But You Don’t Look Like a Lesbian

Fashion and lesbianism have a long history of being connected, as women historically used fashion to signal their sexuality to other gay women. Nowadays, where a simple internet search brings up articles like Broadly’s “Beyond Butch and Femme: A Beginner’s Guide to Lesbian Style” and a Pride.com listicle about what fashion elements indicate a woman is gay, these markers are being used less to indicate sexuality between lesbians and more as a way to stereotype an entire community.


Indeed, people tend to look to fashion markers—such as masculine clothing or shaved heads—as a way to assume a woman’s sexuality. Lesbian styles were traditionally classified as either butch (“masculine”) or femme (“feminine”), though, as the community became more diverse, so did the labels. Now, instead of the radical sides of the fashion spectrum, lesbians identify with niche styles—like “lipstick lesbian” or “granola lesbian”—to express their fashion style while remaining visibly gay.

Conversely, this practice of assigning labels, which are essentially stereotypes, may have suppressed fashion freedom within the community. Instead of embracing individual style, it often feels necessary to conform to generalizations, making it difficult for lesbians who don’t uphold these labels to be recognized.

For graduate student Mae Hoffman, being a lesbian doesn’t affect how she dresses on a daily basis, however, it’s an important part of special occasions.

“I went to a Tegan and Sara concert and decided not to wear a purse because I didn’t want to look too straight,” said Hoffman. “Whenever I feel like I have a chance of potentially meeting people I may be interested in...or going to queer spaces, I try to gay it up.”

Hoffman says that utilizing fashion stereotypes isn’t counterproductive to visibility. Instead, using style markers allows others to perceive her lesbianism. This is not only helpful, but a survival technique as well.

“It’s harder to signal who you are and your interest in people [as a lesbian]....There are a lot more repercussions,” said Hoffman. “You don’t want to just start hitting on women, especially if you know from your [own] experience how invasive that can feel. I want people to know that I’m gay without me being all up in their business about it.”

Freshman VMA major Kendall Bosio isn’t convinced the “lesbian look” is as beneficial as Hoffman believes. For Bosio, her relaxed and feminine style is more of an obstacle than an indicator of her sexuality.

“When I first got here, I didn’t have any gay friends,” said Bosio. “One girl asked me, ‘So how are you going to make yourself look like a lesbian?’ I was like, ‘I do look like a lesbian.’ I mean, this is how I dress.”

But, despite the trouble of having her sexuality inadvertently hidden by her personal fashion choices, Bosio says that there’s no definitive answer on whether fashion stereotypes help or harm the community as a whole.

“I think it can be good and bad. If you want to dress that way, then you’re visible and people might approach you more because they know or they can assume,” said Bosio. “[On the other hand], you’re already assuming things. You’re already putting that label on somebody without getting to know them.”

Photography by Dasha German and Stephanie Purifoy