I love talking to people about their personal style, what it means to them, how it all happened, why it’s always more than clothes. I also like talking about myself, clearly, so here’s my first conversation with Berry Grass about their style.
Here’s a quick bio: Berry Grass is originally from Kansas City, got their MFA in Tuscaloosa, and now lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia. Their chapbook, Collector’s Item, was published in 2014 by Corgi Snorkel Press. Their essays appear in The Normal School, BOAAT, Bedfellows, Hobart, and Sonora Review, among other publications. When they aren’t reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they’re probably watching too much pro wrestling.*
*this bio fails to mention their sweet Boston Crab throwing skills.
Q1 GREG. Clothing, for me, has always been a kind of armor and a source of anxiety. I still remember not really feeling ok in clothes as a kid. We were never poor, but there was definitely a period when my dad was working his way up and we weren’t rolling in it. The time I went to school with mustard stains on an imitation velvet shirt is burned into my memory. As is the time I wore form fitting jeans instead of baggy 90’s gear and felt like a trailblazer…and discovering high-end jeans clearly. All this is to say that moving to Philadelphia felt like a gift. I had to do business casual at work, but off work I could wear whatever I wanted, a lot of the anxiety drifted away. Your steez has blown up since Philly…how has the city/the move/living in the greatest city ever affected your style?
A1 BERRY: So the quick answer to this is A LOT, and for a few reasons. Living in Philly gives me proximity to so many brands at retail that I couldn’t see or feel before; even in the thrift stores I can find vintage Burberry trousers or a Dior blazer. Like, I feel you on the clothing anxiety as a kid! I grew up poor, in rural Missouri, rarely getting new clothes. But mom & I went window shopping quite a bit (just to get out of the house for a bit & away from the climate of domestic abuse I grew up in, so I yearned for stuff, you know? The other reason I had that feeling of not-being-ok with my clothing situation was because the trappings of school-boy masculinity were so wrong for me. As a trans woman (and a queer, gender non-conforming one at that), I could not relate to my body or the clothes I was supposed to wear. You know me from our Alabama days, and you remember me then: awful, mis-sized Lee’s jeans & metal band tees that were too big for my body — I was hiding. All that fabric was good for was creating a tent that I could hide in. But…moving to Philly was, as you felt for yourself, a gift. I found myself here in Philly. It’s the 5th-biggest city in the U.S., which is to say that it is lots of cities at once, overlapping. But I see so many queer & trans people in this city & that, in conjunction with transitioning, has affected my style more than anything. It’s inspiring to be around so many people who are using clothing as a means of self-expression, & particularly a queer self-expression.
Q2 G. This one might be a mess and it might be Q’s 2-5. So maybe Q2 is I want to hear about your style development as you transitioned because you went next level. When did you feel like it really started to click? What is it an item? A look? A shopping trip? An Instagram comment? Q3. I think you are super good a crossing the femme/masculine line and back again and still having your own style. I’m super jealous of this. I’ve always had broad shoulders and, for lack of a better term, a very American frame and face (Brandi Wells once called it “a boring face” and she’s not wrong.) I’ve always wanted to be longer. I’ve always wanted Yohji kinda looks. Even still, I definitely have days when I’m like “fuck it, today I’m a lumberjack” and days where I want something softer, as close to androgynous as I ever get. Phew, so the question is, what is your process like when you’re thinking about going Blazer Femme or closer to the androgyny line? How do you think about it? Do you? Am I over thinking it?
A2: I feel like I started piecing my current style together for myself the year before I started HRT. I was putting together menswear looks that helped me care about my body & the way things fit on me. And through that act of caring came a snowball effect where caring led to accepting these other things about myself. So then I had to figure things out almost from scratch as HRT’s changes to my body took effect. And honestly there’s been a few moments of things clicking into place over the last year: the twill blazer cut for a woman’s body that suddenly fit me like whoa; the wool cocoon coat that taught me the role of proportion & length in creating an androgynous space; the high-waisted magic of mom jeans; the combo of chelsea boots & a flowing maxi skirt. & I know things are still clicking for me because I haven’t stopped evolving. My suit game is getting better & better, but so are the dresses I’m finding that work for me.
