Lost in the Racks

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Lost in the Racks by Deb Schwartz

When I was little I was thrilled by the word “tomboy.” I loved that there was a word to describe a person like me, a “girl of boyish behavior,” and I may have embraced that identity with more wholehearted glee than I’ve embraced any other since. Naturally I eschewed dresses, played a lot of sports, gobbled up books about tomboys and emulated their pursuits (tree-climbing, spying on the neighbors). I also spent time imagining I actually was a boy (Tom Sawyer, plus assorted other adventurers with dogs or guns). Though tomboy-itude never offered quite the same level of adventure as boy-playing, it did suggest a livable compromise. It held out the real-world promise that the fantasy didn’t have to end, that I could in fact be both things at once, that what I imagined myself to be could continue for all time.

I was slow to give up this conceit, which is how I found myself, in sixth grade, the only girl on the flag football team. I had assumed there would be other girls on the team — I mean, who doesn’t love football? — but somehow all my female classmates had been swept up by the estrogen-hungry force field of the volleyball court. The “team” mostly just drilled and scrimmaged, but one fall afternoon we played another school. It was a cold, raw day, the grass on the field intensely green under the overcast sky. When I hold a football now, I re-experience the thrills of the game — the happy pain of catching a ball hard against my chest, the exhilaration of sucking big lungfuls of spiky fall air during a sprint. But I also remember that day’s surprise. The other team had brought an informal all-girl cheerleading squad, and among them was a girl I knew, a neighbor named Cindy. At the game, she didn’t say hello to me, didn’t say anything to me, until she yelled out, safely within the confines of her all-girl group: “What are you doing on the boy’s team? Do you think you’re a boy?” Giggle giggle giggle. Ho ho ho. My cheeks burned in the cold. When I had signed up to play, I had only wanted the pleasures of the game, its rituals and rhythms, the way it made me feel strong, and now here was this intrusion from the stupid outside world.

This is not, of course, a story about discrimination, about being denied something essential, like housing, a job or even service in a store. It’s merely a story about being made to feel painfully uncomfortable, that one is not where one is supposed to be, or who one is supposed to be, when one had been quite comfortably ensconced in a delicious daydream.

My daydreams have of course changed, but it took me a while to realize the world of imagining does not have to end simply because you are told it is time to grow up. I learned that there are, in fact, numerous adult worlds within which imagination is the only thing that matters. The world of fashion is one of these. Shopping is all about daydreaming, and really, we all shop for the same thing: a way to broadcast our sense of self. You have an image of yourself (“I’m bad to the bone,” “I’m a quirky makeup artist,” “I’m a feral anarchist”) and you take that image with you to the store. You wait for the moment when you try something on and suddenly say, Yes. It’s me. It allows you to feel natural.

It’s rare that I experience that shopping yes. To be butch and get dressed in the morning is to pave your own road. There aren’t too many chic menswear designers churning out stuff that fits my frame, nor are there many womenswear designers interested in outfitting faggy butches.

Perhaps I should explain that when I say “butch,” I’m not describing a particular style of dress, but something that exists outside of clothes: female masculinity. Clothing this not-off-the-rack masculinity is a challenge. It takes some doing for a woman to convey masculinity and sexuality in the same outfit, to wear boy clothing or aspire to a boy look without appearing gallumphy and sexless. Gallumphy masculinity is not the type to which I aspire. The trick for butches, it seems to me, is understanding that not all masculine signifiers are sexy, that some may be just masculine and free of aspirational value. I shudder when I hear butches aping the sort of macho posturing they’ve learned from some silly straight men, and I feel likewise when I see butches dress like them. It’s bad enough that we have the original. Lord knows we don’t need copies. If you were, as we butches are, given the opportunity to make a new sort of masculinity, why, for Pete’s sake, wouldn’t you, clothing included?

But clothing this concept (and body) is work. In order to find the stuff I need, I have to do a lot of hunting, gathering, foraging. Vintage and fag-oriented shops are the most fertile for me, mainstream ones the least. On a recent trip to Urban Outfitters, I couldn’t find a single thing to suit me and not just because I’m no doubt too old for the place. I left empty-handed because, as in many other stores, I was stranded between departments. As is the trend, the departments in Urban have become as ridiculously gender-stratified as the aisles of toy stores. Guns for the boys. Dolls for the girls. Teeny-weeny, tight, scoop-necked T-shirts stamped with I’m-so-naughty statements for the girls, enormous, thundering, in-yer-face No Fear XXXL T-shirts for the boys. A strict gender divide has long been the rule for adult dress clothes, but there’s something sad about its rise among the juniors’ stuff. Where are the clothes for the ragged tomboys? Who will clothe the little fairies?

When I go to the men’s department and exit frustrated because I can’t find anything to fit me, then try the women’s and exit twice as frustrated because I can’t find anything that’s right — neither of these is a traumatic event. It’s just a reminder of the tiresome way things are. It’s a reminder of all the times I’ve been forced to pick one door or another only to realize I have not been shown the appropriate range of doors and therefore am relegated to fidgeting in some drafty foyer. No matter how convinced I become that my friends and I inhabit a world in which our erotic needs are the norm, clothing stores remind — in the same way that banks remind, or small towns remind — that normal does exist, that convention can be unforgiving. It’s difficult enough to think outside of the box. Shopping outside of it can seem downright impossible.

