Abby Miller grew up in West Virginia and now lives in Brooklyn. She has spent the majority of her career fighting to influence homelessness policy. In 2014, Abby started the neck wear brand, Becoming with the goal to take her passion for making clothes and translating that into more proportional neckwear for different body types.
We spoke with Abby about her passions for homelessness policy and making clothes, and how her own gender identity and expression has influenced the evolution of her personal style.
I think my style has changed a lot over my lifetime but it's always been a little bit defined by both ends of gender. I grew up with three older brothers and got all of their hand-me-downs, and thought sweats were the greatest thing ever. And also a tutu and sun hat was my go-to outfit as a child, and rainbow suspenders. But what I wear is really impacted by the people I'm around.
I lived for six years in Central Illinois while I was in school and that was the most conservative dressed place I've ever lived. More recently I've been living up and down the East Coast. When I lived in Washington DC, I felt like I was always riffing on some version of the professional outfit, because you have to. But since being in New York, I can wear whatever I want. And so I've seen a total blossoming of what I feel comfortable in, because there aren't other people around to push me back into a particular style.
The other way my style has evolved is going from grad school to a working environment. I could kind of wear whatever I wanted in grad school, because it wasn’t a particularly professional environment. When I first moved to Washington DC, it was for a federal policy job. I was really freaked out to be out in the workplace. I had no idea if it would be okay or not. And so I showed up in very feminine clothing….pencil skirts and the whole professional lady thing! I got there and I found so many queers around me and everyone was really young and very open. And I thought, "Oh my god. I can both be out and really wear whatever I want to wear.” That was huge. It was a moment. It was really terrifying. Because I went in thinking "Am I gonna have to play a role? Am I gonna have to act as if I'm this sort of straight conservative professional woman." And then to have all of that blown off was amazing.
My first interaction with homelessness was in true academic fashion. I read this book called The Right to the City which is basically about anti-homeless ordinances that were happening in all the major cities in the US. I found myself filled with a curious mix of anger and passion, thinking, "How are we going to figure this out? We cannot as people, as human beings, treat other human beings this way."
So I started working on it and volunteering in shelters. I wanted to understand what it was like to interact with the homeless service system. I ended up hanging out at the Catholic Worker House and talking to people about how they kept warm in the winter. I marveled at how resilient human beings are, even when faced with potentially life-threatening situations. The way people feel and think when they look at somebody who's homeless is complicated. It's kept my interest and rage for a long time. Now I just contain it and channel it into policy.
Fighting for marginalized folks has come from an internal sense of anytime I see injustice I must do something about it. Having hidden parts of myself for a lot of my life made me feel like, even if I couldn't accept myself and put my whole self out there, I wanted to help others do it. It was almost like channeling my own wish for myself into other people, and finally being able to do that for myself. But that took me a long time, and I think it's easier to fight for somebody else you see being marginalized sometimes than fighting for yourself. And being queer is obviously a part of that. There’s just a sensibility in any marginalized community. I'm probably making a gross over generalization, but when you are part of marginalized community, you know what it feels like to be kept out, and made to feel different or wrong or bad, and there's more of a desire to eliminate that for other groups of people as well.
I was not finding anything out there that I liked. It would be a men's tie that was too long or just too boring. And so I started making my own. Through the process of going out and finding fabrics, I would think, "I love this thing, I want this on my body. What am I gonna do with it?" I was given a few bow ties as birthday gifts and they were so big. I looked like a five-year-old boy putting on my Dad's tie and I thought, "This is ridiculous." So I worked on getting the pattern down right-sized for my face. We have jaw points, and things shouldn't go beyond those. I was really interested in the pragmatics of getting smaller bow ties, but also there are the cool little diamond tips and the cool straight ones, like the Downton Abbey style ones that are just adorable, and I love making all of those.
When I started making the neck wear and actually wearing them to work, there were a lot of other people that said, "I want that. Are you selling them, are you doing anything?" And I thought, "Okay, yeah, I'll start doing that." It grew from making bow ties, to other more unique types of neck wear. And it's made other people really happy because it was something that they couldn't get in other places.
