What does Suit Up mean for this butch?

Last summer, I posted some interview advice, which started with the admonition to Suit up.
Recent conversations here and elsewhere about gender, combined with the awesome tweets, blog posts, and ideas coming out of Out of the Attic and Into the Stacks: Feminism in LIS: The Unconference, have made me realize that one-size-fits-all (pun intended) wardrobe advice is useless.

Suited up

Suited up

The irony of me offering such cluelessly generic wardrobe advice is that generic dress codes rarely work for me. I identify as butch (see Why I identify as butch, for an explanation I wish I was smart enough to have written). Part of my self-identify includes feeling most comfortable wearing men’s clothes (which I think technically makes me a cross-dresser, but there are all sorts of interesting gendered issues around why society saves that label for men who wear women’s clothes and not vice-versa).

My basic work wardrobe is a pair of men’s dress pants, and a men’s dress shirt with white t-shirt. I have to hunt hard to find the right shoes that fit, but Zappos is a great source for men’s shoes in size 6. When the occasion calls for something dressier, I suit up — which for me means a men’s suit tailored to fit me, with a dress shirt and no tie. I rarely bust out a tie at work — so far only for special occasions like the Giants playing in the World Series. I have gone with the suit and tie look on non-work social occasions — my wife tells me she likes that look, so who am I to argue?

Giants tie

Rocking the orange & black during the Giants 2010 World Series championship run

I last interviewed for a job 10 years ago, and at that point had not yet completely embraced my butch wardrobe. I wore a women’s business suit: pants and matching jacket, dressy black sweater thing. I remember exactly what I wore, because trying to figure out what to wear, and shopping for a suit, was excruciatingly stressful. And although my choice worked (I got the job), I was uncomfortable and felt a bit like an impostor throughout the day. I got home and changed quickly into jeans, tshirt, baseball cap. Whenever I next interview for a job, I plan to wear a men’s suit (probably without a tie – but who knows?).

And here’s the thing, as comfortable and confident as I have become (slowly, over years) with my butch wardrobe choices, the idea of wearing a men’s suit on a job interview still makes me nervous. What will people think? Too butch? I’m not worried that wearing a suit will effectively “out me” … I’ve been told that even in a dress and make-up I would still set off everyone’s gaydar from miles away.
But there is something extra transgressive about “going full-butch” in wardrobe and self-presentation. See Mainstream Butches/”Butches”? for an excellent discussion of the “double-edged sword” of the rising popularity of Ellen Degeneres and Rachel Maddow. (Side note, I wore a men’s tuxedo at my wedding; but more than a few friends and family suggested I could wear a nice white suit like Ellen did. Seriously? How ridiculous would I look in a white suit?)

I enjoy significant privilege (the kind of privilege Peggy McIntosh notes “should be the norm in a just society” PDF) at my place of work, in that my sexuality and my gender presentation have not been an issue, as far as I know. In fact, my awesome boss once gave me advice about a great men’s clothing shop in Charleston SC.

But … I still wonder if some of my co-workers wish I would tone down the butchness a bit. Maybe no one does, but part of being different is always wondering. And while I’m usually pretty confident and resolute in my wardrobe choices, there have been times when I wish I had a role model — a fellow butch who could tell me what they wore when they were visiting colleagues in Japan, or in the Middle East. I stuck by my guns, and wore men’s pants and dress shirts; with black sports coat when needed — but I was nervous and self-conscious. I figured I would be self-conscious in women’s clothes too, so better to be self-conscious and comfortable.

My point is — I’m publishing this because if someone else had written this 10 years ago, maybe that would have given me the courage to wear something a bit more comfortable to that interview. And because I wish I knew of other butch-identified women in leadership positions in academia so we could compare notes and wardrobe advise. And because I’m more than a bit embarrassed at how ridiculously simplistic my Suit Up advice was.  And because part of being transparent (a big goal/commitment of mine) is being “out” about who I am – A queer, butch, cross-dressing, feral librarian.

Edited (3/18/12, 9:50 am PST) to add a link to A butch dresses up for work from “Can I help you Sir?”, which starts out with an infuriating story of discrimination, and ends with eight great wardrobe tips. 


