From left: moderator Katherine Bernard, Grace Dunham, Anita Dolce Vita, Alok Vaid-Menon, Jenny Shimizu, and Kristiina Wilson at Refinery29. Photo: Getty Images
Turn on the television, pick up an issue of Vanity Fair, or check out Andreja Pejic’s campaign for Make Up For Ever and it is obvious that transgender discussion has reached a fever pitch. But as we learned at a panel discussion “The Changing State of Gender in Fashion” at the Refinery29 offices on Tuesday night, Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Hari Nef are only the beginning. Elite Model Management Booker Jenny Shimizu, DapperQ founder Anita Dolce Vita, You Do You founder Kristiina Wilson, artist Alok Vaid-Menon, and actress Grace Dunham (sister of Lena) all offered their insights about the current state of trans and gender politics. Here are the six big takeaways from the evening.
1. Stop telling trans people that they are “brave.”
How would you feel if every time you got dressed the way you wanted to, someone called you “brave?” “That’s a logic that kills trans people,” said Alok Vaid-Menon. “It puts the onus on us to be brave, and not on society for redefining gender norms. I have to ‘be brave’ every single day for something as basic as getting dressed in the morning. Over 21 trans people have been killed in 2015 alone — how peculiar is it that we live in a world that what you wear has such a politic, that you can be killed for it?”
2. There is more than one way to be “transgressive.”
DapperQ blog founder Anita Dolce Vita identifies as a femme lesbian woman - and because she admittedly prefers lipstick and high heels over flannel and hiking boots, she has felt rejected by the queer community. “I’m completely erased when we talk about queer style,” she said. “It’s usually that masculine and androgynous style is considered transgressive. But femme style is also very transgressive and deserves just as much space in the queer narrative.”
3. When you see trans culture in the media, consider what you aren’t seeing as well.
Many of the trans moments in popular culture the last few months have largely been white, “male to female” trans people coming from backgrounds with some degree of privilege. “Just because certain trans experiences are moving into the public eye doesn’t mean that prejudice isn’t being produced at the same time,” said Grace Dunham. “White androgyny isn’t something that radical if you think about it. I’ve yet to be convinced that black trans bodies, trans bodies of color, sick and homeless trans bodies, people dealing with multiple directions and levels of prejudice actually have space within pop culture… the reason we are here on this panel, the reason you are in this audience, the reason we are at Refinery29, is because capitalism is recognizing ‘trans is trending’ as a lucrative marketplace.”
4. Fashion media can cast a wider net.
When making a beauty slideshow, pulling street style looks, or hiring models, always consider the question: who else? “It would be lovely not just to see a mix of races, but a mix of different people,” said Kristiina Wilson. “We’ve integrated plus-sized women. But what would plus-sized men look like? We are all interesting people — why can’t that be integrated in how we use fashion media?”
5. There are easy ways for fashion to help oppressed communities.
Probably speaking from experience given that her sister is a famous actress, Grace Dunham pointed out that the celebrity community is a huge untapped resource of excess clothing. “Celebrities are required to wear new outfits every time they do anything, and as son as they are photographed in it, they can’t wear it again. So why don’t we sell those clothes? Why don’t we auction them? Why don’t we donate those clothes to organizations that work directly with trans youth trying to transition?” Additionally, added Vaid-Menon, something to consider is that trans people are across the board paid less - the average income of a trans woman in the United States is less than $10,000: “Give more money to people from oppressed backgrounds. If you are working with black, or trans, or whatever models, give them more money.”
6. But also understand the limits of what fashion can be.
Ultimately, the fashion industry is a business. “We think fashion has ethics and morals and is based solely on what we all want from it,” said Jenny Shimizu. “But it can’t be held up to any of our standards. The only thing I can do is be responsible to the people around me. When I see one of my girls, and I know the backstory - she comes from a hard background, she supports her family - and I see her walking in a Valentino couture gown, that one moment can erase a year of the bad. I love fashion because of the creativity, and because of the beautiful things.”