Work Wear: Five-Day Outfits and “Dykes and Their Hair”

Both Minh-Ha and I are neck-deep in manuscript writing, so while there are some things I’d love to write about (the new prison memoir with the sartorial title Orange Is The New Black, for instance), I’ve got to concentrate on Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Jennifer Gonzalez’s Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, and ao dai calendars. (I promise it will someday make sense.) So, for our momentous 200th post, I’m doing the rare outfit post!

Taken in the women's bathroom at the public library after a long day's work.

I’ve been wearing this outfit for the last five days, working in the garden and writing at the library. (I changed my clothes today, though I still look like an ’80s throwback. And even though she’s keeping the same hours as me, I’m betting Minh-Ha is not wearing the same thing day after day…) You can’t see my red cowboy boots with the bas relief of guachos roping a calf in this photograph, purchased in 2003 at the Ashby BART Flea Market with former Maximumrocknroll coordinator and filmmaker Arwen Curry, but rest assured these are awesome. My Lux black jeans are an Urban Outfitters buy from 2004; about a month after I bought these in Ann Arbor during my postdoctoral stint (the UO was across the street from my office!), I slipped on some ice walking to campus from my house and ripped a big hole from seam to seam. You can sort of see my carabiner, which carries my keys, stuffed into my right pocket.

I bought this black leather two-row studded belt in 1993, I think, after a year of trying to resist this punk rock staple of “the uniform.” This means that my belt is almost as old as my undergraduate students! There’s also a peek of a gray ribbed tank top I bought at a Gap outlet in Tuscola during an outing with friends to tiny Arcola’s El Taco Tako (also home to the recently closed Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum), that also included a visit to a giant barn dubbed Amishland and in which we found that all the other visitors –all three of them– were also Asian. And, that apparently you can buy a cozy for any appliance you can name (like a microwave)! The sweatshirt I bought last year from Urban Outfitters during one of those periods of depressive online shopping, which happens to me quite a lot here in the cornfields. It’s super-soft and the sleeves extra-long, which is nice for keeping my hands warm while typing or blotting my eyes when I’m so allergic that tears are streaming down my face. The scarf is one I’d had since high school, let’s say 1991, junior year.

I had my girlfriend cut my hair, which had been for several years long, long, and long, with a thick fringe of bangs. I’ve done hair this short before, and always I like to think that I look like a teen-aged skater from the 1980s classics Thrashin’ or Gleaming the Cube (which even has a post-Vietnam War storyline, with refugee intrigue!). I was gratified last week when I stepped into the office of a friend-colleague, the stylish and smart J.R., who greeted me with, “You have my hair from 1987! Where’s your skateboard?”

Hair is of course a hugely significant metaphor and medium for “reading” race, nation (the premise that you can tell someone is “fresh off the boat” by the cut of their hair), gender, and sexuality, and in the past I’ve written about my hair in particular quite a lot. I’m not going to do that now, except to note that yes, I do realize that I am now wearing one of a handful of the most recognizable contemporary forms of “dyke hair,” and yes, it is something of a relief to not have to wash my old head of hair or feel the echo of a ponytail on my scalp. Instead, I’ll just point to the zine Dykes and Their Hair, by Teresa Chun-Wen Cheng and available for download from The Queer Zine Archive Project, which offers some succinct but smart commentary on how so many forms of “dyke hair” are racialized (these depend on not having super-curly hair, for instance) and a good chuckle (or more).

As Cheng observes, “The following ‘exhibit’ showcases normalized dyke hair styles that sometimes act as very public hints into reading someone’s sexuality (do so at your own risk. heh.). […] Thing is, only certain hair styles have had the privilege of making it into the dyke category. Because these particular hair styles have been normalized and become signs, the dykes and the queers who cannot and/or choose not to wear the styles become invisible even within their own communities.”




24 responses to “Work Wear: Five-Day Outfits and “Dykes and Their Hair”

  1. openlyfeminist

    Reading this blog is a treat!

  2. mimi, you are the teenage skater boy-lesbian of my dreams and this photo and post multiplies my universe-size love for you a gazillion times more!!

    (by the way, i am NOT changing my clothes these days. the F21 blue embroidered dress that i bought during the Asian American studies conference in Hawaii is what i now live in.)

    yay for 200 posts!

