My parents don’t throw things out, and our basement is full of photo albums that I go through when I’m home for break. I look back at the birthday parties and first days of school, the friends arm-in-arm and the family dogpiles my uncle used to orchestrate … and for a good 50 percent of the pictures, I see myself in wide-legged khaki pants and a sweater with a picture of an animal on it.
Yes, that’s right — for much of my prepubescent years, my fashion sense was a combination of Bret from “Flight of the Conchords” on top and military-inspired getup on the bottom. But “Conchords” didn’t exist back in Y2K, and military (while all the rage last fall) simply wasn’t in vogue in fifth grade. My frill-less, pink-free clothing, combined with a constantly messy mop-top haircut, made a clear statement to the world: I dressed like a boy.
It’s not that strange of a phenomenon, really — I have plenty of friends who used to cut their hair short and favored sneakers peering out from jeans to little-girl flats beneath frilly skirts. In the celebrity realm, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter Shiloh has caught plenty of attention from paparazzi and gossipmongers for her hoodie- and striped shirt-dominated “personal style” (or however one would label the wardrobe preferences of a three-year-old) and last summer’s tabloids proudly proclaimed that “Shiloh wants to be a boy!”
At any rate, my own (tabloid-free) childhood fashion sense went relatively unnoticed as I grew up. I encountered minimal teasing, and eventually I came to like floral patterns better than grinning cheetah faces on my shirts. The only real difficulty during this phase was shopping: Despite my obvious leaning against girly clothing, I was loath to leave the “Girls” section of the department store.
My insistence on this front made shopping trips with my mother insufferable. I would pore over racks and racks of girls’ t-shirts looking for the baggiest, most formless ones. My mom would point across the store to where the “Boys” sign heralded hordes of Tommy Hilfiger undershirts and plain, collared polos, and I would stomp my foot in opposition. There would be no confusion: I did not want to be a boy. I did not want to be a girly-girl. I was, and took the utmost pride in saying it, a tomboy.
Despite its lack of department store signage, there’s clearly a place for androgyny in today’s fashion world: Ultra-skinny supermodels certainly don’t look feminine, but they’re definitively women. Pantsuit-clad female talk show hosts and fictional characters running the gamut from Annie Hall to Peppermint Patty all dress on some midpoint along the infinitely distinguishable spectrum of male and female dress. Nobody’s saying that the “Men,” “Women,” “Boys” and “Girls” (and, oddly, “Juniors”) Macy’s method of sorting is obsolete, but I think it’s worth noting that this has never really been how things work.
Think about it. In ancient times, both men and women covered their privates with loincloths — in some cultures, people still do. And while I’m sure there are differences in style and color, it’s nothing like the thongs-and-boxers strata we see today. Heck, when Adam and Eve first broke out the fig leaves after the Tree of Knowledge fiasco, they set a noble precedent for gender-blind clothing. (Though granted, depending on which Renaissance painter you trust, I guess the pair could have styled their eco-friendly garb in a sex-specific way.)
Ramses and Cleopatra alike dutifully dabbed on dark eyeliner for a mysterious and royal look in ancient Egypt. Scotsmen traditionally don kilts, which originally signified their clan according to the specific plaid pattern and which were worn sans underpants, purportedly to be more sanitary. Kimonos are sported by both men and women in Japan, though by neither often anymore. The French — well, we say a lot of things about the French and style and gender, but we’ll leave them out of it for now.
Nowadays, boy hipsters can strut skinny jeans, grunge girls can flaunt flannel and I have no reason to be ashamed of my 10-year-old fashion sense (not that I would be — I was awesome), but it would be wrong to assume this is a modern innovation.
Modern malls have been around for maybe a century with their departmental gender breakdowns. But civilization has spent millennia in disagreement over which kinds of clothing get the label of sugar and spice and which we’d rather associate with snips, snails and puppy dog tails. So if I say I belong in the “Girls” department, then I do — by the very puppy dogs on my unisex Old Navy tee.