Peopleswear: Discussing Fashion’s Evolving Relationship With Gender
There are so many things I do in my life that I would like to think are more brave than getting dressed.
Anita Dolce Vita: "‘You’re too feminine,’ or ‘You dress too feminine to be gay.’ I’m tired of people asking me that. Or, ‘You date masculine women, or women who wear suits. Why don’t you just date a man?’ I’m also tired of the questions that people don’t ask about my identity, because I’m completely erased when we talk about transgressive queer style; it’s usually that masculine and androgynous people are considered transgressive, but not feminine people. And femme style is incredibly transgressive and radical, and it deserves space in the queer narrative."
Kristiina Wilson: "I kind of just think that any question about your appearance, or your identity, or really anything that’s deeply personal about you is not modern anymore. It’s so outdated, and it’s not interesting to me."
Grace Dunham: "Yeah, I mean, we’re in a weird fucking moment when it comes to gender, trans identity, gender neutrality, and the way that it is seemingly entering into popular culture and popular entertainment. We’re in a strange moment, because, realistically, why are we here? Why are we here on this panel? We’re here on this panel, you’re here in this audience, this event was organized, because people are beginning to recognize trans identity as something lucrative. So when people say to me, ‘Is trans trending?’ It’s like, the public political voice wants to say, ‘Trans isn’t trending, because trans people have been around for as long as a gender binary has been enforced, and people have been policed and killed for not fitting into that,’ but is it trending in the sense that capitalism is recognizing it as a lucrative marketplace. It’s certainly trending. And I try to hold both of those things when I think about the fact that trans people have always been here, will always be here, but that also we are watching dominant popular markets recognize the money that trans has to offer them."
Alok Vaid-Menon: "We’re in a very strange moment where everyone’s talking trans, theorizing trans, thinking trans, but no one’s supporting actual trans people. Less than one percent of funding from philanthropy goes to trans organizing. I work at one of the only community organizing centers in the entire country that works predominantly with trans women of color, most who are still experiencing homelessness, poverty, incarceration, violence, and murder. So it feels very dangerous to call this moment ‘progressive,’ when you literally have people being reported as dead every single day. It’s not an accident that we’re seeing white binary masculine trans people being the face of our movements as transfeminine people — especially black and Latina folks — are being murdered. I think that they are mutually informing systems. "When I’m gender-ambiguous, I’m still a man. I have no ability to shift around, because you see my beard, and you think ‘man.’ You see my body hair, and you think ‘man.’ So what ends up happening is that the people who we celebrate as people who are breaking binaries tend to be thin, white, rich people, who are mostly transmasculine. The most gender-bending people in the world are trans women of color, who have been surviving on the streets doing survival sex work and running queers, trans, and feminist liberations since the beginning."
Clothing is political. It is a language.
Kristiina Wilson: "I would say that I think the fashion industry is always happy to capitalize off of any news that they can get, or any kind of public splash that they can make, and I also think the fashion industry is going to be happy if they can reach a bigger market. It’s a little bit easier for some designers who are coming out and just making collections, instead of a men’s collection or a women’s collection. It’s a different way of thinking, and it’s always younger designers in their 20s or even in their late teens."
Jenny Shimizu: "In the ’90s, I was an activist, and I was in Queer Nation. I was in trade school in Los Angeles, and I lived in a place called Casa de Estrogen, filled with lesbians and the straight women who liked to sleep with us. When I got to New York, I was torn. Like, ‘I’m doing this thing — fashion — and being given an opportunity to do things that I would never be able to do.’ I never had a passport until I got to New York; I didn’t even know about the most basic things of traveling in a plane. And at the same time, I was, ‘We’re here; we’re queer.’ I had a lot of demons about it. "Now that I’m older, and I look back, I realize that the fashion industry isn't going to wave a flag and rant about why we should buy these clothes and where it’s made and everything. They're reaching millions of people, and I think visibility is key. There are things that they offer that are not deep. But at the same time, it reaches out to so many people. So I think, take it for what it is. Now, I go, ‘Oh, my God, thank you, Calvin Klein. Thank you Steven Meisel, thank you Fabien Baron.’ Because they had enough knowledge to put a short, Japanese, tattooed dyke in a campaign. And I realize now only because younger people come up to me and they say, ‘Oh, my God, I saw you in this thing, and I always thought you were much taller’ — but more so ‘Oh, my God, you kind of helped me get through some stuff.’ I didn’t do anything with thinking, ‘I’m going to empower people who feel less than.’ It was just good timing. You don’t know once you send a message out, or you sit in front of a camera, what that’s going to convey. It’s out there, and the message really is created by the people who are looking at it."
Katherine Bernard: "Yeah, I just want to say that — spoiler alert to everyone sitting in this audience — you can wear whatever the fuck you want. So, if that’s all you needed to hear, then you can go. "I really liked what you said, Jenny, and speaking about how you said these messages are transmitted, and even the power structure of transmission, I’ve reflected a lot as someone who’s written about fashion about the positive and negative things that fashion advice does. Kristiina, how do you empower someone to ‘do you’ without being prescriptive? I think that that’s something that the industry really needs to hear."
