How India's trans and non-binary youth's relation with clothing is liberating, yet fraught with limitations

·9-min read

For the teenager Navya Singh, her mother's wardrobe was a treasure chest of clothes she wanted to try on. She recalls a particular incident when she had draped her favourite saree from her mother's wardrobe when nobody was home. She put on makeup, and stood in front of the mirror, and realised €" "this is who I am and who I wanted to be €" something I never could say to anyone else before. I waited for my mother to return so that I could show her myself in a saree, and she cried on seeing me." Singh soon expressed her discomfort with the body she was born in to her parents, paving the path for her soon-to-follow journey of physically transitioning into a woman. She now works as a model and an actor in Mumbai.

For Gagan Goyal, who identifies as trans femme, reflections on her identity were also spurred by her mother's sarees, wondering if she was simply admiring them, or wanted to wear them herself. "Fashion has played a very major role for me in my long transition journey," shares the Delhi-based social media strategist and art director.

UP-based singer-songwriter Aditya Tyagi recalls that draping a saree and "seeing myself in the mirror made [me] feel very ashamed". Tyagi was 18 years old at the time of this incident, which eventually acted as a catalyst in his journey of accepting himself and his identity as a trans man.

Clothing as a medium of self-expression has long been talked about, but what has only been discussed in the 'mainstream' is the binary lens through which both garments as well as their wearers are viewed. And it is this binary lens that excludes trans and non-binary individuals. Their journey of discovering their personal styles is one that navigates struggles with sizing, finding the correct fit and styles, the binary categorisation of clothes in commercial retail spaces, lack of inclusive trial rooms, social stigma and expectations, and it starts as early as their school years.

Akassh K Aggarwal, a gender-queer jewellery designer based out of Delhi, says that they felt claustrophobic in the clothes they wore growing up, with the school uniform shorts making them feel uncomfortable. "What I was wearing was not comfortable or pleasing to me, but I did not know why," they add.

Priyadarshini Mukherjee, a Howrah-based queer non-binary female who is the junior program officer at Sappho for Equality, was often asked why she chose to wear the school's unisex uniform of track-pants and shirt almost every day as opposed to only on sports days. As for Tyagi, the only time he was made to wear a frock was at the young age of three-and-a-half years, and he went on to tear it up with scissors out of discomfort and the consequent anger. "It was the first and last time I wore something feminine," he says.

Navigating social and public spaces is also like walking a tightrope €" a fact that Bonita Singh Rajpurohit would soon find out as a young trans-girl. "When I was in college, I came out to people through some interviews that I had shared online. I did start to shift to 'feminine' clothing, but gradually, wearing pieces like baggy t-shirts and pants at first because I figured if I suddenly dress as a girl and go to college, it would be horrible since the people there were not sensitised about anything. I tried to do it very gradually to give them an idea of who I am. Then, as I felt more comfortable, I started wearing things I actually wanted to wear. As soon as I started to pass as a cisgender woman, people stopped staring at me or questioning my clothes."

She further observes €" "As long as you fit into the stereotypical binaries of a man and a woman, you will be accepted in society, otherwise, you will be stared at and laughed at." Goyal also recalls when she was singled out by one of her faculty members in a premiere fashion institute in Delhi, saying "men look very funny in women's clothing." "I have also lost a lot of opportunities at work because of the way I chose to dress up or what I chose to be addressed as," says Goyal. Tyagi shares that he eventually stopped visiting relatives who "are sure to ask weird questions about [my] clothes", and he wanted to "skip that conversation altogether."

While clothes offer the opportunity for people to make a choice outside binaries of gender, most commercial shopping spaces practice strict categorisation of labels for 'men' and 'women', both for clothing as well as trial rooms, thereby prominently excluding those who do not conform to either binary. From blatant misgendering, being stopped from entering trial rooms, shown out of the store, to not being offered what they want to buy €" experiences like these are commonplace for trans and non-binary individuals.

