The Goods

Why the Fun Patterned Button-Up Shirt Is the Queer Signifier We Need

A woman wearing a banana print button-down shirt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michael Blann/DigitalVision; Yevhenii Dubinko/iStock.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I see it from across the store and immediately dive in for closer inspection. Beautifully color-illustrated model airplanes dot soft beige cotton, flying criss-cross across the arms, the chest, the collar, and the column of buttons extending from neck to navel. I pick a men’s medium off the rack, hoping my double-D chest—once tucked tightly behind a sports bra, of course—will fit. I might have to safety pin the button gap, I muse. But that’s OK. I buy the shirt and take it home to my closet to hang alongside similar men’s shirts sporting everything from little bowls of guacamole to bright yellow bananas against a brilliant teal background. This is my queer closet.

I am a cisgender queer woman, but I love men’s patterned button-ups. The more ostentatious the pattern and the more masculine the fit, the more likely I am to pluck it off the rack and bring home to add to my collection. Whatever one I choose to wear that day, buttoning it up feels like slipping into a new skin. Some days it’s the kiwi shirt. Others it’s the one with little foxes all over it. And others, it’s the bright orange with blue floral patterns. It feels dapper. It feels easy. It feels like I will be seen for who I am.

I am very specific in what I mean by a fun patterned button-up. It is usually from the men’s or boy’s section and devoid of the frills or pleats that often adorn womenswear. It has a firm collar, and buttons all the way up to the neck. Sometimes it is also a button-down—that is, a button-up with small buttons connecting the collar to the body of the shirt. It fits straight in the body, disguising and minimizing any curves of the chest or hips. And of course, it has a unique pattern like tacos, fish, corgis, rainbows, or some other object—the possibilities are endless.

These shirts are a way to express myself and my queer identity. When I think of passing, I think of how I feel in my bright blue and yellow banana shirt. It’s loud. It’s proud. And it draws attention to the fact that I too am loud and proud in many aspects of my own life, particularly my queerness.

We see these shirts often on queer celebrities. Comedians—and spouses—Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito proudly sport perfectly tailored button-ups online and onstage.
On Netflix’s Queer Eye, fashion expert Tan France educates on the art of the French tuck when it relates to a proper button-up shirt. Non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon can often be spotted sporting a button-up. For masculine and androgynous folks across the spectrum, the patterned button-up is universal.

My favorite part about wearing one of these shirts though, are the conversations they inevitably start. I love to make terrible pop culture references about my banana shirt—“[Gwen Stefani voice] This shirt is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S.” I love pointing out to people that yes, those are little avocados and limes in between the bowls of guacamole. And people always ask where in the world I found a shirt with little airplanes all over it and want to know where they can get one too.

I love these conversations because they break the ice for talking about myself and my queerness. For other queer folks, it’s a signifier: Someone can spot me across the room, guacamole shirt buttoned up all the way and hair cut in a tight lesbian fade, and know I am queer. Walking into a room full of queer folks from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum in one of these shirts usually elicits a fair share of compliments, requests to know where I got it, or cries of “I have one just like that!” I hear that from other queer women, I hear it from queer men, and I hear it from trans and non-binary folks alike.

Conversely, straight folks see me and know I am different. But rather than reacting to my experimentation with gender expression with fear or apprehension, their entry point is one of joy. Yes, those are in fact tiny bicycles on my shirt. Yes, I did specifically wear the taco shirt out to this Mexican restaurant, thanks for noticing!

Passing as queer for me is about starting these conversations. It’s about conversations in our own community of connection and friendship—I see you and you see me. But it’s also about starting conversations with people outside the community about what a queer person can look like. A queer person is allowed to be loud and proud and a little ostentatious. Experimenting with gender expression doesn’t have to be a serious matter—sometimes it can be a little silly like a banana shirt.

My very first men’s patterned button-up shirt was innocuous, purchased at a thrift store in the small rural town I grew up in. It was far from flamboyant—a red and blue pin-striped short-sleeve, originally from the men’s section at Gap. It fit loose on my shoulders, tight on my teenage chest. But it felt like home. And I still wear it regularly today. It’s taken its place alongside the plane shirt and the banana shirt and the kiwi shirt and the rest of my queer closet.

It’s found a home. And when I wear it, so have I.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.