• In challenging gendered clothing, Mel has found freedom in her self-expression. (Louis Hanson)Source: Louis Hanson
For the first time in her life, Mel went to a ball in her suit.
Louis Hanson

13 Dec 2017 - 10:53 AM  UPDATED 13 Dec 2017 - 11:11 AM

Last month Mel Hitchen-Haw posted a selfie on social media of her wearing a suit ahead of her university’s annual ball. “Tonight is the first time I’ve worn a suit,” she wrote. “It is also the first time I’ve been excited for preparing every aspect of my clothing.”

This may not seem like a big deal for some but, for women like Hitchen-Haw who have never felt comfortable wearing dresses, even the smallest of things, such as wearing a suit, can become huge milestone. “It was probably the best night out I’ve had,” the 22-year-old now reminisces.

As a child, Hitchen-Haw felt pressure to wear dresses and be “girly”. Her grandfather used to give her money to buy dresses and skirts. When she was in the bridal party of her cousin’s wedding, the bride was scared Hitchen-Haw would show up in jeans, even though she did wear a dress in the end. “At some of these family events [though], I did rock up in [near] track pants and a t-shirt because I refused to wear a dress.”

This pressure also came from school. “It crushed the resistance in me,” she says. “I realised that it was easier to conform and ‘suck it up’. That winter uniform [though] is still the only skirt I’ve ever worn since the age of seven.”

“It was probably the best night out I’ve had.”

Hitchen-Haw had a ticket to attend Monash University’s Education ball last year but, in fearing that she wouldn’t fit in, didn’t attend. “I had a ticket and everything, and I was going with my friends, but I just couldn’t do it.” The pressure to wear a dress, coupled with the fear of not fitting in if she wore anything else, became too much.

For this year’s event, it was her close friend, Rachel, who encouraged her to test out a suit. “From there, I created the whole thing. I was excited about every little detail and put many hours of thought into it- finally I knew how it felt to be excited about a formal event!

“When I put it on for the first time, it felt amazing. I felt so confident. It felt right.”

Pink reveals she's raising her children as gender neutral
"We are a very label-less household."

It can be hard to avoid traditional gender stereotypes in clothing, but the simple act of putting on a suit completely transformed Hitchen-Haw’s confidence.

After all, in the words of designer Francesca Louise Inocentes, fashion can be used “as a way to empower and liberate individuals who do not conform to traditional definitions and expressions of beauty in regards to gender identity and acceptability”.

“It can be hard to break away from social and gender norms,” Hitchen-Haw considers, “but I realised that the ‘suck it up’ attitude towards meeting these norms, that I’d been fed as a child, only led me to semi-enjoy myself at events.

“When I put it on for the first time, it felt amazing. I felt so confident. It felt right.”

“Now,” she notes, “if I’m going [to a social event], I’m damn well going to have a good time and be myself. If others don’t like it, that’s their issue.”

Whether we realise it or not, clothing can often be a social marker and an active way in which we navigate around, adhere to or reject gender norms.

Mel, in her liberated self, is a reminder to all that true beauty is found in one’s individual and unapologetic self-expression.

Our identities are diverse and ever-changing; clothing, naturally, should follow suit.

Words and images by Louis Hanson.

Love the story? Follow Louis here: louishanson.com, Twitter @louis_hanson_, Instagram @louishanson.

Getting to know transgender wrestler Candy Lee
The Kiwi wrestler reveals her thoughts on the “women’s revolution” of wrestling, trans wrestlers in WWE, and her biggest inspirations.
Women's suit campaign shows clothed women next to faceless, nude men to highlight sexism in advertising
SUISTUDIO USA's latest campaign, #NotDressingMen, aims to highlight the sexualised role women are often expected to take in adverts.
Vice heads along to the Minus18 Queer formal in new doco
“It’s a night to shine, not only in your queerness but your own personality. Everybody gets to be a bit extra and really stand out.”