"Shopping has always been traumatic, especially when I go to shop with people who don't know my identity. I deal with dysphoria and body image issues whenever I shop. Men's section is filled with the fashion I like but they are the 'shoes' I can't fill, reminding me that I was born this way. I am extremely uncomfortable when I shop, and not just for clothes but also inner wear, foot wear, wallets, watches and the list goes on," shares V, an Indian-origin risk manager in a credit card company in NYC who identifies as gender-queer. While Mukherjee's choice of buying t-shirts from the men's section was questioned and challenged by the salesperson at a major retail store in Kolkata, Tyagi simply wasn't offered the men's black shirt he wanted to purchase from a local garment store for his fresher's party in college. Natasha, a non-binary trans-woman who works at a Chennai-based MNC, says she prefers shopping online and from thrift stores instead, interacting directly with the owners who help her understand styles and sizes, without judgement or prejudice.

The lack of size inclusive clothing and gender inclusive trial rooms for trans and non-binary people extends to lingerie as well. In India, there is little to no representation of trans people when it comes to the production of and marketing of lingerie. Goyal says they "do not get underwear which many trans people can wear and look feminine in."

"How do you understand lingerie when they are designed as per a cisgender woman who has breasts and needs support? For me, bras don't have functional value, they should just fit me well and make me look sexy," she says. She eventually resorted to buying lingerie online, which means an elongated process of returns and new orders until she finds something she likes in the right size. "It'll take 10 years to see a clothing range just for people like me in the pricing range a middle class person can afford. I am being very optimistic," says V.

Even for those well-acquainted with their styles, finding the right size and fit is always a gamble, especially for trans individuals. It is an issue that is further exacerbated by the hyper-standardisation of sizes by fast fashion. "If I want to wear, say, high-waist pants, those from the women's section don't work because the crotch area is a problem," says Goyal, who also struggles to find the right fits in t-shirts. In the face of systemic exclusion of trans people from standard sizing and commercial shopping spaces, many like Goyal and Aggarwal have resorted to their trusted tailors to get their clothes custom-made in sizes and fits that flatter their bodies. "I certainly don't enjoy going to a store and buying something for myself because I find everything to be very gender and shape specific. I love shopping for fabrics, and then I like to get the pattern and fit customised from the masterjis I trust."

Although the Indian fashion industry has recently seen a major boom in gender-fluid collections and brands, most of these continue to remain inaccessible to many due to their usually high price points. Sthala is a gender-fluid brand born of its founder Aastha Jhunjhunwala's own reflections on their gender identity. Speaking of what goes into gender-fluid clothes, the designer says, "The key lies in the pattern and sizing, more than the silhouette, fabric or other such elements. It's about creating garments that have a universal fit, meaning that they can be easily worn by many different body types. Any clothing can then be gender-fluid, if created with the right size chart and a design that has the ability to adapt. They further add: "Often and especially in the recent past, gender-bending fashion is what people confuse gender-fluid fashion with. But gender-fluid as an identity keeps changing over time. So in that sense, gender-fluid clothing would be any garment that is used as a form of expression and exploration of one's identity."

Speaking about making gender-fluid clothing more accessible, Jhunjhunwala says that "one way forward is to understand what that truly means, embracing it and integrating it into the mainstream fashion industry, instead of buying into ideologies such as unisex, androgynous and so on. Standardisation, especially in terms of silhouettes and sizing, can stifle growth. Therefore, creating awareness, destigmatisation and helping make more inclusive size charts/standards of grading, amongst other things, is a step in the right direction."

There remains something to be said about the freedom one finds in certain pieces of clothing which, beyond aesthetics and gender categorisations, feel like a reliable piece of true self-expression that overcome socially recognised binaries. Natasha's dark red corset, a semi-formal button-down shirt for Mukherjee, men's formal shirts for V, or Goyal's trusted sarees, clothing also offers the tool to subvert norms and expectations through hyper-personal styles in the face of the larger diktats of the fashion industry as well as social standards of what is accepted and not, often limited to visible binaries.

"After I came out as non-binary over the pandemic, I started wearing my father's clothes, and I don't feel out of place with my body anymore. If I opened my wardrobe and didn't find anything I wanted to wear on a certain day, I would go over to my dad's closet and pick something from there," says Mukherjee.

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