In next month’s US Vogue, actor Ellen Page explains in newsworthy fashion why coming out has rekindled her love of fashion: “I used to feel this constant pressure to be more feminine,” she explains, adding: “You need to wear a dress or people will think you’re gay … Now I feel a sense of freedom in dressing.”
Page is far from the first gay woman to discover new-found sartorial freedom after coming out. Though I realised I was into girls at around four, it took until 14 to come out, and then 17 to tell my mum. I think she must have realised when I started cutting my hair (with a razor, in the shower) to make my hair like Shane’s from The L Word. “Don’t you want boys to like you?” she asked. And now I wonder, like Page, how many women – straight or not – would benefit from never having to consider what a man – real or imagined – thought of their clothes.
After coming out, excluding time spent at uni in the mid-noughties’ ubiquitous cut-off denim skirts, I’ve stuck to outfits a bloke could wear without being heckled – and which I call butch chic. To me, butch chic is printed shirts without frills and skirts without peplums or lace – or any of those things that look pretty, or pretty uncomfortable depending how you look at it. Functionality takes precedence, with elements taken from queer-friendly subcultures: punkishly torn vests, riot grrrl boots, hip-hop’s baggy T-shirts and grungey jumpers. What’s more, most gay women I know dress using elements of the above; it’s not only a uniform, but a Freemason’s handshake. It’s how we could tell the queer from the straight. So it’s no surprise that Ellen Page prefers a Saint Laurent suit to a pretty dress.
It used to act as code for your sexuality but now things have changed. News that the biggest trend of the season is unisex – which, let’s face it, draws on some of the things I’ve mentioned, perhaps with a cleaner cut – has complicated things. From gender-neutral style at JW Anderson to unisex shopping areas at Selfridges to next season’s Saint Laurent collection, what was once a queer-owned style has shifted to the mainstream, being appropriated by straight women to the point that it’s now impossible to infer a sexual orientation from the way a woman dresses.
Obviously it’s fine. I’m not one to tell straight women to dress straight and vice versa, but it’s certainly having an impact on gay women. What was once lesbian code is now merely on-trend, thanks to the high-street ubiquity of unisex outfitters such as American Apparel and Uniqlo and the androgynous cuts of Scandinavian shops like Cos. Add to that the rise of gender-free accessories (Grenson shoes, beautiful and virtually indistinguishable between genders). Some women are shirking the “boyfriend” cut for actual men’s clothes, something we gay women have been doing for years.
Celebrity influence has also helped, from the ever-quirky Tilda Swinton to the more tabloid-friendly, youth-appealing sorts such as Cara Delevingne, who’s fronting this season’s DKNY campaign in suits and tees. Even Emma Stone, who happens to be straight, prefers to put a little subtle butchness into her off-duty looks, dressing like a cross between Kristen Stewart and preppy Taylor Swift. As for singers Jessie Ware and Lorde, both are styled by Avigail Claire – who just knows how a monochrome masculine cut works on a feminine physique.
Stepping outside of sexuality, it’s an interesting shift for fashion. If lesbians and bisexual women dress butch, it’s not necessarily because they want to be boys, or deliberately to peacock for other women. They’re doing it because they don’t necessarily aspire to a supposed male ideal of what looks cute; they’re more interested in wearing what’s most comfortable to them, that or emulate ‘out’ model Freja Beha Erichsen in black tees, black jeans and biker jackets.
For me, it’s a question of comfort and a lack of fear of being judged for “looking like a lesbian”, because, well, I kind of am. That’s why I love labels such as Wildfang , an American company that makes men’s clothes in female cuts for “tomboys”. It’s a women-ready menswear delight.
It’s nice to fall, accidentally, into fashion, but I also miss the exclusivity of what we wore. It’s not only going to be harder for lesbians to pull, now that every woman is wearing these signposts of queer, but I’m a bit proud of looking like a ‘dyke in those jeans’. It’s not the insult you’d assume; one friend jokingly identifies not as gay or queer, but as ‘Carhartt’. And that pride in setting yourself apart, in wilfully doing something that will never ever be done for the pleasure of a bloke, is kind of liberating.