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Emma Ryan: How Berkshire thrift shops helped a transgender woman find her style for less in a safe, welcoming space

Jess and Emma stand in the store

Emma Ryan, right, chats with Jess Sweeney, owner of The Savvy Hive, a secondhand, vintage, sustainable clothing and goods store at 53 Main St. in North Adams.

One day I decided to go looking through my wardrobe, taking stock of what I’d collected as a man in my 20s. The $300 charcoal-black suit I wore for interviews and my sister’s wedding. Pairs of open-laced dress shoes that were at least $100 each. A dozen collared shirts and silk neckties for every occasion. Trusty Levi’s that had lasted me through high school, college and beyond.

All of it was worthless. I was now a woman.

I was in a situation most transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people find themselves in. Trans and GNC people often have to replace significant parts of their wardrobe if not all of it. Considering how expensive transitioning already is — and the increased likelihood of trans people to be unemployed or underemployed — thrift shopping can become an important part exploring your gender identity.

Trying something different

Gender transitions typically start with a social transition. On its transition roadmap, University of California San Francisco includes presenting as the preferred gender in public as one of the first steps of a social transition and lists “changing your wardrobe or hairstyle” as an example.

As anyone who has wanted to try out a new look will know, it’s hard to justify spending all that money on outfits that just end up being tucked away in the closet. When you transition, though, it sometimes feels like you can’t go back to your previous style. Thrifting helps lower this barrier; you might be more inclined to make a bold style choice with a $20 leather jacket than a $200 one.

Najwa Squailia, a nonbinary Pittsfield resident who uses any pronouns but prefers they/them, founded Berkshire Trans Exchange as a way for trans and GNC people to get rid of and pick up new, gender-affirming clothes for free. Recalling their thought process, Squailia said, “I was like, ‘Oh, it would be really cool if I could just take this clothing that my partner isn’t wearing anymore, and I could find someone who does need this type of clothing now and give it to them.’”

Squailia knows all too well the importance of finding new clothes for trans people. “My partner is transgender, so I have firsthand experience,” they said. “It’s a very costly process if someone wants to shift into a new mode of dressing all at once and wholesale take out a whole wardrobe of clothing because it can be really triggering — all these garments with an identity that doesn’t align [with your own] any longer.”

Thrift stores are more than just cost effective, though. Jess Bouchard, a teacher in Berkshire County and director of Queer Connect in Vermont, describes them as “an invitation for us to explore and discover and be playful.”

Bouchard recalls her own experiences as a queer person in college and how thrift stores allowed her to try out multiple “versions” of herself. “When you’re an LGBTQIA person, having these spaces takes the burden off of being a part of a binary system,” said Bouchard. “I think about my time going to thrift stores, and it’s fun to dress up and just play.”

This ability to play helps make thrift stores less intimidating than other clothing stores. Squailia recalls when they were growing up how salespeople, once a staple of department stores, could be a daunting prospect for trans and GNC people: “There was this pressure, especially around gender, if you didn’t want to shop in the way or in the department that the person viewing you felt you should.”

Thrift stores were a place for them to feel comfortable shopping and exploring gender identity without the fear of being judged.

Thrifting is also something intrinsically tied to the community. Bouchard points out many thrift and secondhand stores have some kind of community or charity orientation. Even the clothes in a store come from the community itself. While some stores have missions that are sometimes hostile to LGBTQ people, others, like Squailia’s Trans Exchange, are focused on affirmation and support of non-heteronormative identities.

Squailia also connects thrifting not just with community but with community action as well. When they created the Trans Exchange, their hope was not just to provide an affordable option for trans people but to remove money from the equation as much as possible. “There’s plenty of stuff. My whole conceit is that within a community, there are enough resources to go around,” they said. “It’s the issue of allocating resources from people who have them to people that don’t.”

Comfortable wearing what I have

I looked through my wardrobe again recently, a little over a year since the last time. Some collared shirts remained, but almost everything else was gone — donated to stores or gifted to friends. My suit was replaced by a half-dozen dresses. Levi’s became skirts of various lengths, patterns and styles. Oxfords became heels or boots. Almost all of it was thrifted.

I have easily doubled the amount of clothes I used to own for a fraction of what I spent on my masculine clothes. More importantly, I actually feel happy and comfortable wearing what I have.

Like many trans and GNC people, I have thrift shops to thank.

Emma Ryan is an Eagle arts correspondent.

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