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‘The right to be handsome’: As the conversation around gender identity evolves, so does the fashion

May 31, 2015 at 11:08 AM EST
Diane Sawyer's interview last month with Olympic champion Bruce Jenner, who came out as a transgender woman, reignited a national conversation about the complexities of gender presentation and sexuality. NewsHour's Ivette Feliciano reports on how the explosion of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the mainstream media is impacting clothing options for the LGBTQ community.
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RACHEL TUTERA: My gender identity is really based in both my experiences as a woman– and also it’s just deeply rooted in the f– the fact that I’m masculine…

IVETTE FELICIANO: Rachel Tutera says it wasn’t until she started wearing boy’s clothes as a pre-teen, that she started to feel like the most authentic version of herself. Yet the 30-year-old says shopping for clothes in the men’s department left her feeling insecure and self-conscious. Nothing ever fit her proportions. So she was resigned to thinking that’s just the way it was.

RACHEL TUTERA: I got used to wearing clothes that hid me. I thought I would just end up being someone who would prefer to be overlooked, or not worth sort of a second glance.

RACHEL TUTERA: “Typically you show a little bit of cuff …”

IVETTE FELICIANO: After years of frustration shopping off the rack, Tutera decided to purchase her first tailored men’s suit…and she says the way she felt when she tried it on changed her life.

RACHEL TUTERA: Having something custom-made for my body basically reintroduced me to my body and I have felt, like, incredibly visible in a way that’s not just causing people to take a second look at me, but I think people see me in a way that may actually be aligned with how I see myself. And that has been the most, like, powerful, mind-blowing thing.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The experience made Tutera want to pass that feeling on to others. So she approached the New York based made-to-order-men’s suit company, “Bindle and Keep” convincing the owner that he was overlooking an under-served market…Not only masculine women, but also transgender men and other gender non-conforming people who want well-fitting, men’s suits. She soon became the company’s LGBTQ liaison, serving hundreds of people all over the country who sometimes spend up to 1,500 dollars for their custom made suit.

RACHEL TUTERA: This is not just a need that is being recognized in progressive cities.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Has it been emotional for any of your clients?

RACHEL TUTERA: Yes it has been emotional for sure. Shopping or wearing clothes seems like a really mundane thing. But actually it’s, like, incredibly meaningful and incredibly powerful and it can really, like, make or break an identity.

ANN PELLEGRINI: There are so many different ways to be gender nonconforming. And there’s an explosion of new vocabularies– to talk about it.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Ann Pellegrini is the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality at New York University.

ANN PELLEGRINI: Many gender non-conforming people don’t experience themselves as having been born into the wrong body. But– they might find themselves deeply uncomfortable with the kinds of straightjackets of gender. The ways in which, you know, you’re supposed to sort of present, again, this very narrow notion of femininity if you have a female body, a very narrow notion of masculinity if you have a male body.

“I’m not stuck in anybody’s body, it’s just who I am as a person.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: Last month about 17-million people tuned in to watch legendary Olympic gold medalist and cable TV star Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer. They discussed the long-speculated-upon subject of Jenner’s transgender identity. While Jenner identifies as a woman, he has not yet indicated that a new name or pronouns should be used, and he also says he’s heterosexual, introducing many viewers to a complex gender identity-one that doesn’t fit neatly into a male/female binary.

Yet Ann Pellegrini says even before this big TV. moment, momentum was already building, as recently there has been an explosion of gender non-conforming people in mainstream media, challenging conventional gender roles.

KATIE COURIC: This is the first time an openly transgender person has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine…Why now do you think, Laverne?

LAVERNE COX: Because of the internet and because of social media trans people we our voices now, and we are letting our voice be heard.

JANET MOCK: I think that we are born and we’re assigned a sex at birth. That is a matter none of us have control over. But we do have control over our destinies and over our identities — and we should be respected.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Professor Ann Pellegrini believes that the growing visibility of gender-non-conforming people and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 37 states, has forced the fashion world to acknowledge the presence and buying power of the LGBTQ community.

ANN PELLEGRINI: The really short answer would be capitalism. At the end of the day it’s about seeing that there’s a market.

RACHEL TUTERA: I’ve met a lot of people who say things like they’ve been putting off getting married for ten years because they couldn’t fathom what they would wear.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The research company, Gallup, estimates about 780,000 people have joined same-sex marriages since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize them. Since then, more than a dozen fashion brands that specifically cater to what they call the “unconventionally masculine” have taken off around the country.

IVETTE FELICIANO: And now many mainstream fashion institutions are following suit. In 2012, Ford Models chose female Olympic swimmer and New York artist, Casey Legler, as its newest menswear model. In the same year, Yves Saint Laurent chose a female model as the face of its Spring/Summer menswear collection. Last year, luxury retailer Barneys New York featured 17 transgender models in its spring campaign. And just this year Vogue magazine profiled a transgender model for the first time in the magazine’s history.

ANN PELLEGRINI: None of these designers would be sort of trying to produce clothes that would appeal to masculine women if they didn’t think there were people who could walk in with a wallet and pull out a credit card.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Though mainstream designers are starting to cater to the needs of the LGBTQ community, some shoppers say that sort of acceptance hasn’t trickled down to their stores.

IVETTE FELICIANO: What was surprising to you when just trying to shop at a store– and going into a fitting room?

RACHEL TUTERA: There’s a weird tendency in people to panic when they can’t tell if you’re a man or a woman, or how you or how you may identify.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Rachel Tutera says many gender non-conforming people experience being forcefully removed from gendered fitting rooms by salespeople, and that discrimination and judgment is often inevitable. That’s why three years ago she started a fashion blog called “The Handsome Butch”. The site hopes to empower readers with a simple message, which is that they too have “the right to be handsome.”

RACHEL TUTERA: It was almost like a meditation I had for myself when I was first shopping. It was, “I have the right to be here”. I think I just had to say over and over to myself, “you have the right to be handsome. You have the right to be handsome–” until it actually felt like a right instead of, like– like, a meditation I was trying to convince myself was true.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Tutera’s work will be featured in an upcoming documentary produced by Lena Dunham of the hit HBO series “Girls”. She says the one thing she won’t be tailoring in the coming months is her message.

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