Gender Free

Sandiso Ngubane on fashion as a form of fearless self-expression

Words: Sandiso Ngubane |  Photography: Bevan Davis | Styling: Jared Blake | MUA: Roxanne Sayers

“I’ve never seen anyone who looks as good in white jeans as you do,” a friend said as I reached over to give them a hug to say “sup”. Of course, I bought those jeans precisely because I loved the way they fit me, but even when you know that you look good in something, a compliment from someone else is all it takes to make you feel incredible about living in the skin you’re in. But it hasn’t always been like that. Not for me, anyway.

When I was younger, I recall how my sister was allowed to go clothes shopping with my mother, allowed to pick and choose whatever she wanted, but, more often than not, I would have to accept whatever it was my dear mother thought was fashionable for boys to wear at the time. Now, my mother was one helluva stylish lady, and because she was quite young herself, she was in touch with what the streets perceived as 'cool' for a young man. I often found myself in baggy jeans and Converse All Stars, because that’s just what the other boys wore. Why on earth would I want to be different?

Well, the truth is that not only did I want to be different, I actually know now that I was, and the world still wastes no time reminding me that I am. Not with the culottes, high-waisted jeans, blouses and occasional dresses that I wear. Yes! Most of my closet consists of garments plucked out of the womenswear section. While, for many, the first impression might be: 'well, you’re gay, duh', that couldn’t be more wrong. Not only would that statement be a sweeping generalisation about homosexuality and its manifestations, but it’s one that is steeped in the assumption that I probably want to be, or I like to act like, a woman. Far from it!

I never find jeans that fit me in the menswear section. In general, I find a lot of menswear to be bland, even boring, and especially horrible on me anyway. Womenswear fits perfectly on my skinny frame and I find that I can express myself better through fashion when dressed in clothing intended for women.

For a long time I couldn’t find people who, like me, did not confine their sartorial choices to a gender binary, and I must mention that what we do is not drag. We certainly don’t dress up flamboyantly to entertain others, and we most certainly don’t dress up as women. We dress as ourselves!

One such person is Lee Hagen, a fashion stylist at Marie Claire. Lee says that his relationship with womenswear goes back as far as he can remember. “Being an effeminate, androgynous kid brought me a lot of unwanted attention growing up. Strangers would ask me if I was a girl or a boy and I could never answer them with full conviction that I was the latter. Gender pronouns have perpetually made me feel uncomfortable, especially when referring to myself, because my assigned gender has never been intrinsic to my identity. I still experience animosity from strangers as an adult, but it’s far less verbal. The eyes say a lot.”

My friend Jared Blake, who is probably even more womenswear inclined than either myself or Lee, adds that while he has experienced many cases of public bullying based on his dress sense, there are moments when people will genuinely express admiration. “I’ve experienced some sweet and beautiful sentiments from strangers and I’ve come to realise that clothing is a part of my seduction. Whether people really react or not, they simply cannot take their eyes off me. I dress to make myself sexy, taller, stronger, wiser, braver and I have no interest in not living my truth.”

Says Lee: “Fashion is so much more than just clothing. Without trying to sound clichéd, it really is a means of self-expression and can have a profound impact on the way we feel about ourselves. My style and the clothes I choose to wear have always been deeply personal. I’ve used fashion to distract myself from heartache, to conceal my insecurities, and to show my strength in times of weakness. I wear both men’s and women’s clothing, but am often drawn to womenswear, because it’s far more expressive and less restrictive than menswear.”

Of course it is easier today than ever before to express ourselves in the manner we do. You’d have to have had blinders on to have missed the fact that 2015 was the year gender-neutral design became a thing. At no other point in time were discussions about sexuality – and being genderqueer, specifically – more open and mainstream as the discourse was last year. Universities and official documents at banks and even government departments, in some countries, added the honourific ‘Mx’ for those who don’t identify within the gender binary. These are substantial developments and hard won victories for many who have been consigned by society to ‘citizen weirdo’ status, I would say.

My sense is that the world is moving in a direction where slowly but surely, the gender lines, especially in fashion, are blurring. While this may be the case, for people like Jared, Lee and myself, we are not jumping on a trend. This is who we are.

“I hope this movement allows future generations of super Queens and Kings to live with no fear of judgement and ridicule,” Jared says. “When I was younger, I specifically remember seeing a new pair of shoes my mother had bought. They were gold-heeled sandals. I must have been about five. I felt ashamed, at the time, allowing myself to want something that perhaps I should not have. When my mother wasn’t around I played, and felt so much myself in a pair of heels.”

“People are afraid of what they can’t define,” says Lee. “They don’t realise that gender definitions are superficial and barely scrape the surface of who we are as individuals. Growing up, there wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t hyper self-aware of my demeanour and my appearance. I would consistently try to repress my authentic nature by altering the way I spoke, my mannerisms, the way I dressed.”

These are both stories I identify with and I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom and victory every time I step out of my house, walking the city streets, knowing full well that not every eye that lingers will greet me with a twinkle. I know, for some, my appearance elicits disgust, but that is not something with which I concern myself anymore. As a dear friend of mine would say, the fact that we understand the fear of being ourselves, yet we refuse to give in to what would essentially be cowardice, is a political statement.

We are here. Hate if you like, but deal, you will!

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