Discussing Fashion’s Evolving Relationship With Gender

Last week at the Refinery29 offices, I moderated a conversation between a group of queer voices about fashion’s evolving relationship with gender. Through fashion, an infinity of genders can be stated and subverted. At times, the tension between seen and unseen feels sexy; but in many cases, the pressure to conceal and reveal is oppressive. In this conversation, we attempted to flesh out how the fashion industry creates and limits space for our bodies and identities.

“What voice when we hesitate and are silent is moving to meet us?” Postmodern poet Susan Howe asked this question, and I've been thinking that our clothing contains the voice that meets us when we are silent. Our clothes and minds are in constant dialogue, and what we wear offers signifiers that encode how we see ourselves. The challenge — or as many publications put it, the issue — of gender expression in fashion is not in creating a look, but rather in society’s refusal to accept the truth in how individuals decide to dress themselves. Even with meager economical means and institutional support, people find a way to say who they are through the way they dress.

We create language to describe identities and states that have always existed. That doesn’t make them new. Is every way of dressing that doesn’t reflect male or female “genderless”? Why do writers fall back on “masculine” and “feminine” when describing how a piece of clothing looks? How is gender bought and sold? “It’s not possible to live 24 hours a day soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex,” Poet Denise Riley wrote. “Gendered self-consciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature.” Here, five panelists engage in dialogue in the brightest parts of the flicker — light that deserves all of our attention.
Editor's note: The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For a full, unedited audio version of the below, click here.

Peopleswear: Discussing Fashion’s Evolving Relationship With Gender

Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Katherine Bernard, writer and filmmaker.
Katherine Bernard: "Welcome to ‘Peopleswear: Discussing Fashion’s Evolving Relationship With Gender,’ which is a little bit of a mouthful. We went back and forth on the name a lot, and I think that part of the reason for that is because when it comes to talking about what gender means, and how we express it, and what fashion is, and how it relates to identity, words sort of fail. So, of course we’re going to be here trying to use words to articulate the relationship between fashion and gender. But I think that that’s why they are linked in the first place — fashion is, in and of itself, this other language that we have between our bodies and the world. It’s a way to identify each other, and communicate with each other, without having to check off a box or explain ourselves. So, I’m going to quickly introduce our panelists, and I have their bios. I myself am between bios, so you’re going to have to just sit with that, okay?

"Grace Dunham is a writer and activist from New York. Grace writes about and speaks on trans resistance movements, and leads workshops for young people on gender and abolition.

"Alok Vaid-Menon is a non-binary transfemme performance artist, community organizer, and fashionista. Alok currently works at the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center for LGBT people of color, and is on tour with Dark Matter, which is a trans South Asian artists’ collaboration.

"Anita Dolce Vita is the fashion and culture blogger, and the owner, creative director, and editor-in-chief of dapperQ, which is the world’s most widely read style website for masculine and androgynous-presenting women and trans-identified individuals.

"Kristiina Wilson is a New York-based fashion and beauty photographer, as well as the CEO and editor-in-chief of You Do You, which is a recently launched agender fashion and lifestyle portal.

"And Jenny Shimizu is a model booker at Elite, and she says that she’s a survivor of the modeling in the ’90s.

"So, before moderating this panel, I was trying to think of a queer way to go about doing a panel, because I didn’t really like the idea of just pitching questions at specific people and making them sort of owe me an answer or an explanation. So I thought we could maybe go down the line and first describe questions that we wish people would stop asking about how we present ourselves, how we look, our aesthetic. What are the things that you think should be taken out of the conversation or the questions that we’re done with?

Grace Dunham: "That’s a hard one for me to answer because for whatever reason, I was born feeling a deep obligation to answer everyone’s questions, so I rarely feel offended at questions and usually try to relate to them with a frame of patience. But I think there’s, like, an absolutely rabid desire in every part of life to understand people within the language and the terms that we access — but within gender, it looks particularly like a desire to understand the bodies that people have, the language that people use to describe who they are, the ways that people might neatly fit themselves into the boxes that we access to understanding.

