I was scrolling through Facebook when I happened upon a video someone shared of a Billy Porter interview on Channel 4. Billy Porter has managed to grab the world by storm these past couple of years with his sickening glamour and through Pose, a show with the largest cast of transgender actors in history. He has pushed boundaries on the red carpet and has served look after look this past year.
His tuxedo dress at the Oscars paired high style with unique tailoring. A square-shoulder tuxedo blazer on his top half, decked with silken lapels and a large bowtie under wing-tipped collars, fell into a tight waist which then billows out into a full gown. His frilled cuffs peaked out from his under his sleeves, with a ring brightening his right hand, while he kept his signature moustache and short hair. It was the kind of tuxedo that I’ve dreamed about wearing, and no one missed the way he served that glamourous dish.
At the Tony’s he wore another sickening look, this time in red and white. Created by New York’s Celestino couture, it boasted over 30,000 Swarovski crystals on a garment that’s base is simple – a waistcoat and trousers. Yet Billy Porter and Celestino transformed it into a gender-fluid garment, adding a train in the shape of uterus behind the gorgeously embroidered trousers, the colour of the train matching that of his upturned pink lapel. A garment made in support of women’s reproductive rights that continue to be put under attack by the regime of the orange monster in the White House, he again took the runway by storm, challenging normative ideals. Most impressively for me, it was made out of the curtains at Kinky Boots, for which he won a Tony for best actor in a musical. To quote Porter in his Stephen Colbert interview it was ‘upcycled, not recycled’ and couldn’t have looked more couture. Sustainable, androgynous and down right sickening.
And then, of course, is his Met Gala outfit. Decked in gold with a ten-foot wingspan, no one could forget his entrance to fashion’s biggest event. The theme paid homage to Susan Sontag’s iconic ‘Notes on Camp’ (there’ll be another post about this master work), and no one served it better than Billy Porter. Carried into the event by 6 men (how I would like to be carried literally everywhere I go) he gave us ALL the life. And then those wings opened out. Insert death drop here. GAGGED.
As iconic as these looks are, it is not without purpose. In this Channel 4 interview, Porter readily admits that ‘everything you see is intentional. Everything you see is with a purpose, with full knowledge of the tension behind exactly what I’m doing’. And this tension is exactly what I’d like to speak about, for it is what he said in this interview that really made me write this post.
‘When women wear men’s clothes it’s fine, it’s accepted, but when men wear women’s clothes, it’s seen as disgusting’. Porter points out this is of course because when women wear men’s clothes, they are assimilating into the accepted patriarchy, but when men wear women’s clothes, what else could it be but a joke. ‘It’s always comic. People can stomach it if it’s camp, if it’s a clown show. But I think what disturbed people was that I was actually a man choosing to wear a dress in a serious way. For real. There was no joke to it’. (I’m quoting him a lot here but let’s face it, he said it pretty damn well).
To link this to my own experience slightly I, like so many other people now, don’t pay all that much attention to what gender a piece of clothing is supposedly designed for. If I like it, if I think it’s pretty, I’m going to wear it. Simple. Most of my trousers, for example, are women’s trousers as I like to wear boots and nothing goes better with a nice heeled Chelsea boot than a bootcut flare. (Though let’s just say certain parts of me are not always so happy that I always wear women’s trousers…) Likewise, tops with billowing sleeves, floor-length coats, frills and embroidery – I like things to flow and move when I wear them. I choose to wear women’s clothes in a ‘serious way’. That is not to say that I am always attempting to make some kind of statement, nor that I am questioning my gender. Just like Porter, I identify as a man, and I’m incredibly comfortable in that. But I don’t see any reason that should stop me from wearing my favourite lilac butterfly sleeve top.
I often get flack for wearing what I wear but that’s not what really bothers me. Hunny, you don’t like my shoes you can march away in those ugly shoes I couldn’t care less! But what really does bother me is that idea that people always think it’s a big camp statement, that it’s about me just trying to stand out. Now I’m no quiet bitch sitting politely in the corner of the room, and I love being the centre of attention as much as the next queen, but that’s not just achieved by the clothing I wear. I don’t wear my 50 different shawls just to look different, or to be camp or comic. I wear them because I like them and it best expresses what I want to my clothing to say about me. It’s not a camp show, it’s not just me being all loud (though I will admit I am LOUD) – it’s just me dressing the way that I feel best to express myself.
What Porter says here resonates with me and many of my friends who all find themselves constantly faced with questions about how different they are because of the way we dress. Are we different? Yes of course we are. But it is not just that we wear women’s clothing sometimes that should be focused on, or worse interpreted as some camp comment or gay statement. We wear what we wear in a serious way to express what we’d like to express, different or not. As Porter always says – ‘People forget that Jesus wore a dress too. They call ‘em robes, but they were dresses’. If it’s good enough for good ol’ Jesus, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Now of course at the end of the day, as Porter says in the Channel 4 interview amidst his passionate and moving comments about clothing: ‘Get over it. What does it matter?! It’s like I don’t understand why it matters so much. Just clothes y’all’. But never forget, clothing matters, and, when we want to, we can speak through our clothes almost as much as we speak with our voices. So next time you see someone wearing something that doesn’t pertain to the gender you think they are, don’t view it as a queer camp bid for attention, but understand that they are living their own personal lives. Just like you should be.
And, if it makes you uncomfortable? As Porter says – “Good”.
“I’m a man in a dress, and if I feel like wearing a dress I’m gonna wear one” – Billy Porter
Watch the Channel 4 interview here –