(Identity)

How I Came Out Of The Clothing Closet

There’s no one way to dress bi.

Intentional dressing can be a powerful form of expression and an important signifier. Bisexual style, then, is an interesting kind of intersection. It's both the subject of light ribbing, thanks to ever-present meme culture — you love hoodies, flannel, or leather, always expose your ankles, and cuff your jeans and tuck in your shirts; all of them except the flannel apply to me — and a way to de-erase ourselves from the queer community.

There's no "one" way to dress bi, and it's not as clearly defined as, say, butch and stud lesbians. A bi person in a relationship with a masculine partner — as I am — might get labeled as straight unless we signify otherwise; similarly, a bi person in a relationship with a feminine partner might get labeled as a lesbian. It sometimes requires a bit of mental arithmetic if you want to signal who you are clearly through your clothing, short of wearing a shirt with the word "bisexual" on it — or in my case, clothes with rainbows and one shirt with a cheerful "Why Not Both?" emblazoned on the front. The general advice if you want to "look" like a bisexual is to wear whatever you want (see also this hilarious Quora post on being your best, "bi-sexy" self), but lots of bisexuals find their own particular balance between masc and femme.

Oh hey. Didn’t see you there. Did you know I’m bi?📷 Mike Igoe

For a long time, I wanted to avoid any and all indications of my sexuality. I was raised conservative, both religiously and socially. In the '90s, we weren't really at a place to understand the definitions within the LGBT community, much less embrace difference. "Gay" in my Catholic, all-girl, uniformed middle school just meant you were weird and had braces and didn't wear Hard Candy nail polish like the other girls. Check, check, and check, in my case. Being gay (i.e., a loser) was a social death sentence, and I didn't need another reason for people to exclude me.

The restriction of religion, both on my body (sex education was simple: no sex) and my sexuality (it wasn't homosexuality, it was sodomy, and you were definitely going to hell) was a different problem. If I dressed in any way that was masculine beyond a trendy Dr. Marten every now and then, it would be a dangerous signal of nonconformity. If I dressed too "sexy" or even too feminine, it would place me squarely on the bad side of the madonna-whore binary.

So, clothing was an excellent — and effective — way to hide. If a person doesn't place focus on it, bisexuality itself can translate to "passing" as straight. And I leaned in hard. Eventually I landed on a style I now refer to as "inoffensive hetero." It was…a lot of Ann Taylor, to be honest; that SNL skit about "dressing like a fashion coward because you're a stranger to yourself" would have applied embarrassingly well. For a long time, I was worried that people would intuit I was bisexual unless I overcompensated, so I perpetually looked like spring was erupting out of me. There were a lot of knee-length flower situations.

Then I started working as a news writer for a women's fashion magazine in 2018, which had been a dream of mine since I was 6. By then I was safer, in a relationship with a supportive partner and away from people who might automatically denigrate me. I worked remotely but quickly became close with my colleagues; trepidatiously, I came out, and was met with warm appreciation. When it came time to meet them in person, though, I was worried. I had no Chanel boots à la Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. In fact, I hadn't a shred of personal style to speak of.

Technically, my path towards fuller clothing expression had begun a few years before. In 2014, as I was scouting wedding locations with my husband-to-be, he took a few candid snaps. I spotted myself, bedecked in — what else — a deeply unflattering floral dress, pink flats, and a light purple jacket (you know, to complete the look!), and audibly uttered, "NO." But I hadn't the slightest idea how to get started on improving the situation.

Me, looking like a petunia. And a big no thanks to those glasses.📷 Mike Igoe

When I met my coworkers, it wasn't at all how I imagined them. Each person had a specific style, and they differed wildly. One wore a silver puffer jacket and blue Rothy's flats. Another had a black slip dress and sneakers. Yet another had a magnificent silver wig and every single color on her body. Each looked wholly themselves. It wasn't just a uniform — it was a selfhood. I wanted it.

More specifically, I wanted what seemed impossible: to one day tell people about my profession as a writer obsessed with beauty and style without having them look me up and down before replying skeptically "...sure." I wanted an enthusiastic, "Oh yeah! I see it!" Increasingly, I wanted people to have the same reaction when I told them about my sexuality. I wanted who I was to radiate from me.

So I got to work coming out of the clothing closet. I began requesting more style stories, the better to educate myself. I made a lot of fashion mistakes, veering wildly between a Tinkerbell and plumber aesthetic. I started working with, and following, stylist Allison Bornstein — who has a closet editing system and myriad tips on how to use fashion as a wellness tool. I took a picture every time I cultivated an outfit, including the looks I ended up hating (for posterity!).

I purged my fast fashion and sent bags of ill-fitting clothes to GoodWill. I whittled my closet down to only the most wearable, "me" items. Ruthlessly, I started from scratch, with better basics, smarter investments, and a rule that I would only get things I loved. Was I more of an Audrey, a Marilyn, or a Keith Richards? I Pinterested wildly and created a secret board of my bisexual icons, from Angelina Jolie to Gillian Anderson to Violet from Bound (the inimitable Jennifer Tilly in a movie you should watch immediately).

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Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
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HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images
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I Googled ridiculous search questions like "how do bisexual people dress help." I perused TikTok — and found a lot of accounts with smart perspectives on how they found their unique looks. I took my daughter to the eye doctor, and when the attending physician had a Progress Pride Pin I pounced on the poor person and demanded they tell me where they got it.

Ironically, even after all that work, my current aesthetic is a particular balance between masculine and feminine: cuffed pants, leather, and patterns. But Bornstein tells me she also sees a literal "tension" in my outfits: a graphic sensibility, a mix of colors. "Even the places where you're wearing a white, monochromatic look, you usually do a black shoe or a black belt,” she says. “It's about shape. It's about the contrast of color. Even though you're wearing soft things, there's an architecture."

I still treasure my Dr. Martens, unironically.📷 Mike Igoe

As I continue to hone my look, I'm cognizant of the deep privilege to be able to do this work. It's an even deeper privilege to live somewhere where I can feel fully myself, safely. And, of course, there's still a lot of explaining I have to do (which a lot of bi people experience), since I'm still in the process of coming out to people around me. Yes, I'm happily married. Yes, that person is a man. Yes, I'm a queer person and a queer mom, too. No, it's just a part of me I just want people to know. The effect of outing myself via clothing can sometimes lead to greater confusion, instead of less, but arguably clothing is the best way I can live as a queer woman who's proudly out while also in line for daycare.

Making a life out of dressing for other people is a surefire path to constant sadness. For me, it's more about being a part of my community visibly — from the outside, too — so that I'm no longer "passing" as I once did. Like so many things, I'm still a work in progress. But the best way to describe it is that there's more of me now. I can look in the mirror, feel like myself, and go about my day. My '90s middle school self would never have believed it, but she'd be delighted to see me now: graphic tees, rainbow everything, and huge smile.

Rainbows on rainbows, courtesy of TomboyX.📷 Mike Igoe