More femme, please
October 23, 2012 9:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I build confidence to incorporate more femme elements into my gender presentation as a young straight(ish) man?

When I was younger (15-19) I would buy blouses and other androgynous kinds of clothes, wear eyeliner, etc. just because I wanted to and it felt good. In college, I took the opportunity to wear my friend's dresses during a few drunken nights out. It probably came across costumey/boundary-crossing for its own sake. But I loves those articles of clothing- dresses are rad and I like wearing ones that suit me more than bland dude clothes.

I was always kind of hoping my style would come together around dresses and the like but I found myself presenting more and more as straight up male. Partly this was due to a rejection of a culture I perceived as oppressively hipster. I liked having a simple style because it focused less attention on myself, or so I told myself. My friends were quite traditionally straight guys, and perhaps I moved closer to the mean.

Now I'm a couple of years out of school and have put progressively less and less energy into clothes. But I can't help feeling this sublte desire to be more feminine. I feel like I'm playing as myself when I'm being too outwardly dudeish. I think back to the liberation I felt with a pretty, smart sundress and feel no equivalent today. I had a small moment of intense happiness today and one thought that immediately followed it was "I want to buy feather earrings!" Then some part of me got angry at the thought, and then I was bummed out.

I would love to hear from anyone who found themselves further away from the gender presentation they intended. How can I move closer to where I want to be while dealing with self-critiques like "you're being self absorbed, people will treat this like a fad and write you off as fickle, there's going to be wide consequences, etc." ?
posted by elephantsvanish to Human Relations (17 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a "sexually fluid" woman. Early in life I was a tomboy, then I went "chapstick lesbian" femme, then I went butch, then I went full-on femme.

In each transformation, I just had to go for it. I had to do it on a regular basis before I could get over the peacocking aspect of it, and get to a place where I was displaying my regular personality underneath my presentation. I think even for girls who are late bloomers and start getting into makeup/clothes later in life, this is true.

I know a lot of guys who aggressively hate hipsters or pretty boys and it has always seemed to me like a deeper element of self-loathing or fear of exactly what you're describing. They don't want to be seen as frilly or unmasculine, they want to be seen as solid, rational, dependable people. Have you spent much time reading or listening or watching stuff by other people who have a non-conventional(?) gender presentation? I think deep down what scares us is the fear that the stereotypes, the sexism and homophobia and everything else that some people say about other people is true, and that we really will become less substantial when we start embracing these parts of ourselves. Knowing there are people in the world who feel the same as you and whom you also really respect helps overtake that.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:54 PM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with stoneandstar. Have you seen the stand-up comic Eddie Izzard? He addresses this, he's hysterical, cool, and hot (I'm a straight girl). He's definitely not a hipster (or pretty!). I think he has a point about "professional transvestite" - about things looking well kept, well tailored, smart - and feminine, vs. hipster dudes in clothes from the junior girls' dpt. Meanwhile, tons of women think Johnny Depp is hot... and I don't 'cause he's too pretty/femme looking. It takes all kinds.

Maybe ease into it? Give the people who know you (and yourself) a chance to adjust to things a little at a time? Kilts, U-Til-A Kilts, pretty flowered men's cowboy shirts... tinted chapstick etc. My husband wears one of my Thai wrap skirts - navy blue silk with gold elephants embroidered on it, so feminine article of clothing (skirt) but more masculine design (as opposed to a femme article of clothing AND femme design). Guys in skirts make total sense... I mean, airflow?! Right? =) It gets hot in summer! Oddly, he won't go for the flowered cowboy shirts, which *I* think are sexy. Go figure. A lot of Asian cultures have different ideas about gender, and more gender-neutral clothing too. Historical men's dress is also really interesting... much more decorated than today.

I like a lot of the clothes at Gaia Conceptionsbecause I like dresses but am not super girly (I'm taller than most dudes so... I have my own, albeit minor, issues). These will fit ANY body type too, so you're more likely to just look like a dude in a dress, rather than a dude in a GIRL'S dress. (I'm assuming you're headed for personal comfort, rather than trying to "pass".)

I think a lot of it is attitude too... if you just wear clothes (clothes you like) and don't make a big deal out it and aren't self absorbed etc... fewer people will care. What I hate about hipsters isn't their skinny jeans, it's the fact that they won't shut up about them and they're wearing them just 'cause everyone else is - not 'cause they genuinely like them or they're flattering.