"In my most idealistic world, we wouldn’t seek to understand people through those questions, but we would start to understand one another through a slower process of knowing and coming to love each other, and coming to understand how people want to be inside of their hearts, rather than within the frames of reference that we’ve been raised to relate to people through. So, I’m not particularly interested in people’s desire to know what’s in between your legs. I’m not particularly interested in people’s desire to know what your pronoun is or what linguistic gender you associate with. I think we have to use these things because they’re the only language that we have, but if I’m dreaming big about how I wish the world was, that’s not the way we would come to understand one another."

There are so many things I do in my life that I would like to think are more brave than getting dressed.

Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon: "I get told a lot of times that I’m brave for dressing the way that I am. A lot of people are like, ‘How are you so brave? How do you have the confidence to wear what you’re wearing?’ And I’m like, ‘Girl, shut the fuck up.’ Honestly. I’m just going to be real: That’s a logic that kills trans women, and transfeminine people, because it makes the onus of being brave on us, and not on society to redefine your gender norms, so we have to continue to be brave and confident for doing something as simple as getting dressed in the morning, which is absolutely absurd, because there are so many things I do in my life that I would like to think are more brave than getting dressed. And how peculiar a world is it where what we wear has such politics that it could mean that you could be killed for what you’re wearing, right?

"I was just talking to our lovely moderator before this about how I wouldn’t be me unless I said that today [August 25] is Trans Liberation Tuesday, which is a day to draw attention to the murders of trans women of color — specifically black and Latina trans women — of which there have been over 21 this year. And I want to talk about that as a fashion issue, because trans women are being murdered because they don’t fit into conventional ideas of what dress looks like. Trans women are criminalized and seen as sex workers by just walking on the street."

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."
Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Jenny Shimizu, model and booker at Women Management.
Jenny Shimizu: "I’m going to keep it light. I guess the question I hate the most would be when I’m in the public restroom and the old ladies ask me if I’m a boy or a girl. And then, what I hate even more than that is my reaction to it, where I think I have to prove it to them and disrobe.

Katherine Bernard: First of all, thank you to Refinery29 for gathering all of us. I’m so honored to be in conversation with all the women sitting here. But, I think that part of the reason that we’re assembled is because there is something trendy about androgyny, or trans identity. These are things that are being discussed in the media and put together in trend pieces, and so I kind of wanted to talk about gender as trend and hear what you guys were thinking about that.

I’m sure a lot of you read the New York Times piece from over the weekend. It’s just so fascinating when fashion writers — which I’ve been for a very long time, so I can say this — get so lazy and gender clothing, and call it ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ I think that that’s just avoiding describing what a garment looks like, and it’s incredibly passive to just revert to assigning it to someone, to tell people who this clothing is for. But, also, even the use of the word ‘genderless’ is something that just reinforces the gender binary. So if you’re genderless, it’s because you are not male or female, and so this is genderless. And so much of what we describe as genderless clothing is clothing that’s like sack; these baggy things that sort of take the body outside of the sightline, or remove body parts from any part of identity. But I wanted to ask you guys what you think about the trend of genderlessness in the fashion industry right now."

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.

Anita Dolce Vita
Anita Dolce Vita: "I think it’s also a very interesting moment because we also see it happening in other minority communities. For example, everybody loves hip-hop, everybody loves black culture, but black people are still being killed in the streets. It’s interesting because we have an opportunity to leverage music and art and fashion to build bridges, and it can be helpful, but it’s also very dangerous, too. I was just at the Latex Ball, and I was telling one of my co-workers that I was going, and I explained that there was going to be voguing. And she was like, ‘Oh, like Madonna.’ And I was just like, ‘Not Madonna.’ So I think it’s an opportunity that we have these conversations because clothing is political. It is a language, and writer Alexander Fury wrote a few months ago in T Magazine that our clothing is a billboard, and it says something about us, and that in certain areas, we can still be arrested for what we wear. I’d like to add that we can still be discriminated against, we can be denied housing, we can be denied employment, healthcare; we can be murdered, we can be raped, we can be street-harassed, and so what clothing conveys, as a message to the outside world, can be very dangerous. But it also can be a form of visual activism whether we intend it to be or not.

"Aside from that — what society has to say — clothing also has an impact on us both physically and mentally. I mean, I love heels, I’ve been wearing heels for years, and now my podiatrist says I might need surgery, so it does have a physical impact on us. But on mental impact, there’s a new body of research called embodied cognition, and they’ve done a lot of interesting research where they gave a group of people lab coats, and a group of people street clothes, and they asked them to perform a task. The people who were wearing lab coats performed better on the task. Then they gave another group of people the same exact lab coat, and they said one belonged to a doctor, one belonged to a painter, and the people who thought it belonged to a doctor behaved better on the task. So, when we are forced to adhere to these strict binaries, it’s mentally damaging, it’s physically damaging."

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.

Katherine Bernard
Katherine Bernard: "I guess then what I want to ask is — and for you, Anita, as well — where do you feel like that line is? Because in a way, you have this power of influence by advising people, or endorsing a product, and I think it can be difficult to maintain language that allows for that openness. Because you’re saying, ‘You do you,’ but that has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life, and it’s also a lifelong process, so you wake up every day, and it’s like, ‘Doing me means what exactly?’"

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."
Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Anita Dolce Vita, owner, creative director, and editor-in-chief of dapperQ.
Anita Dolce Vita: "If I’m giving style advice in terms of a trend or something that I like — I try to write it from my perspective. ‘This is something that I’m seeing that I like that some other readers may also like.’ But it’s kind of like, ‘Take what you need, and leave the rest.’ And one of our most popular series is one where we select four to six readers who want to participate, and we give them an image or a collection from a recent quote-unquote ‘menswear’ campaign, and then we ask them to interpret it. They self-style. I didn’t want it to be from the perspective of a stylist telling a story; I wanted it to be from the readers who enjoy this particular collection, and saying, ‘This is how I interpret it, this is how I wear it with pride, and guess what? I did the same thing, but using thrift-store items.’ And we might have hair and makeup on standby for those who want it; it’s not a requirement for people who don’t want to wear it. So, we try to be as open and as inclusionary as possible.

"Going back to your original question, I never really got a lot of fashion advice, per se, but I grew up in Albuquerque, and we had one gay bar; it’s queer, lesbian, anything — it was just a gay bar, where everybody went. And I walked in there expecting to find a home, and it was very masculine-leaning, it was very misogynist, and I did not see myself there, I was not respected. A lot of the same types of binary expectations were placed on me, and I hated it. And I came to New York, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to hang out with any gay people, I don’t want to have anything to do with this scene, I’m just going to hang out at all the straight clubs.’ And then I met this kind of old-school lipstick lesbian. She was a powerhouse. She worked for WebMD and made a lot of money — she wore high heels, and she was like, ‘Come with me.’ And we wore lipstick, and we shopped, and I felt like I actually belonged in the community, like I didn’t have to trade my femininity to be queer. So that was probably the best type of advice or kind of mentoring that I received, fashion-wise."

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.

Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon: "I think we’re in this moment where everyone’s like, ‘Dress like you want, be yourself,’ etc. But for me that makes no sense if you’re a trans person. Because the truth is, as trans people, we have to do the labor of constantly authenticating our gender. So I should never have had to put on makeup, wear earrings, or wear a dress in order for you to not see me as a man. The issue becomes that I'm told to wear whatever I want, but if I don’t wear things that are regarded as white feminine, then I’m just a man. 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.

