For Lauren Alston, the act of getting dressed signifies far more than just an interest in fashion – it also serves as a political statement.
As the newly appointed Provincial Gay-Straight/Queer-Straight Alliance (GSA) Co-ordinator with the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (iSMSS), Alston often navigates the complex relationships around gender identity and sexual orientation. As she helps students and teachers to establish and operate GSAs across the province, Alston often comes face-to-face with how people’s fashion choices shape how others see them. “People make a lot of assumptions about people’s gender identity or sexual orientation just based off how they are dressed,” says Alston. “A lot of bullying – whether it’s homophobic or transphobic – or harassment or assault can derive from perceptions around people’s clothing.”
Alston, who has a master’s degree in neuroscience from the U of A, has dedicated her life to creating safe spaces for Albertans through her work with the iSMSS, Hollaback Alberta, and the Comprehensive Health Education Workers (CHEW) Project. Through her work with GSAs in the province, Alston is bridging gaps between how we communicate about and understand gender and sexuality.
Alston prefers to eschew the established gender binary in clothing, opting for a more edgy and androgynous look that takes her from meetings with provincial ministers to small-town high schools.
How would you describe your personal style?
It’s mostly just comfortable. I’m usually just wearing a band T-shirt and jeans. I work with youth a lot, and that’s where clothing becomes interesting in terms of either connecting or putting up barriers. How I dress in a meeting with a government minister is different from how I dress when I lead a session with youth, which is most of my job. I would say that my style is relaxed and casual with a little bit of an edge.
Do you have a signature look?
Yeah, it’s usually slightly androgynous. What I wear can usually be worn by any gender – I mean, all clothing can be worn by any gender. I would say that there are aspects of femininity within my presentation, but it’s usually an outfit of a loose top with tight pants. My look right now is pretty ’90s, but it varies a lot.
Androgyny has so many interpretations. How do you define what it means for you?
There are still aspects of femme in what I wear. I wear mascara and sometimes I do the whole makeup thing. I suppose that I don’t like my gender identity to dictate what I wear. I want to be able to wear a dress and also wear a hat and skate shoes. I take aspects of different styles and I love to play with it.
How do you think clothing impacts how society perceives gender identity?
The interesting thing is that I can walk down the street in pants and a bow tie, and no one really makes a big deal of it. As a cisgender woman, I can do that. But as soon as someone who is perceived as a cisgender man walks down the street in a skirt or a dress, for some reason that is a big deal. People make a lot of assumptions about people’s gender identity or sexual orientation just based off how they are dressed. You can use clothing as a very political statement. It’s interesting how we police clothing in terms of falling into the binaries. We’re so caught up on what’s masculine and feminine, but I think we are slowly starting to move away from those assumptions and restrictions.
How has your relationship to how you dress changed as you learn more about your own identity?
Now more than ever, I feel more comfortable in my clothes. We are constantly learning about who we are, and there are times that I felt a little bit of pressure to be more feminine or wear more dresses. I had to learn a little bit about what made me feel most comfortable. I would say that my style has evolved because people learn about themselves and they try out different things, but there has always been this punk element to my style. That has been the common thread, but it’s mixed with the different aspects of who I am.
Where do you like to shop?
The Bamboo Ballroom is where I get a lot of my clothing. I don’t shop a lot, so I typically just hit up a couple of places. Workhall is also really great. I like Nicole Campre’s ethics around how she produces.
I am also really fortunate to have a lot of friends who are designers. I love Suka, for example; same with Hunt Amor, Karma Victoria and Lord Violet. I really believe in their politics and what they do. And of course I love S.P. Badu in Calgary, who does that post-gender future style where he has men walking down the runway in skirts.
How do you balance your personal style with your busy work schedule?
I’m always thinking about comfort because sometimes I work a 12-hour day, or I am driving from one place to another. I always have a pair of shoes in my car so I can go from a fancy meeting to a GSA meeting. I have to keep that in mind. Sometimes, I will wear a heeled boot to one meeting and then a pair of Doc Martens to the next.
Place to hang out: The Empress Ale House
Music: Anything on Sweety Pie Records
Restaurant: Veggie Garden
Dish: Chana Masala at Narayanni’s
Drink: Big Dry from Left Field Cider Co.
Book: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Piece of Clothing: Grey coat from Workhall
Place to shop: The Bamboo Ballroom
Bag: Matt and Nat backpack
Local Clothing Designer: Suka
Local Jewellery Designer: Karma Victoria
Beauty Product: Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion