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Where Transgender People Actually Get Their Clothes

As couture embraces gender fluidity, grassroots efforts are making clothing accessible for greater numbers of trans people.
Items from the Light line at Tilly and William, a gender-inclusive brand.

Items from the Light line at Tilly and William, a gender-inclusive brand.

For the last few years, gender-fluid fashion has been increasingly popular in high-end fashion. Men wore pussy-bow blouses on Gucci's runway in 2015; models wore gender-concealing masks on Rad Hourani's that same year. Around the same time, several companies have emerged to cater directly to a population that has historically been ignored by designers: transgender people.

In 2012, entrepreneur Mary Going began fundraising to start Saint Harridan, a suit store that provided dress clothing for those who identified as masculine of center. In 2011 another masculine-of-center line, Tomboy Tailors, launched to offer bespoke suits that cost between $650 and $1,250. (Saint Harridan and Tomboy Tailors have since closed down; two stylists from Tomboy Tailors started the bespoke menswear clothier for all genders, Kipper Clothiers.) Other gender non-conforming, trans-friendly fashion start-ups—Marimacho, Chrysalis Lingerie, and Sir New York—also gained awareness in the early 2010s.

Still, much of transgender fashion has yet to catch up to the community's financial reality. As the transgender population has doubled in the last decade, the buying power of the LGBT community has reached an estimated $917 billion, according to a Witeck Communications 2015 study. This buying power is amplified by what Witeck calls the "PFLAG Effect," in which non-LGBT buyers are more likely to spend at places welcoming to LGBT friends and family. In other words: Accessible fashion doesn't just appeal to LGBT people, but to their families and allies, presenting a potential boost to companies that market inclusivity.

Nevertheless, more than 15 percent of the transgender population reports less than $10,000 yearly income, according to a 2015 Movement Advancement Project report. "From a socio-economic perspective, incomes [of the transgender population] tend to be much lower [than that of the non-transgender population]," says Slaine Jenkins, the senior director of Insight Strategy Group, a marketing research firm in New York.

In keeping with this economic reality, transgender fashion companies with several hundred-dollar prices, like Tomboy Tailors and Saint Harridan, face a tough business market. Many who work within the transgender community argue, instead, that the most promising solutions are coming from those who are working to make clothes available to a large swath of trans consumers. Grassroots and affordable solutions, they say, are where the true future of trans-accessible fashion lies.


Daye Pope, a transgender community organizer in Washington, D.C., has led several "Trans at Work" professional readiness workshops. Inaccessibility to appropriate clothing presents a major employment hurdle for transgender people: Trans people not only often lack experience in choosing professional attire for their true gender, but the resources to obtain such attire. This absence of readily available work clothes feeds into a cycle of poverty, Pope argues, putting already-poor people at a disadvantage during the application process.

"In order to get and keep a job, we all have to make some good first impressions, and that has a lot to do with how we dress, groom, and present ourselves at job interviews and during the hiring process," Pope says. "This is especially true in my opinion for marginalized groups like the trans community, who are already facing high levels of discrimination and bias."

Pope says that solutions to this problem are already underway within the community itself, through LGBT+ clothing swaps. These swaps are usually community-led events where people trade or give away articles of clothing that no long suit them, but may be perfect for a member of the community struggling to fill out their wardrobe. These exchanges allow people to swap clothes in person—such as this one that meets through—and online. Consider the Tumblr Transgender Clothing Exchange, which has been running since 2011. Virtual communities that provide access to in-demand LGBT+ products such as chest binders are of particular importance for young people who are not out to their parents in rural communities, where access to LGBT+ community and clothing can be limited.

Items from the Skin line at Tilly and William, a gender-inclusive brand.

Items from the Skin line at Tilly and William, a gender-inclusive brand.

Pope says that these swaps serve several purposes: They help build community, and help people who are transitioning shed apparel for another gender and offer them new items that they may not be able to afford. "Many of my own clothes, especially early in transition, were secondhand from friends and community members," Pope adds.

Jacqalin Keeling, a youth counselor at an organization that serves the homeless transgender population in New York City, sees the often humiliating effects of building a wardrobe for a new gender identity. The Center for American Progress found that, while only 5 to 7 percent of youth are LBGT identified, between 9 and 45 percent of the homeless youth population are LGBT.

Much of this population remains underserved when it comes to possessing even the most basic apparel. "I see many people unable to wear the proper shoes, endure the humiliation of wearing children's-sized clothing, maternity clothing, and outright lack of access to clothes that display their gender in an affirming way. Without an income, it is even more difficult," Keeling says.

Keeling is heartened by the efforts of young people sharing the resources they have access to. "Government restrictions on private donations make it difficult to provide free used clothing," Keeling says. "So we are seeing individuals from interdependent networks caring for each other in ballroom scene houses, and punks and radical folks creating temporary spaces for free clothing."

Items from the Signature Collection of Point 5cc, a brand created to show pride for the LGBT, and particularly transgender, communities.

Items from the Signature Collection of Point 5cc, a brand created to show pride for the LGBT, and particularly transgender, communities.

While many are familiar with the '90s ballroom scene thanks to the iconic documentary Paris is Burning, a newer offshoot in New York City, called The Kiki Ball, provides more than a performance space. The Kiki Ball provides clothing and access to services like testing and counseling to younger members of the LGBT+ community of color.

Tilly D. Wolfe, half of the fashion designing duo behind the label Tilly and William, says their line has tailored its production process to maximize accessibility to trans people. Tilly and William is one of a few lines with gender-neutral clothing for all bodies, not just ones that identify as masculine or feminine. Some of their full outfits can include hundreds of dollars' worth of clothing, but individual items can run as low as $30.

In a landscape where much of the targeted population is below the poverty line, access to affordable, stylish articles can be life-altering. "Part of the reason [our clothing is priced as it is] is because we realized our community couldn't afford it. It was important to us to make clothes that were accessible," Wolfe says.

Tilly and William's clothes adapt to diverse body types, and can be worn in various ways. The brand aims to avoid the waste and unfair labor conditions that characterize other brands—the label produces fewer than the five or six lines typical labels put out per year, Wolfe says—and offer minimalist lines that can be upcycled. "We focus on transformability of pieces—one garment can become so many things, and people need less," Wolfe says. The line additionally offers to help fix any item of their clothing that suffers tears and damage.

Wolfe says that a conscientious production process is a large part of their appeal to the trans community, a group that is more likely to be conscious of unfair labor practices. Reportedly 90 percent of transgender people, after all, have faced harassment and mistreatment at a place of work.

Wolfe also believes that brands can help trans people develop skills that make clothing more accessible. When we spoke, Wolfe was in the process of collaborating on an event that would provide space, sewing machines, and skill shares for clothing tailoring to the trans and queer community. Tilly and William isn't alone in giving some of its proceeds back to the less-fortunate in the community: Clothing line Point 5cc, which provides casual attire attuned to trans bodies donates 20 percent of the company's net profits to a non-profit that funds transgender surgeries and donates chest binders and breast forms.

Like many marginalized communities, the transgender community faces its own unique set of hurdles and solutions that, advocates say, are best understood by those who live them. That makes a kind of sense: Trans people feel their own needs, instead of perceiving them as a business opportunity. Even in reporting this piece, I noticed that the only sources I reached out to that were interested in talking about positive solutions were people who identified as non-binary and trans.

Keeling, when we spoke, argued that the community has a need for "collective healing to take place," away from the eyes of cisgender people. While a cisgender gay person may start a fashion line that defies or pushes the boundaries of gender norms, this does not necessarily translate to the understanding of the daily clothing needs of transgender people.

Keeling describes the freedom that might come for a young transgender person with access to a friend's closet or a drag wardrobe. This freedom, she says, comes "especially away from the eyes of cisgender people, even our allies."