I have a bow tie collection that I keep in a suitcase under my bed. On the nights I don’t mind controversy, I iron a white shirt and choose the least offensive; a black sequin number. I’ll still be referred to as ‘Coco the Clown’ in the pub all night and asked: “What’s the bow tie for?”
When you’re a woman in a rural village, a ball gag would invite fewer questions than clothing traditionally intended for a man.
It’s thanks to women like Luisa Capetillo that the simple act of wearing trousers doesn’t garner the same attention. A Puerto Rican feminist, activist and anarchist, she was arrested in Cuba in 1912 for “public disturbance,” aka wearing trousers in public. This event has gone down in infamy, to the extent that her other achievements are often pushed to the side.
She was a ‘reader’ in a tobacco factory. She stood or sat on a podium, reading literary and political passages aloud to the workers as they rolled cigars, before opening the floor for discussion and debate. She had two children out of wedlock in the early 20th century, she helped local farmers to unionise and travelled around Puerto Rico educating and organising women. She is considered to be one of the country’s earliest suffragists. She wrote essays on workers’ rights and campaigned for the first minimum wage laws.
…and she wore trousers.
In terms of achievements, I can see why this would be considered low ranking, but it’s important.
There is still a line in the sand; this is men’s clothing vs this is women’s clothing. Historically across the western world, it’s been more fluid than that; at least, it has for the men. Any reasonably sized art gallery will exhibit them in all sorts of bottoms, from tunics and togas right through to billowing pantaloons with stockings. In Scotland, the kilt is still very much in use at social events (I can confirm the tradition of wearing very little under it is also still practised). For the women, the skirts have just changed shape.
Trousers had to be earned and it took two World Wars’ worth of work to do it. In 1944, the sale of trousers for women in the UK was five times higher than the previous year. After running the factories and fields, there was no going back and trousers remained a staple when the soldiers returned. But like every feminist battle, nothing happens overnight. Women were not allowed to wear trousers on the U.S. Senate floor until 1993, when Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun defied the rule. It was amended soon after, with the condition that a jacket also be worn.
In 1993, while these women fought their corner, I was starting primary school. My mum had generously allowed me to wear whatever I wanted; basically the same pair of red dungarees every day and jumpers from the C&A boy’s section. Then my little sister came along and demanded a different party dress for every day of the week.
Sometimes, people are just going to be who they’re going to be. My sister and I had identical upbringings and chalk and cheese was the result. But as we got older, it got easier for her and harder for me. In a world where she was Exhibit A: What Men Find Attractive, I continued to mould my androgyny. I hated feeling un-pretty but I bought bow ties and braces and kept going. Crying in shop changing rooms and having male acquaintances explain to me why they didn’t find me sexually attractive didn’t, and couldn’t, change me.
All the while, I had the easy ride of being a cisgender white woman. Transgender people under 26 have a 48% suicide attempt rate in the UK. That’s eight times the average for 16 to 24-year-olds. I struggled, and still struggle with being a slightly quirky dresser. I can’t imagine the internal dialogue of someone who thinks they’ve been in the wrong box all their lives. At least I have the social freedom to be a bit odd, because I fit neatly into the ‘female’ category.
We literally colour code babies so people know what their genitals look like. Gender is still seen as external and rigid (and necessary), despite the fact that 1 in 100 people are born with some form of intersex anatomy. It’s still seen as a rare, personal issue that affects one in a million.
When I told my mum I was writing this, she said: “Hasn’t Will Smith’s son been pretty fluid about dressing?” Mother, you are correct; Jaden Smith is one of the faces of the Louis Vuitton Womenswear campaign. Some of the comments underneath one article about it were hideous, but unsurprising, suggesting he “man up and realise who he is” and that “the social neutering of men is underway”.
Gender should be dictated by how you regard yourself, not whether you were dressed in blue or pink all those years ago. The only reason to be threatened by the sight of a young man in a skirt is if the current system benefits you. Imagine young transgender people being able to dress and express themselves however they want without almost of half of them trying to kill themselves.
To some people, Capetillo’s antagonistic act pales in comparison with the tangible changes she made to worker’s and women’s rights in her country. She declared she was men’s equal with a pair of trousers, which to me is as big a statement as any other she made. She laid the foundations for every person wearing something from the wrong section of a clothing store. She showed women can wear and do anything a man can. She made me feel okay about the bow tie collection in a suitcase under my bed.