  3. this is amazing. i am so glad to see teresa’s zine featured here! we’re old roommates, classmates and friends and i really, really love her work.

    i’ve been thinking a whole lot about hair these days. as a femme queer woman, this is the first time my hair has been this long (shoulder length) since i’ve really been out and part of queer communities. this is also compounded with the fact that the main reason my hair is long is because i haven’t had the money to cut it in… years. i loved having my hair short, but since none of my friends here cut hair and accept beer and friendship as a form of payment, and i am too scared to cut it myself.

    but thinking about hair has been an interesting experiment for me, and i’m hoping to write about it soon. i noticed the urge to cut my hair short rose dramatically when i moved to a new city and kept being read as straight. quickly, i felt a strong desire to fit into a specific idea of what a “queer woman” looks like but then realized.. i already AM what a queer woman looks like.

    (also i’m so glad you have comments now)

    • I’ve asked Teresa to do a guest post about making the zine, I loved it so much because we’re supposed to look again at these silhouettes of these haircuts, with her introductory remarks in mind, in order to see them for how racialized they are even without bodies attached. That’s so genius!

      I also let my hair get longer than it had been in years because I moved to the Midwest, and I wasn’t about to trust any random hairdresser with my hair, and I didn’t know any punks — until I met my girlfriend. But being read as a certain kind of femme gender (one that didn’t read as punk rock) after my initial “professionalization” was definitely new and a little unsettling for me. (I’m not a person who wants to be ignored because I read as femme next to my suit-wearing girlfriend who, to her credit, fags out whenever this happens.)

      • Yeah, when I first picked up the zine I remember being slightly disappointed…at the time because I desperately wanted a dykey haircut and couldn’t get my hair to do much but look like Harpo Marx. But the introductory remarks were gratifying someone. Maybe it’s time for a curly dyke haircut directory…

    • Umi

      Though I found it annoying, I tughoht this trend was relatively harmless something akin to every lesbian dressing like Shane but much more vapid. And then a friend of mine pointed out that the original tumblr on this topic, which is supposed to include just lesbians who look like Justin Bieber (and which, admittedly, I used to regularly check out), now includes some photos of trans men that the blogger refuses to remove even after people comment on the inappropriateness.So, you know. 0

  4. minerrva s

    Whoa, very hot!

    And is that the SF Public Library main branch public bathroom I spy? I spent many a day in that library one grad school summer, vying for those glass-walled cubicles, avoiding the funky smelling bathrooms, taking breaks at the basement cafe. If none of that makes sense, never mind.

    • Thanks! I like to think this haircut is hot too. 🙂

      Tragically, I am not in San Francisco — though I wish I were. This library bathroom is new (it’s new construction, 2008), and quite pleasant to be in!

  5. Tamia

    Minerrva is right–that cut is hot. I had “dyke hair” a few years ago, when I first grew out my relaxer and decided to do my own big chop, leaving approximately 1/2 inch of startled coils all over my head.
    There’s a whole host of politics surrounding hair in the Black community–not only regarding length (god forbid your hairstyle be mistaken as that of someone of the opposite sex, or–gasp!–someone gay), but texture as well. That’s a whole other discussion/blog right there.

  6. Haha yesssssssssss. Love the hair. I also recently had a friend shave the sides of my head after having a somewhat dykey side-swoopy thing going on for two years. But definitely true, I never really thought of “dyke” hair as racialized. Carabiners are totally dykey, too.

  7. jen

    I really think all girls/women identified people should shave part of their head as an exercise in the power of social construction and the way gender conflates and intersects with sexuality, ‘inherent’ sex, race, class, nationality, age, ability, etc. I identify as a punk and it still freaks out my own conceptions of my identity and aesthetics when I shave part of my head. (why do i suddenly see myself as ugly, less attractive, less desirable with the side of my head shaved if I conceive of myself as an intersectional, punk weirdo, materialist, feminist that loves abnormality and freakery?!!) I also think in this moment there is less tolerance or aesthetic appreciation of androgyny and gender play- the most ‘apprecaition’ I see is girls in dresses and 4inch heels throwing on a punk jacket to ‘rough’ it up…!
    I love the poignancy of all the things you are wearing, written into their attachments and meanings, and their possible translations and misinterpretations.
    And this is a great accessible example of how subject positions are multi-constituitive and intersectional, reflected in what seems as merely individual preference for innocuous side shaving!
    ps you look great,
    and I think this tumblr is hysterical (although lezzies been rockin American Eagle swoopy hair far before the bieb phenomenon…)

    • My friend Iraya and I semi-joke that Asian queer women always chop or shave all their long, long hair upon first becoming politicized about Asian fetishism, because such hair carries so much as a signifier of some wack notion of “Oriental” femininity. I know that’s partially why I did it in 1992, with the help of my freshman year dorm mate! The other part would be the punk rock, of course.