Kristiina Wilson: "Well, the whole genesis of the site came from working so much in fashion and being constantly told what to do and how to see things — especially from working for a lot of women-oriented magazines and businesses that were essentially run by a lot of men; you’re being told by a lot of men how you should look, how you should act, how you should appear, how you should do your hair, your makeup, style, whatever. And I just kind of got tired of that. The website is named that because we exist so that people can do what they want. And there are many different ways you can do that, and if you want to educate yourself about those different ways, that’s cool. Come look at photo shoots and the different things that you can wear, but in no way are we trying to say, ‘You need to use these products, you need to wear this pair of pants, and if you don’t get this lipstick, you’re a piece of shit."
You’re saying, ‘You do you,’ but that has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life.
Kristiina Wilson: "Today, we did a shoot on a bunch of Korean beauty products because our creative director loves them. And so, the direction of that piece was just, ‘Hey, here’s what Logan, our creative director, loves; he’s really into shopping for Korean beauty products and putting them on himself, so we’re going to showcase how he does it. And if you’re interested in trying it, you can do this. Here are the names of the stuff. We’re not selling anything.’ It’s just, ‘These things exist; you can try them. If you don’t want to, that’s fine.’ But it’s not coming from a place of us as a group of people who all think we all need to do that. Personally, I’m not going to put 57 masks on my face. But he’s really into it, and it’s just a way of showing how we can all be different, and we can all be into different things, and just because you are into beauty doesn’t make you a bad, superficial person, and just because you’re not doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person, either."
I had to be fabulous; otherwise, I was a man. I had to be not just fabulous, but quirky, cutting-edge, interesting, because that’s about survival.
Anita Dolce Vita: "I don’t personally have a lot of faith in the fashion industry because I think that perpetuating the idea that we’re not good enough is what generates money. And so I’d like to know how we can leverage the fashion industry to actually create change? When I post pictures on Instagram, pictures of conventionally thin, white attractive people get way more likes. I’m sitting on the other side of that, as a black femme lesbian, and I’m like — it pains me, because I know exactly what’s going on. And even in my best efforts to try to represent people, that that’s the response from our followers, is just incredible to me. It’s saddening."
It’s not fashion unless it’s completely unattainable.
Jenny Shimizu: "Fashion has some kind of moralistic force; it has ethics, and morals, and it’s based solely on what we all want from it. I mean, it can’t be held up to any of our standards. It’s impossible. Yes, it’s 99 percent bad, but in those few instances where it is uplifting, and there is something inspirational — that’s what I take from it. "I am a model booker, and I would never imagine myself doing this, and as the great Katie Ford said, ‘We will all burn in hell.’ But I know that this business that I’m in is not the most positive, but I’m in it, and the only thing I can do is be responsible to them, as myself. I could be there and be as good as I need to be and be as caring, because I know that eventually each one of these young girls will go through some hard times. Everybody has to be responsible for what they want to be seen as, for what they want to feel comfortable in, and what they don’t feel comfortable in. So I could sit here and be upset every single day of my life, or I can be — you know, it’s the whole thing of, ‘Be happy, or be right.’
Katherine Bernard: "So why do you love fashion, Jenny?"
Jenny Shimizu: "Because of those beautiful things. Because I sometimes see a model and she’s wearing this most beautiful Valentino couture gown, and walking down the runway. Or if I see a picture in an editorial — I mean, really, literally, maybe one thing in an entire year can do that, because there’s something very creative about the industry that is still there if we look for it. And I think right now, this whole peopleswear is a big thing, and I think, well....congratulations, bravo. It brings attention to all of our ideals. It raises awareness. It may not give you the answer you want, but I think it’s something to be a little positive about."
Grace Dunham: "I just want to say, I also love fashion. But when I say ‘fashion,’ I mean I love the way people tell us who they are. It’s amazing. It’s, like, miraculous the way that people figure out how to do that, even when no one is helping them, and no one has given them permission to do so. Living in New York, just riding the subway, going to Riis Beach, it’s like a fucking gift; I’m like a baby, I’m just like, ‘Uh. You. Look. That. Way?’ You know? People are amazing. But when I talk about fashion, I’m talking about people, and I’m talking about people using this language that we have to tell us something about who they are, because in a way, clothing is like the first language of communication. We see one another before we speak. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really harmful about that, because so much is communicated through it about what our lives have been, about what we’ve had access to, about what resources have been at our disposal. We make so many judgments based on that first language. "The fashion industry is a market just like any other market. We’re all trying to make do in markets. We’re all trying to live. There’s no market that isn’t evil. But I think the thing about the capital-‘F’-fashion ‘Fashion industry‘ is that it’s not just expensive. It’s really expensive. It’s not affordable, it’s not connected to redistribution. So what’s amazing to me is the way that people who aren’t engaging with capital-‘F’ Fashion are still doing fashion by themselves. Some people don’t have the money to buy really fancy fashion labels, some people are in prison where their clothing is being forced on them; but they’re still finding a way, you know? They’re still finding a way to just express the truth of who they are with the small touches that they do have control over. So, when I talk about loving fashion, that’s what I’m talking about."
We live in a culture where literally everyone feels ugly, everyone feels lonely, and everyone feels horny. That gives us a pretty fair clue that things have gone terribly awry.
When I wear a dress, I’m tapping into a legacy of all my femme foremothers who have been doing this shit forever.