"I was too hairy to be a boy growing up, I got teased all the time and called a terrorist, and now that I’m trans, I’m too hairy to be a woman. In a lot of ways, it’s like, what the hell? What am I supposed to do? So people like, ‘Okay, look, if you’re trans, you need to shave, you need to change your name, you need to get on hormones, you need to dress like Becky,’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, Becky stole her entire aesthetic from trans women,’ because I think that something that’s really important to name is that modern fashion is built on the backs of transfeminine people. Gay men and transfeminine people have designed all of your aesthetics. We know cis women’s bodies better than cis women themselves, because we grew up in a world that continually denies us our femininity and our womanhood. So we’ve had to study and understand fashion? But we’re always seen as doing the makeup, designing the fashion, but never actually allowed to be the models, because we’re quote-unquote ‘men.’

"For so many of us, fashion was not actually something we wanted to do, but something we had to do to not be deported, to not be criminalized, to not be seen as a terrorist, to survive. And that we never had the privilege to be ourselves, because if we were ourselves, then we were seen as a terrorist. In 2001, the TSA said that terrorists would invade the United States by wearing women’s clothing. In 2001, trans women were stopped at airports across the country, and strip-searched and patted down to find weapons of mass destruction. And no one talks about that, but I bring this up all the time, because it’s like, ‘Wow, if I dress who I am, I literally get beat up.’

"I live in a moment where people are like, ‘Wow, I’m so proud of you for being trans. Embrace your truth!’ But are you going to be there for me when I’m getting followed home? Are you going to be there for me when men are telling me, ‘You better take off that dress right now, or I’m going to kill you?’ Are you going to be there for me when I’m coming home from a club, and I have no money to pay for a cab, and I don’t know how to get home? Because every single trans women that’s been murdered could actually have been saved if we didn’t just call her ‘fabulous,’ but we paid for her ride home. That’s the type of urgency that the people that I represent are getting dressed in. It’s a world in which whether we’re beautiful or if we’re ugly, we get killed, murdered, or raped. So what we need is a type of world where our worth is not linked to our visibility."
Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Grace Dunham, writer and activist from New York
Grace Dunham: "Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is what it’s done to people’s understandings of womanhood for there to have been this movement around natural womanhood and natural beauty, and women not wearing makeup, women not shaving their body hair, women just being who they are as they came out, wildly untamed, or whatever the discourse is. And it’s a really transphobic discourse, because it says that to be beautiful and natural, is to not work for how you look. And as Alok just explained, that’s never been the case for so many people, and it’s never been the case for so many women, trans women in particular, because they’re punished for working too hard and punished for not working hard enough, that it’s not a simple choice to not shave your body hair if you’re a trans woman.

"I have no idea what I am. I don’t know if I’m a girl, or a boy, or a dyke, or a trans person; I don’t know if I’m a fag — I don’t know. I don’t know. It changes every day, it changes every hour. The things that people tell me to be change depending on who they want me to be, so sometimes it’s, ‘You should keep your breasts, because you should accept that that’s who you were born as, and they’re beautiful, and anyone can have breasts,’ or ‘You should get top surgery, because then you’ll feel like your true self.’ There’s a lot of input into who we are and how we’re supposed to look, because I think so often, we come to understand ourselves through the feedback and the advice of people around us.

"Something that I would say is that, whenever I talk about transphobia, and the way that it harms people, and the violence that it does to people, I urge everyone, whether you identify as trans or whether you don’t, to think about all the ways that how you look has been policed by other people, and all the ways that you’ve been punished or praised for being who other people think you’re supposed to be. I think we all have access to the pain of that. It’s a shared experience in our culture to feel like there’s no right way to be who you are, and to feel like you’re moving toward some kind of perfection that you’re not at yet.

"So, the thing I'm really interested in is if we really want everyone to feel beautiful? Or do we still want beauty to be something that only a select few get to have? Because if we really want everyone to feel beautiful, and if we really think that everyone is beautiful, there’s a lot we have to change. And if we want beauty to always be something that only some people get to have, if they’re doing the work, if they’re perfect enough, if they’ve arrived, then we can keep going in the direction that we’re going. But, in my ideal world, we would go in a different direction."

