“Getting dressed makes me feel more like a person,” said Kyoko Caulfield. “I need to do it even if I’m in virtual school, even if I’m not working, even if I’m not seeing people. It’s still nice to share my outfit with the world in some capacity.”
Caulfield is 22 years old, identifies as genderqueer, and uses she/her pronouns. She is also one of the most prolific posters to Reddit’s “r/MaleFashion” (the subreddit is also referred to as Malefashion, or MF). Her all-time most popular post is of her wearing a hand-sewn kimono of her own design, upcycled from reused plaid fabric in a nod to her Japanese-Scottish heritage. This month, her most popular post to MF sees her modeling a vintage Boy Scout uniform next to her dad, captioned “father and son.”
MF began in 2011 as Reddit’s home for fitpics and conversation from men “dressed by the internet.” At the time, this meant devotees of fashion micro-cultures: raw denim-heads, Antwerp Six historians, Rick Owens zealots, people who could spell “sprezzatura,” etc. Diehards from these groups came from their separate blogs/forums and coalesced into r/malefashion as Reddit grew in popularity.
“Those guys were freaks!” said 23 year-old Dylan Burgoon (they/them), in loving admiration. “They knew everything about everything!” Burgoon joined malefashion just as this balkanized, pre-social media era ended. Now a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley running an Ann Demulemeister archive in their spare time, they joined the subreddit when it was run by folks who had just arrived from isolated, predominantly-male spaces like StyleZeitgeist or SuperFuture. As such, the board at the time was overwhelmingly masculine. But, owing to the demands of its contributors, that’s changed.
“Even though I wasn’t on the board when it was just men,” said Caulfield, “every post I make I still get comments from people who are not aware of the switch.”
The “switch” she’s referring to has to do with r/malefashion’s name. Its reason for being, even. The name implies male exclusivity, but that’s not what the community wants anymore. The page is still called malefashion, but a banner across the top reads “fashion/antifashion/malefashion/femalefashion/androfashion/queerfashion.” The board’s sidebar reads: “The sub has evolved beyond its name and we welcome posters of any gender.”
So what happened? Well, over time, more and more people were attracted to the wealth of avant-garde fashion knowledge on the subreddit. Many of these individuals already felt that they “stood out” for reasons relating to their identities. “The community itself is great,” said Caulfield. “It’s very different from the public perception of Reddit,” which tends toward the right-wing and reactionary. “It’s extremely inclusive.”
But some users wanted the subreddit to behave as the rest of Reddit does, where each community strictly adheres to the name it’s organized under. But Burgoon and several others were posting outfits that were among the most popular on the subreddit, despite not being conventionally masculine. Heated debates ensued, though calling many of these comments “debate” is being charitable.
“[Even today], if there’s any perceived gender transgression, you will attract negative comments,” said Caulfield. “I got lucky, today I posted a male-presenting outfit… but I don’t think [the trolls] realized that I was assigned female at birth.”
As the debate raged on, it became clear that the vast majority of those complaining about the subreddit’s drift had little-to-no presence on the subreddit: they were just there to gripe (or troll outright). Zach E. Adams, the moderator of r/malefashion, identifies those who want MF to be exclusively male as belonging to one of two camps. “There are people who will say, ‘the forum is named male fashion, go use r/fashion.”
The second group of people is simply looking to be mad. Zach can see when posts from r/malefashion cross into other sections of Reddit — like those that cater to the alt-right. A popular practice for these groups is to cross-post a woman or non-binary person to their communities, in hopes of inciting vitriol.
It’s typical for these crusaders to mask their anger in the guise of a concerned parent who’s “just trying to help.” said Caulfield. “If it’s a younger poster, people will say, ‘You’re gonna get bullied in school. This is a meme at this point, but ‘You can’t change a tire in that’ still gets commented,”
The meme resonates because it sums up one of the most overused tactics for those looking to make MF a more “conventionally masculine” space — pretending to act in the best interest of someone they barely know. Both Burgoon and Caulfield describes their standard as “wanting clothing to be strictly utilitarian to be acceptable” — which just so happens to rule out anyone who isn’t a cis-woman wearing a dress. Appeals to frugality (don’t spend that much on clothes!) are also frequently invoked by this same crowd, though suspiciously only when someone with an Adam’s apple wears Ann Demeulemeester heels, not a Supreme hoodie. (“The Patriarchy” is a term that’s been beaten to death, but the idea of “rule by the father” comes to mind when a stranger tells another person what to wear by pretending to be their dad).
“Most of the posters are pretty thick-skinned about it,” said Adams. “People showing up to the space don’t realize that many of the really active posters are pretty hardened leftists.” Adams cites philosopher Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance as a key idea on malefashion: to maintain a tolerant community, you can’t tolerate intolerance. Though Adams acknowledges things have improved, he and his moderation team still play an active role. Last year, when the pandemic drastically increased time spent online and sent new users rushing to Reddit, Adams would “just wake up in the morning… and ban twenty people while deleting a hundred-plus comments.”
“They’re not willing to give in to the trolling. We’ve thought about other forums,” said Adams, “but you can’t pick up the entire history… both written post history and all the people who were a part of it. And we couldn’t move over the banlist, which sucks.”
Ultimately, tolerance prevailed. A straw poll taken in February 2017 showed that most engaged posters didn’t have an issue with a gender-neutral space, though it took some time for MF to develop a reputation as explicitly welcoming to all genders. Since then, the board has flourished. Traditionally male outfits are discussed alongside women wearing full-length gowns — or dudes trying out their first dress. The community prioritizes those who contribute to Malefashion over those who bring nothing to the table. In short: if you want to talk shit, post a fit.
But don’t mistake r/malefashion for a criticism-free space. On the contrary, the posters all want criticism: of the clothes they’re wearing, not for being who they are.
“This is the hope for a brighter future,” said Burgoon. “The hope that we can tell a cis-guy wearing the wrong heels that he looks like a fucking moron and not feel bad about it.”