Fashion and personal style have always played an important role in the queer community. While fashion has stereotypically been associated with queer men, fashion of queer women has an equally rich social and political history. One of the more infamous examples of queer women expressing themselves through style is in butch fashion.
Masculine dress by queer women began as early as the late nineteenth century. While queer men were beginning to engage in more feminine fashion styles, men’s jackets, top hats, monocles, and other menswear items became popular among lesbian and bisexual female celebrities of the time. The styles were also adopted by early feminists in attempt to rebel against traditional femininity. Later, in the 1970’s, menswear worn by lesbians and other queer women became both a rebellion against traditional femininity and also a way to signal their identity to other queer women.
In modern times, queer women’s fashion has evolved a bit. Short haircuts, menswear staples like bowties and suspenders, button-down shirts and flannels, beanies and snapback hats are all stereotypical fashion choices of queer women. Because of their masculine style, most of these choices are associated with butch fashion, although not every queer woman that wears them necessarily identifies with that label. But despite some changes to how that style is expressed, there continues to be certain implications that surround butch fashion.
There is an element of “visible queerness” with the butch woman that makes her identity clear to both strangers and friends. That outward queer expression has certain positive implications among queer communities. Her choice of dress implies that she is proud of her identity and she is not attempting to hide or conform to traditional femininity.
However, there can also be negative pushback among queer communities for the same characteristics. Some queer groups react negatively to butch women, claiming that they are perpetrating stereotypes too much and not helping to expand people’s views of queer people. It has also become common for some queer women to reject butch women as possible partners, often citing what has become the classic adage of “I’m attracted to women, so I want my partner to look like a woman.”
But these negative reactions become even worse among straight communities. Because of the increased “visible queerness” that often makes the butch woman fit in among queer peers, she is also subject to an increased risk of violence. Butch women are more likely than their femme counterparts to be assaulted physically or verbally by strangers, or to otherwise face some degree of prejudice because their appearances bring an otherwise invisible personality trait to the surface.
There have been a few proposed solutions to how we should solve these issues. Unfortunately, many of them rely on forcing butch women to change the way they express themselves, and the assumption that violence and prejudice will cease if butch women simply change their clothing choices.
But improving negative stereotypes is never accomplished by blaming its victims. Violence facing butch women is not their fault — homophobia and sexism are, and they have been for years.
Prejudice toward butch women is not only about clothing choices. It is a deliberate attack on both queer people and our belief of what type of femininity is acceptable, and that will not change if we simply instruct butch women to change their personal style. It will only display that violence toward what we consider “different” is acceptable and the responsibility of the victims to change, and also suggests that deep-rooted prejudice can be solved through what amounts to be trivial matters.
Ultimately, the way someone chooses to outwardly express themselves is their choice, whether it is out of personal comfort or a more politically charged motivation. The way we choose to react is also our choice, but it is heavily influenced by what the dominant society has dictated is normal or acceptable.
The best way to overcome violence is to recognize that ingrained prejudice, its origins, and how it is harmful, and then to work to overcome these issues. Equally important, however, is to understand that ultimately, the root — and solutions — to these issues do not rest in the small individual choices of the victims. The queer community faces an onslaught of prejudice and violence with a long and complicated history — and it will not be resolved based on whether or not lesbians continue to wear bowties.
Delaney Murray is freshman studying journalism with a focus in news and information at Ohio University. How else do you think fashion effects queer women? Let Delaney know by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting her at @delpaulinem.