Once when I was around 7, with a nanny looking after me after school, I called my dad at work to let him know I needed to go clothes shopping desperately. My mom had been ill for months and with only a dad running the household I had run out of clothes completely He left the office early and to this day I remember one specific item we bought: a black and purple pinstriped top. It was my favourite and I wore it until it started falling apart.
It’s a habit of mine to wear one or two things to shreds while neglecting all the others completely. Not that I’ve ever owned hundreds of items of clothes or pairs of shoes; I’m not a girly girl and I don’t care what’s in fashion or who loves or hates what I wear. I’m often underdressed. I’m lucky enough to have lived in KZN for a few years now. Things are very laid back and low key around here. In summer most of us just wear three-quarter cotton pants, skimpy strappy tops and beach sandals to work. In winter we love our jeans and long-sleeved T’s, still with open shoes because our feet never get cold. My colleagues all own numerous pairs of jeans though, while I’ll look exactly the same every day if I don’t watch out.
I’m moving to Cape Town before the end of the year and I’m told I’ll have to dress much more formally to work and at least more originally outside work. In one sense I’m looking forward to being forced to reinvent myself, in another sense I’m dreading it.
My experience of dressing up for anything is limited to exactly two weddings, to which I wore the same dress and pair of shoes. Added to that we can look at a few short flings with dressing according to a specific role, while I was trying to find my identity.
Mid high—school I was a bit of a Goth, for about a term. I bought my then only make-up device – black eyeliner – and wore black clothes, black cutex on my hands and feet, my naturally pitch-black uncontrollable bush of hair completing the look.
Very soon after that I went to the KKNK and returned wearing my newly found artistic flair exhibited in the brightest pink velvet bellbottom pants you can imagine and an “elfiemus” (basically a beanie with a long point ending in a bell that swung tinkling from side to side as I walked). On most days I sported a (black eyelinered) star/heart/moon on one cheek. The small town’s dominee phoned my dad to offer his assistance in ridding me of my worrying eccentricities but in our 10 min chat I dropped a bombshell completely irrelevant to my clothing and aired my confusion regarding my sexuality. The pants were forgotten immediately. To make sure my struggle was taken seriously I clipper-cut my own hair to bristles.
Two years later as soon as I got my matric results I moved to the Big City, visiting my first gay club on my first night. I was dressed up in killer platform shoes, bare self-tanned legs and an applegreen minidress. The drag queens looked more like women than I did. My only saving grace must’ve been the shaven hair, because I got taken home and made love to by the girl who became my first real girlfriend. My life in the city, including our relationship, lasted all of two months and I returned home displaying all the amplified butch mannerisms I could fit into my body. I wore baggy men’s jeans, checked shirts tucked in and belted, black men’s shoes and a broad, masculine ring on the thumb of my left hand, having been convinced it was a symbol for being a gay woman. To the shock and horror of my family, not to mention the dominee, I sat like a man, walked like a man and wore the easy indifference of a man.
But my butchness wasn’t something I owned; I only borrowed it and lost it quickly, away from my peers in the city. Never again have I picked up the mannerisms of any particular person or group like I did back then. Judging by my family’s reaction to my physical appearance, I have just been myself for many years now. At the age of twenty I started working as receptionist at a health spa and suddenly felt open to the idea of getting my bushy eyebrows waxed and being taught about a good facial routine and some make-up. Nothing much has changed since then: I still wear only foundation and lipstick, wax my brows and look after my skin, nothing more though and on weekends I don’t even do the basics. I still shave my hair and prefer wearing jeans above anything else.
Now, a note to all the lovely butch lesbians out there: please don’t take offense. I’m not saying anything other than this: if it really suits a person’s personality to look a certain way, by all means look the part. I only looked butch to fit in, to get picked up and to get a reaction. I don’t get the need many gay women have to look like men and please reply to this, because I’m very interested in this. Is it important to look different from straight women? Is it about looking the same as men? Or to say that you refuse to conform to the roles society prescribes for you? Or to show the patriarchs that you can look and act and achieve whatever they look and act like and can achieve? Or is it just too much hassle to highlight and straighten long well-conditioned hair, have manicures and pedicures and wear full make-up and heels? (For me it is!)
Dressing up is something we all do daily, even when we’re dressing down. By carefully selecting what we wear and how we wear it, or by just throwing on whatever’s on top of the pile, we make a statement either way.