      One of the things I love about Teresa Cheng’s zine is that her introduction asks us to see the familiar haircuts on the following pages through a critical lens, to look at them again with the dynamics behind the production and circulation of “dyke hair” signifiers in mind. These dynamics also totally relevant to the phenomenon. I mean, yes, that is a hilarious collection! But the fact is that there are certain conditions of possibility for creating such a collection in the first place, and it has to do with the fact that “dyke hair” is absolutely racially marked with whiteness. The Beiber haircut needs very, very straight and very, very fine hair, which comes to some more easily than others.

  8. Pingback: rip off your head, shit down your neck. « Order of the Gash

  9. momentarily disregarding racial commentary — i can never get enough of conversation and writing and whatnot about not only GENDER performativity, but visual performativity/expression of sexuality — i think my analysis here can pretty much end with “BET YOU THOUGHT I WAS STRAIGHT AT FIRST, RIGHT??!” but anyhow.

    i find a lot of this interesting from personal experience too, and know a lot of other women have had the same experience, like some commenters above — which is the extent to which the short hair or ‘dyke haircuts’ (even on girls who perform as ‘femme’ — like myself….) acts as a code to other women that you may possibly be queer, a more subtle version than that oft-joked-about hankerchiefs/bandannas code for gay men. i’m not especially open/political/forward about my sexuality and am kind of notoriously private about that shit, but have always found it ‘easier’ (as in i met less criticism/resistance/skepticism) to talk about QUEER THINGS or talk to other women or talk about other women when i had shorter hair. it’s an obvious comment, but it’s such a huge signifier, at least in public spaces that aren’t specifically coded as lgbt-friendly in some way. which also gets into how performing stereotypes of ‘homosexuality’ (short haired women, flamboyant men, etc) are partially ways of communicating without speaking to others around you that you are TEH GAY (like so many other groups, really — gangs, yale graduates, whatever.)

    an ex-girlfriend of mine talks about how when she has ‘dyke’ hair, smiling at another ‘dyke’-haired girl usually was met with a shy smile back; with long hair, she felt more often met with a blank stare. telling someone i was non-specifically queer (“bi/pansexual” for everyone who loves labels, which I suppose is the actual issue here, which is another conversation entirely) went over a LOT better when i had a faux-hawk or a half-shaved pageboy than it does now with a shoulder length wavy bob. with a dyke haircut that was very intrepid and thoughtful and open-minded and intellectual of me; now, i’m a dumb slut with a boyfriend who talks about ladies sometimes because he probably thinks it’s hot. thanks, long hair. (but it’s so cute!!!)

    as a side note, where the hell is the faux-hawk in this? did i just not see it, or was i wrong in thinking i had a cute dyke haircut when i was rocking one of those!? i’m disappointed.

  10. I love, love, love your haircut, Mimi!! This is almost the exact same cut I just did on a friend of mine last week. And now hir hair is back to dark from blonde. You’re such a trendsetter!

  11. mary

    1. As others have said, the hair cut is definitely awesome.

    2. Also as others have said, there is something weird about the way hair is read within as well as outside the queer community. I identify as bi, when I do identify, and this always has the potential for some varied reactions, but those reactions seem to change depending on how I’m currently dressing/wearing my hair. When I first came out it was longish (almost ten years ago, holy crap). I was consistently pegged a “baby dyke,” with the assumption that someday I’d come to my senses, give up the dudes, and chop off all my hair. The hair part eventually came true; not so much the other bit. But people seem to be nicer about the whole bi thing when it’s clear that I’m not trying to “pass” as straight. This idea of passing or not has been a big theme in my interactions with people both queer and straight.

    3. There seems to be a perceived difference between stereotypically dyke hair and queer hair. All those floppy cuts best created with white folk hair get pegged dykey, while more generally alternative/punk/whatever styles are queer. Have other people noticed this?

  12. You look smashing, and the hair-yes, yes, yes. 🙂

  13. yes, rowr. awesome haircut.

    Being a white girl with dark extremely curly hair who sometimes read as “exotic” or mixed-race, and I think led some people to project racial fantasies on me but also see me as “safer” than an actual person of color.. anyway it was tiring. And I related to what you wrote about asian women cutting their hair, it’s a similar thing that led me to shave my head upon becoming more politicized. I still miss having a shaven head sometimes, and some of that is for the solidarity with people I want to feel in solidarity with..

    Then again now I have hints of different solidarities – I had been growing it long, but about a month ago I cut it much shorter, in a way that makes it look more “afro” and the racial readings on me only get more complicated.

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