Remember too, that in living memory all sorts of horrendous things were said about (gasp) women who wore pants! And now I wear them everyday - suits even! pinstriped ones! - and no one cares. It only seems fair =)

Good luck!
posted by jrobin276 at 11:53 PM on October 23, 2012

I'm a fairly stereotypically masculine straight guy, but I love skirts. Problem is, most skirts made for women have various garish details, like embroidered flowers or huge cartoonish buttons or something; my style is way more conservative than that (I love suits and vests and bowties). Also, women's skirts are often unduly restrictive, made more for highlighting feminine curves than allowing freedom of movement (of various kinds). But I do have a few skirts I wear on occasion. I live in Minnesota, so 2/3 of the year is not skirt weather, but I do what I can.

And I definitely have that pang of fear and shame when I walk around in public in a skirt. Can't help it. Everything in our society tells us that women are weak and dumb and bad, and that men who do things that women do are terrible. The fun of patriarchy. But I think that's one of the keys: recognize that the same broad social force preventing women from earning as much as men is what's keeping you from comfortably wearing a dress in public. It's certainly more scary and oppressive that way, but also much more impersonal and comprehensible. At worst, if someone gives you crap about it, you can start explaining patriarchy to them until their eyes glaze over and they leave you alone.
posted by cthuljew at 2:15 AM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Everything in our society tells us that women are weak and dumb and bad, and that men who do things that women do are terrible.

I came back to say this (though much less elegantly). The reason we pathologize "feminine" things as vain and stupid is persistent misogyny. I totally agree with cthuljew.

(And I live in Minnesota and wear skirts year-round! Leggings, man!)
posted by stoneandstar at 2:29 AM on October 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Colorful socks! I reccomend

Also, how about wearing an ear cuff? If you like feathers, maybe something like this?

Or if you work in a formal envinorment, how about getting your suits lined in interesting colors?
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:51 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hair Barret.
Silk Scarf.
posted by French Fry at 6:22 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, in the past couple of years I've gone from dressing in a really sort of hopelessly depressing baggy shirts and uninteresting pants way wherein I felt (I now realize) bad and hopeless and sexually unappealing to dressing in a sort of dapper-trad-butch-genderqueer way and feeling much, much better about myself. (Although weirdly I had a year of skirts and bright tights there in the middle as sort of a "I want to dress differently but I'm not sure how and these tights are very cute!" thing).

Some thoughts:

1. Reading a lot of fashion blogs (in my case, men's style blogs) kind of consolidated my ideas about how to dress. It gave me ideas about colors to wear, layering, accessories I could incorporate. It also boosted my desire to do this. Seeing little accessories and points of style was helpful. There are some great fashion blogs that are for femme queer and trans folks - I can't really google and link because I'm at work, but try googling "femme queer fashion" and so on. A l'allure garconniere (the blog and the tumblr) is a great feminist/political starting point but she also posts a lot of outfit shots and her blog has a blogroll.

2. It was a slow process - sometimes just day-by-day, like skirt today and button-down tomorrow. Sometimes it was sort of intermingled - girlie shirt but tucked in with a belt. I slowly weeded out and either packed away or gave away stuff I wasn't wearing. In one sense, I had to "jump in and do it"; in another, I also needed to take my time.

3. My friends are generally a supportive bunch, but I did have direct conversations with a few people, all of which were both very short and went well. I hope your friends are smart enough to not get all weird.

4. Keeping a clothing journal was really helpful. (I just had one in google docs so that I could work on it whenever the mood struck.) I wrote down my thoughts about style blogs, linked favorite outfits and accessories, wrote down what I was wearing and how it made me feel, wrote down ideas for color combinations and outfits, wrote down both practical and imaginary lists of things I'd like to buy. I ended up doing this for the past two years. It's fallen off a bit lately since I feel like I've settled into my style, but I still write every few days.

5. I won't kid you: women are not punished nearly as much socially for dressing like men as men for dressing like women, and I've definitely none the less had some odd moments. So yeah, there is a safety issue if you're really going to be wearing a dress - but not an impossible one! Especially if you're with friends or going somewhere familiar. I know people who do this.

