Letter of Recommendation: Women’s Clothing

By Kalle Oskari Mattila

Letter of Recommendation

CreditCreditIllustration by Sara Andresson

Last year, I walked into an upscale independent clothing store in Berlin and greeted the conservatively dressed, bespectacled woman hovering in the back. I’d seen a stylish male mannequin in the window, but it wasn’t clear that they sold men’s clothing, so I asked. “It’s all for everyone,” she said. “I mean, technically that rack and this rack are men’s, but I believe it’s outdated to think like that.”

“You know what?” I replied. “You’re right. Most people don’t get that.” She seemed pleased — until I pulled out a long women’s white underwear top and asked to try it on. Clearly, there were limits, and she tried to talk me out of it. The top was revealing, and normally would have been worn with a bra. This was Berlin, though, and I needed something daring.

Once I put the top on, in the privacy of a changing room, I saw how well it complemented the male body: its low crew neck and tight, stretchy fabric showed off my chest and arms. To the surprise of the shopkeeper, and myself, I bought it.

I came out at 18, in Helsinki, then moved to New York at 23, and I’d steadily grown more aware of the possibility to wear whatever I wanted, to use clothes to express myself in experimental ways. But dressing outside my gender’s section still felt like breaking the rules.

Berlin was supposed to be my only excursion, yet I found myself returning to the women’s department back in New York, where I realized women’s wear wasn’t appropriate for only German raves. I could wear it to work, dinner and the gym. In fact, there were myriad advantages to it for any man: a wider selection; more colors to complement the complexion; different, edgier cuts; pockets in unexpected places. Sometimes it was just practical: small, tight shorts worked better for high-intensity exercise than basketball shorts, which grew heavy with sweat.

I wasn’t interested in dresses, high heels or bras. I wasn’t cross-dressing as much as doing a kind of cross-shopping, which I later learned is defined as a type of anarchy: a single customer defying retailers’ marketing segmentation by shopping where he or she is not expected to. I wasn’t trying to challenge societal norms or explore my gender identity; I was merely searching for cool new apparel. If women can easily cross over for things like sweaters and overalls, why not men? I was single and wanted boyfriend jeans, too.

I am a cisgender man, and present that way, yet sometimes my outfits are a mixture of what is labeled men’s and women’s. Most people don’t even notice the difference. My look isn’t as unconventional as, say, combining a beard with a dress (I’m not sure I could grow a full beard anyway), nor is it about claiming a different gender identity than the one I was assigned at birth. Instead, I find that cross-shopping gives me a liberating sense of control over myself and my body — not necessarily overturning the designations of a gender, but instead widening my version of manhood. I can feel my most masculine in a colorful women’s blouse, my biceps bulging through its sleeves, whereas the softness of a men’s cashmere scarf, or the clacking sound of men’s ornate black leather dress shoes (which sound like high heels) can conjure in me a more feminine sensibility. I feel most comfortable in outfits that blend the feminine and the masculine. They feel truest to me.

A friend who works in fashion told me most trends originate in women’s designs and trickle down to men’s wear. Stretch fabric has been used for women for years, but it is only now making inroads in men’s. The same happened with skinny jeans, floral prints and the color pink. Women’s wear borrows from men’s, too: Pantsuits, button-down shirts and fedora hats all flow from men’s wear. The fact is, most garments convey a mixture of the masculine and feminine. That gender divide is hazy.

I believe no one is entirely masculine or feminine. As gendered constructs, clothes can constrict us but also liberate us when it comes to that complexity. When I’m shopping in the men’s department, I’m reminded of how far my frame is from the ideal muscular male physique. But when I bought a pair of women’s high-waist black Levi’s jeans, friends started complimenting me on my behind. “I didn’t even know you had one!” one of my closest male friends said after a few drinks. For me, clothes have become a pressure valve: I am now able to express through them the full range of things I can be as a man — feminine things, too, like graceful and delicate, even sexy (I used to only be called “cute”). That doesn’t take away from my masculinity; in fact, it enhances it.

By also shopping in the women’s department I’m no longer preoccupied with arbitrary social norms; I’m simply becoming my realest, most stylish self. In the preface to style photographer Bill Cunningham’s memoir, “Fashion Climbing,” Hilton Als writes that Cunningham took delight in the “possibility of you”; all the things that fashion could let you be. I believe in that potential, too. To have style is to not let others decide what those possibilities — in gender or presentation — should look like.

Often men say to me, “Man, I love your shirt, but I could never pull that off.” It feels like a backhanded compliment, as though I am somehow at a remove, different from them. Yet it also betrays their longing. The truth is, they could pull it off. They just haven’t tried.

Kalle Oskari Mattila is a writer from Finland living in New York City. He is working on a memoir about masculinity.