Over the Shoulders
I’ve always preferred to drape things - cardigans, coats, flannel shirts - over my shoulders, rather than wear them. To tuck my arms into the sleeves that were made for them, feels, at times, uncouth. More specifically, it feels butch. And as I learned in language around the age of 19, butch is what I am not.
But the cloaking of coat sleeves, over and without regard to the arms upon which they rest, evokes a kind of Old Hollywood femme I learned most from my late grandmother. She was not femme, at least not self-identified as such, but she was fabulous in a way that I think drag queens and Mae West and queers of most varieties would truly value. She was exaggerated always, her clothes included. What one might wear on Halloween to be a flapper or a Russian spy, my grandmother would wear to dinner, in her own home. For most of my life, she would also wear heels to match. After about age 70, it was slippers instead of heels, but usually they were slippers of metallic gold or silver.
She is a ‘femme root,’ I often say. And it is the juxtaposition of her glamour and my mother’s lack of it, that comprises the particularities of my own femme-ness. That is, hyperbolic style mixed with what most would understand as “white trash.”
Although, as poor white people, my mom and I were always already understood as hyperbolic, anyway. Fat, too. And, we were—fat and hyperbolic, to an extent. Our poverty precluded us from the kind of whiteness that was acceptable, decorous, or appropriate. And our poverty precluded us from the whiteness that was easy. Which is not to say we did not have it undoubtedly easier than people of color, and especially poor people of color, but that we were either inches, or sometimes miles, away from access.
What does that mean, access? I think about it a lot, as someone who was denied it and then somehow granted it (but only with an asterisks). As a child, it was very simple, what access was not. It was being forced to shop at thrift stores for new school clothes, and spending all my tiny might wishing til my brain hurt, for the possibility that Reebok light-up tennis shoes might have been passed on to the Good Will down the street. I remember imagining scenarios that might grant me these shoes: “Maybe a rich girl’s mom thought they were too tacky and got rid of them.” The problem for me was not that my mom disapproved of the light-up tennis shoes, but rather that we couldn’t afford them.
We’d sometimes go weekly to the thrift store, one that was in the same disenfranchised suburban shopping center as a Coconuts Music, where I’d flip through cassette tapes, and beg my mom to buy us one for the car. Green Day’s Dookie was my first.
The thrift store next to Coconuts Music never produced a pair of Reebok light-up tennis shoes, but one day in TJ Maxx, we found them. They were nearly 50% off their full price, which was, at the time, doable for mom. I wore them gleefully to school the following Monday, the aesthetic foundation to a pair of stirrup pants and a Beverly Hills 90201 graphic tee. This, I believed walking down the corridors of my elementary school, was access. Access to the cool club, to commonality with my classmates who lived in Strathmore (the literal hill that housed a development filled with the only rich people who went to my school). All it took back then, for access, was a pair of sneakers.
In retrospect, I understand that example as anything but accessible. The plight, the fervor, the calculations of hypothetical scenarios that my little brain had to endure to procure those shoes, is a specific quality of what my current therapist would go on to diagnose as C-PTSD. The calculations, the worry, the concern, the awareness that if X didn’t happen, neither would Y, and that the result would be devastating. The wondering, the waiting, the time. The time! The thrift stores we scoured, the two locations of TJ Maxx we hunted, because we could not, as others might, simply go to Dillards to find exactly what we wanted, exactly when we wanted. Poor people do not have access to convenience. Ever. Please hear me when I say this. Nothing is convenient for poor people. Please hear me. Let me repeat it: Nothing. Is. Convenient. For. Poor. People. (Please, please, do not blame my mother for always being late.)
But back to this coat, this over-the-shoulder drapery. The way I just now on this airplane from which I type, nestled myself in the entirety of my denim jacket, rather than the confines of the sleeves of it. I feel it hold me and I am reminded of the contrast. Explicitly, in that it is a denim jacket my grandmother bought me from the Gap for my 17th birthday. (Today I am 33.) I have not gotten rid of this denim jacket from the Gap for a number of reasons, but prime among them is that it does not behoove a working-class person to buy a new version of a thing that is still perfectly wearable. This coat is 16 years old, but it is still functional, even if (especially if), only to drape around my shoulders.
So the coat is a gift from my grandmother, who was glamorous and an unbeknownst root to what I would go on to claim as femme. It is a coat that is also old, worn, a money-saver. My mother was not and is not glamorous, but it is only because she sacrificed (her whole life, for me.) It is also a coat that I bought to impress a boy I wanted to date, a boy who wore black skinny jeans and denim jackets and listened to Crass and The Weakerthans and taught me about veganism and that capitalism was not okay. This coat, draped over my shoulders now, it is evidence of all of me: my poorness, my femmeness, my punkness.
I savor this in-between, this seeming contradiction, this way that queerness provides space in the ephemeral pockets of working-class and opulence. I can see now that my obsession with my grandmother (and the Carey Grant movies I watched in her home) served as fantasies to help me brave the plight of working-poor childhood. I came to be as hyper-feminine in response to the imposed practicality, the imposed survival, that is, suffice it to say in our culture, decidedly masculine. (Which is, if you think a moment, a fascinating construct, given that most of the people who are forced to survive, rather than live this life (bread, rather than roses, if you will), are so often--and statistically disproportionately--women.)
I escaped the poverty that was the crux of my life, after my father was hit by a drunk driver, after my mom—who got sober (bless her strong-willed heart) and tried and did everything right—still got fucked over by the boss. Even after all her effort, I was still raised understanding struggle. And in response, when I clawed my way to college with student debt and abandon, I stumbled (or perhaps sought out), the opposite: I found a butch. I found my femme. I found high-heel shoes and a demureness that hadn’t been granted to me prior.
It was a mixed bag, diving into femininity. I suddenly felt ashamed to take up space the way I had before, the way my mom had taught me, but I also felt empowered to use my coy, my charm, my lipstick, my heels, my short skirt as a new kind of access.
Standing in the mirror before a date with my first butch, I conjured the wisdom of my elders: my grandmother in the high-heel shoes; the women in the bar down the street from my childhood home in my tight short-skirt; my mother in my unapologetic visible tattoos.
I am today a proud portmanteau of trash and class. Trashclass? Classtrash. Whatever one might call it, I am a product of earthy materialism and daydream post-structuralism. I am poor white trash in my crooked teeth and my belly rolls, as much as I am my wildest dreams in my MAC red lipstick and my over-the-shoulder draped coat.
I think about the constrictedness of arms in sleeves. In contrast, I consider the freedom I feel under the coat, with my appendages uninhibited and able to move about. I think about the life of a poor person, full of those daily occurrences that feel like being trapped. The time clock at work, the broken down car, the paperwork you fill out ten times before being told you’re finally worthless enough to be eligible for food stamps. The pyrrhic victories. The one-step forwards, two-step backs. I feel the comfort of the cloak, and the movement of my hands.
The contrast, the pressure and release, of poverty and escape, of cloaked and liberated. Yes. (this coat, over my shoulders but not trapping my arms, is familiar.)
Raechel Anne Jolie, PhD is an educator, writer, and media-maker living in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on radical left politics, healing justice, queer identity, pop culture, and more. She's been published in Teen Vogue, Mask Magazine, Bitch Magazine, among numerous academic journals. She is the co-host of Feminist Killjoys, PhD podcast and the mom to a perfect black boy-cat named Diesel.