University of Maryland professor Jo Paoletti revisits the unisex trend, a pillar of second-wave feminism whose influence still resonates today. As Paoletti tells it, unisex clothing was a baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to the perplexing new roles imposed on men and women alike by World War II. The term “gender” began to be used to describe the social and cultural aspects of biological sex in the 1950s—a tacit acknowledgement that one’s sex and one’s gender might not match up neatly. The unisex clothing of the 1960s and 70s aspired “to blur or cross gender lines”; ultimately, however, it delivered “uniformity with a masculine tilt,” and fashion’s brief flirtation with gender neutrality led to a “stylistic whiplash” of more obviously gendered clothing for women and children beginning in the 1980s.
In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s in the deep South, though I got all manner of comments about my freakishness from classmates, I certainly didn’t consciously understand yet that I was gender-bending. My body was giving way to a transformation of sprawling height and unavoidable breasts and all their attendant complications, and all I knew was that I had to act fast to contain it. All I also knew was that I felt more at ease in these clothes than I had in all the matching skirt and blouse sets my grandmother sewed for me herself.
It wasn’t that I didn’t identify as female or even heterosexual. I just didn’t know what being a girl meant for me yet aesthetically, and often still don’t. My classmates wore predictably feminine clothing and accessories—dresses, ribbons, headbands, earrings, make up—and looked effortlessly natural and beautiful, doing it. I wore black eyeliner and black bras underneath the thin white t-shirts, much to my mother’s embarrassment, not to mention the discomfort of frequent junior high rumors about my alleged sexual willingness. (Remember? Black underwear means you’re sexually active.)
I blame all this mostly on getting boobs early. I liked and was curious about boys, but the presence of my boobs in the eighth grade brought far too much unwanted attention to my body. And the sexy, feminine clothing at the local mall—Wet Seal, 5-7-9—existed solely to advertise these attributes. Blouses that looked delicate and chic on more flat-chested women looked like blinking neon signs on me. Yes, I’m aware women with large breasts can be stylish and feminine—everything Joan Holloway wears on Mad Men looks incredible, but on me, it feels like a bullhorn in a church.
I also can’t stand any traditional feminine adornment—no earrings, no necklaces, and only on occasion a watch. I wear makeup but lipstick feels freakishly clownish to me. I’m not sure why I have such an aversion to classic femininity. I think it looks enchanting on other women. But I recoil at my own image and feel instantly overdressed when I’m the one wearing it.
In college in the ’90s, I was blessed with thrift stores full of ’70s castoffs against a backdrop of grunge, so no one cared what anyone wore, much less if it were appropriately feminine. This is where I found ribbed turtlenecks and men’s flat-front khakis, a clear winner to me over the obviously sexy (for the time) baby doll dresses and chokers. I had a rotating system of khakis and turtlenecks I wore for years, replacing them until they died out of thrift stores in the 2000s. My one explicitly feminine allowance has always been long peasant or A-line skirts, often in black or brown or maroon, worn with a tank top. Nothing too flashy.
Though all this anti effort was no doubt a way to minimize my femininity or the possibility of being acknowledged as a sexual being, it never exactly gave me the cloak of invisibility I often wanted it to, a contradiction Chrisman-Campbell notes in her Atlantic piece:
Although unisex clothing aimed to minimize gender differences, it usually had the opposite effect. As Paoletti writes, “part of the appeal of adult unisex fashion was the sexy contrast between the wearer and the clothes, which actually called attention to the male or female body.” Take the costumes fashion designer Rudi Gernreich—inventor of the monokini and the unisex thong—created for the 1975-77 television series Space: 1999. Gernreich envisioned 1999 as a gender-neutral utopia of jumpsuits, turtlenecks, and tunics. While technically unisex, these tight-fitting costumes made the wearer’s sex glaringly obvious, and they retained traditional gender markers such as bras, makeup, and jewelry for women.
Today I go for what Paoletti terms a sexier androgyny, or clothes that “combine masculine and feminine elements.” A turtleneck with formfitting pants and flats, a la Audrey Hepburn. Skinny jeans with v-neck sweaters. (Needless to say, I can’t wear heels, and continue to refuse to learn.) I also like cardigans, boyfriend jeans, bulky sweaters, and anything else that says hey, I know I’ve got boobs and stuff, but you don’t have to notice that immediately, ’k?
That said: Wouldn’t be caught dead in a poncho. Gotta draw the line somewhere.
Image via the Atlantic.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.