Fitting In: Shopping for gender nonconforming clothes in Iowa City

Gender nonconforming clothes
For many gender nonconforming people in Iowa City, shopping for clothing that fits their body, style and ethics is a persistent challenge. — collage by Rachel Jessen

When it comes to clothing options for gender nonconforming people living in Iowa City, shopping can be difficult even if one’s aesthetics align perfectly with what retailers consider “on trend.”

Carlos Amaya describes his style as “probably ‘90s revival, not necessarily vintage, but more of an homage.” Despite being raised in nearby West Liberty, however, the 24-year-old Iowa City resident says that “when it comes to shopping local for clothing, I couldn’t care less.”

For both Amaya and Kate Hawbaker-Krohn—who describes her personal style as a “rustic dapper prep boi punk kind of look”—the issue is not only about gender identity, but also about one’s size and one’s politics.

“Being a fat person and going into a boutique downtown,” Amaya said, “I know for a fact I will not find anything in my size.”

There are a plethora of U.S.-based companies making affordable, well-made clothes for gender nonconforming consumers. From the business-casual pieces available from Androgyny, Jaguar & Company Clothier and Peau De Loup; to the underwear designed by Play Out Apparel; to the bespoke suits made to order by Saint Harridan, Sharpe Suiting and Bindle & Keep, entrepreneurs all over the country have recognized that genderqueer people like Hawbaker-Krohn are an underserved demographic.

That list alone, however, highlights the reality that much of the dialogue surrounding genderqueer clothing seems to focus on creating menswear-inspired garments tailored for bodies that were assigned female at birth. This is a national issue, and even on the mighty internet there’s a serious dearth of shopping options for men whose everyday aesthetics range from androgynous to feminine of center.

While Amaya’s look has become “more masculine” lately, he says that his style truly “blossomed” three years ago, when it manifested as a more androgynous look. “I loved wearing leggings with pumps, oversized shirts and just lots of jewelry,” he said. As he’s developed and refined his gender presentation, he’s mostly only been able to buy new clothes online. Alongside various “shops on Etsy and random Asian websites,” Amaya prefers ASOS, Big Boy Vintage and the Queer Chicano culture-focused Maricón Collective as the go-to stores he can rely on to fit his body and his conception of his gender. “The online shopping experience,” Amaya said, despite the guesswork involved, “is slightly better” than shopping in local stores.

Neither the brands mentioned above nor any of the brands I found in researching this article are stocked in brick-and-mortar stores in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area. For a customer who wants to shop local—which adds the benefit of both getting to speak with a knowledgeable salesperson and try on items before buying—having a number of online options is simply not enough.

“I wish we had some kind of clothier like Kipper Clothiers, out of the SF Bay area,” Hawbaker-Krohn said, “or Dapper Boi, who just started a Kickstarter [to make] androgynous jeans.” Not only would the presence of stores like those allow gender nonconforming shoppers to support their local economy, it would also give said shoppers a safe and supportive place to make their clothes match their gender identity.

While Hawbaker-Krohn says that “the vendors in the [Downtown] area are never negative,” shopping at the Coralridge Mall, on the other hand, has sometimes resulted in stares.

“I would love to be able to walk in to a store and not have to dodge glances from the clerks.”

— Kate Hawbaker-Krohn

“I find it’s easiest to shop in a secondhand store for me,” she explained, “as I have more freedom to roam the gendered sections. The divides aren’t as strict as they are in an Old Navy, [where the] store is literally split on a binary.”

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When shopping locally, Amaya also expresses a preference for secondhand stores like Salvation Army, Stuff, White Rabbit, Artifacts and his favorite, Potentially Yours on First Avenue. “The thrift stores around town have a nice collection of clothing for bigger people,” Amaya said, noting his love of “oversized sweaters.”

Hawbaker-Krohn, who prefers Second Act, concurs. Not only are secondhand stores a safer-feeling place to shop, they’re also ripe for finding really choice pieces on a budget. Because “we live in a highly educated, wealthy area,” she said, “at consignment stores, there are literally never-before-worn Banana Republic button downs and pants with the tag still on them, J. Crew gingham [shirts] with original replacement buttons and Gap sweaters with the original price tag.”

While that doesn’t necessarily solve Hawbaker-Krohn’s problems with fit—menswear is not designed with breasts in mind—it’s better than nothing. She guesses that “there are a lot of mothers shopping for their teenage boys who never wear these clothes,” which allows “butch queer girls (which this town is also a hot bed for) to swoop in and make the most” of living in a town that doesn’t exactly serve them.

For a number of reasons—affordability, a more comfortable shopping experience, a wider range of available sizes—secondhand stores continue to fill the needs of consumers primarily ignored by local purveyors of new clothing. Not that shoppers like Hawbaker-Krohn would patronize just any store. When thrifting, she said, “I don’t really pay attention to the brands, but I hate buying things new. I don’t want to contribute to the demand for sweatshop labor.” For local businesses looking to better serve gender nonconforming populations, that’s where ethically made clothing manufactured and sold by small, LGBTQ-owned businesses could come into play. Wildfang—an online boutique turned Portland-based brick-and-mortar—is a national retail model for how to serve this community while maintaining a sustainable business model.

“Iowa City is a perfect place for a gender-neutral boutique [because] it seems like the downtown district is trying to get innovative and draw folks in that they normally wouldn’t,” Kate Hawbaker-Krohn said. “Iowa City is a mecca in this state for queer folks it seems, and instead of making another place to party—another hotbed of misogyny and assault—let’s sell pretty clothes for everyone!”

She continued, “I would love to be able to walk into a store and not have to dodge glances from the clerks.”

Indeed, any truly community-oriented establishment would make sure to serve customers of all sizes and from all over the gender identity spectrum.

Carlos Amaya, though, doesn’t seem to hold out hope for a store in Iowa City that can both sell new clothes and meet his needs.

It’s a well-documented reality that queer and trans teenagers and young adults—especially those who are also people of color—face greater economic insecurity than the general population. Given that fact, perhaps it makes fiscal sense that the bulk of boutiques selling new clothes in Iowa City don’t seem interested in serving gender nonconforming LGBTQ people, particularly those who larger than average.

“One thing I really want to see,” Amaya says, “is a thrift store that is specifically for fat fashionable people. I would have a heyday and spend all my cash there. Also, I wish I could find some platform shoes in my size.”