NerdGlam: Butch Fashion (and Whatever Happened to Lesbians-Until-Graduation?)

Like many women of my generation, I once, briefly, considered myself a lesbian. In retrospect, it’s not hard to explain: I had just cast off the authority of my parents and was on my own at a college 13 hours away. It seemed the next logical step to cast off the authority of boys: that is, to never again date someone who was automatically presumed to be somehow “in charge” of whatever we were doing.

I had done plenty of dating in high school. The boy usually drives. The person who drives is sort of in charge. Chivalry can be fun, but you know what can be even more fun? Having your attempts at decisionmaking and expertise (both already rare at that age) come off as something more than adorable or auxiliary.

Declaring myself a lesbian worked brilliantly on that account. It was a way of claiming autonomy. It was a way of feeling more badass in the boxing ring. It presented no objection to shaving my head junior year, and later showing up to boxing practice with an (intimidating, I hoped) blue buzzcut. I dated four (count them, four!) women. At one point, I decided I just might be transgendered, because I really wanted to look like Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (seriously — Leo is the hottest butch EVER). And then I met a guy, and then another guy, and I realized once again that I had been right about dudes being presumed to be in charge of things, but then I got my driver’s license, and found some other strategies against that. Now, I am a person who writes instructional columns on getting your seamed stockings on straight (haha, straight) and penciling in your eyebrows (not that plenty of lesbians don’t also do these things). And at least two of those four women are now married to dudes.

I graduated from Dartmouth in 2000, and revisited the college in 2007 to do my one-woman show. I mentioned “lesbians until graduation” and the students seemed genuinely shocked and/or puzzled. Is this not a thing anymore? I mean, I’m sure it’s always been more of a thing at some schools than others, but has our new Wendy-Shalit-inspired, boy-bands-with-purity-rings era quashed at least the open acknowledgement of lesbians-until-graduation? (Or, more positively, perhaps young women are feeling more of an ability to do whatever the hell they want without declaring themselves anything at all?) If you graduated from college in the last five years, please let us know in the comments.

In any case, this column came about because a press release from The Tie Bar came across my desk, advertising cotton pocket squares for only $8. Can women wear pocket squares? They are, apparently, “great for any occasion and any style suit, as they have hand rolled borders in several colors including black, crimson, navy, light blue, and charcoal.”

I do love a good blazer or suit jacket, but (I just consulted my closet to be sure) none of my jackets have that little pocket where a pocket square would go. But you know who could definitely look sharp wearing a pocket square? The women of DapperQ (“transgressing men’s fashion”). The site is, in founder Susan Herr’s words, “for all who have been discouraged — in a million and one subtle and not-so-subtle ways — from gleaning for self-expression from the rich and robust universe pioneered over centuries by dapper gents and today reflected in glossies such as GQ, Details and Vogue for Men.”

Highlights of DapperQ: how to get men’s dress shirts tailored to fit. Finding custom-made wedding suits (“gives the term ‘bridegroom’ a whole new meaning”). A sweet Mother’s Day story about an awesome mom trying to find something dapperQ for her 15 year old daughter to wear to a wedding. And the comment that Rachel Maddow — the first openly gay anchor to host a prime-time news show in the US — is transgressing gender boundaries via her dress-shirt choices: “She is undeniably dapperQ. But I’d like to suggest that this one anti-establishment, transgressive sartorial choice — buttoning that top button — establishes Rachel as dapperQ Ground Zero.” (If you’re not especially familiar with Maddow, here’s what she looks like when MSNBC’s hair and makeup people have their way with her and here’s what she looks like on her own).

Site founder Herr (who looks like the incredibly badass Texan she is) decries “the fact that our money often simply isn’t good enough for clerks who guard the chasm between men’s and women’s sections informing those who dare to transgress that we aren’t welcome even in single, self-contained dressing rooms.” For anyone who’s ever had a Pretty Woman moment feeling unwelcome in a store (“They wouldn’t even let her shop!”), the dapperQ movement is a welcome push towards letting people buy and wear whatever the hell they want, regardless of how some people think women, or certain women, ought to look.

[And, just because I can, here's a link to Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. Not that Justin Bieber is anywhere as cute a lesbian as Leonardo was, back in his day.]

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    • eEv

      I can’t say I knew any LUGs, although I was familiar with the term. I think the LUG thing might have come from the idea that once you graduate, you’re supposed to act “adult” and “responsible,” which in that case meant marrying a man. (Not saying I agree with heterosexuality=responsibility, obviously.) Now “bisexual” seems to be more the thing. Of course there are real bisexuals, but I think the trend is to identify as such whether or not you are, particularly with women. Witness how many of the women who call into Dan Savage’s podcast start out with, “Hi Dan, I’m a 23-year-old queer/bisexual woman,” and then goes on to discuss her boyfriend troubles, and her past boyfriends, with nary a mention of any sexual encounter with a woman.

    • Lilit Marcus

      Where I grew up (in a pretty conservative area with a high concentration of evangelical Christians) we had the reverse phenomenon, known as “Bi Now, Gay Later.” Basically, kids would identify as bisexual in college as a way to ease into coming out. Plus they could let their parents think “Oh, it’s a phase, little So and So will marry a man when they graduate.”

    • Jen Dziura

      Lilit, we had something similar happen at Dartmouth — one fall, someone founded a Straight Allies group. It stopped meeting by the spring, because everyone had come out and joined the regular LGBT group instead.

      eEv, now that you mention it, I’ve totally seen that. Maybe people feel peer pressure to be queerer than they are when they write to Dan Savage. (Of course, some people think that straight people can be queer, and some people get really angry when other people say that, so we’ll leave that one for another time).

    • georgeelliot

      Hmm, no mention of Hillary Rodham-Clinton’s ubiquitous pant-suits? Isn’t she something of a (perhaps unwittingly) leading figure in this DapperQ movement? I could totally see her sporting an $8 pocket square.

    • Rachel

      I graduated from Mt Holyoke College a year ago. I’m sure it’s reinforced by the fact that MHC is all-female, but there were a lot of lesbians-until-graduation (LUGS) and BUGS (bi-until-graduation). As well as lots of actual lesbians and bisexuals who continued to identify as such after graduation.

    • whenopportunityknocksfuckit

      My experience, as a bisexual since puberty (possibly before?) and a Smith alumna, is that a lot of the whole LUG or BUG phenomenon can be attributed to opportunistic fucking, or at least making out. Which I am not condemning at all, not in the least. In fact, that was the source of a hell of a lot of fun in college. I tend to think that most of the straight girls I hooked up with in college just decided that they wanted to get some play and hooking up with women, who dominated the party scenes (at least the ones I went to), were as good an option as any. So convenience kind of leveled the playing field, so to speak.

      In terms of relationships, it was my experience that at women’s college it was easier to meet women to date. Living primarily in small towns after college, I have tended to fuck/ date more men than women, since more of them have returned my interest/ expressed theirs. That seems also to be true for several other queer women I’m acquainted with, though they don’t all identify as bi.

      This year’s my 5 year reunion. I’ll have to tipsily interrogate some current Smithies about the situation as it stands now. Or possibly, investigate…

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