In Praise of Caitlyn Jenner’s Femme Style

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All week long Caitlyn Jenner — fashion icon, born-again femme — has been the toast of the paparazzi, cameras snapping as those long, tan legs slice down New York sidewalks as if propelled by divine feline force. The photos of her in all these outfits remind me of Julia Roberts as Vivian in Pretty Woman, blissfully grudge-shopping her way down Rodeo Drive after being snubbed the day before by that snotty Beverly Hills boutique staff. There’s something celebratory in this marathon of conspicuous consumption, possibly even healing. Retail therapy of the highest order. I especially loved Caitlyn going into Patricia Field in a leopard DVF wrap dress, like a comely executive, and emerging in an up-to-there sequined miniskirt and tight neoprene blazer — the symbolism of the transformation was so telling. Like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier in Spinal Tap, this femininity goes up to 11.

I get the complaints, I really do. Why does she have to ape the stereotypical, superficial gender norms? (“Nail polish does not a woman make” was the kicker in the incendiary Elinor Burkett op-ed in the Times.) But if you’ve been hiding something for decades and finally gather the courage to stop the lies and the dodges, wouldn’t you run toward it as fast as your black-patent slingback stilettos would allow? Also, it’s worth remembering that Caitlyn is a product of her environment. We can’t be surprised when a SoCal Hottie turns into … a SoCal Hottie.

Another thing to bear in mind is the historical context. What was true in the 1950s and '60s in terms of femininity isn’t necessarily true today. Yes, there is still tremendous pressure to conform to certain fitness and size standards, but the sartorial aspect is much more up for grabs than it was in eras past. With the influence of third- and fourth-wave feminism, women have been allowed greater liberty to pick and choose if, and to what degree, we want to play the Girlie Game, and femmes, willingly, go further than most. A key component in femme psychology is our relationship to glamour and all its trappings. To us, they aren’t symbols of oppression. Heels. Makeup. Corsets. They don’t feel like chains, they feel like armor.  

"Realness" is so fetishized these days,  although what it means exactly is slippery. For a cis-female like me it isn’t about passing, obviously; it’s about chinks in the armor of glamour. Among my cohort, femme realness means realizing you have a Cheerio stuck to the seat of your “sexy jeans” as you blaze through the Target parking lot on an 8 a.m. diaper run, or crossing your arms over your chest as you walk past a construction site. Or realizing you’ve become invisible to men, and holy shit, there are actual ramifications of this beyond the cessation of sidewalk hoots and whistles. But femmes of all stripes share certain reality checks: stretch marks, crunchy heels and snaggly cuticles because you haven’t had time for a proper pedicure. Admitting, with all the consequences it implies, that sometimes you dream of just Letting Yourself Go. And, of course, being wildly underestimated in our intellect and abilities, as if smoky eyes and capability were mutually exclusive. 

Caitlyn, like every femme, will learn that glamour, like gravity, has its own laws, and what goes on must come off. Sometimes the armor must be laid down. Sometimes the gowns and waist-cinchers and leg makeup and platforms feel like too much, and they’re swapped for sweats, hair up in a scrunchie, and an oversize sweatshirt. While it’s lovely to see Caitlyn’s developing sense of style, her fans are just as eager to embrace her in yoga pants, messy bun, and tank top (on those gorgeous shoulders? Forget about it). I hope the paparazzi who so adore her now don’t turn into dicks at the sight of the first hasty coffee-run updo.

But I have a feeling she’ll be okay even when she lets her femme guard down. One of the most impressive things about about Caitlyn's emergence is the measure of vulnerability she’s brought to it. She is not “fierce.” In fact, in many photos she looks downright fragile. A substantial piece of her story has been repairing and maintaining a healthy relationship to family. In a promotional still for her upcoming reality show “I Am Cait,” she’s seen embracing 17-year-old daughter Kylie, her expression a very un-glam display of parental schmoop, her daughter’s face stilled with the flat affect of teens everywhere.

So Caitlyn, as stunning as you are in your full-femme battle rattle and lipstick, please know that you can strip down and show your bare face, also. At heart, everyone wants to know that they’re loved underneath it all — even the girliest of girls. You’re entitled to that just like anyone else. When you’re ready for that shopping spree at Athleta, call me.

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