Five womxn on what butch style means to them

Traditional butch and androgynous styles are being reimagined by a new generation of queer women and non-binary people.

Gender-neutral has become one of the fashion industry’s most used buzzwords – a code that aligns with forward thinking and a design process that’s up to date with society’s shifting notions of gender. 

Decades since Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier sent men down the runway in skirts, many brands – including genderless label ALYX and Gucci’s recently launched unisex Off The Grid collection – have been rejecting traditionally gendered aesthetics and embracing gender-fluid or unisex fashion futures. But as progressive as this may sound, they can sometimes overlook the communities that have been challenging assumptions about gender long before it was trending” to do so. 

Butch queer womxn make up one such community. 

Butch styles and identities emerged out of working class lesbian bar culture at the start of the 20th century. Today, the common dictionary definition of butch is a lesbian of masculine appearance or behaviour”, but that only goes some way in describing the diverse mix of butch, androgynous and masc styles and identities that queer women and non-binary people currently claim. 

Central Saint Martin’s fashion graduate Ella Boucht took inspiration from butch culture and identity for her graduate collection, showing masculine” tailoring in various colours, that reflected on their own style and that of their community, as well as the history of butch dressing.

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But there’s no one size fits all for butch style. Some people are drawn to traditional suiting, while others prefer a more contemporary sporty look. Butch fashion can be utilitarian, but it can also be camp and dandyish, too. A common grievance among butch womxn, however, is the binary of womenswear and menswear. 

Despite certain designers aligning themselves with genderless fashion, a visit to most websites or shop floors will confirm that menswear and womenswear are split down the middle. That’s not to say you can’t mix up the two in your own wardrobe, but fit and colour are just some of the resulting frustrations and limitations faced by shoppers, and alterations are all too often required.

Here, five womxn reflect on butch fashion, their communities, and the perils of clothes shopping as a butch or androgynous womxn in 2020

DANIELLA, 25, ART DIRECTOR AND MODEL

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What does fashion mean to you?

Fashion to me is my own appreciation of an individual’s expression of art, colour and culture. My style is wearing clothes that have a feel of androgyny where the clothes are tailored and structured. Fashion and clothing are important to my queer identity with what I feel comfortable wearing. It expresses who I am as a person and what cultural beliefs I have.

What does butch mean to you? If you don’t use that word, what term do you prefer and why?

The term butch” as I know it to be described, to me has a very stereotypical connotation of what a masculine, queer person is supposed to look like. I dislike using that word and prefer to use androgynous as it represents a more free flowing form of identity. 

Do you find it easy to shop for clothes when most stores are defined by binary womenswear and menswear?

No, I do not find it easy, because I often have to gravitate towards the menswear department. I find that there is a limited choice of clothing that I would like to see and purchase.

Queer women have long been relegated to the sidelines in fashion and a lot of mainstream representation of lesbian fashion seems kinda stuck in the past. Do you think there is a contemporary lesbian/​butch style that is still evolving today?

Not really, I feel as if androgynous individuals dress in their own style which is not identified as one category. 

ELLA, FASHION DESIGNER, 27

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How would you describe your style?

It’s comfortable, but suited. A uniform that works for my cycling obsession, but still is elegant and ready for a night out. It’s a queer – butch – camp” kind of style, a mixture of thrifted suits, printed shirts, vests, waistcoats, white and black t‑shirts, denim, jewellery and more. Most of the time you’ll see me in a pair of pinstriped suit trousers, a vest and my bomber jackets or a suit jacket, with a ring of keys hanging in the belt loop at the back and my bike.

What does butch mean to you? If you don’t use that word, what term do you prefer and why?

Butch is empowerment, it’s sexy, it’s an attitude and an identity that stems from the inside, your feelings, and how you view your life. It’s authentic, straightforward and so powerful. But as with any queer identities, I see it as something fluid, it might be your core identity while exploring who you are, but it can switch and change through the process. From masculine and feminine expressions, to nonbinary, genderqueer and trans identities and expression.

Personally, I’ve always had both feminine and masculine sides inside me, and I’ve had a hard time trying to find the right term and identity to match who I am on the inside. So, when I started exploring butchness in my own self-expression, I finally felt comfortable in being who I am, because the way I dress and the attitude and thoughts I had inside matched the outside and how people received or viewed me. But my identity is in a constant flux and might change over the years, and because I also like to challenge what I and we already know. The terms I feel most comfortable with right now are butch, dyke, gay, queer because they reflect best my identity, sexuality and the way I live. 

Do you find it easy to shop for clothes when most stores are defined by binary womenswear and menswear?

No, the opposite, I always find it really hard to shop for clothes, because I want clothes that tone down my curvy” body, therefore men’s clothes work much better for me. But then the sleeves tend to be too long or shoulders too wide, so I have to compromise and live with it or remake/​change them myself. Finding clothes that fit both my body, desires and taste is hard. I love colours and prints as well and it’s frustratingly hard to find for example a suit in a print/​colour instead of just black or grey.



HANNAH, 27, ILLUSTRATOR

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What does fashion mean to you?

