Fashion is undeniably gendered. On a rather short spectrum, women are described as beautiful, maybe pretty. The men, they are handsome and dapper. So, what happens to the others stranded somewhere in the middle? Where does butch fashion enter the conversation?
Butch or femme? Oh, or kiki?
During the period of the 1940s up to the 1960s, lesbian identities were perceived as occupying predominantly two sexual and emotional spaces. Those spaces were either butch or femme, (anyone in-between was labelled the pejorative “kiki.”)
However, the occupation of the butch identity has never been an easy option. Historically, butch lesbians have been persecuted for their masculine appearances, they have been perceived as “tough kids” (from which “butch,” is derived), and unwelcome in their own community. In the late ’70s identifying as butch ended with being labelled as an “other” who tarnished the dominant “brand” of lesbian identification.
In the ’90s Judith Butler’s philosophical work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity changed the game for the butch identity. Butler’s widely read theories enforced that gender was a performative act which continuously normalises and consolidates our gender roles. With the new view that gender is a phenomenon that we are learning and reproducing rather than inherently possessing, the butch aesthetic became something more widely seen rather than repressed. Their identity began to be recognised as occupying a space on a large continuum of gender identity, rather than incorrectly being viewed as a woman simply wanting to be mistaken as a man. With pictures of K.D. Lang featuring on Vanity Fair, Alison Bechdel publishing her comic strips Dykes to watch out for and Leslie Feinberg releasing her novel Stone Butch Blues, butch women were finally being given a positive representation in mainstream culture.
So what happened?
Being butch is a continuous, fluid and changing identity. It has changed consistently over time. We can see the change between the measly 80 years between the births of Radcylffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness, and some more familiar names such as Ellen Degeneres, Lea Delaria and Kimberly Peirce. I may be able to draw up more examples of names of butch women represented in the arts and mainstream culture now than I would be able to from 100 years ago, but the space for these women to be represented, devoid from brutal stereotyping, is still not available or practised thoroughly.
The LGBTQ+ Community has been thriving and continuing to fight for their freedom to live accordingly to their values and rights. Their work has gone towards securing the right to same sex marriage in 29 countries and the recognition of the need to redefine gender, all while continuing to call out discrimination and demanding inclusivity in all areas of life. However, butch lesbians are often still something of a mystery as a general consensus. They are often misunderstood and misrepresented by cisgender actors, accused of wanting to be and look like men and presented as lone wolves outcast by society. When not presented as alone, they are often presented with their “femme,” counterpart replicating the damaging construction that relationships must consist of one characteristically masculine-identifying individual, and one feminine.
Ultimately, their nuanced stories are not being captured.
This is where fashion comes into it…
The Butch aesthetic is not one thing: it is a political act, it is visible sexuality, varying directions, confidence, androgyny, sex, and most of all, unapologetic.
However, these women are still facing obvious barriers. Model and former Olympian Casey Legler admitted, in collaboration with The New York Times style magazine, that “we exist in this realm of masculinity that has nothing to do with cis men — that’s the part only we [butches] know how to talk about,” and that is something that we rarely understand. Stereotyping these women as studs who want to dress and look like men is continuous, and in that mixed up a representation of butch women, which seems to be limited to short hair, blazers and flannel shirts, pushes their butch identity into a nicely sealed box.
This is problematic to say the least.
Being butch is a rejection of commodified femininity, but that does not mean it is not still femininity. Being a butch woman is not about wanting to be a man. It is about dressing in ways which feel sexy and authentic. It is as simple as dressing in ways which make us feel like ourselves, and there are things we can begin trying to understand to help raise their voices so that everyone can hear. We could start by understanding that butch women are not all the same, they do not all identify the same way, like the same things, dress the same, only like “femme,” women or even want to give a name to their means of presenting themselves. They may feel more comfortable in clothes categorised as male, but they do not occupy or wish to occupy the same space as men.
We can all start giving butch women an authentic platform for self-expression by realising beauty does not need to be gendered, and neither do clothes really, girls don’t have to be pretty, they can be dapper and masculine without being mistakenly called “sir”. Gender is to again be reinvented as not some inherent trait, but an unapologetic expression of our character, expressed in whichever way we choose.