Dev Blair: Dressing for Emotional Labor

Lately performer, poet, and activist Dev Blair (she/they) has been very excited about crop tops. “I love crop tops. Oh my god.” She grins and gestures, warming to the topic. Dev has spent many a happy hour in thrift stores, searching the racks for shirts and sweatshirts to cut above the navel.

It’s joyful, but risky. “There’s something vulnerable about wearing crop tops, because a lot of important things happen in your torso. It’s a part of your body that you like to keep protected. It speaks a lot to where I am that I’m willing to walk around and have my torso exposed in this way. It’s a level of vulnerability that I had to grow to reach.”

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Currently Dev studies acting at Boston University, a craft that compels her to explore vulnerability, and assists her in testing its edges. Her training includes exercises in being emotionally available under challenging circumstances. She comes out of the practice with a new frame of mind. “I went there and I survived. I didn’t die, despite every cell in my body telling me that I should avoid being emotionally available at all costs. I can survive being emotionally available and in fact, I am better off for it.”

Being available under stressful circumstances is a common experience for Dev, especially as a Black trans femme from the South (by way of Atlanta and Orlando), in the Northeast. “At this point I’m most peoples’ token Black trans friend. What are you going to do with that? Everyone’s asking me questions about things all the time. I just do what I can to survive and be happy.”

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But as we dig into that experience, it becomes clear that Dev does more than just survive. She is constantly engaging with individuals in her community to draw out ideologies that drive behavior and educate on her experience. This work can be especially exhausting around racism. In the Northeast Dev has found that people often assume that racism is someone else’s problem (the South, they imagine), while simultaneously operating in ways that are racist.

“I think I’ve actually dealt with more aggressively racially-charged situations in my life in the Northeast, than I have in the South. I think it’s just by virtue of how micro aggressions work. If you haven’t experienced it, you’re not going to know. It’s a matter of telling people things and being like, ‘Hey, no. That’s not a thing that we do. Let’s think about why that’s a little problematic, and let’s stop doing it.’ It’s a dialogue.”

How much energy and brain space does this require? “Too much. Always, too much. I used to think that if I took on the role of the educator willingly, it wouldn’t be as much of a burden to me. But just because I choose to lift a 75 pound weight, doesn’t mean that it’s not heavy. I put in a lot of emotional labor — usually more than the person I’m engaged with when it comes to having these kinds of conversations. Sometimes I have to clock out early. I need to recharge. I don’t have to fight it all in one day.”

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Considering Dev’s capacity to go so many rounds in the fight for equity, it makes a lot of sense that she draws fashion inspiration from the punk aesthetic. “Punk is subversive. Punk is counter-culture. Part of me aspires to be that. But also, part of me just by virtue of living as I do, is that. I think it just kind of comes naturally.”

Dev often wears fingerless leather gloves, distressed or frayed clothing (purchased at thrift stores and altered by hand), and leather chokers or bracelets with stones, crystals, or other natural elements. During our interview she wears a bracelet with smokey quartz, brass rings, and lava stone. “Smokey quartz invites an energy of grounding. It can help keep one on the physical plain, in reality. It can help individuals with feeling very down to earth, and not spiraling out of control. I think about it as I wear it. It allows me to field situations efficiently.”

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Punk and DIY elements are interpreted through Dev’s sense of femininity. “Binary gender: no thank you. I like femininity. My own sense of femininity is very important to me.” Taking care of her skin is an important aspect of Dev’s self-care and expression, and occasionally she wears bright makeup to dress up a look. “I like to take care of my skin. I have daily and nightly facial skin-care routines. I can just be pretty with good skin, and then if I wanna dress up for an event - Oh, I got you. I got my face looking all snatched. Mother of the night.”

While Dev is generally working with drug-store makeup due to the expense of higher end products (read about her #poorataprivateuniversity campaign), Juvia’s Place is a preferred brand. “It’s a Black-owned brand and their eye shadows are super pigmented. They just slide on and they’re very light — it doesn’t feel like a whole bunch of makeup on your face. The color payoff is intense.”

Dev came out as queer in high school, but realized during her freshman year at BU that there was more to explore around her gender identity. “The man box was something that I didn’t always feel like I could fit completely.” Back at home for the summer, Dev experimented with makeup as a way of connecting with a gender identity that felt more authentic to her. “I ordered a bunch of products off of Amazon. They came to my house in boxes that I ran to my room and opened up alone with my door locked. I would play with it and I was just figuring things out.”

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While Dev has support from her mother, who she describes as her best friend, and a rich network of friends, coming out to extended family as queer has been hard, and sometimes emotionally unsafe. Dev protects some of her content online through use of a nickname, but one family member searched until he found that account and has criticized Dev, in painful terms, to other family members.

Here again, Dev’s training in resilience, self-love, and emotional boundaries are useful, not to mention her absolute delight in expressing who she is. “If we don’t mess with each other and my name is in your mouth, you’re a fan. Clearly something about me is alluring, interesting, intriguing, and it pulls your focus. That’s all there is to it. I’m here for a good time and a long time. I’m not going to shorten my life span over here, getting ulcers concerned with you. I have a life to live.”

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Dev’s sense of fashion and gender expression may have been carefully nurtured in private or in explicitly safe spaces, but increasingly she is taking these looks into public — the classroom, the stage, the streets, the internet. Follow Dev on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and check out her writings about activism, intersectionality, and identity on Medium

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Photos by Sam Murray