From a "starting out fashion-wise" standpoint - obviously this isn't my baliwick, but I am familiar with starting out small:

1. Fancy feminine socks - you can get those lacy or patterned trouser socks for dressy purposes, or other ones via places like Sock Dreams.
2. Scarves - hipster, schmipster. I was wearing big scarves when these "hipsters" were going to kindergarten, I am just that old. Look on Ebay for neat vintage ones, many at good prices. Look up "scarf tutorials" if you would like to learn many, many ways to tie them, including close-fitting "tie-like" styles.
3. What about vintage brooches/pins? You can get tiny ones and pin them on your shirt collar (I do this, actually, but I do it precisely because it's a femme-y element in an otherwise butch ensemble) or get larger ones and pin them on the lapel of your cardigan or jacket.
4. Why not buy the feather earrings? I think that people react way less to stuff like that than you're expecting.
5. What about getting women's cardigans/jackets/tees/sweaters? A friend of mine transitioned their wardrobe this way - started out with wearing plain women's tee shirts in bright colors - not super scoop necked or dramatic, just closer fitting and in a different selection of colors and fabrics. My friend wears mostly women's hoodies and shirts now - if you're paying attention you notice, but it's not super dramatic.
6. Necklaces? A simple strand of beads or something? A cute vintage one? A pendant?

Also, I find that if I buy something and wear it around the house, I get used to the fact of wearing it and then feel better about wearing it in public.

And also, I have some ties. I can't wear ties to work and generally don't wear them out casually at this point. But I wear them out dancing - they're special occasion items. Is there an occasion for which you could plan on wearing a dress? A party? A club night? A dinner party with friends? Your birthday?

IME, a lot of these things will attract far less notice and comment than you expect.

Also, people who are brave enough to be themselves are awesome. I really look up to the men and the trans women I know who have had the strength of character to enact gender the way they want to, and I think a lot of my (cis/non-femme) friends feel the same.

(Also, I three am from Minnesota.)
posted by Frowner at 6:46 AM on October 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

Congratulations. I do love a man in a frock. Here are a few things to think about.

Firstly, it's really important that you stop feeling guity and learn to enjoy this process. Taking an interest in your appearance can do wonders for your self-esteem, and being part and parcel of feminine presentation, you'll need to learn a bit of it anyway. Embrace the aspect of display, and invite the world to notice your spectacular outfits. You'll feel better once you do. Here's a small video of Grayson Perry, arguably the UK's most famous transvestite, talking about the importance of projecting confidence as part of your feminine persona. You're not ridiculous, you're truly fabulous, so man up, and wear your womanhood with pride.

Adopt some style icons. Believe it or not, there are, and always have been, plenty of otherwise masculine men who can really pull off feminine styling. David Bowie is an obvious choice, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix could both rock a frilly blouse, and Eddie Izzard has also had some memorable outfits. If that's a bit too rock and roll, go back to the source and think Victorian dandy. Or even David Beckham, who's very good at things like fancy scarves and friendship bracelets, and has been a pioneer for men in skirts.

The hard part is knowing how to make yourself look really good. For instance, maybe the reason why you're angry at yourself for wanting feather earrings is not because they are gender inappropriate, but because deep down, you know they wouldn't suit you. So, ask yourself, what would? Think details. Fancy jewellery, cute accessories, a paisley silk lining here, a floral shirt there, and you're in business. If a skirt feels like a step too far, try a kilt or a sarong. Experiment at home, in front of a mirror, and even add makeup and nail polish if you like.

It's probably a good idea to learn a bit about how women approach these things as well. For ideas on how the other half lives, you can try lurking a bit on YouLookFab. This is a fantastic style forum for womenswear, and while I can't be sure, I have long suspected it harbours a fair few cross dressing gentlemen.

Make like a chick. Learn to love your appearance, and have fun with it. Have fun!
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 6:55 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think of Michael Urie in Ugly Betty as a nice model of a well-dressed guy with a femme sensibility. Now he's on something called Partners, and he's even more flamboyant, going so far as to share accessories with his best friend's girlfriend. Bite his style for an everyday look.

Go for more femme colors, and floral patterns, but stick with mensware for every day. Pretty shirts, ties and sweaters (a personal favorite look).

Shoes and bags, are a good start. Good leathers, luxe feeling.

In your own time add more elaborate touches. Velvets, scarves, a tiara. It's all good.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:06 AM on October 24, 2012

And also, what about button-front shirts in femme patterns? If you're thin, you should be able to find men's vintage shirts from the 60s/early seventies that have lovely floral pattnerns (just look at this Brooks Brothers one - I would be all over that shirt if it fit me.

If you're not, you can probably find new ones although you'll have to winnow out the Hawaiian florals. What about embroidered cowboy shirts? I have this great fashion book which has a very, very queer femme picture of a young guy in such kind of shirt - I'm thinking this sort of thing. I kind of yearn for these myself, but they don't have the same effect when I wear them.

