The Trope of the Trophy Wife

When I was dating someone who read as butch, I was routinely called their ‘trophy wife’. This always bothered me for a few reasons, in spite of my initial inclination to accept the comment as a compliment about my appearance and my partner’s charm or romantic allure. Of course I wanted to ignore the implication that my partner was somehow less attractive than me because of their gender presentation. I wanted to keep the peace and avoid provoking fragile masculinities. But it always bothered me that my attraction to queer masculinity was not acknowledged.

To call someone a trophy wife is to dismiss them as a subject of desire.

To the hetero mainstream eye, cisgender queer femininity is perceived as a prize that has been won by a subject whose gendered aesthetic is not only considered unattractive or undesirable, but even villainous or immoral. This further promotes the binary of light/dark, femme/masc, good/evil, pure/perverse that is so popular in  mainstream media, and which is often employed toward the end of objectifying femininity.

What I found interesting when researching other uses of the term ‘trophy wife’, is that most commonly, a trophy wife is synonymous with ‘gold digger’, a woman who pairs with a man for his money. Money is traded for arm candy in a relationship with a trophy wife. When an ignorant bystander sees a butch femme queer couple, they can only make sense of half this equation. The economic status of queer women is nowhere near to that of straight men, and so bystanders are left with the task of understanding just why this pretty feminine woman is standing so close to that lesbian who looks like Justin Bieber.

Incredibly, there have been moments when someone will assume I have a history of domestic violence before they recognize that I might in fact be sexually attracted to a butch woman.

Using queer femme fashion as a framework through which to empower the expression of femme-ininities, I am working on my ‘trophy wife’ aesthetic. This look will utilize hyperbolic accessory, award symbolism (military medal brooches!), and lots of GOLD. I am envisioning a strong lapel, various metal hardware and some elaborately flamboyant head piece. My aim is to take back the trophy wife trope and channel it into an outfit that serves to mock hetero-normativity while subverting the notion that cis femmes lack queer desire or sexual agency.













Queer Fashion Subtext

“The homosexual is beset by signs, by the urge to interpret whatever transpires, or fails to transpire, between himself and every chance acquaintance. He is a prodigious consumer of signs, hidden meanings, hidden systems, hidden potentiality. Exclusion from the common code impels the frenzied quest: In the momentary glimpse, the scrambled figure, the sporadic gesture, the chance encounter, the reverse image, the sudden slippage, the lowered guard. In a flash meanings may be disclosed; mysteries wrenched out and betrayed… The need to trace a compatible world becomes the urge to control one with an unceasing production of signs (the suede shoes and cigarette holders of the 1950s, the leather and chain accoutrements of the 1960s…), as if nothing could be determined by trial, except the signature; nothing deduced from content, only hieroglyphs.”

Semiotician Harold Beaver, from “Couture as Queer Auto/Biography” by Christopher Breward

Fuelling my thoughts on queer subtext in fashion – In this article, Breward argues that we have moved away from subtextual statements about queerness through dress as LGBT+ lives have become more visible, and gained acceptance in the hetero mainstream, because we no longer need to secretly signal our queerness to other members of our community.

I think about my rainbow wallet, which is always a conversation piece with other queers. If someone offers a compliment, this is often to signal they are queer – if they wink at me, I can be even more certain. Queer fashion subtext still plays a valuable role in my community interactions – interactions that do not require explicit confessions of mutual queerness to communicate exactly that. I love that there are sartorial codes that signal queerness, a secret language for those “in the life”.

As a cisgender queer femme woman, the concept of queer fashion subtext appeals to me in that it offers an opportunity to communicate my queerness while presenting as feminine. I am not typically read as queer, which requires a perpetual and explicit confession of queer identity and behaviour. My rainbow wallet affords me recognizability as a member of LGBTQ community because it is an intelligible symbol of queerness. Not only is it recognizable on it’s own, but it often also provides an opportunity for conversation (about where I got it – in the village – or why I have it – I’m queer!) In this way, it is not only a symbol, but a catalyst. Queer subtext makes my rainbow wallet a very powerful accessory, indeed!

Glamour and Femme-inism

“Exploring the role of glamour in history shows that it has often served to express a sense of aspiration and entitlement for women as well as a dream of escape from hardship and the everyday. Glamorous women have often expressed an attitude of self-possession and assertiveness in conflict with traditional models of femininity rather than in conformity with them. Glamour has often been perceived as transgressive. There was no shortage of observers in the 1930s prepared to dismiss it as artificial and self-regarding, in the 1950s as vulgar and lacking in class, in the 1960s and 1970s as lacking in youth and innocence, in the 1980s as associated with ambition and an unfeminine materialism.”

(Carol Dyhouse in Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, p. 167)

This book is one of my very favourites. Dyhouse details the changing connotations of glamour throughout the 20th century in the west, and explores the relationship between this sartorial style, its media representation and feminism. She argues that feminism and glamour are historical bedfellows, which is always handy when discussing femme-inism.

Glamour as a femme-inist concept confronts the widespread cultural disdain for femininity that in my belief serves as the bedrock for hetero-capitalist patriarchy. It represents ultra femininity, which is the farthest point from machismo one can get on a binary spectrum of gender expression.

