Grandma has had a lot of trouble understanding why someone who identified as female would prefer to wear a men’s button-down shirt and necktie, or men’s bathing suit shorts and a tank top, as I frequently do. While she has accepted her granddaughter is gay, the idea of wearing clothes typically assigned to the other sex has been beyond her comprehension. I give her some leniency even when her reactions are hurtful, though, because I understand how hard it must be for someone who came of age when women only wore dresses and skirts and men wore three-piece suits to work every day to embrace a very different model of normalcy. Still, I always worked to bring her toward acceptance.
Porter, who stars in the TV show “Pose” and the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” made a strong statement in his attire Sunday night, one that will probably resonate with anyone who has ever been made to feel that their expression — whether clothing, mannerisms, affect, hobbies, or ideas — was not acceptable. His gown showed real men can wear dresses, and that that is something to celebrate, not shun.
If only that attitude would be common outside the Oscars. I am a woman, and I often shop in the men’s clothing section. I have been met with everything from raised eyebrows, questions, to downright hostility.
“Are you shopping for your husband?” sales associates often ask me.
“No, I’m shopping for myself,” I answer, bracing for what comes next. Generally, the retail employee will say “oh” and shrink away, withdrawing any semblance of friendliness or assistance. Sometimes they will say something worse like, “the women’s section is over there,” or “I don’t know why you would do that.”
Statements like that sting. Clothing is our strongest form of gender expression and of who we are. Whether we choose to wear bright pink silk or harlequin sweater vests (or both!) is the most obvious physical manifestation of our internal sense of self, the one the world most clearly sees. Narrow thinking around what men and women should wear creates stigmas, particularly for young people who are just starting to know their true selves.
Fashion designers have been getting more fluid with their designs, outfitting women in traditionally male styles and vice versa, with the most recent Fashion Week a prime example. Even mainstream clothing companies are starting to get on board with gender-less clothing; brands such as H&M and Zara are shining examples. I hope Grandma is leafing through their catalogues and learning a thing or two. We could all stand to gain from exposure to diverse forms of gender expression.
“Fashion has the ability to touch people in a different way,” Billy Porter told Vogue about his Oscars outfit. “My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up. To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean?” He knew he would be making a powerful and potentially controversial statement by wearing a gown to the Oscars, and he made himself vulnerable to push our own barriers around what is considered acceptable.
Porter has long been an LGBT advocate. He served on the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a former New York-based LGBT organization where I once headed up communications, and where he dedicated his time and talent to help further equality, including for the many transgender people who continue to face the harshest social punishments for transcending their assigned genders.
Whether you are LGBT, or choose to play with gender expression in your fashion choices, Billy Porter’s bold Oscars outfit helps us all. Maybe your child will one day want to wear something you would not normally dress them in. Or your taste changes, and you suddenly find yourself wanting to add some flair to your wardrobe, but you are concerned you will be judged because you are too old, too fat or too female.
Billy Porter should inspire all of us to push through our inner critic and wear whatever we feel good in.
“It really is astonishing how much of an affect clothes have on your spirit,” Porter said. “I felt alive. I felt free. And open and radiant. And beautiful!”