Fashion Kills: How to Be Fearless in the Modern Age
Falling James

Fashion Kills: How to Be Fearless in the Modern Age

Fashion is dangerous. The danger goes beyond the perils of cluelessly mixing stripes and polka dots or defying the cliché that white can't be worn after Labor Day. In many places, wearing the wrong dress — or even the wrong fabric or color — can get you killed.

As many women know, simply dressing with any hint of flair, color or sensuality often comes with the risk of being harassed — or worse — by strangers. But it also happens to men, or anybody else who wants to look different.

"What we wear is dangerous gear/It'll get you picked on anywhere," Joe Strummer sang on The Clash's 1977 single "City of the Dead." He and co-songwriter Mick Jones were talking specifically about being physically attacked for wearing punk fashions, but their lyrics resonate with anyone who dresses in styles that are considered outside of accepted conservative American social norms. This can include people in the counterculture (rappers, goths, hippies, metalheads, even cosplayers) or from different ethnic groups and religious backgrounds (Muslims, Sikhs, Native Americans, Asians, conservative Jews, etc.), as well as those who identify as gay, lesbian, trans or nonbinary.

The idea of gender — like fashion itself — is always changing and ever evolving. It wasn't so long ago that it was considered socially unacceptable for women to wear pants. Eventually, women dressing in pants became fairly commonplace in Western culture, thanks in part to actors such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, who boldly ignored the dictates of their era. By definition, any woman who wears pants is a transvestite, crossing assigned gender lines and rules, but few women are discriminated against these days for making that choice. And yet that same freedom to cross-dress outside of social boundaries is still denied to men who identify as — or merely want to dress as — women.

It's often considered cute when a waiflike woman chooses to casually put on her football-player boyfriend's oversize jersey, but when a man dares to reveal his adoration for overtly feminine women by dressing, for instance, as a cheerleader, he is routinely reviled and shunned as a freak in most quarters of modern society. Part of the reason for that social antipathy might be aesthetic — a hulking male, improperly styled en femme, can look monstrous, like a fish out of water, when trying to fit into clothes that were designed for smaller and more feminine body types.

Against Me!
Against Me!
Casey Curry

It also doesn't help that one of the few socially acceptable outlets for men crossing perceived gender lines is as a clownish parody. Think of frat boys who put on intentionally frumpy dresses and ill-fitting skirts as a way to mock women, which far more often reveals a latent hostility toward women instead of demonstrating a fannish admiration for other gender roles. American society is only tolerant of men dressing as women as long as it's understood that the transvestism is clearly a joke, whether it's Robin Williams portraying Mrs. Doubtfire, unshaven singer Kurt Cobain occasionally wearing dresses onstage, or a scarily passable Rudy Giuliani transformed in full makeup and a dress while being pawed over by Donald Trump at a 2000 charity event. While the hirsute Cobain's half-hearted attempt to dress as a girl (and perhaps show solidarity with women) only served to emphasize his innate masculinity, Giuliani obviously took a lot more time and effort than was needed for a cheap joke during his (mock?) flirtation with his future boss.

But much of the social rejection of male cross-dressing also could be rooted in this society's overt hostility toward women and femininity in general. It's one thing for women to wear pants and silently acknowledge the implied power of male fashion roles, but when a man wears a dress, makeup and perfume, he is defying unwritten social rules and risks punishment (physical or otherwise) for rejecting his own male power and inherent advantages in a society where that's still strictly verboten.

But things are changing. Whether it's Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace bravely declaring that she was a transgender woman in 2012 and openly discussing her identity in her punk-rock lyrics, or the increased popularity of trans-friendly television series like RuPaul's Drag Race and Pose, as well as the public metamorphosis of Caitlyn Jenner from a macho athlete into a wealthy, conservative transgender symbol, there is wider acceptance and tolerance of nontraditional gender roles in modern society. It's not uncommon, for instance, for macho male athletes and many other men these days to wear earrings and other jewelry, decades after gay men paved the way for them.

Despite this shift in attitudes, transgender men and women still face enormous obstacles in gaining full acceptance in America. Even with changing and more enlightened rules in the workplace, trans people still encounter widespread discrimination in getting or holding on to their jobs, and the rates of suicide for trans people are far higher than they are for people who are considered "normal." At least three people have been murdered this year in central Florida, but because the victims are African-American trans women, the media has been largely silent about the possibility of a serial killer who is still roaming freely. Trans people are often assaulted, and many police departments refuse to show the same concern that they demonstrate for other victims of violence.

We've been here before. In the early 1970s, male glam-rock musicians rejected the casual hippie fashions of the era and began stomping around onstage in high-heeled platform boots while sporting eyeliner and glittery makeup. This trend was stronger in the United Kingdom, where such rock stars as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan were unafraid to look overtly feminine or play with gender roles. In the United States, The New York Dolls and Lou Reed tried to do much the same thing but were generally ignored by mainstream classic-rock radio. Alice Cooper had greater commercial success, but the former Vincent Furnier slathered on makeup in a horror-movie style that was largely devoid of femininity or hints of homosexuality.

Mötley Crüe circa 1983
Mötley Crüe circa 1983
Barry Levine for Elektra Records

The glam-rock scene was revived in the mid-1980s, but many of the musicians from that scene were notoriously misogynist and homophobic. Groups like Poison and Pretty Boy Floyd might have teased their hair higher and worn more face paint than most women at the time, but there was also a macho undercurrent and attitude that was hardly liberating or revolutionary. For most of these bands, their femininity was only from the waist up — a de rigueur bullet belt was often the de facto border line of their dress-up play acting. Almost none of these musicians wore skirts or stockings and instead swaggered around in leather pants and jeans to reinforce their innate masculinity.

Color and fabric can also play a big part in what's considered socially acceptable. As a trans woman, I have long been able to get away with wearing black dresses in public. Black, funeral and goth attire is far more acceptable and commonplace in public nowadays. But whenever I wear a dress that's pink — a seemingly more carefree and joyous color — I have to take extra care because that color often invites more violent assaults from hostile strangers. Similarly, men can wear form-fitting leggings now when they jog or exercise in public, but if they go even further and reveal their legs in sheer stockings or pantyhose, they also risk being attacked or judged by the cultural enforcers and busybodies of this era.

It's only when one is surrounded and accosted by a mob of drunken men in a sports bar that one recognizes the secret power — and danger — of donning seemingly harmless, flimsy fabrics like satin and nylon and cheery colors like pink and purple in this seemingly enlightened era.

A man doesn't even have to walk a mile in high heels to realize the sociological effects and risks that many fashionable women and trans people still encounter on a daily basis. Men should try dressing in drag in public for a day as an experiment, if only to see how attitudes change toward them when they dare to cross these invisible borders.

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