17 Responses to “What does Suit Up mean for this butch?”

  1. 1 Shaz August 7, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Interesting that you would reply to all comments except mine from The Butch Clothing Company. Any particular reason for that? Shaz


    • 2 Chris Bourg August 7, 2012 at 6:04 pm

      Because your comment borders on the kind of advertising spam I usually delete, but since it was relevant and I niche market I made an exception and approved it. No disrespect intended by not replying, but I tend to avoid commercial endorsements here.


  2. 3 Bernie May 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    I would love to thankyou for this column. I am having major issues with this at the moment. I am gender neutral and am very confused how to dress for a job interview. I am what is considered a “looker” and i thought i had to dress as a female in women’s attire in anticipation that i would be judged in a negitive way. However you have convinced me to go with a gender neutral option. Thankyou.


    • 4 Chris Bourg May 29, 2012 at 8:14 am

      I am so glad that the post was helpful to you. As others have said, you are most likely to truly rock the interview if you are comfortable in your own skin (and suit!). Good luck!


  3. 5 G March 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Hey, thanks for mentioning my blog!

    I know the feeling of agonizing over what to wear to a job interview all too well. I’ve worn women’s clothes in the past, thinking that might be easier for a potential interviewer to process. I thought if I didn’t scare him or her, than it would be easier to make it through to the next round. But all it did was make me more anxious than I already was for the interview itself. Was I sitting right? What about these earrings, did they match okay? It also made me uncomfortable because I felt like I was pulling a bait and switch with the interviewer. Sure, I look like a lady now, but I won’t dress anything like this in the office!

    When I interviewed for the job I have now, I stayed true to myself. I didn’t wear a suit – my company is MUCH less formal than that – but I wore suit pants, a button-down and a men’s v-neck sweater over the top. It was seasonal, it fit well, and it was authentic. I rocked the interview, I’m sure in no small part due to the fact that I was confident in my own skin and clothes, and I got hired. I’d make the same suggestion to anyone. If a company doesn’t want to hire you because of the way you look, you probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway.

    Thanks again for the mention, and I’m so happy to have found your blog!


    • 6 Chris Bourg March 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks for coming over here to comment. I definitely agree that feeling comfortable and authentic in my own clothes makes me way more confident, smarter, and a better interviewee!


      • 7 shaz riley April 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm


        Come talk to me I am Shaz Riley owner & Director of The Butch Clothing Company.

        We are just about to complete our second year of trading. Let me tell you my friend, women like you and I are the reason I set up the company

        We produce great garments: suits, shirts, pants, vests for any gay women in the world. All our clothing is bespoke and cut from your own personal paper pattern we have a specific way of working and with our US clients, of which there are many, we run highly successful video Skype consultations.

        What we do allows gay women to design, with me the attire that works for them. All our suits are based on classic male styles and the latest male fashion trends, they look as as good as a guys suit would on a guy on the out side, be it classic or funky or anywhere in between, but are constructed differently on the inside to fit our female form without feminizing us!

        And hey don’t knock the ‘Ellen’ cream pants, cream vest and white shirt…..its beyond popular with some of my clients. Then of course there are those of us that prefer the more traditional colors ;)

        Point is we work with all types of butches, all types of gay women and all gay wedding parties! And you know what ? It works!

        email me shaz@thebutchclothingcompany.co.uk I will make you a suit that fits to perfection and will last you 15 years. However like every thing worth having, it comes with a price tag! Kind regards Shaz


  4. 8 jesterqueen March 19, 2012 at 7:41 am

    I found your article fascinating and well spoken. Anything but feral! I’m straight and not particularly masculine looking (floofy hairstyle, purple glasses, and hooters the size of cannonballs pretty well disqualify me), but I’m most comfortable in men’s professional clothing. Socially, yeah, I wear dresses (sometimes; rarely) and women’s pantsy things, and I feel OK. But professionally, women’s clothes leave a lot – A LOT – to be desired for someone like me in the wardrobe area. My husband has two suits. He needs no more than two suits.

    They both fit me pretty well.


  5. 10 Kelly March 19, 2012 at 7:24 am

    Nice post Chris. When you originally posted the interview advice to suit up I agreed 100% and I still do. However, you are right about choosing what is right for you, even if it is a suit. For me, I’m out and can be spotted at 10 feet or less whether you know me or not. In fact, when you and I spent two weeks together in Atlanta we were considered twins, rolling my eyes.

