by Anna Caro
In anticipation of a new job, I went on a shopping expedition the other week. The results included three pairs of black trousers, officially women’s but as unisex looking as these things get really, which I needed to have taken up, two shirts and a knitted vest (men’s) and a dress, striped at the top with a dark skirt. A successful, if expensive, haul.
It’s always been this way for me, wearing clothing commonly identified with almost the full range of the gender spectrum. As a small child I fluctuated with apparent ease between the smocked, floral dresses my grandmother made, and my favourite brown corduroy dungarees. Even as a teenager, when I wouldn’t have dared shop for men’s clothes, I still scored some items from a batch donated to my brother by a member of his archery club.
I haven’t quite worked out how to characterise how I relate to this. It’s something more than clothes and less integral than identity. For someone who identifies primarily as female, but lacks the fixed sense of gender many others have, it’s still not impossible to simply step outside the expected norm by doing nothing—even if your default is not to care. You have to take a step.
I’m lucky, in some regards. I can experiment as I like, and still slide back into expected norms without significant discomfort when I need to. Or so it would seem.
Except there’s a complication, a collection of neurological conditions, primarily autism and dyspraxia. It’s hard to give a coherent summation of how they affect how I dress, so I’ll give some examples. No make-up, except occasionally a little lip gloss—I end up looking like a clown if I try to put it on, and the sensation of it on my face causes profound discomfort. I need to take account of the fact I fall regularly—nothing too delicate at the knees, and definitely no high heels. Tying shoe laces is possible, but sucks a lot of my mental energy, so slip-ons are preferable. There are all kinds of shapes and textures I just can’t wear without going into sensory overload. There are fastenings I can’t manage and drapey things have little chance of staying on my shoulders. Clothes shops can be difficult so I do a lot of shopping online, with all the limitations that brings.
So my options can be somewhat restricted, and those restrictions sometimes apply more or less to clothes of different gender designations. By and large, I make it work.
But as much as I enjoy exploring gender, exploring masculinity and femininity through clothing, it comes with a large amount of reservation. I could never really manage ‘high femme’. I don’t think I want to—but at the same time, I’m not sure how much that derives from the discomfort it would cause me, rather than my feminity or lack thereof. As someone with a pretty fluid gender identity (something which is, incidentally, correlated with autism, another layer of interconnectedness in this vast web), I can usually find something appropriate. But if we link, or express, one aspect of our bodies through clothing, we need to acknowledge that it is not a pure reflection, that it is also affected by the options the world we live in provides for other aspects of our identity. And when we talk about outlaw bodies in a positive sense, people taking pride in, reclaiming, non-normative appearances and shapes and sizes and movements, we need to remember also that some are outlawed not just from conventional society, but from the supposed norms of one or more of the outlawed categories into which they fit.