I've been hesitating to write this entry because I don't know whether to make it instructional or confessional. Perhaps it is neither.
A few months ago, I was gearing up for a series of interviews in a very conservative (socially, not politically) industry. I was planning to wear my dark grey men's suit with the lovely, unstructured shoulders, complete with a purple checked tie. But one of my mentors got to me first (not you, CB). I should add that this woman is queer, in case that matters to you. I'll call her "MP" for "Mentor Person." This conversation occurred:
MP: So... You're not going to wear men's clothes to the interviews, are you?
MP: Look, you want a job, right?
BW: Right, but at what cost?
MP: Look, when you're at my level, you can wear what you want. But at this point, you want a job. You want to convey that you're like everyone else. And you don't want the interviewers thinking about your clothes.
BW: I don't care if they think about my clothes.
MP: Yes, you do. You don't want them staring at you thinking, "Is she wearing men's underwear?"
BW: I'll just walk in, wink, and tell them, "Nope."
MP: No to the men's underwear?
BW: No to the men's underwear! Well... today, anyway.
Okay, so then MP--who, let me stress, is someone I trust and who is invested in my professional success--tells me her hypothesis about gender conformity and clothing. Basically, she says that there are four components to a professional outfit:
2. Something over the shirt, like a blazer or jacket or sweater
MP's theory is that of these items, at least two need to be from the women's department so as not to attract undue attention/speculation/consternation. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to order a "shell" shirt from L.L. Bean or one of those other places. I told her I thought it was absurd. I resisted. I argued.
And then I gave in--partly.
On my way home that day, I stopped at Macy's and tried on approximately 15 women's suits. I do not like women's suits because they tend to lack pockets, to have too-short jackets, and to be cut in weird ways that make my hips look extra hipp-y and my boobs look extra boob-y. Finally, I found one that was relatively inoffensive, except that the jacket was a little too short. Whatever. I bought two, in black, plus a women's Ralph Lauren shirt that was lovely and purple and striped and devoid of girlish frills. (Not a "shell" or--God forbid--a "camisole"--I'm talking about a regular collared shirt.) I took a picture of myself in the new getup and sent it to MP. Her response: "Don't you think it's a little narcissistic to send me pictures of yourself?"
Ha. From MP, that's approval.
The next day, unprompted, MP loaned me actual, real pearls, because she said rich people can tell the difference between real pearls and fake pearls and I was likely to encounter people who had grown up wealthy. I am extremely skeptical of pearls, but since these were small and looked shockingly non-dowdy with my new, very sharp shirt, I went for it.
So according to MP's formula I was more than sufficiently girly: pants, suit jacket, shirt. Three out of four! (There was no way in hell I was going to wear women's shoes.) Plus pearls!
Looking in the mirror the day of my interviews, I realized that there was still no way anyone would mistake me for straight: my ever-present tiny silver hoops, very short haircut, and men's shoes gave me away. Even with pearls, I didn't look feminine, but at least I was closer to Ellen's look than to Lea DeLaria's. (Point of clarification: I like Lea DeLaria and her look; I'm not knocking it, just saying that I didn't want to embody it that day.)
Among the sea of other interviewees, I was still by far the least gender-conforming person. I might as well have been wearing a rainbow sticker on my forehead. Still, the cut of my suit allowed me to look conforming enough for interviewers not to dismiss me, and masculine enough that I felt comfortable. In fact, I felt like quite the powerful dyke.
Did I "betray" my butchness by wearing a lady-suit? Maybe. Would I have been more "true" to myself in a men's suit and tie? Maybe. But at the same time, I thought carefully about the degree of "compromise" I was willing to make, and what I was and wasn't willing to sacrifice to fit in. More gender conformity would have gone over better with interviewers, I suspect. Still, I have to admit that I felt proud of finding a balance that worked for me in this particular situation, and grateful to MP for giving me the heads-up that I needed to make a few changes if I wanted to be in the ballpark.
As you can tell, I'm still wrestling with it. I loathe the idea of compromising to "fit in." But I also loathe the idea of not getting the job I want because I was too stubborn to take off my damn tie. At least for me, being butch is partly about being true to myself, and partly about finding a balance that will let me be myself while accomplishing what I want to accomplish. (And finally getting some power, so that I can not only put my own tie back on, but hire plenty of other tie-wearing women when I'm the one making the decisions.)
I bet some of you can relate to this. For those of you in industries where you're likely to be punished for gender non-conformity, what do you do? What kinds of balance have you found, and how has it worked?
