At my second cousin’s twenty-first birthday party last weekend, my father and I fell into conversation with a charming young lady with short hair. ‘Nice girl, wasn’t she?’ he said to me the next day. ‘Do we think she’s gay?’
Of course, she was. She had short hair. It wasn’t just that though: white cotton shirt, tan chinos, and what could only be described as ‘dad shoes’. She only had to tell us about the brass band The Killers cover night that she had been to the previous weekend to confirm my suspicions. It was all these things in combination that told me she was gay, rather than the short hair alone, which is what people unfamiliar with the ins and outs of lesbian fashion tend to focus on.
Indeed, lesbian style is often ignored even in the ever-growing cisgender heterosexual circles where drag and camp fashion is considered cool, despite the former being just as rich and complex as the latter. It is not merely with short hair or masculine clothing that lesbians choose to express themselves with, but with many other subtle clues in the ways they present themselves. This method of making themselves known to other lesbians and LGBT people is called flagging. Examples of lesbian flags include but are not limited to flannel shirts, accessories bearing designs of iconography such as a labrys, a double or single venus sign, or violets, badges with pride slogans, and wearing keys on a carabiner clipped to a belt loop.
In the US, the 1940s saw the rise of the butch-femme subculture, which was primarily practised in working-class bars. Butch and femme are both intricately complex identities but can be simply explained in these terms: butches defy traditional femininity by rejecting it entirely, whereas femmes defy it by subverting it. It is a common misconception that femmes are for the most part indistinguishable from straight women, but they are not much less gender-nonconforming as butches are. Femmes perform femininity but in ways that make it known, they wish to be desired by other women. This usually takes the form in styles that are ‘unfashionable’, and unattractive to men, often including statements such as mismatched earrings, either bold and unusual makeup or no makeup at all, outdated clothes, and ‘unflattering’ colour schemes. In the seventies, radical feminists criticised butch-femme relationships as imitating heterosexuality, as there appeared to be a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’, but this was not the case. There were gender roles assigned to the two identities but did not echo the roles of straight men and women exactly. For example, butches were indeed supposed to be strong, and protect their femmes from danger, but femmes were the primary breadwinners in their relationships, as it was difficult for butches to be hired when women were expected to conform to strict dress codes in higher paying jobs.
Nowadays, the butch and femme identities are less at the forefront of lesbian culture, but the idea of the distance from straight traditional womanhood still appeals to many lesbians. Hence, some lesbians still identify as butch or femme, or identify as neither, and present either androgynously or as a mixture of masculine and feminine as the fancy takes them. I, for one, don’t wear particularly masculine clothes, but delight in the confusion that short hair and baggy hoodies cause, sometimes resulting in being called ‘sir’ at Starbucks. It is uncommon but not unusual for lesbians to take their gender-nonconformity as far as going by masculine or neutral pronouns, particularly in non-English speaking countries. Leslie Feinberg, a butch lesbian, activist, and author who is most commonly known for hir book ‘Stone Butch Blues’ viewed hir own pronoun usage as ‘always placed within context’. Ze didn’t mind being referred to as ‘she’ in the company of cisgender heterosexual people, explaining that ‘referring to me as “he” would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression’. However, ze did also like to be referred to with different pronouns, saying that ‘I like the gender neutral pronoun “ze/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all-trans setting, referring to me as “he/him” honours my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as “she/her” does.’
Through clothing as a mean of expression, lesbians take masculinity and femininity at their own discretion, and through this define their womanhood on their own terms, thus freeing themselves and taking a stand against heteropatriarchal expectations.