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Writing for the #Menswear Boys’ Club Made Me a Feminist

“The task of constantly having to assert my value started to seem insurmountable.”

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In the summer of 2011 I had a lot of things on my mind, and feminism wasn’t any of them. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and was way too busy trying to launch my Americana/heritage menswear + cocktails blog (a true sign of the times), Rye & Rivet. Put another way: I was too busy trying to get random men on the internet to validate my existence to be concerned with feminism. (No, I didn’t see the connection.)

That summer was one of the high points of the #menswear trend, which encompassed everything from sneakerheads anticipating the latest launches to recaps from the Pitti Uomo shows (mecca for #menswear nerds) to Nick Wooster idol worship. It was summertime, and the living was #sprezzy (short for the Italian “sprezzatura”). It was into this climate that I launched Rye & Rivet in its Tumblr form. I intended for it to be a one-stop location for everything old-school, with a focus on selvedge denim, veg-tanned leather, small-batch liquor, and artisanal cocktails.

On the blog, I honed a voice that was somewhere between the J. Peterman Catalogue and The Most Interesting Man In The World — a voice that was, unless you knew better, male. “Are you trying to sound like a man?” my mom asked me once, with an air of concern. I shrugged. It was my own writing, but filtered through some sort of androgynous algorithm I’d devised to try to sound like the other #menswear tumblr accounts enjoying unprecedented popularity. Key components of the tone were based on my own life, though somewhat embellished — Midwestern upbringing, brown liquor, an affinity for the handmade. But there was also something else I’d picked up from reading those other sites — a fake machismo, and a subtle disdain for women, when they were mentioned at all.

As a college student I’d spent some time writing for womenswear news sites, doing roundups of $2,000 “trendy” handbags that I knew would be out of style with the next temperature change. After a few months of this, I decided that women’s fashion was “unserious” and exclusively the pursuit of gossipy, frivolous women (I had a bad editor or two). So I was, in a way, particularly susceptible to what the “#menswear” world was offering at the time — scrolling through blog after blog of Horween leather goods and selvedge denim with “sick fades” (the lingo, often borrowed from streetwear slang, was a huge part of the culture at the time), I noticed that women were offered very little in the way of made-to-last apparel. Instead of seeing this as a deficit of the women’s market, however, I saw it as a deficit of women themselves. I turned to menswear. (Cue dramatic soundtrack.)

I quickly decided that, in order to gain any credibility, I needed to speak like the men who shopped at these stores — Red Wing and Wolverine were enjoying resurgences, spurred on by the rise of Japan’s Americana kick and new shops like Hickoree’s and Freemans Sporting Club. I created a persona that was part Mad Men devotee, part live-edge woodworker. For anyone who cared to look, there were indications sprinkled throughout the site about my true identity — guest posts on other blogs under my name, an occasional writer bio. I felt strongly about never outright lying — but most readers, who got my posts delivered to their tumblr dashboards, likely assumed the author had a closet full of Mark McNairy and The Hill-Side. I didn’t. I leaned heavily on allusions to drinking whiskey straight (which I did) and wearing selvedge denim (which I did) to communicate a (theoretical) shared air of manliness. When these brands sent me samples to review, I handed them off to male friends and family members who would report back. The #menswear world was a boy’s club, and I wanted to be seen as credible. However, attaining credibility as a woman was often as navigable as an Escher staircase.

My comfort in the menswear world began to disintegrate as Rye & Rivet gained speed. Soon I was attending trade shows, where Brooklynites with man buns would mansplain raw denim to me even after I’d handed them my letterpressed business card. Often, I’d be ignored while any male friend I’d brought along for the ride would be fawned over. I shrugged this off as just an occupational hazard — of course they assumed the dude was the one attending the menswear show — but the misogyny soon became increasingly difficult to ignore. One evening, I created and then immediately deleted an account on a popular menswear forum, after watching a thread about shopping devolve into users calling a poster’s girlfriend (who had a login of her own) a worthless slut for encroaching on this man-centric space.