It feels really empowering to me to wear menswear that is mine, that I've made or tailored and think, "You are not the only person who gets to have this. We get to have this too." There are all of these amazing accessories that more traditionally professional or upper-class men have worn that we all should have access to. So bow ties are a way of getting that, wearing it and not caring if there is double-takes.
I was recently reading The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and it's such an amazing book in so many ways. She really has a bead on gender identity versus expression. There's this line that she quotes from Judith Butler, a critical feminist/theorist, that basically says, “People think that you can just put this on and then you're that gender, and then you put that on, and then you're that gender but it's not that at all." Specifically it's working the trap that we're within. We're all trapped into a gender representation by the broader world, and it's not about putting on one thing versus another, and suddenly we get to just be this other thing. We're all machinating in that trap and trying to get out of it. It's not a direct connection of my identity is female and so, I'm going to wear this dress. It's all of the things that clothing represents. It is hard to get away from those associations, but it's important to refuse to let other people typecast you in that way.
I think in terms of how things have changed in the last four years. I feel like with the president that we've had and the policies that he's put forward, we really have a different environment right now. There are protections for LGBT folks in the work place and in housing. It's so amazing. I think even with that, clothing is a frontier that makes people very nervous. And it's not even related just to gender expression. I think it's related to people often not feeling at home in the clothes they wear. There's just not a lot out there and we are never taught a vocabulary or a way to think about our clothing.
I grew up in West Virginia, which is a super-conservative place. Playing with gender or being out just wasn't a thing that was really considered possible. But my best friend in the world is my brother Mike. He's 12 years older than me…Kinsey 6 gay…tried to kiss a girl once and almost threw up. He came out when I was 11. I grew up hanging out with him. He has lesbian sensibilities and has only ever had lesbian friends. Even though I wasn't 'out' I got to be around my people for a long time, and in really formative years and learned from them. I'm 34 now and I feel so completely different in my 30s than I did in everything leading up to this time. My 20s were rocky and my teens were rocky. I was just unhappy a lot and I was half out through my teens and 20s; out to some groups, never to my parents, and just sort of trying to navigate complicated feelings.
Coming out as gay scared me because I witnessed how my parents reacted when my brother came out. They both went through their own sort of depression, and period of mourning. It was awful and really traumatic for me. Because there were three years where I didn't see my brother on the holidays, because he was invited but his partner wasn't. And that was so down to the bones, terrible. I was scared to be treated the same way. Even though they came a long way in accepting my brother, I was really scared to breach this moment when I'd seen it was so terrible for my brother.
Even before I ever came out to my parents I remember talking to my mom about wanting to do drag. And she said, "Drag kings, hmmm...Don't drag queens dress up to attract other men?" And she was trying to get me to 'out' myself, but I danced around the whole conversation. I realized I had been trying to tell these two really important people in my life, things about myself for a long time. The thing that really allowed me to set off on a path that was really mine, was finally coming out to my parents. And just saying, "Hey, guys this is me." My mom said, "Well, I thought so." My Dad’s reaction was priceless. He picked up his dinner beer and took a drink. And said, "Yeah, I pretty much knew." I thought, "Are you kidding me? Why didn't you tell me then?" Everything else sort of flowed from there. I didn't have to hide anything.
I think I lacked a confidence for a long time in who I was, and how I presented to the world. So I ended up always feeling like I was flowing with other things around me. And once I just stopped caring about the other stuff, which isn't easy, and obviously is also related to being accepted. But once I was able to just really focus on, "Who am I? If I dispense with these body issues and what I think I should look like, this is me, this is what I have, this is what I feel like inside, what do I wanna put on that feels amazing?"
That confidence is killer. But that confidence is also really hard to get to, that's not an easy process. And part of it is just simply growing up and testing yourself and challenging when you want to go hide or put on a costume that's not you. I think the more times that you can attempt to get yourself out there, the closet can be a really comfortable place, but it is also incredibly limiting, and it is a sad place. So getting out of the closet and really saying, "This is who I am." The confidence that comes with that is attached to so much more. There is an attachment to acceptance.