The Feminism of Black Clothing
“Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don't bother you – don't bother me” – Yohji Yamamoto
As early as fifth grade, myself and the other girls in school were made painfully aware of the pitfalls of our own bodies. What were up to that point run of the mill, boring activities like walking home from school or going to a diner became unnerving anxiety trials that we tried to complete as quickly as possible, before being noticed. A car driven by a lone man followed me and a friend once for 10 suburban blocks, achingly slow, because she dared to wear an above-the-knee sundress. After a school choir concert, for which my mom had loaned me one of her black long sleeved dresses, a table of boys made low whistles and elbowed each other the entire time I ate at McDonalds with my parents. Most baffling was the fact that the previous year we were all able to cartwheel down the street in borrowed boxer shorts with nary a word or glance spared. What sort of dread magnifying glass had been applied to us in between the last year and this one? It was a question I remember wrestling with, silently and alone for fear of revealing a weakness my other friends possibly didn’t share. Many times my peers seemed nonplussed by the intense attention, and in junior high caring too much or showing any uncertainty is the social kiss of death. It became a non-verbal test to see who could care less, and so I swallowed discomfort and kept on keeping on in the American Eagle shorts and tank tops that were de rigueur at the time, because it was bad enough that boys and men made you feel scrutinized...I was loathe to add my friends judgement of my outfits to the mix.
Of course things were bound to get worse. In 9th grade biology I ended up skipping class for three days out of sheer embarrassment when one of my male classmates yell/coughed ‘BOOBS’ when I was called on to answer a question. My desk partner had to explain that he was talking about ME, which was even more embarrassing. I did not then, nor ever in my life have had any sort of substantial cleavage. When I asked Gretchen who he was talking about she just looked at me and shook her head, a nerdy science partner proving her superior acumen regarding the male of the species even then - that it didn’t matter how big my boobs were. Simply having ANY boobs was like a call to some kind of war, one that I was unaware was going on and that I had no idea how to fight. Even worse, I think I was wearing a long sleeve, crew neck thermal shirt and very baggy jeans from Aeropostale. Shudder.
It went like this for much of high school, me trying to blend in by wearing clothing the other girls were wearing and simultaneously volley and deflect the advances that came at me because of the aforementioned clothing. An older boy, whose name escapes me after all these years, hunted down my address after some awkward school function and left a note on my Dad’s car because he was enamored with the red jersey romper I had purchased from Contempo Casuals, and said as much in his missive. I put it under the bed and never wore it again.
The break came once I fell into step with a group that most parents considered ‘bad kids’’, which really only meant they wore black leather jackets and had mohawks, but that seemed to be enough. The boy I was seeing made my introduction, but it was the girls in the group who fascinated me. Up to that point I only had drama class and band camp friends, and they were stuck with the same Aero/Contempo/Delia’s t-shirt and shorts crap that I was, trying to fit in and blend, consequences in gym or the high school halls be damned. They listened to Sarah Mclachlan while brushing long beige hair. But the girls in my new boyfriend’s crowd were a different thing altogether. First, they seemed to only wear baggy black men’s clothing. Second, they either shaved their heads or dyed their hair insane colors like swamp green - a remarkable feat when still living as a minor with your parents. And instead of the typical, poorly applied brown eyeliner and pink lip gloss, these girls adorned their faces like a Edvard Munch portrait. One, whose name was Yantha, couldn’t have been 110 lbs soaking wet - yet she consistently and loudly mentioned how many times she felt like punching people and stalked the school in black boots with monstrous, jagged treads.
No boys loudly coughed the word ‘boobs’ at Yantha. No one muttered it, either, or was bold enough to look her in the eye - because they were too busy being terrified. She was a revelation, a walking example that you didn’t have to take the shit they were shoveling at you and screaming out of car windows - you could be the one doing the screaming. You just had to dress the part.
In a rather rare instance of kismet, my slow foray into a different personal presentation coincided with the riot grrrl movement in the mid-nineties, and grunge afforded all of us an opportunity to put large men’s flannels on our bodies and get very good with the phrase ‘fuck off, dick’. By the time Lilith Fair rolled around to our town, you were the outsider if your leg hair wasn’t two inches long and you didn’t own an ashtray that said proclaimed men were pigs (filled with clove cigarette stubs, naturally.) But people like Yantha weren’t particularly interested in Lilith Fair, and neither was I. It was hard to put a finger on then, but something about Hole and Sarah and Fiona Apple, puffy lipped and writhing on all of our televisions, didn’t seem terribly different from the persona and attendant garments we were constricted by years earlier. What sort of armor, after all, is a XXL flannel that just ends up wrapped around your waist and underlining a crop top? Kate Moss was still a supermodel shilling underwear, regardless of the size of her Calvin Klein denim - and looking back, it’s incredible that people tossed around phrases like ‘grunge aesthetic’, ‘non-traditional beauty’, and ‘heroin chic’ when the fashion God anointed Ms. Moss the spokesmodel of the era. I know, and have known, several people with drug problems, and the idea of any of them modeling clothing looking dewy fresh, and open-mouthed is a dubious one.