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.

Katherine Bernard
Katherine Bernard: "There’s something about the way we recognize beauty. I mean, it’s fascinating what you were saying, Alok; I’ve interviewed so many gay male designers backstage. And you go backstage, and they’re like, ‘Well, you know, my woman, and our women..,’ and I’m just like, ‘That sucks. Don’t tell me what women and what the woman and even your brand’s woman is because it’s creates this idea that even if you can get into the clothes — which, that’s another discussion — if you don’t fit into this idea, 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."
Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Alok Vaid-Menon, non-binary transfemme performance artist, community organizer, and fashionista. They write at Return The Gayze and Dark Matter Poetry.

Alok Vaid-Menon:"I feel like we’re in a hashtag ‘Not All Fashion’ moment in the panel, where we’re like, ‘But some fashion.’ Yeah, I like fashion, too. It’s really important and validating and nourishing. But let’s be honest about what we’re doing. The reason I like fashion is because I’m depressed and dysphoric. The reason I had to get into fashion was because I needed to participate in an economy where my body was regarded as ugly, and I had to fight like hell to make myself worthy, and in order to do that, I had to make other people feel ugly. I think we need to be honest that fashion is selfish and ruthless and competitive and wrong.

"What fashion does is it makes us hate ourselves a little bit less, but we’re going to keep on hating ourselves, so we have to keep on doing it, right? Because if I didn’t wear a dress, I would look at myself in the mirror and hate myself and want to kill myself an ounce more than when I do wear a dress, but I’m fighting for a world in which I didn’t have to wear a dress to not hate myself. So I can hold both truths, and I feel like, oftentimes, there are no spaces to admit how lonely, how hurt, how depressed, how horny we are, and I think fashion is about all of those things."

Guest 1: "I actually have two questions: Jenny, I saw you reacting, it seems like — would you mind responding to what Alok just said? Could you respond?"

Jenny Shimizu: "You know, there are many, many things I do agree about, most definitely. It’s difficult. Because, guess what — even models feel the same way. They hate themselves. They feel ugly. They’re horny, because no one will sleep with them because they’re crazy. We all feel that certain way, but it’s our individual responsibility to rise above…. I don’t agree with people when they scream at me in the street about something, but I don’t need to take that with me, because that’s their opinion. It’s not what I feel about myself. They’re going to have an opinion; everyone’s going to have an opinion, but I can’t just take that and hold it as a resentment, because I end up hurting myself. That’s on them. I feel like these ideas have come to me because I'm older — I’m in my 40s — and I feel comfortable in my own skin.

"I think there’s this fabulous myth of being involved in this business. People don’t know all the three dimensions of the business. They just think like everybody’s flying over to Paris and like, ‘Oh, look at all these free things!’ and it’s all wonderful. If you can imagine being 13 and dieting because you might become a model and then also being told ‘No’ one billion times a day. I think everybody has where they come from, and it is difficult in all circumstances. And I think that relatability is the only thing that makes all different people and thoughts get along. Like, there’s got to be something that I relate to somebody about."

Guest 1: "How do you broaden that conversation to make it palatable to the mainstream? What sort of narratives need to be injected into the mainstream conversation so it’s not all about violence, so that it’s not all negative, so that everybody can be on the same team?"

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.

Grace Dunham
Grace Dunham: "I’d like to respond to something that Jenny said very briefly, which I think is also a response to your question. What you just said, Jenny, is exactly the point. We live in a culture where literally everyone feels ugly, everyone feels lonely, and everyone feels horny. So, to me, there’s an organizing principle here that gives us a pretty fair clue that things have gone terribly awry. I don’t see that as a coincidence that we all need to deal with on our own. Literally, we are living in a sick culture, where we are all lonely, self-hating, and terrified that we will either live without success or love. I’m going to go ahead and assume that every single person in the audience has felt that way before. So I’m just like, we have a lot of shit to figure out. Whether you’re a model, whether you’re an incarcerated trans woman, you feel bad. And it’s not your fault. It’s actually just genuinely not your fault. It’s the fault of the culture that you live in and the culture that you’re trying to get your life in."