A3 B: How do I think about my approach to an androgynous sort of look? I certainly do think about it! So this is going to be a long answer, because it covers a few different threads. SO, my overall style is predicated on balancing my spirit with my safety. By which I mean: trans women have their appearances policed pretty rigidly, by pretty much everybody. There is so much pressure on trans women to dive headlong into a High Femme look: big ol’ heels & sundresses & wow that eyeshadow! & so much long hair. That kind of look is fantastic, of course, but it’s also true that trans women get accepted & read as women more readily when they go all-in on femininity like that. It’s like everyone has this expectation that that’s the only kind of trans woman. As if butch trans women don’t exist, or as if gender non-conforming trans women don’t exist! That kind of high femme look is not for me. I look like a dyke, and I want to look like a dyke, because I am one. So when I put together daily looks for being out in public, I have to balance what would get read as more masculine w/ what gets read as feminine. So I wear a girly choker a lot. I wear more necklaces & lipstick & eyeliner & blush than my lazy ass might otherwise want to put on. I do this for my safety. But these measures also soften up a blue double breasted suit, or contrast in these great ways w/ a linen shirt & raw denim. The overall effect — I hope — is that I get read out of the corners of eyes as a cis lesbian, because that’s much safer than being read as a trans anything. Again, expectations: people don’t expect a trans woman to wear the boots & blazers that I do.
This desire to dress that way: “masculine” garments flaired with femininity, comes from my repressed years of yearning to be different than the person I was expected to me. I’m thinking back to early teen Me & even then, the closest I ever came to seeing a reflection of myself was through seeing queer women in menswear. It was nearly inexplicable to me at the time, but I understand now that I had internalized (& subconsciously applied to myself) society’s gender roles & expectations for women. So women who rocked ultra-short haircuts & made menswear their own — these women spoke a whole language of defiance & self-determination to me. & look at me now! I’m one of those women. I call this yearning & this style “Blazer Femme.” Through defiance of normative gender & fashion for women, I come to a place where I feel my most feminine & strong when I’m wearing suits & blazers. I feel so affirmed in my queer womanhood when I dress the way I want to.
So are you overthinking it? I don’t know! Masculinity tends to police itself pretty hard, but maybe you’re past the point in life where dudes would shame you for attempting a look w/ length & drape like in that very dope Yohji show you linked to! One lucky aspect of transition for me is that it made me quickly get used to the idea that all eyes are liable to be on me. So I feel emboldened to try literally any look or fit that I feel like, because I’m getting stares either way. Actually, you know what? I started getting used to that before HRT, when I still had the full beard/shaved head combo going. I’d wear women’s cut sweaters & long cardigans, and mix in different skirt lengths. I had to wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact with folks, but I just took my then self, with all that facial hair, & acted like there was no other possible way for me to dress. Nobody in South Philly stabbed me with a two day old cannoli, so you might have the safety to jump out of your comfort zone too.
Q4 G: I’ve never had to worry about my safety when getting dressed so ignore everything I’ve said about myself. Thank you for sharing that. I think a lot of guys like me have anxiety about clothing, but it’s nothing like a concern for safety. It’s not as weighty. I love that suits are empowering your femininity. Ok this has all been amazing and insightful. I want you to trendcast on 4 & 5. Where is your style going? Where do you want it to go? Where do you think fashion is going? Your answers can be wishful thinking. I guess that’s 4 & 5.
A 4/5 B: I think my style, whether I want it to or not, & whether I can afford it or not, is trending towards elements of couture & high fashion. For multiple reasons! I’ve been looking closely at fashion magazines, getting the feel of cycles &; brands in a way that I only ever glossed over before. Not that I’ll ever be able to afford a Dior dress or blazer, but I’ve been obsessing over Maria Grazia Chiuri’s collections at Dior. feel empowered enough to be more daring, bolder, wear something playful — sure, yes. But mostly I’m being drawn to high fashion brands that dedicate themselves to craft & fit. My most recent purchase reflects this: a black & white striped blazer from 3.1 Phillip Lim. It’s risky & fashiony (b/c it’s basically a Beetlejuice blazer), but the fit on me is extraordinary; it drapes so well & hits my waist perfectly & has such a pleasing weight. I’m keep being drawn to the knitwear from Missoni. So I can tell that my style is headed towards supremely well-crafted splurge pieces.
& i guess I’m fine with that! I want my style to go wherever I go. I just want to be true to me. Fashion itself is something I feel no ability to prognosticate on, other than I fully expect more & more lines that are essentially genderless. And not just in the usual “here’s a banal grey hoodie now let’s write a press statement about how its unisex” or whatever. I mean more clothing lines from more & more brands that maybe carve out the space for men to express themselves with flowing, draping fabric, & carve out the space for women or nonbinary people to wear button down shirts that accommodate their specific chest situations. Like…Nike just hired former Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci, and his first collection has a big ol’ skirt, designed for all bodies & genders, made partially from basketball shorts mesh fabric. I continue to expect fashion to chip away at the gender binary — people want that, and we also need it.
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