I’m constantly fluctuating between the two energies that inform my style and personality: butch and camp. On a good day I’m able to quiet the gentle fizzling of discomfort that my body has held for my entire life. The beautiful collection of shirts I have now, make up for the decades of failed femininity. Sorry mum.

How would you describe your style?

Sitcom Dad gussied up for Saturday night.

Why are fashion and clothing an important part of your queer identity?

It means being visible in a way I’m totally in control of, right up until I leave the house. Butches and GNC people are made both incredibly visible by our identities and totally invisible. The masculinity we hold can be a threat to some cis men, they assume it devalues theirs because they think we haven’t had to fight for it. The femininity we have is picked at like a loose thread, whatever is that doing there?” Society’s vehemently narrow view of womanhood is incredibly tiresome for me but dangerous for trans women, Black butches and butches of colour. 

What role does fashion plays in community for butch womxn and nonbinary people?

It’s how you know who to check out on the tube.

Queer women have long been relegated to the sidelines in fashion and a lot of mainstream representation of lesbian fashion seems kinda stuck in the past. Do you think there is a contemporary lesbian/​butch style that is still evolving today?

Dyke fashion is cyclical: leather, plaid, tweed breeches, bowling shirts, white vests, high femme goth prom dresses, thumb rings, snapbacks, wallet chains, leisure wear as pleasure wear, the serious turtle neck. It all comes in and out of fashion and you’ll try it all of them at least once.

Butch fashion suffered terribly from the separatist movement of the 80s and 90s, radical feminists who renounced fashion as the patriarchy in pleats missed out a lot. Butch style now is totally varied, I run the door at Aphrodyki (London’s original Ancient Greek themed night for queer women, trans+, or non binary disco lovers) and get to see everyone’s outfits as they come in, it’s all sharp lines, constrast block colours and neon mesh and that’s just the dungarees.



JAZMYNE, 17, POET & TIKTOK INFLUENCER

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What role do you feel that fashion plays in community for butch womxn and nonbinary people?

Being on TikTok and observing butch women and non-binary people, there’s always someone to reference. The LGBT community is beautiful in the way that there are so many unique and confident people. It makes us feel better about being who we are, knowing there are others who are feeling the same things we are. 

Do you struggle to find clothes when most stores are defined by binary womenswear and menswear?

I get extremely frustrated when it comes to clothing and my body type. I remember wanting to dress in straight legged skinny jeans and band t‑shirts and my hips were too wide, or my chest would show too much. I’d feel extremely uncomfortable. TikTok and YouTube saved me in many ways when it came to altering my own clothes or finding brands that were unisex. I shop in the boys section primarily, but most of the time it’s a treasure hunt. 

Queer women have long been relegated to the side lines in fashion and a lot of mainstream representation of lesbian fashion seems kinda stuck in the past. Do you think there is a contemporary lesbian/​butch style that is still evolving today?

Of course I do. You see popular lesbian influencers on TikTok who still are looking up to Avril Lavigne and Billie Eilish. Grunge and punk styles are extremely popular, especially with the evolution of Muscial​.ly turning into TikTok. Personally, I try to dress more grunge than anything.

Did you always have the confidence to express your style? What was your journey to dressing like you do today?

When I first came out, my style was extremely limited. I knew I preferred to dress more masculine, but I always felt pushed to dress feminine. As I started buying more masculine clothes, I was experimenting a lot with my outfits. Some days, they’d look really off and some days I’d find an outfit that I really liked. As I saw more masculine females evolving their styles, it gave me the confidence to try new styles too. And here I am now trying to be that person for someone else.



DANIELLE, 35, FOUNDER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF SHE’S A GENT

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What does fashion mean to you?

Fashion for me means visual activism. I feel it’s a way to introduce yourself without having to speak a word. For me, that means resisting societal norms and traditions” while still challenging the status quo. And yet, fashion is also creative art. It’s a way to merge ideas, break down barriers, and introduce new trends.

What role do you think fashion plays in community for butch womxn and nonbinary people?

I don’t think I can answer that for the community, but my role with fashion has always been to remove the stigma that masculinity is toxic! My goal is to show that masculine presentation does not imply toxic masculinity. Not all masculinity is toxic! Masculinity can be tranquil, endearing, vulnerable, soft, compassionate, protective, loyal, funny, and bashful.

Queer women have long been relegated to the sidelines in fashion and a lot of mainstream representation of lesbian fashion seems kinda stuck in the past. Do you think there is a contemporary lesbian/​butch style that is still evolving today?

I think that mainstream fashion is always playing catch up to Black, Afro-Latinx, and Latinx culture. Trying to find ways to appropriate new styles and looks (i.e. like they did in the early 90s with the ballroom scene) but greatly missing the mark is how designers end up simply copying a look versus having the wherewithal to stand firmly on their own creation.

On the flip side, I think that queer women in industries like Hollywood are feeling empowered and confident in their skin, so they are constantly resisting norms, creating trends, and inspiring people to be themselves. The two can be incorporated into one chain of thought if many of the world’s designers would be willing to openly embrace the queer woman.


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