Guest 2: "So thank you, everyone, for giving such wonderful and thoughtful comments. I’ll give a quick disclaimer, which is to say I don’t think fashion is going to liberate us, and there’s something really beautiful happening right now, at least for me as a person who was formerly just femme-identified and having access now to more masculine clothes come in my size, and a personal sense of freedom that I get from walking outside and having a new type of sex appeal that’s based in taking up all the space that my body has to offer. And so I really appreciate the work dapperQ has done, and I’d love to hear from folks about the ways that fashion has felt like a liberation-based activity for you. Because I do think it’s possible, and particularly as a black queer woman, I sometimes just kind of really need it, and it makes me happy to wear a floppy hat on a Sunday, or my new leather culottes today. I was going to get that in if it killed me."

When I wear a dress, I’m tapping into a legacy of all my femme foremothers who have been doing this shit forever.

Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon: "I honestly believe that trans women and transfeminine people are angels sent from God. I think we forget that my people across indigenous cultures were worshipped as being able to be outside of gender. And in the spiritual traditions that I come from, we would invite transfeminine people to come and bless our weddings, and we would worship them. We had gods that changed genders, and we worship that. So every time I meet a transfeminine person of color, I’m like, ‘You are holy, and transcendent, and gorgeous.’ Honestly, the looks that these trans women are putting out there these days — holy shit. The best fashion in the entire world comes from trans women and transfeminine people who literally have to be modern-day Cinderellas every day being like, ‘Oh, shit, the size-13 shoe doesn’t fit me. Fuck my life,’ and have to find another shoe to make it work. They go to thrift stores and beat off Becky and Cindy, and are like, ‘That pink romper is mine!’

"The truth is, when you want to look for femme inspirations, look to trans women. Because when we have to wear a dress, every single person on the street thinks we’re a joke, and will laugh at us, and yet we still wear that dress. I feel amazing when I wear dresses because all these men are just so upset about it. So when all people are like, ‘You’re a faggot, or a tranny,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, thank you so much for acknowledging me for the ways I don’t participate in your colonial gender binary.’ So I really actually think fashion is really amazing, and really important for trans women, but I think what I’ve been really trying to get in this panel is that that should not be the ways that we should have to do in order to survive.

"I’m so happy that Refinery29 is having this conversation because women’s magazines are so #tbt. Honestly. The idea of women is so #tbt, because actually, ‘woman’ is a colonial identity, and actually trans feminine people have been doing ‘woman’ and ‘non-woman’ forever. And it’s not a new thing, this sort of “peopleswear… androgyny…” — it’s a very, very old and ancestral thing. When I wear a dress, I’m tapping into a legacy of all my femme foremothers who have been doing this shit forever before the British literally came into our country and criminalized us for gender variants. Fashion can be really liberating. It is a politics, but it’s not a politics when it becomes about hierarchy. It’s not a politics when it becomes about corporations and visibility. It’s a politics when it comes about individuals being able to say, 'The state told me when I was born that I’m X Y Z. Fuck you, I’m gonna use fashion to be V Y Q.'"

