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Photo: Gender Free World Clothing/Facebook

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Androgyny Shouldn’t Just Be for Thin People

A step forward in body diversity makes it all the more noticeable when yours is the shape that’s still not being served.

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Once, and only once, a stranger called me “sir.” It was right after I shaved my head for the first time. I felt amazing, even pretty, playing with the tension between my buzz cut and my otherwise femme presentation. But that day, after I walked the three blocks to the grocery store bare-faced and sweating in the Tucson, Arizona, heat, the cashier at Fry’s handed me my change and said, “Have a good weekend, sir.”

It was meant, I am fairly certain, as an insult. I have frankly enormous breasts, and that day I was wearing a tank top with about a kilometer of cleavage on display. Even at my lowest of low-femme, it takes a fair amount of squinting to read me as masculine. I think he was trying to make me feel embarrassed about my haircut, or about my visible queerness in general. Still, I was amused and even pleased at the glimpse of what it might be like to live in a more ambiguous gender.

I’ve identified as femme for almost as long as I’ve identified as queer. It never felt like I had much of a choice; I hit a D cup in ninth grade, and my rack didn’t stop growing for another five years or so. I’ve always been attracted to and intrigued by butch queers, by the creativity and courage it takes to present masculinity as queer in a culture that sees masculinity as neutral. My early baby-queer crushes were on my local troupe of drag kings — bold and brash, swaggering in tight jeans, suspenders, hair gel, and eyeliner. And sure, once or twice I imagined being up there on stage with them, brainstormed stage names and choreography. But the inconvenience and discomfort of trying to wrangle my chest into approximate flatness was prohibitive even in my fantasies.

After my teen years, I seldom toyed with the idea of presenting more androgynously. For most of my adolescence and adulthood, it was hard enough to find clothes designed for people with breasts that would accommodate mine. I was plus-size all over but two sizes larger on the top than the bottom, so most dresses were out. Button-down shirts mocked me. Overalls snickered to each other as I passed. My primary criterion for choosing an item of clothing was stretchiness.

Butch clothes were not stretchy. They weren’t soft. They were crisp, fitted, precise in all the ways my clothes were not. The masculine-presenting girls I knew in high school and college were resourceful, layering too-small sports bras and Ace bandages (no one I hung out with could afford a quality binder) until they could fit into tailored linen shirts, but when I tried on “minimizer” bras, I spilled out like Jessica Rabbit. So I wore shirts and dresses that were too small, but at least in a way that looked intentional rather than delusional.

Plus-size fashion has come a long way since I was a teenager trying to find a prom dress that wasn’t made of polyester (I did not succeed). More and more brands are realizing that people over a size 12 exist and have bodies that need to be protected from the elements and maybe even look stylish in the process. There are brands that sell button-down shirts specifically for the huge-boobed now. The whole conversation around body size and fashion has shifted dramatically, and while the options for fat women are still lagging way behind what’s available in “straight” sizes, it’s beautiful to see the progress being made by fat activists in and adjacent to the fashion industry.

At the same time, a growing recognition for androgynous women and transmasculine people is spilling over onto clothing racks. Evan Rachel Wood and Octavia Spencer wearing pantsuits on the red carpet was just the beginning of a huge upswing in visible women taking “menswear-inspired” to the next level. The jacket Lena Waithe wore to accept her Emmy had queer women everywhere uncertain whether we wanted to borrow it or be it. And then, of course, there’s Kristen Stewart. Lithe in movement and minimal in expression, Stewart is the perfect face for today’s renaissance — or is it really just a naissance? — of androgynous fashion.

Though it’s often used to describe a stripped-down masculine aesthetic, androgyny of course can — and should — mean a wide spectrum of styles, embracing different mixtures of masculinity and femininity. Gender-neutral or gender-bending clothing for people of all body types is having a long overdue moment both on runways and in stores, but for people with bodies that curve in noticeable, traditionally “feminine” ways, it’s particularly difficult to find garments that cross the lines. Anything soft or stretchy ends up hugging our curves and encourages the tendency to read us as femme; on my frame, a plain white T-shirt looks girly.

For a more masculine vibe, we need structure, tailoring, and crisp lines — all things that are so very difficult to find in size Titties For Days. Slender and less curvy female-designated bodies have had some access to clothing across the gender spectrum for a long time, but it’s only recently that “menswear, but for people with curves” has become a niche market getting some actual attention.

However, the definition of “curve” still remains disappointingly, well, narrow. Wildfang is the androgynous clothing brand on the tip of everyone’s tongue (and hanging in every feminist celebrity’s closet), but its largest shirt size is 2x, and its curviest model wears a D cup. For me and my J cups, and for anyone who wears above a size 18, it’s hopeless. Bethnals’s unisex denim shirt stops at XL, as does Androgyny’s button-down collection. Gender Free World offers all of its shirts in three different cuts for various bodies of any gender — straight up and down, larger in the chest, or larger in the hips — but every one of those shirts, no matter how hard I covet them, refuses to come in anything larger than a US size 18.

I drool when I scroll through all those websites, imagining how I’d mix a few of those quirky fitted shirts with my vast collection of jean skirts and leggings, but it’s all in vain because none of them will ever fit me. As is so often the case, a step forward in body diversity makes it all the more noticeable when yours is the shape that’s still not being served.

I can’t entirely fault designers for not expanding their size ranges. Although the rise of gender-neutral clothing has been widely noted, it’s not necessarily a stable business model just yet. Androgynous clothing companies launch and flop with sad regularity; a roundup of gender-bending clothing brands from five years ago yields more defunct links than working stores. When my partner was pregnant and desperate for some kind of clothing that made room for both his baby bump and his masculinity, we were wildly disappointed that Butchbaby & Co was slated to launch shortly after his due date but looked forward to shopping there for future pregnancies. The line now appears to be on permanent hiatus. In an industry that still sees plus-size clothing as a risk, and when design students are seldom even offered the opportunity to practice making clothes for larger sizes, it’s not shocking that manufacturers struggling to stay afloat would concentrate their resources where they’re most confident.

But fat and curvy people want to look cute and eschew the gender binary too. When Qwear Fashion published a roundup of tips from androgynous plus-size fashionistas, almost all of them talked about shopping around extensively to make the best of the limited options available. Creativity and resourcefulness are great, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were options besides that or going naked? Not everyone wants to spend a lot of time shopping and curating the perfect outfit, but everyone should still have the ability to dress in clothes that fit their bodies and genders.

While some companies do offer bespoke suits for all body types — the best option for a sharp, tailored fit, if you can afford it — financial accessibility is the sticking point. Fat people and LGBTQ people are both disproportionately likely to experience poverty, yet it’s those communities in particular that have a hard time finding affordable clothes. Plus-size costs more. Gender-nonconforming costs more. And because the demand for those kinds of garments so far outstrips the supply, they’re especially difficult to locate in the thrift store — you know, the place where I and most of my queer friends get the majority of our clothes. Maybe we could start some kind of Siblinghood of the Traveling Blazer, where a bunch of curvy queers go in on one really nice item of clothing and share custody.

But unless that idea gets more traction than I’m anticipating, I’ll just keep wearing out my Cowcow dresses and secondhand sweaters, storing my dapper fantasies in the same box where I keep indulgent dreams like backpacking across Europe or paying off my student loans. It’s not that I don’t like my femme clothes; I just wish they didn’t feel like my only option. Today’s hip androgynous brands operate on the assumption that your assigned gender shouldn’t dictate what styles you get to wear. I look forward to the day when more of them realize that the same is true about size.


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View all stories in Essays