Radical lesbian feminism of the 1970s argued exactly the opposite: that partaking in feminine dress was to oppress oneself because ultra femininity is the embodiment of patriarchal oppression – to concede defeat under patriarchy, and accept your submission. The flaw in this theory (which by the way is perpetuated in queer feminist discourses to this day) is that it assumes masculinity to be neutral, and femininity to be excess – exactly as gender is constructed in the first place. This theory does not disrupt the cultural notion that man is first, woman second, an add-on, an accessory. Nor does it acknowledge that masculinity is as contrived as femininity. In an effort to disrupt the trope of the self-loathing woman, this strand of radical feminism in fact promotes it.

Femme-inism celebrates empowered femininity. It believes there is such a thing. And that is important to my identity as a queer, feminist woman. In general, it is counter-intuitive to fight the oppression of women by hating femininity.

Smoking Hot Dykes

(Excerpted from paper published for MA Thesis, SFU 2013)

I am interested in the role of the cigarette as a fashion accessory that carries deeply rooted social, historical and political meanings. The cigarette plays a symbolic role in shaping the aesthetics of identity for queer and lesbian smokers. The narrative history of the cigarette as illustrated in mainstream and alternative media reveals critical sartorial implications for understanding the construction of gender identity in the 20th century. The relationship between fashion, gender and smoking has important associations with queer identities and cultures that are evident in media discourses dating from the introduction of representations of the New Woman in the early 1900s. Has a distinctly queer dimension of smoking been woven into our cultural repertoire?

The social acceptability of smoking for women aligns historically with the emergence of fashionable masculinity. The sartorial aesthetic of the New Woman introduced women to smoking and the social meanings with which it was accompanied. The image of the New Woman was a modern manifestation of femininity that equated progress and emancipation with womanhood. “In ‘Young in the Twenties’ Ethel Mannin recalls how all the “ladies” who attended her parties “smoked, conscientiously, as the outward and visible sign of sex equality.” By the late 1920s, newspapers and magazines frequently featured images of women smoking, including on rare occasions, a pipe.

Following World War II, the rigidity of the McCarthy era in the United States influenced the organization of queer subcultures. Aggressive policing of non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality found institutional support, and the spaces in which queer communities gathered were limited to underground bars that underwent routine police raids.10

The bar cultures are a critical element in this investigation of queer women smokers because for most of the 20th century, bars were the only spaces within which LGBT people could find a sense of community. Thus, smoking, drinking and other forms of substance use became defining behaviours in identifying as gay or lesbian. In a series written for Slate.com about the history and future of gay bars, June Thomas reflects on her own experience coming of age at the gay bar,

I rarely go to gay bars anymore… But I feel bad about abandoning them. I still remember the terrifying, giddy excitement of my first forays into gay pubs and clubs, the thrill of discovering other lesbians and gay men in all their beautiful, dreary, fabulous, sleazy variety… Gay bars are my cultural patrimony and my political heritage. 11


10 Davis M, Kennedy EL (eds.): Boots of leather, slippers of gold: The history of a lesbian community. New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 67-90.

Faderman L: Odd girls and twilight lovers : a history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 159-167.

11 Slate [Internet]. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company; 2011. The Gay Bar: Is It Dying?; 2011 Jun 27 [cited 2014 Dec 9]; [2 screens]. Available from: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_gay_bar/2011/06/the_gay_bar_6.html

What Mannequins Say About Us


A bit on the history of mannequins. It is so pinnacle that old mannequins’ nipples were shaved off in the postwar ’40s and ’50s to discourage sexual expression. As westerners, we think we are so sexually liberated, and yet our mannequins have yet to get their nipples back.

The Fashionable is Political

“Clothing appeals physically to memory, pleasure, and intimate sensory experience. These elements, in turn, invite the wearer onto a navigable path to larger theoretical issues; hence, the materiality of clothing underscores the relevance and accessibility of theoretical inquiry. What is more, dress with its at once spectacular and intimate status calls attention to the all important link between personal and social.”

– Ilya Parkins, Teaching Fashion and Feminist Theory: The Pedagogical Promise of Ambivalence

Fashion connects our innermost selves to the broader world; it is a bridge, a barrier, a shield, a pleasantry. How are costume and character combined in the concept of sartorialism? Is there a more personal and political form of visual self expression?

Femme : Sexuality + Fashion + Politics

I have been thinking about the relationship between femininity and sexual objectification as expressed through dress. I’m working out ways to explain my Femme Fashion Politics.

The symbolism of traditional feminine garb denounces subjectivity. Its purpose is to please the eye, decorate the space, titillate the traditionally masculine subject. Femininity is profoundly connected to sexual objectification, historically, culturally, socially, politically and economically.

The process of adorning oneself in sartorial items laden with cultural meanings reflective of dominant/submissive heterosexual tropes is an act that is either engaged with at a conscious level or treated as a natural whim. When consciously engaging in the submissive costume, one can be said to have objectified themselves as they have actively taken the role of the object in the subject/object binary represented in traditional heterosexual dynamics/aesthetics. In this conscious effort, one is both subject and object, subject of their own objectivity, thus dismantling the historically embedded hierarchical binary that assumes masculine = subject while feminine = object.

Further, when photographing and disseminating images of the self as object, one situates themselves as voyeur as well as spectacle. I believe this is the critical bit about being femme(inist) online. We can be objects ourselves and also actively see ourselves in the images we share portraying personal and political sartorialism. In this act of image dissemination, we consume ourselves in a way that might be metaphorically likened to auto-eroticism in the sense that we both give and receive the pleasure. We blog about sexuality and fashion and feminism in our efforts to extend ourselves to our communities, and perhaps more importantly to further discover/define/articulate/express ourselves for the sake of our own pleasure.