You could probably also wear women's button front shirts if you get the kind that have a little stretch and try different sizes. In that case, it would be the fit that is the femme-ier thing - a closer and less bulky fit in the shoulders.

Also, it's not fickle. Gender presentation is a huge thing. It would certainly be self-absorbed if you spent your whole life adorning yourself with expensive trinkets while neglecting your family, friends and social/civic/political responsibilities, but it's not frivolous to dress how you feel most comfortable and happy. I am much happier now that I dress as I feel. In fact, I'd say that I think about clothes less, because I know that I can reach into the closet and just grab some pants and a shirt and a cardigan and bam, I'm done.

You might find some books aimed at queer and trans readers helpful regardless of your gender or sexual orientation - Julia Serrano's book Whipping Girl is supposed to be the canonical one about misogyny and femme-ness, although I've only read an excerpt. You might also enjoy some books by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. She has a pretty complex gender identity - I really recommend checking out her website.
posted by Frowner at 7:33 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my personal mantras as someone who has worn a lot of vintage clothing conspicuously different from modern styles is this: If the worst thing that happens to you all day is that someone laughs at what you're wearing, you have a pretty good life.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:17 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Stephen Burt was interviewed about being a poet critic, a Harvard prof and a married cross-dresser. His approach is female-cut shirts (i.e. scoop neck), attention to eyebrows, jewelry and accessories, and a small amount of makeup. Paying attention to less visible things like scents and underwear can also make you feel like you're doing more "keeping it real" without dealing with at-the-time raised eyebrows.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just an idea, because I have no idea what your style is, but have you thought about looking into the style of the queer art/fashion nightlife scene in New York? It's all over the map with a lot of extreme styles that would never look right before midnight and outside of a club, but the general feel is androgenous, all black outfits with a hard gothic edge and elegant feminine touches.

Think SSION, Colin Self when not in drag, etc. Zana Bayne photographs her friends on nights out often and that's the sort of thing I'm thinking of.

actual pain tank top one size larger so it's the length of a very short dress over black milk leggings with an oversized ornate costume jewelry cross necklace

patent leather boots with a chunky heel laced up over very tight black jeans

short-but-not-short-short well-fitting men's shorts paired with over the knee socks and another oversized tank

This only works if your natural style kind of leans this way; but I do implore you not to fall into the trap a lot of crossdressing men seem to fall in to where they think dressing like a woman means dressing like their high school economics teacher. I mean, a ciswoman is going to look weird in sunset pantyhose and shoulderpads in 2012; a biological man is going to look even stranger and more out of touch. If your whole wardrobe is interesting and avant garde, people who think the feminine aspects are weird are more likely to say "well, weird is his thing" than "what a clueless freak."

And keep in mind there's a lot of different ways to "dress like a woman." I pretty much live in an oversized Actual Pain tank, jorts and sneakers in summer. It's identical to how all the boy bike kids dress, but the fact that a flourescent mesh bralette is peeking out the armholes of my tank and the socks are knee high instead of crew makes it obviously a girls' outfit. That, and my boobs.

And for the record, I don't think there's anything wrong with being a hipster, but I've told you that before.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:55 AM on October 24, 2012

This may not be what you're looking for, but I think one way to approach this would be to use androgynous women as style icons. Because they tend to take basically masculine clothing and femme it up, as opposed to androgynous guys who trend towards more flamboyant styles. An example I love is Esther Quek.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:35 AM on October 24, 2012

I'm a queer femme woman and I love a man in a skirt. My suggestions for dressing more femme would be to start with accessories: jewelry, scarves, etc. Can you grow your hair longer? Long hair on men often (but not always) reads as more femme.

And I think you're going to have to focus more on those feelings of happiness in yourself, and less on your sense of what others are thinking or saying, which is always easier said than done.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:21 AM on October 24, 2012

Thank you for the wonderful replies! I had not thought of most of these approaches, which seem quite doable - focus on accessories and nice shirts with flair, throw in other elements as time goes on, grow out hair. This is all great.

For anyone who's interested, my aspirations may fall somewhere between these awesome folks (the more rocknroll side of punk is where I'm inclined) i'd welcome any suggestions tailored to pattismithness!
posted by elephantsvanish at 2:01 PM on October 24, 2012

You may find the essays at His Black Dress of interest, although I don't know his style is quite what you're going for.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 12:56 PM on October 25, 2012

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