    All my life my wardrobe has been about oxford shirts and golf shirts. Now that I am a professional in a leadership position at an academic medical center, I drop the golf shirts unless it is Friday or the middle of summer when it seems to be more acceptable. Generally I wear women’s oxford shirts because they fit me better than men’s. The pocket on the front of a men’s shirts seems to always be located at my waste no matter what size I get. My shirts are pricey because the ones that fit me and my butch style are Ralph Lauren and Lands End. I get them dry cleaned with high starch so they are crisp and sharp looking. I too wear white t-shirts under my shirts because I like the look.

    When it comes to pants, I am a bit hippy, so I hunt for the right pair of pants. Right now my go to is The Avenue. When I find a pair that I like, I buy 2 or 3 at a time. I have a collection of women’s suit jackets that go with all my pants. I hunt for suit jackets and usually find what I want at Dillard’s or at an women’s suit outlet store. I usually only find one jacket at a time that will work. I wear a suit jacket every day but it comes off when I hit my desk and only comes back on when I head to a meeting or leave for the day. This academic medical center environment is very suit oriented or you have the qualifications and job title that allows/requires you to wear the white lab coat all day.

    For shoes, ah, I love shoes but I tend to spoil my partner with my love of shoes. I love Josef Seibel. I also love to the boot look but I don’t tend to wear them to work but I could as that is the style here in Texas. My Josef Seibel shoes keep me going, again, I find a couple of pairs that I like and just buy them because who knows if they will be around the next time I need shoes.

    Both of us being in leadership positions gives us the opportunity to make an impact on our campus making new perceptions based on our work and manner in which we carry ourselves. Good stuff and chin up!


    • 11 Chris Bourg March 19, 2012 at 9:03 am

      Yes, I remember being called “Kelly” more than a few times in Atlanta! Although to be fair, I got some of the guys’ names mixed up that first week too!
      Pants are the hardest — but Banana Republic and Perry Ellis often work. And the best fitting pair of pants I have are a pair of FCUK grey wool pants I found in a thrift store in the Mission. All of my pants have to be hemmed and most of them taken in at the waist, since I have to buy a larger size to accommodate the hips. the shirt pocket placement is a problem for us short girls — but I have found some brands that work for me: Geoffrey Beene & Calvin Klein are two favorites.

      And yes to the role-modeling aspect–both for those we work with and those coming up in the profession. Chin up!


  6. 12 nebraskadan March 18, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Really interesting reflection, I am glad that I read it this morning. You’ve got me thinking about the complexities of labeling ourselves and the difference between self-identifying/labeling and having others do it for us. Certainly building a stronger identity in a group opens the door for belonging, self-confidence, and even serenity; the trade-off though can be worrying about whether or not we make it simpler for other people to put us in buckets very quickly. It must really be hard for people whose workplaces and supervisors are not like yours, I can’t imagine the stress. You’ve also got me thinking about the wardrobe choices we make inside and outside of work and just how much we communicate by how we dress – and the opposite how much we judge people based on their dress. A lighter example would be to consider some of the people I saw yesterday dressed for either St. Patrick’s Day or any of the NCAA games. In both cases some people dress to represent a profound part of their heritage (thinking KY and IN hoops) and for others it is a day to drink beer and wear your most outrageous clothes in a specific color (kelly green, thinking TX burnt orange, UNC baby blue). I confess to being incredibly judgmental when I see Syracuse fans in all their orange, man it just makes me angry thinking about it!


    • 13 Chris Bourg March 18, 2012 at 9:59 am

      Dan- Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think the human race will always struggle with figuring out the healthiest level (for individuals, groups, society) of group identity based on differences. For me, being able to lay claim to a label that allowed me to feel like I was not alone (and therefore not a freak) was super important when I first came out as a lesbian, and as I became comfortable with my gender presentation. Feels slightly less personally important to me now, but still politically important — if that makes sense.
      At any rate, I appreciate your comments … but I still have to cheer for the ACC today. Go Wolfpack!


  7. 14 Evelyn N. Alfred March 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Great blog post. Eww, that sounds generic, but it was nice to read.


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