The summer between third and fourth grade, I grew like the weeds that surrounded our house in the hot and humid South, and my mom was forced to take me shopping for shorts that would meet the uniform guidelines of the elementary school I attended.
With my thin frame and long arms, each pair I tried on seemed shorter and shorter, and my mom furrowed her brows in the dressing room trying to figure out how we could satisfy the length requirements my school imposed. In a fit of desperation, she grabbed some khaki cargo shorts from the boys section and threw them over the door. I tried them on and fell in love. The many pockets were perfect for my walks through the woods collecting little pieces of wild treasure, and the legs were roomy enough to scale the large tree out back where I did my best reading. We walked out of the store with three pairs.
On the first day of school, a boy in my class took one look at me, turned to his friend, and loudly proclaimed, "only dy*es wear boys' shorts." I didn't know what the word meant, but I knew it was meant to be bad. A jagged pebble lodged itself in my throat for the rest of the day, and when I got home, I angrily shoved all three pairs into the back of my closet and never wore them again.
There is a long history of gendered fashion in the United States' Bible Belt, but that moment was when I first learned the lesson that people also tightly weave their sexuality into the clothes they wear, and it was a rule everyone around me knew and obeyed.
What followed was years of questioning not only who I was attracted to, but how to attract them. This manifested itself as a vacillation of overtly feminine garments and a return to the boys' section, and my closet began to take on a disjointed metamorphosis by the time college rolled around. I noticed that the rule set forth at nine was being followed by everyone around me, so each day became a decision as to how I would present myself on campus and the conclusions that would follow. It was a coin toss whether I would choose a flowered sundress or my camo pants. I wanted to rebel against the notion that I had to be one aesthetic or the other, instead fighting to be both. What resulted instead was a Jekyll-and-Hyde wardrobe and many frustrated guesses at what this said about who I wanted to kiss.
In 2020, when I started seriously sewing my way towards an almost-entirely me-made wardrobe, a world opened inside me. I hacked patterns to make them uniquely my own, and drafted garments that I dreamed up. Spending so much time carefully crafting a piece naturally made it more precious, so I chose clothing that had design elements or sewing skills that interested and inspired me, rather than what stereotyped box they would fill. I stopped considering what my clothing communicated to others, and instead started tuning into what I felt best in. Something in me shifted, and I realized that my clothes shouldn't shoulder the burden of others' translations of my sexuality.
I want my clothes to do more than communicate my sexual preference, because frankly, it's the least interesting thing about me. As Darrell Grissum so eloquently put, I stopped believing "that we should feel pressure to perform aspects of our identities for others in our daily lives but rather that we should allow them to shine through organically. To not perform identity but to expand identity."
I have traveled back in time to my nine-year-old self to pick out the warped threads that boy wove into me. When I dress myself for a walk with my dog, I choose pants I sewed big pockets into to hold plenty of training treats. I pluck the big yellow dress off the hanger when I want to sit cross-legged on the floor or enjoy the pleasure of a good twirl. I know that unfortunately others will still try to discern my sexuality by what I've got on, but honestly, I'll be too busy collecting those little pieces of wild treasure to notice much.
NOTE: This blog post is written from the perspective of my lived experiences as a straight-passing, white, cisgender woman. It does not discuss the privilege I have when I wear feminine clothing and can pass as straight. If you would like to read more on this topic from a BIPOC perspective, check out Franscisco's blog post, "Hello: Intro to CiscoSews." Emilia Bergoglio also shared on the need to degender fashion in Seamwork.