Most of us are familiar with that paralyzing “I have nothing to wear” feeling. I have actually missed social events because I changed my clothes so many times that by the time I was dressed the party was over. (Sorry, Ari, I really was on my way.) I think it’s fair to say that trans and gender non-conforming (or TGNC) folx have it worse, because despite the giantude of the fashion industry, there are almost no clothes made just for us. Both& is a new brand that’s addressing a style world devoid of gender affirming clothing.
Both& is a clothing company that was born out of necessity. Last summer, Finnegan Shepard, the founder of Both& was recovering from top surgery. It was the beginning of the pandemic. In case you don’t remember, the world felt pretty scary and uncertain then. “It was like everything fell apart,” Shepard tells me. He wanted to be excited about taking his body back into the world — once it reopened — but he found that he just kept thinking, “Now that I don’t have boobs, what do I wear?”
All the items Shepard found in his lengthy searches for trans masc clothing options were hyperfunctional, covered in rainbows, or totally agender. “It seemed like the clothing lines available were missing those of us who don’t want to erase gender entirely and are tired of the baggy sweatshirt.” Amen. I identify as fluid and mostly present as femme, but when I do want to show my masc side, it feels like there are literally no options except the approximately 100 tee shirts I’ve cut the sleeves off of, none of which are particularly appropriate for anything other than skateboarding.
The problem is that trans masc people have to choose between clothing made for cis-men, which doesn’t fit, and clothing made for non-binary folks who want their clothes to be totally devoid of any whiff of binary fashion references. Those are both totally valid stylistic choices, of course, but Shepard wanted something else, and he wanted to see if other people did, too.
Unlike traditional fashion lines, which decide from their silken tower what us peasants should wear, Shepard wanted to take a community-centered approach to design. So he interviewed people. I don’t mean that he did a focus group of five trans masc folks or some generic corporate poll, either. Shepard set up calls and Zooms with over 500 people in the TGNC community and he did lengthy interviews with all of them himself.
Shepard asked folks what kinds of problems they had and then he set out to solve them. What he found confirmed what Shepard suspected — that trans folks use clothing to express themselves and that they are not happy with the current options, he says. “The imperative to express yourself through clothing is a double-edged sword,” he says. “On the one hand, you get to curate your identity and expression. On the other hand, you have the burden of curating your identity with not enough tools available.”
Shepard wanted to give people tools to start dealing with this double-edged conundrum.“I knew I wanted to start small and tackle problems one by one,” Shepard says. The most common thing that he heard from TGNC folks was that they wanted tee shirts that fit. “This is not actually difficult to solve from a design perspective,” he says. He worked with producers in Portugal to create a capsule collection of three 100% cotton shirts that are being manufactured in small batches.
Yes, Shepard did all that work to make three shirts. As evidenced by all the fast fashion surrounding us, producing clothing in small quantities is not a quick way to make a buck. That’s kind of the point. Both& is more of a beautifully curated mutual aid than a hard-nosed business venture. “Our goal is to provide high quality, evidence-based designs that help people in our community feel seen, safe, and empowered,” says Shepard. And it worked. “Everyone who’s put on a shirt says it’s magic.”
The magic of Both& shows not just in their products, but in all their branding. The Both& Insta is full of gorgeous photos of TGNC folks and snippets of interviews with them. Every brand says it cares about the people it serves, but talking to Shepard, it’s clear that he really does care, and showcasing the faces and voices of the people he’s making clothing for makes everyone who sees them care, too. One night I binged on the Both& Insta and I found myself borderline sobbing reading the stories of folks who had spent their whole lives feeling alienated from their bodies finally feeling gorgeous and good about themselves.
Can a few tee shirts really change the experience of one of the most marginalized groups in society, though? Well, fashion certainly won’t fix systemic oppression, but it can definitely help people deal with the harshness of the world. “By offering all styles of clothing in sizes and cuts that fit all different types of bodies, people in general will feel more free to express themselves in whatever way feels best,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, a New York City-based psychotherapist who works with people with marginalized sexual and gender identities.
Pitagora says that having clothes made for them can help boost the self esteem and confidence of TGNC folks, but clothes aren’t just about feeling good, psychologically. Having access to clothes that fit them properly could make TGNC people actually feel safer in the world. “Having clothing that fits one’s gender properly can also contribute to a person’s safety,” says Pitagora, “By helping them look the way they want to look out in the world, [clothes can help folks] get the kind of attention they want, or avoid the kind of attention they don’t want.” This could be particularly crucial for TGNC people who don’t have access to, or don’t want, hormone therapy or gender affirming surgery.
Yes, agrees Shepard. “Clothing can help us feel comfortable and safe,” says Shepard. “Sometimes it feels like the world doesn’t care about trans people. When you don’t have access to the tools you need to navigate the world, it’s an uphill battle.” Shepard is trying to give those tools to TGNC people. Oh, and sidenote, all three of the Both& pilot capsule collection are gorgeous. They range in price from $39 to $45 and are currently available for pre-order.