'Sister, You're A Lady Now'

Trans columnist Rhyannon Styles asks, 'Do the clothes make the woman?'

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I often get asked, what it’s like to fashion my own identity as a woman for the first time. And this inevitably makes me look back to a very specific moment in my childhood. It was the first time I ever saw a punk. It was 1989. She was my primary school teacher’s teenage daughter. And we were on a school trip to Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire. There she was, smoking a fag and leaning against the llama enclosure, dressed in a studded leather jacket and rocking a green mohawk and heavy black eyeliner.

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Ten years later, I too would have green hair, piercings and smoke. As a teenager my bedroom walls were covered with posters of Courtney Love. When I decided to stop being Ryan and become Rhyannon at the age of 30, I had to completely change my wardrobe and start from scratch. But those rock ‘n’ roll leanings were still there. I had to figure out how to dress in a feminine way and create softness on a male body, while maintaining the edge.

I’ve made many fashion faux pas in the three years I’ve been Rhyannon. I’ve had to learn there’s a big difference between the fantasy in your head of looking like Courtney Love and the reality of going to the local supermarket in Hackney and passing as a woman.

If you transition anytime after male puberty, you’ll be left with genetic male characteristics. So for me and many other male-to-female trans women over the age of 17, that means facial and body hair, acne scars and defined muscle development. I mention this because when you begin presenting as female, it’s not just your style that you need to consider, its all those permanent factors too.  So imagine the awkwardness of your teenage years, the trial and error of trying to figure out your personal style, and multiply it.

But before I could even get to the clothes, I had to start with the body. Women typically have curvier figures. I hated not having breast tissue when I first transitioned. So I used to stuff my bras with bags of rice (a trick I learned from drag queens) to give the shape and weight of real breasts. But they were too big and looked ridiculous.

I was so excited to finally be taking a step toward my authentic self that buying basic feminine wardrobe staples seemed too boring and unnecessary. I filled my closet with 80’s sequin dresses, kaftans, and dungarees instead. I looked like a jumble sale. I suppose most girls grow up making their mistakes and quickly adapt their style to suit trends. But as a boy, I wasn’t that interested in clothes. And as a girl, clothes shopping felt like a chore — the humiliation of asking to try on a dress only to be directed to the men’s fitting room.

In the first year of my transition, I bought clothes from charity shops, vintage shops and online outlets, mostly because these places were cheap and usually didn’t involve uncomfortable encounters with shop assistants.  I’ve since given all the crazy clothes back to charity as I’ve found a style I’m comfortable in: Pencil skirts, lean trousers and fitted dresses that work with my long legs.

And I’ve slowly accepted the wardrobe staples. Don’t get my wrong, in an ideal world, my wardrobe would be full of Pam Hogg catsuits, Vivienne Westwood dresses, Gareth Pugh coats and Terry De Havilland heels. But I’ve grown to appreciate the practical pieces too.

I’m thankful for my ‘faux-pas’ and hope to make even more in the future. It’s the mistakes that help me learn how to define who I am. Case in point: My sister Danielle was recently visiting me from Australia. And as we were heading out one day, she pulled me aside, looked at my denim cut-offs and black tights, and offered some advice. ‘Sister’ she said, ‘You’re not 17 anymore. You’re a lady now’.

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