Walk-out wardrobe: 'There is still so much shame and anxiety attached to it'
Emerging from the closet in style can be a daunting step for transgender people, but there is help available
An unfortunate irony of being cooped up in the closet for so long is that many people may not know how to dress once they come out of it. To bastardise Mark Twain, 'clothes make the woman', but for members of the transgender community who have just come out - or in the case of transvestites, selectively come out - finding the clothes that represent their best self can be a struggle.
"Clothes and make-up are hidden issues and hidden challenges," says Toryn Glavin, the administrative officer of Trans Equality Network Ireland (TENI).
"We are taught from a young age about what clothes we should like, what clothes are appropriate for our gender, what fits our body. It's a scary aspect of transitioning, rebelling against the gendered view that society has of clothes - those misconceptions that certain clothes are for boys and others are for girls."
Piecing a look together is difficult enough at the best times. Doing it while venturing into completely unknown territory can be doubly so. Few can afford an army of stylists to craft a polished new look like Caitlyn Jenner did when she made her public debut on the glossy pages of Vanity Fair.
Added to the pressure and confusion that comes with figuring out what you identify as on the trans spectrum, can be the fear of wearing the wrong thing, which can draw not just the ire of homophobes but, also, some elements of the community, who accuse them of 'letting the side down'.
"It's like a dam burst of dreams," says Gloria Jameson, who runs an information website called Sí for transvestites (people who wear clothing not traditionally associated with their assigned sex). "There has been a lot of pent up imagining for years - and maybe decades - that nothing has been done about. So there is a tendency to be a teenager first.
"People when they start out will typically be attracted to very short skirts and very long hair. After a while they realise that doesn't really make them look good anymore. But they should enjoy that exploratory phase and not hammer themselves if they don't get it quite right. It's a learning process.
"But, if at all possible, they should also stay away from purchasing stuff in those early days. It can cost a fortune."
Services like Amazon and Parcel Motel mean that people can order shoes, wigs, and clothes for all shapes and sizes more easily, and more discreetly, than they could when Gloria was starting out. "But that makes it easier to waste money too," she says. "Much of what is bought remotely can bring disappointment, as the fit and look don't fulfil expectations."
Gloria suggests using a dressing service instead. "It's the most typical way people make first contact with the transvestite community. Clothes don't really matter if you don't have the face, the hair first."
Dressing services will do your make-up, and offer a range of wigs, clothes and shoes to try on. "They are a huge help in learning what suits you and what size you are," says Gloria. "They also allow you to have fun trying out different images.
"Most people begin with a private session, and often start to unburden themselves of a lifetime's angst. Dressing services can also provide the opportunity to meet others and, although typically run from private homes, sometimes even organise outings into town."
Natalie Svikle is a personal shopper and stylist who has, in the past four years, helped around 20 members of the trans community find a style they feel best reflects them.
"The conversation would be similar to the ones I have with my other clients," she says. "Then they will ask if I ever get unusual requests. Eventually they will just come out and say, 'I am a cross dresser, is it something that you would consider getting involved with?'"
Most of the people she has worked with are in their 40s. All are very, very secretive about this aspect of their life. "I have one client who still contacts me off a private number in spite of the fact that I have been dressing them for four years. Another only contacts me using the email account of their female persona. But all of that is irrelevant in regards to the wardrobe, so I respect their boundaries."
She will often shop with the client, who will present as male, and she will refer to their female alter ego when talking about a garment. "Boutiques are aware and very tolerant, but sales assistants are so used to seeing me in their shops with men who actually are shopping for the wives, that it wouldn't occur to them that they might be shopping for themselves."
What about family? Should they be kept in the dark? "There is no universal answer to that," says Gloria. "Ideally you should try and make them converge. Part of the problem is that people invariably do (keep it quiet) in the beginning and once they get their heads around it, there is a history of secret activity that makes it seem too big to reveal.
"Then they might purge their wardrobe as they have taken such risks with their partners. So it's really important, when getting into it, to get comfortable with it. There's nothing wrong with them. It's the culture we live in that has the problem."
Some members of the trans community see the rise of gender-neutral clothing and gender-neutral dressing rooms as a slow but positive step. But the ignorance of the general public can create issues surrounding access to clothes.
"I remember when I was first transitioning," Toryn says, "I was in a major department store, and I went to the women's changing rooms with a handful of women's clothes. And the woman said to me that the men's are upstairs. People are still policing these spaces."
What's worse, because the area hasn't developed as much as, say, health care or education, is that trans people often don't know that they shouldn't be discriminated against.
"They feel it's their fault," says Toryn. "They feel they shouldn't have pushed it, or gone into that space. There is still so much shame and anxiety attached to it, which can be damaging to their self-confidence."
There is no legislation around gender spaces in Ireland. It is not illegal for trans men or women to use the dressing areas of their identified gender. Toryn's advice for shop assistants is not to question them.
"People know what they are in a shop for."
For more on dressing services, visit thehiddenpeople.ie.
Natalie Svikle can be contacted at nataliesvikle.com