You might argue that lots of people have trouble finding clothes they like. But most people know where the marketers, at least, think they belong, and which racks they should rifle. But I rarely encounter such trail markers. When I do find an item I like, it is a triumph. When the right shirt falls across my shoulders I think, “See? It can be done.”

It is only a bit of a stretch to say that this shopping eureka moment is what we all want, and not just in the dressing room. The right clothing brings you one step nearer to closing the gap between who you are and who you would like to be. And it’s simply a fact that it’s easier for certain people to find themselves among the racks at the local shop, and more of a homecoming for others when they finally do.




Hanes boys undershirts

The white undershirt has a classic, American robustness, but it’s also a great mixed message, clean and dirty at once, straddling the line between the solid trustworthiness of Daddy and the outlaw potential of James Dean. They’re also essentially lingerie. These, with their substantial cotton, slim fit and shorter-than-usual sleeves that hit high on the bicep, are perfect. Bend over and they will show your back muscles.

Vintage Izod Lacoste or new Fred Perry shirts

Both these shirts have great un-macho masculinity. They’re a a bit prep school, a bit JFK (and we all know what a naughty fuck he was, beneath that good breeding business). Leather lost its bad-boy cachet long ago — you may as well hang it up and go the other direction. All the righteous mods and anti-racist (Okay, and racist) skinheads wear Fred Perrys. You might want to dye your hair blue to avoid being mistaken for a tennis pro.

A handkerchief

Though you may very well end up using it yourself, the best reason to carry a thing that many people find repugnant is that you will be able to offer it (if it is clean) to someone else. My father always carried a plain white handkerchief, which he many times offered to me when, as a small child, I was in tears (as small children often are). Crying is a messy business and it’s nice knowing that if you find yourself covered in saltwater and mucus, someone is going to be ready for it, and out of the pocket will come that friendly square, soft and imbued with the comforting scent of Tide and perhaps tobacco. Recently I was at the movies with a girl who had a sneezing fit and asked me for a tissue. I handed her my handkerchief. “You have a handkerchief?!” she whispered to me. After giving her nose a good honk, she moved over in her seat, leaned her head on my shoulder and allowed me to watch the rest of the movie with my hand between her bare thighs, thanks to one of her best items of clothing, a slit skirt.

A western-style belt buckle

I have a Peterbilt buckle I snapped up at the Maine Blueberry Festival one year, and I’ve never looked back. Why do dykes of all stripes love these? Because they’re associated with two icons of manly American style who are sexy, powerful and just this side of caricature: the cowboy and the rock ‘n roll star. Straight guys are often very, well, straight about their clothing and loath to wear anything goofy or playful. But what do lesbians care — we’re already gay!

Shirts from APC

Merci Dieu for this French boutique in New York’s SoHo (and online! — at www.apc.fr). The women’s dress shirts I’ve bought — one stretchy white cotton, two dark wool blends — are identical to the men’s, sharing the same soft fabrics and simple close-to-the-body cuts. Many lesbians find it offensive to be mistaken for a man. I find that more often or not it has its advantages. If, say, you are in the parking lot of a suburban mall and you want to make out with your girlfriend, it’s very nice to be mistaken for a boy. It’s certainly preferable to being bashed over the head.

Wrangler jeans

While visiting a working ranch astride the border of central California and Wyoming, I helped herd some cattle and became convinced that the cowboy’s choice of jean should also be mine. Cut for riding, Wranglers sit higher on your waist and are more butt-accentuating than Levi’s. I knew that I had made the right choice when, at my office Christmas party, a fag colleague of mine, sodden with Absolut, told me my Wrangler-clad ass was giving him all sorts of new feelings.

Trousers from Banana Republic

Banana Republic wants men to look a little sexy, and this is good news for butch dykes who don’t need to go around in baggy-assed pants. Not only does BR go down to a size 28 waist (with that two percent of Lycra which somehow makes all the difference in the world), but where I shop they have hilariously manly coffee-table books on architecture and photography on a little table in the men’s dressing room vestibule. Who else do they expect to be waiting there but gay boyfriends?

Surf trunks

The first time I had sex with a girl I could not believe my luck. It was as if I were living some Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fantasy of over-the-top abundance that vastly exceeded any fantasy I might have allowed myself. I still feel that way when I get to kiss a girl and do exactly as I please. I feel lucky. I feel similarly about surf shorts. Just as I never imagined I’d get to have sex with girls, I never thought I’d be able to recapture the feeling of freedom I experienced as a small child when I was allowed to run around shirtless. (Surf shorts are also about one thousand times more comfortable on me than the horrid, clingy things girls have to squeeze themselves into.) I never thought
I would spend summer days frolicking in the gay section of Jones Beach on Long Island (and wherever else I can) wearing only board shorts and a smile. Diving through waves, feeling the hot sun across my torso as I lie on the sand, I couldn’t have imagined I’d get to live what I’d forgotten I’d dreamed.