When I Want to Feel Safe, I Dress Like a Middle-Class, Middle-Aged White Woman

Rachel Charlene Lewis
When I Want to Feel Safe, I Dress Like a Middle-Class, Middle-Aged White Woman
Photo: Allison Kahler.

To start things off, I’m definitely not a fashionista.

Fashion just isn’t my thing, and I get that. Normally, I consider my style to be queer/edgy/basic: minimal color, high-waisted denim, raw hems and faux-vintage tees—usually accessorized with a vegan leather bookbag, my girlfriend’s old Converse and, of course, the unofficial/official bisexual haircut. But when I need something, like to buy a car or go to the doctor, I turn to my secret style icons: middle-class, middle-aged white women.

For me, style is more about identity—and about survival—than anything else.

queer style When I Want to Feel Safe, I Dress Like a Middle Class, Middle Aged White Woman

My day-to-day aesthetic. (Courtesy of author.)

MORE: How Masturbation Helps 9 Women and Femmes Cope with Anxiety

Take last year when my partner and I got a new (used) car. I asked her to dig through the closet to find her old crossbody bag. She looked at me like she had no idea what I was talking about but took the time to find it and throw it my way. I paired it with a top from Madewell (a gift from my dad, because Madewell, though glorious, is expensive) and a pair of light-washed skinny jeans. I think I may have even worn flats.

Clearly, this doesn’t fit my day-to-day aesthetic. I get that my body type (and even my race) precludes me from giving off major androgyny vibes. (So much of androgyny is based on super-skinny white people—no judgment to those individuals, but it definitely limits what curvier people of color have access to identity-wise.) But I do try to dress at least kind of gay.

And while I’d like to say there’s no such thing as dressing gay and that fashion has nothing to do with identity, race, sexuality or otherwise, it does.

For me, style is more about identity—and about survival—than anything else.

The way I dress is the way I communicate with the world about who I am. Sometimes, I want nothing more than for people to understand that, no, my partner and I are not roommates, or best friends, or sisters—or twins, which we’re asked a lot, somehow. I want them to see our relationship as valid and real and important, worthy of a proper title that actually represents what we are to each other. And that means I reach for a different set of clothing than I do when we’re heading to the car dealership.

When I want to feel respected, though, I pair vests with quarter zips and leggings. I wear running shoes with jeans. I hang a crossbody bag from my shoulder. I wear a bra. Earrings. With each layer I trick myself into feeling like the world sees me as less queer, less black, less wrong—more worthy of a loan, more worthy of health care, more worthy of being seen as a person and not a threat.

safe style When I Want to Feel Safe, I Dress Like a Middle Class, Middle Aged White Woman

My car dealership aesthetic. (Courtesy of author.)

MORE: Why Does Pop Culture Asexualize and Hypersexualize Gay Asian Men?

I understand that, at the end of the day, this is ridiculous. Who we are and how we should be treated should have nothing to do with what we wear. They’re just clothes, right? But I also know that, at the end of the day, I often feel like my identity is less important to the world around me than the way that identity is perceived. I might identify as black and queer, but because of what I look like, people don’t always see that. Sometimes that means I’m safer. Sometimes it means I feel erased and isolated.

Sometimes I’m so afraid of the world around me and the people in it that I try to manipulate the way I’m perceived in this extremely active way—mentally scrolling through the closets all of the “respectable white women” I’ve known and walked past in the grocery store, trying to select specific items of clothing they had on.

It’s a version of passing that, like most, isn’t real in any legitimate, permanent way. I don’t believe in professional dress codes or using the right silverware to impress people, but this is the one thing I still can’t let go of. I know that I’m queer and black/biracial regardless of how I try to look. I know that I’m marginalized because of those two things regardless of the imitation whiteness I pull from the depths of my closet and onto my body.

But I do it anyway, because my need to feel safe runs deeper than my need to be right or my need to be my full, actual self, and still live.

I understand that, at the end of the day, this is ridiculous. They’re just clothes, right? But I often feel like my identity is less important to the world around me than the way that identity is perceived.

I wouldn’t do this if middle-class white women didn’t receive a sort of respect that I’ve really never felt. When this very specific brand of white woman reaches for her vest, or her printed dress, or her ironed jeans and monogrammed T-shirt, she’s stepping into a version of respect that most of us don’t get to feel. She’s dressing up because she wants to, or not dressing up because she doesn’t. And while white women obviously still face sexism, and homophobia, and other awful difficulties women have to face because of how we’re perceived, it’ll never be because of their race.

Their whiteness itself acts as a dressing that, with no effort on their part, makes them look more respectable than I’ll ever be able to be in this body, no matter how many quilted vests and expensive, neat blouses I button up.

share