5/9/2014 08:59:22 am
I tend to compromise too - even though I am already employed. Almost no one in my company cares about my sexual orientation, but it's a very girly girl workplace and gender non-conformity is much more confusing for them. I'm working on changing that a little at a time.
5/9/2014 01:24:39 pm
I know exactly how you feel. A long time ago, I would wear a dress once in awhile to teach. Then I couldn't take it anymore. I bought a few women's suits for when I needed to negotiate. I started doing men's/boys clothes phasing them in slowly so it seemed natural to my students and employers. Then I came out. A funny thing happened. My clothes became more masculine, BUT some days I would be in drag. Back to a woman's suit or maybe a dress. Hey, the guys can do drag. Me, too! Since I dress more masculine every day, I feel like women's clothes are "in drag." I guess I couldn't do the drag king thing, because that's my every day wear.
5/10/2014 02:42:46 am
BW, I get the struggle. For me, it's always me. Bowties, men's shirts, suits, and shoes. I hung up my pearls when I came out to myself as butch. I support anyone's desire to wear them, but I won't dress differently to make others feel more comfortable. If I was just starting out in my career, would I be as confident? I can't know. I say, confidence is most important. If the women's suit and RL shirt you landed with made you feel confident, that's most important.
5/10/2014 04:14:06 am
Hope you won't mind if a guy weighs in. I'm in a position where I have a strong influence on hiring. If you came into the interview room looking like you spent time putting yourself together... tailored outfit with close attention to details, but wearing it like you live in it all the time, it helps me believe I'm seeing the real professional you. If you look stiff and uncomfortable I figure you are normally not this nice and wonder what else you're glossing over. You want to dress *appropriately* for the position, but you have to be relaxed and confident in what you wear. It says, "I'm a pro and what you see is me. I'm always this good." It's a great way to start the interview. Whether it's too butch or not... I think you struck a great balance in what you ended up choosing. If what you choose to wear to work makes your boss or co-workers uncomfortable, well... it's a workplace, after all. Not the bar.
5/10/2014 01:14:04 pm
Everyone has to make her own peace but I wouldn't have recommended the pearls in one million years or any women's clothing if you didn't feel 100 percent comfortable. If it wasn't you, then why present someone that wasn't you? I guess I have the luxury of living in a city that is liberal, east coast so maybe that is a huge difference but I cannot imagine encouraging my butch wife to be anything other than who she is. And pearls doesn't even come close.
I agree that she was trying to protect me, but I think that what she was trying to protect me from was my own idealism. I had this very, "I am who I am" idea of self-presentation. And she was like, fine, present that way if you want, but know that wearing a tie WILL disadvantage you in this industry. If you're fine with that, great. But it may be a sacrifice you don't want to make till you've broken in. Sadly, I think she is right. I respect the whole, "If they don't want me for me, screw 'em" attitude, but... At entry-level in my industry, I think it actually would have meant screwing myself out of a job. Who knows.
I think there's way more ambiguity in these matters than a simple black & white, "you're with me or you're not" disposition, and I respect that you found what was comfortable at this juncture. Also believe in the opportunity to which you allude, for hiring "...plenty of other tie-wearing women." Just hope you'll consider there's ambiguity there, too... and that a woman who wears pearls honestly (and chucks on her feet), is also worth some consideration :)
5/20/2014 02:38:56 am
Luckily for me working in the medical field my choice to dress more femenine or masculine is as simple as the cut and color of my scrubs and no one, least of all the patients seem to care too much. I've gotten more flack for my haircut than my clothes, but If I know I have an interview when I go get my hair cut I always ask them to leave it a little long. I go for a more feminine cut until I'm established enough in the job to chop it off. I need to make sure I have a rapport with my patients before being my true self because a lot of older adults really don't understand that a masculine woman can care for them just as well as their more traditional view of a caretaker.
Ugh, Ive had this same thing recently. I'm unemployed and am only now just starting to get called for interviews. I don't wear ties to them, mostly because I don't like how they look if fully closed on me, and I'm not going to be wearing a half-mast tie to an interview! I tend to go with that shoes, pants, shirt, "something on top" rule too, but that " 2 must be from x department" is a bit odd. I will wear what fits me properly, and usually that means everything except pants from the men's section. And really, a shirt is a shirt. Shoes are shoes. Even if I wanted to I couldn't wear standard women's shoes, I have really big feet". My hair is my big worry- a faded pompadour isn't exactly interview appropriate, but then in my industry that wouldn't be appropriate for a guy to wear. So I have it toned down at the moment in case I get interviews.
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