Dressed to ill?

As she walks down the street, heads turn and eyes can’t help but glance at her. From the way she carries herself, her outfit and the air about her, everyone passing has a thought run through their head. She passes a building with reflective windows and takes a brief but good look at herself and realizes she can read their minds. At this point she picks up the pace.

Take a look in the mirror. Do you see yourself as someone in danger? Or is your head held high with the security that you’re in control of your situation? Whatever your answer, did you alter your appearance somehow today, consciously or not, for the sake of personal safety?

With metro Detroit now home to a wide cross-section of American diversity, it’s important to consider the implications of one’s clothing and appearance. Ideally, everyone should be able to look exactly how they want without repercussions, but that isn’t the way real life is. Every day, people are harmed or harassed for what they’re wearing.

Crimes based on style of dress fall into two categories: biases (or hate crimes) and general street attacks. With both types, visual signifiers — styles or details which accentuate actual or perceived characteristics — can unintentionally and unfortunately promote problems.

Shawn is a 23-year-old artist who works in Detroit and formerly lived there. He usually sports loose-fitting jeans, a T-shirt, sweatshirt or sweater, and athletic shoes. He says, “When I’m in the city in any place that I should be on guard, my most simple defense is the removal of my hood to retain peripheral vision.”

Kristi is a 23-year-old cocktail waitress and student who enjoys dressing provocatively. Her hip, sexy outfits usually consist of tight skirts or tops, fishnets, heels and slinky retro pieces. But she makes a point to consider the possible effects of her style choices. “If I felt I was going to be in an unsafe environment, I wouldn’t wear something like a short skirt. If I’m not comfortable in something, I know it before I leave the house and I’ll change. To an attacker, if you look more confident, you look less vulnerable.”

Kristi understands that to give off an impression of strength you have to be secure in the clothing you’re wearing. Displaying confidence can be a key factor in whether a woman is at risk, but for men the appearance of power can be complicated. Shawn says, “As a man in the inner city, one has to be careful not to appear too vulnerable, but also not to appear too tough. Vulnerability is an obvious thing to avoid, but appearing too aggressive will get you singled out just as quickly in the wrong company.”

This is because an air of toughness might provoke an attacker to a challenge. Sometimes the lines are blurrier, and the possibility for harm is then magnified. Theresa is a 35-year-old male who prefers to express himself through women’s clothing. He’s not concerned with “passing” and dresses casually, wearing a modest shoulder-length wig with jeans and blouses or vintage dresses. He says, “I have to be at least as careful as a genetic woman. People either think I’m a single woman or a gay man, so I have to be cautious, since either group is endangered.”

Negative situations such as those mentioned by Kristi and Theresa are often an extension of general prejudices and stereotypes regarding issues larger than clothing. But the quick and simple messages sent by a particular garment can make anyone susceptible to others’ prejudgments — and possibly irrational behavior.

This is often the case for those wearing sexually revealing clothing. A misconception is that they can be treated disrespectfully and furthermore “deserve” the problems that ensue. How typical clothes are in a particular setting can have a distinct effect on what signals are being sent and received. Kristi says, “If everybody else around you is dressed in short shorts and a tank top because it’s hot out, you don’t feel vulnerable, because you’re not singled out. That’s true at the bar. I don’t feel vulnerable there because a lot of people dress up and reveal themselves.”

But she expands the notion saying, “If I have a low-cut top or something that’s pushing my boobs out of my shirt, and I have a wrap available, when I walk near a group of men I am going to cover up.”

The combination of her isolation and the stereotypical ideas of a group of men can lead to trouble for a woman caught off-guard. This suggestion to use adaptive protection methods should in no way imply that those who don’t are “asking for it.”

Theresa comments on how this is also a reality for cross-dressers. “I have to worry about being beaten to death in some places. It’s a little possibility that’s floating around in my head. I have a good feeling about where I won’t be in trouble and where I might be.”

Living in the suburbs of Detroit, his comfort levels regarding his appearance are constantly under consideration. “There are definitely parts of the metro area that I will not go ‘dressed.’ For example, I have a fake fur coat I’ll wear all the time all over Ferndale. I have worn it to (places such as) Meijer, but I try not to because it’s conspicuous.”

Due to the array of misconceptions about cross-dressers, Theresa points out the importance of trying to encourage tolerance and learning. “(People) assume the transgendered are hookers, and other negative assumptions — I can’t really trust things ordinary people who lead Ward and June Cleaver lives take for granted. One reason I do go out is to dispel negative stereotypes. I do know people who perpetuate the types, but if people don’t get to know me they will never find out I am not like that.”

The idea is to promote understanding for individual preferences, and to decrease or eliminate negative and often untrue assumptions that are automatically affiliated with certain appearances. This tactic has been somewhat successful over long periods of time against bias-based crimes. But a petty thief, mugger or rapist doesn’t care about societal lessons you’re intent on teaching. He only cares if your bag is easy to grab, your outfit is too restrictive to defend yourself or your shoes make you too slow to run.

Changing your look to be safer doesn’t constitute selling out or compromising your ethnicity, ideals, tastes or sexuality. What it does is give you the freedom to send desired messages, but also alleviates some of the unjust things that can happen if you unintentionally send wrong messages or are misinterpreted.

Kristi says, “The people that don’t feel vulnerable are probably the ones that are. Those that take precautions and look around (are probably going to be safe). The people that don’t feel vulnerable enough to do that are probably the ones that are at risk.”

Monica Sklar writes about fashion for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]