As I careened further into my twenties with tattoos and a shaved head, I now fell firmly into the crowd I had been warned of by old white relatives several years before. I was outfitting myself at stores with names like Noir Leather, The Velvet Chain, and The Alley. I was shredding leggings from Value Village and wearing them for days at a time - one of my friends actually peed in hers waiting in line for a show and refused to change them ( “They can try to fucking make me,” I believe she stated.) It wasn’t enough anymore just to scare people, we needed to actively offend them, because dressing offensively and forcing people to avoid you seemed like the most accessible way for us to get what we wanted...to be left alone. No one was offended by girls dressing in boy flannels or sporting adorable little lip rings (Delias!) since the post Nirvana world made it quite acceptable. Men from all walks of life harassed my more mainstream friends as they walked home from the bar, or from class, in sweatshirts, in the ubiquitous flannel, in boots, in sneakers. They were harassed in light make-up, in no make up, in halloween makeup. They were harassed with their hair washed, unwashed, worn down, or worn up. They were harassed with their hair in the messy, nerdy, multiple braids Alanis Morrissette popularized. Men in suits, men in orange construction vests, men in large t-shirts and drooping pants, looking like toddlers magically grown 4 feet - they were all capable and likely of harassment at the slightest interaction, and most of my friends had become so inured that they barely noticed. Much as in high school, blithe indifference was the order of the day for any woman I knew who had to traverse the streets wearing anything other than medieval armor - it is, after all, the path of least resistance. I wish I had recorded the number all the times I heard some man yelling and a companion saying “Just ignore it”, “Walk faster,” or my favorite, most encompassing word for the prevailing attitude, “Whatever.”
The antipathy of my peers seemed only to spur me faster forward towards a kind of dress code that bordered on violent, because I often wondered at how they remained so nonplussed while I felt consumed with rage. I bought sterling silver fangs in Chicago and wore them anytime I wasn’t at work. My shaved head was dyed platinum blonde as it grew out, spiked like the fluff on a newborn chick. The bondage cuffs that were previously bedroom only accoutrements now adorned my wrists for 24 hours a day, and I filed my nails to knife points. (Do not do this. Especially if you are itchy.) But above all, everything I owned and everything I wore was black.
“I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color” - Wednesday Addams
Although I did not entirely escape the verbal and physical harassment that consistently plague women of a certain age, I was treated to it far less often than my female peers who embraced a more mainstream attitude regarding their visage. Of course, presentation can only take you so far before it becomes necessary for steely truth to be communicated, either with your eyes or with your voice, in order to get your point across - the inebriated and stupid don’t seem to care what clothing you have on, and a firm word and a thrown punch can still occasionally be required. The clothing, though, made it a whole lot easier. Black, oversized clothing was not just a tough girl costume, it was the way I felt, inside, made visceral and put on communicative display, much in the same way that the colors on a poison dart frog indicate a very real danger hidden beneath a brilliant sheen of skin. Once I became entrenched with this particular aesthetic, I was able to send the sort of signals to people (men, mostly) that I had tried to send when I was younger, to no avail...that I was uninterested, unavailable, antagonistic, even, regarding their advances, and it felt like the best thing I could have been armed with aside from mace or an ostentatious saber. By my late twenties I was swathed in yards of heavy black fabric, my hair was black, and every boot had steel toes, making me feel better than ever I had before. It was a welcome final transformation after having spent decades as a small blonde Disney princess who internally resembled Ashtaroth the rage demon.
I am older now, and my hair is long and blonde again, mostly because I’m too lazy to keep up with roots. I wear large, black clothing because I like it, and I never developed a taste for anything body conscious despite the harassment mostly ending a long time ago for me. My aesthetic currently works it’s magic on people in my profession (men, mostly) who seem determined to treat women as though we are stupid, incompetent, uninformed, or some combination thereof...but I still manage to field less of it than many of my friends and peers. Most recently I was at a trade event and had a gentleman approach me, timidly, to see if I had any questions or wanted to know more about the product, and he seemed genuinely surprised when I was friendly and talkative as opposed to terse, angry, or armed. He thanked me for listening to his spiel with patience and said, as a parting shot, “I didn’t think you’d be interested in this sort of thing. I mean that’s a serious tattoo, and then the rest of you is...you know….”
Oh yes. I do know.