Guest 3 (Rain Dove): ": I tend to find that as a person who is 6'2" with a certain muscular structure and facial structure that I’m more acceptable in what we consider to be menswear than womenswear, but my vagina does not fall off when I wear a suit and tie, so therefore it becomes womenswear the moment that I put it on. This idea of peopleswear is not necessarily coming about because I feel it’s a trend, but because it’s becoming a movement — a movement that’s created by what I like to call maybe an 'androgynous internet,' where anyone can be anything at any time. And I was wondering how you guys felt about the internet and how you feel about global communications of multiple cultures, and how you feel that might impact our views on ourselves and our identities, and maybe the idea that we can be whatever we want because we can do that the minute we pick up our iPhones."
Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Kristiina Wilson, fashion & beauty photographer, and CEO and editor-in-chief of You-Do-You.
Kristiina Wilson: "I think Tumblr has had a huge effect on that community. I really feel like it's helped a lot of people identify, and talk to each other, and look at image references. I kind of can’t imagine how a lot of things happened before the internet, even though I was already quite old before the internet happened. Especially this culture; I think it would’ve been so much slower-coming if we didn’t have that, and we didn’t have the ability to talk across language barriers and time barriers, and all these other things we wouldn’t have without the internet."

Guest 4: "I’m a fashion journalist, and it’s been so great to hear the plurality of different opinions going on. But what I would like to know specifically is in terms of the fashion media, what are some action items, specific things that you guys would like to see the fashion media doing? On a day-to-day level, what kind of content would be better in supporting your mission?"

Katherine Bernard: "I really think it’s just a 'who else?' mentality. Not 'one time, one slideshow with a collection of people who are outside of the beauty standard, and then we all pat ourselves on the back, way to go.' I totally fell subject to that, too. But I think it’s 'who else?' every single time you write a story, 'who else?' every time you seek out someone to interview or you’re looking at models, when you’re getting a quote, when you select an image, when you pull a collection of great people from Instagram — I just think it’s just starting to ask 'who else?' and also, 'why do I see these people as beautiful?' And if you just start to ask that question and you can raise it when you’re around people who do have the power to cast and you are pitching stories, when you’re around those tables, eventually that’ll become the default mode. And that’s a way that we can be inclusive."

Alok Vaid-Menon: "Many thoughts. But the first is that the average income for a trans woman of color in this country is less than $10,000. Most trans women are living in extreme poverty, and what happens is that our aesthetics get stolen by cis women, and then those cis women and cis men get tons of money where trans women stay in poverty. And trans issues are not just about visibility; they’re about economic justice. I think we need to start paying trans women. The most tangible thing you can do is to actually have more money given to people who come from oppressed backgrounds. If you’re working with black, indigenous, trans feminine models, pay them more, and start practicing those acts of everyday reparations.

"The second is giving scholarships and resources to trans women, because most of them just want us to come with our outfits already picked out for a shoot. Do you realize how expensive it is to transition? It’s so, so, so expensive. Most girls out here cannot afford hormones, cannot afford SRS, cannot afford to buy a dress, and have to honestly wear things that they get for free. What would it look like if these fashion magazines started to give free clothing to trans women? What would it look like if these magazines started to actually give scholarships and money to be like, “Hey, go cultivate your own style. Here’s $5,000. Buy what you want to buy.” Trust that you’re gonna get the best and most innovative fashion you’ve ever seen in your entire life."

Grace Dunham: "Just quickly: I think it’s also really helpful to think about the resources that you do have access to in your industry, and in the industries you’re working in, and the ways you can participate and redistributing them. There’s an excess of material clothing in the fashion industry. There’s so much clothing moving through every single editorial, every single shoot, every single magazine, every single website — sample upon sample upon sample… Celebrities are this wildly untapped resource of excess clothing because they’re constantly required to wear new looks every single time they do anything, and all of that clothing can’t be worn again, so there’s an enormous amount of actual value-based material resources that are being pulled in the fashion industry; so that clothing can be sold, that clothing can be auctioned, that clothing can be given to organizations that work directly with queer and trans youth. You can do that activism even from within the fashion industry. You can also say, 'I’m only willing to work on this article that includes trans models of color if some small percentage of whatever money we get in advertising for this month’s issue is donated to such and such organization that works with homeless queer and trans youth.' You’re allowed to make these stances. I know it feels pretty much deeply disempowering across the board to be working for other people’s economic interests, but just think realistically about the resources that you do have access to and what you can do with them."

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