“From the time I get off work on Friday, I become a woman and I dress as a woman for the entire weekend and I live my life as a woman for the entire weekend,” William, a mechanic who goes by “Megan Smith” during his two-day transformations into a female, told Huffington Post Live in an interview last year. From this statement we are lead to believe that William is a transgender, a drag queen, a gay man, a sexual deviant or very, very confused. But, what if he wasn’t? What if William were a straight man, who loved being a man, who was sexually attracted to women and perhaps even had a wife and children? To many, his life would be an enigma at best and a failure at worst; and to many it is. For William and many other straight, male to female cross dressers, self-fashioning has little to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with creating identity or commenting on its construction.
Unfortunately, this kind of cross-dressing is met with a lot of misunderstanding. Most of the discomfort with it is likely due to the long-learned and well-accepted notion that gender and sexuality are inextricably linked. This notion is rooted so deeply in the social and cultural structures that guide our behavior, that a rupture of it may seem conceptually unfathomable. Yet, for these cross-dressers it is a reality.
While identity is arguably something intrinsic and deeply personal it also cannot exist outside of a social and public domain. It is a performance and an act of presentation. It involves the fashioning of oneself with some understanding of what fashioning oneself in such a way will mean to others. Identity, therefore, may be best understood as the construction of a social subject based on an awareness of the self. It may manifest in rejection or defiance of social norms or in conformity to them. A major way in which individuals can construct and present their identity is through aesthetics, adornment and specifically fashion. For male to female cross dressers, fashion (along with demeanor) is a way of negotiating their identity.
Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher discuss fashion as a language in the way it is imbued with codes and meanings that help communicate things to others. “For many people, dressing oneself can be an aesthetic act, and all aesthetic acts are acts of speaking, through which an individual may speak as an individual…Aesthetic acts do not grow out of a vacuum, but from what is learned from others” (Roach and Eicher 109). They suggest that, like spoken language, fashion requires certain literacy in order for it to be understood. Often this literacy comes from social, political, economic and cultural systems that have shaped certain norms.
So how does one make meaning of a man in women’s clothing? Much of the decoding that occurs here is based on those norms, which have long been reinforced through powerful vehicles of influence. Major films that feature male to female cross dressers portray them as sexual deviants or psychopaths like Buffalo Bill’s character in the 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs, or as clowns like Daniel Hillard in the 1993 film, Mrs. Doubtfire. Any wholesome representation of this identity is relatively non-existent to the masses. These associations with cross dressers are only supplementary to the long withstanding stereotypes that women should like and adorn themselves in “female” fashion and men should like and adorn themselves in “male” fashion.
In many cases, deviation from gender identity norms through dress can cause uproar. This is as true today as it has been historically. Jennifer Ladd Nelson discusses the ideology of separate spheres for men and women and the binary definition of gender, which imprisoned women to the domestic domain. This definition largely manifested itself in dress. In the mid-nineteenth century women began to defy these constraints through wearing bloomers. They were met with disgust and often considered immodest or perverted. This is an issue close to heart for male to female cross dressers.
In Huffington Post Live’s interview with William, he insists that he has to “keep it classy” referring to the way he dresses and presents himself. He cautions that overt sexual display is what stigmatizes and perverts this act of self-presentation. Many websites that sell of cross-dressing clothing show men in silky lingerie in provocative stances. William argues that this perpetuates the idea that gender and sexuality are synonymous.
What is interesting about William’s case and for many other cross dressers alike is that their female identity is temporary. It is not that they would become a woman if they could but rather that they enjoy the freedom to present themselves as women whenever they want, until they don’t anymore. This may suggest that the act is a form of relief from the constraints of their biological gender and its social and sexual implications. In a conversation about the nature of Carnival, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue “…carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order” (294). A man wearing a bra, a dress and heels may satisfy the very desires exhibited during Carnival. At the same time, it is important to recognize that in the same way that Carnival is licensed and policed, cross dressing is as well. This is exhibited in William’s very requirement of upholding a standard of ‘classiness.’
His Black Dress is a blog written by a male to female cross dresser named Michael Spookshow who is also married to a woman with children. In his “About” page he explains, “This blog exists to sabotage social perceptions about what men should and shouldn’t wear.” His approach to cross-dressing has little to do with his sexual orientation and suggests that the ties between sexuality and gender are far too unstable to accept. In many of his blog posts he is wearing high heels, dresses, tights, booties, skirts, and frilly blouses. In a blog post entitled Boys in Dresses: But isn’t that Gay? Spookshow explains that he is working towards “a redefinition of what certain sartorial choices say. Putting on a dress doesn’t make you gay, and being gay doesn’t make you want to put on a dress.”
There is a fundamental need to recognize the distinction between sexuality and gender and decouple the two. When a presented identity does not align with what has been normalized in a social context it is extremely difficult to understand. With fashion and dressing being a significant marker of identity and categories being a way to make meaning of those markers, male to female cross dressers risk being wrongfully categorized or further marginalized. In order for the male to female cross dresser to be recognized as a meaningful identity it’s visual and aesthetic style must be recognized as potentially independent and completely separate from the sexualized associations with dress.
Roach, Mary Ellen & Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment”. Fashion Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Nelson, Jennifer Ladd. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 23: 21–25. Print.
Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. “From Carnival To Transgression.” The Subcultures Reader: Second Edition. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 293-301. Print.