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It was an innocent comment, a casual mention, “Oh it looks like you need to get those dress pants hemmed.” I feel my face flush. The duct tape I had been using to keep my pants from dragging on the ground had given way. I look at my impeccably dressed colleague and once again feel the shame of not having enough money to buy clothing that fits properly.

I look at the pictures from my friend’s wedding and I cringe. It was early in my transition, but in addition to general awkwardness there is the suit I am wearing. I look like a little boy who has borrowed his dad’s clothing. Clothing that doesn’t fit. At all. I’m drowning in my suit jacket, but it was all that I could afford. My only option was buying what was on the rack and making do.

Transgender people face unique challenges when it comes to clothing. When you add in financial challenges as well you have a toxic combination. Dress clothes are the worst. The things that I can afford come from big box stores. Usually if they fit my waist they will be too long. Sleeves go past my hands. Shirts are boxy. Over the last year I was able to save up and get a bunch of things tailored but I generally can’t afford to do that.

Society puts a lot of emphasis on clothing. You are seen as less professional, less intelligent, less sophisticated if you don’t have the right clothing with the right fit.

I’ve especially had problems at various churches. From dirty looks to conversations about how we can provide nicer clothing for people so they feel more comfortable on a Sunday morning (instead of, you know, not judging people for what they wear) it can feel shaming and overwhelming.

I am a causal dresser. I do it partly because it makes me comfortable and partly because dress clothes don’t fit properly. Wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt makes me no less intelligent or capable than if I were in a three piece suit with $1000 shoes, but the perception is that I am just a child or not a professional simply because of my clothing.

What we often overlook in conversations about dress codes is the subtle (or not so subtle) classism that pervades these conversations. When our opinion of someone’s intelligence or ability is based on what they are wearing we are saying that you have to have money to be a professional or intelligent or capable. For many people this simply isn’t an option.

Some folks will retort, “But I like dressing up!” as if this is a zero sum game. It’s not. You can wear whatever you like, but we need to unlearn our assumptions and prejudices when we see what other people are wearing. 

This all has a feeling of modesty culture to it. In modesty culture there is this idea that women are responsible for covering up every part of themselves so as not to cause men to “stumble”. Within modesty culture there are (generally unspoken) rules and expectations about appropriately gendered wear. When I was presumed female I still ran afoul of the modesty police, not because I wasn’t covered up, but because I was covered up in the wrong way.

I long for the day when clothing can simply be clothing. When we can wear what makes us feel good, what makes us comfortable, what makes us confident without all of the attendant pressure to live up to other people’s expectations.

I especially long for the day when our churches will stop being the worst offenders when it comes to judging people for how they dress.

What have been your struggles with class and church and clothing (or the intersections of all three)?