There were things about the menswear community that had always rubbed me the wrong way, but in general, the makers I spoke to were thoughtful and generous with their time. It was only in the dark recesses of forums or comments sections on Complex and Hypebeast where things got really ugly. In those spaces, there were only a few types of women: stupid women who didn’t understand the necessity of the latest Raf Simons drop, slutty women who passed up menswear aficionados in favor of guys with bad style, and occasionally, the mythological “cool girl” who could drink and hang with the dudes. I’m ashamed to say, I thought I was succeeding as the latter. The concept of the cool girl was intoxicating to someone like me, but there wasn’t a single empowering female archetype presented in these spaces.

I stopped making allowances for toxic masculinity when I began to be sought after to write for other menswear sites. After working for a foreign publisher who later refused to pay our agreed-upon rate because he assumed the article on his then-unknown site “would be good publicity” for me, I began to see the blatant misogyny that had been staring me in the face. Though he had been the one to seek me out after encountering Rye & Rivet, he didn’t value my work enough to pay for it — even as he paid male contributors, a fact I discovered when he asserted that our agreed-upon rate was suddenly unreasonable because others had asked for less. The task of constantly having to assert my value started to seem insurmountable, and I was disgusted with myself for the role I had played in perpetuating my own form of misogyny. Not only had I internalized one of the oldest ways that women turn against other women — by deeming their interest in aesthetics insipid while praising men who care about the same things — but I had continued to make excuses for the men I encountered professionally.

When the same foreign publisher came knocking asking me to sign a waiver allowing him to use my work (without pay) in a collected volume that they would print and sell in perpetuity, I flatly refused. When he asked what amount it would take for me to reconsider, I consulted The Writer’s Market guide and sent over a number just under their recommendation. His response: “You and I both know that is ridiculous.” The ease with which he talked down to me even as he sought my work was a wakeup call. (He later backpedaled when I mentioned where I got the figure, asserting that he “used the same guide when setting rates for other writers” — I guess just not for me.)

The interaction left me fuming, but it also helped me draw a line between the casual devaluation of women I saw on the menswear blogs and the more direct devaluation of women’s work in a professional sense — a line that had always existed. I stopped reading many of these blogs, in part because I could no longer look past the “frat bro lite” way they spoke about women — as side chicks or slam pieces. It no longer seemed like a linguistic affectation to me. It seemed instead to validate the mistreatment that women face day in and day out and to undermine their attempts to be taken seriously. I closed tabs. I hit “unsubscribe.” And for the first time, I sought out female colleagues in the space — women who nodded emphatically when I recounted my experiences, and women who (mercifully) understood why someone like me might obscure her gender to try to fit in. The relationships I forged in the aftermath, both professional and personal, upended everything I thought I understood about women in fashion. They were not unserious. They were not catty. They seemed genuinely invested in my success, in more ways than one — not the least of which was paying fairly and honestly for my work. I felt valued — not in spite of being a woman, but in part, because I was one.

In the time since my #menswear days, I’ve taken on a new personal hashtag — #NastyWoman. I can often be found deconstructing the toll of emotional labor or imposter syndrome with friends. I’m a proud feminist and, most importantly, I no longer apologize for the space that I take up, whether in a male-dominated realm or not. And I’m in the early stages of a new online project — a webshop called HEALER that brings some of the “buy less, buy better” ideology of Rye & Rivet to the opposite sex. Both the name and the motto (“for wise women”) pay homage to the strength and resiliency of strong ladies throughout history — some of whom broke into men’s spheres with boldness and audacity that puts my little internet jaunt to shame. There is no part of the word “feminist” that I shrink from now — it’s a label I wear proudly. Instead, I cringe at who I used to be, seeking approval as a “cool girl,” contorting myself to be accepted in a world created for men, by men.

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