Sunday, 18 March 2012

More on "women's" clothes.

Last June I wrote (in this post): “if most aspects of human behaviour are not inherently gendered, why should inanimate objects attached to humans be gendered? Why should the majority of human clothing be designated either as male or female? What in fact are women's clothes?

Nine months on, I'm increasingly taking this view: that the entire construct of "men's" and "women's" clothes is just so much bullshit. (Even those designed for specific body-parts.) I mean really.

This may seem like a strange view for a cross-dresser to take, since I'm hardly coming at it from a neutral position: the gendering of clothing has always been fairly important to me. Indeed, it's important at a deep emotional level that my clothes are "women's" clothes. But intellectually... it's a load of crap, isn't it?! Why should we, as individuals or a society, be insistently gendering pieces of fabric by garment, pattern, style, texture, etc? The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems.

Going back to last year: in December I read Sandra Bem's 1993 feminist opus, “The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality”. Okay, Bem may not have been, shall we say, "fully up to date" on trans issues, but I'm not going to critique those bits of her book here because I love the rest of it. Her basic premise is that gender is distorted by three artificial cultural lenses: androcentrism, gender polarization, and biological essentialism — in other words, that male perspectives are taken as standard; that all aspects of humanity are divided according to binary gender; and that these perspectives and aspects are determined by biology and hence immutable — and that these lenses perpetuate a dystopian gender reality, in particular for women and sexual minorities. If you want to know more about these matters, you should read the book itself; I've mentioned it solely in order to quote one passage (from "The Construction of Gender Identity"; p150):

Although the terms sissy and tomboy do not apply to adults who have crossed the gender boundary, the asymmetry between male boundary-crossers and female boundary-crossers is as strong as ever for those who have left childhood behind. This is why a woman can wear almost any item of male clothing—including jockey underwear—and be accepted socially, but a man still cannot wear most items of female clothing without being stigmatized.

The heavy-handed suppression of impulses in males that are culturally defined as even slightly feminine—including what I see as the natural impulse to adorn oneself in vibrant colors and silky textures—makes it extraordinarily difficult for many men to acknowledge the existence within themselves of desires that have even the slightest hint of femininity; the layers of their psyches are thus filled with the kinds of repressed impulses that cannot help but constitute a continuous internal threat to the security of their gender identities.

Well, we could probably debate the relative truth of all that for quite some time, but again I'm not going to. Instead, I just want to highlight this bit:

the natural impulse to adorn oneself in vibrant colors and silky textures

These twelve short words – virtually an aside – leapt at me from the page. Because: Bem thereby degenders clothing, posits femme expression as human rather than female (or merely a stereotype) and negates cultural prohibitions at a stroke.

Bravo! :)


  1. Much as a t-shirt and jeans work for a typical day's outfit. The internal requirement - longing? - for something a bit more colourful, touchable, etc, remains.

  2. “The internal requirement - longing? - for something a bit more colourful, touchable, etc, remains.” Yes indeed. But...

    Do they have to be women's clothes? And do they have to be worn as "female"? (With wigs and body shaping and so forth – I have those in a drawer if necessary ;).) And if so, why? Is "femininity" or "femaleness" the goal? Can't men do femininity?

    These are the questions that interest me. Along with: Why are we doing this? What in fact are we doing? What do we want? What are we trying to express? There's so much shame (most of it internalized) associated with cross-dressing that a lot of us seem to stop at "because I want to/like to/need to" – if we even get so far. And that's fine individually. Just getting comfortable with who we are is an achievement in itself. But having done that, I want to talk about it in more depth, to talk about our relation to gender itself.

    Well, of course the answers are multifarious. Regarding my first list of questions: (1) Yes, they probably do, because "feminine" clothes aren't designed for men. (2) requires a personal answer: for me, no, they don't. (3) is personal again: for me the goal is "femininity" (sort of). (4) Yes, they can, or at least men should be able to.

    As an example of my answer to question (4), there is: Andrew O'Neill. He looks pretty good there, I think, without looking "female". (It helps that the dress is fabulous, but also that he's got the figure to wear it.) Andrew mirrors my thoughts about (2) and (3) as well: "as I don’t want to try and fail to pass for female, I ground what I do in an acknowledgement that I am male. The identity I project outwards is therefore feminine male, rather than woman. I want to dress as ME, not as something I am not" (which is from here). And further down: "I see masculinity and femininity as untethered by male or female biology." That's the sort of thing I want to read :)

    In the general sense, there are perfectly good reasons why someone's answers would be different from mine – if they're trans or bigendered, for example – and I respect those completely.

    So how would you answer? :)

  3. "the entire construct of "men's" and "women's" clothes is just so much bullshit."

    It's not bullshit, Honey. Difference in dress is meant to advertise ones self to the opposite sex. And when a man puts on a dress, he is letting other men know that he is open to sex with them.

    There is no other reason. And the reason so many "transgender" people are so confused is because they absolutely will not allow themselves to admit that to themselves.

    1. A bit of a sweeping generalisation dont you think Jamie?
      Ive just been reading your blog and just because you identify this way it doesnt mean everyone else thinks the same.

  4. “And when a man puts on a dress, he is letting other men know that he is open to sex with them.”

    If that's what you're doing, that's sweet. And for some of us you may be right. As for the rest, if there's one thing I've learned in my nearly 50 years as a tranny, it's this: You can't speak for anyone else on these matters. You can't tell people who they are, what they are, why they are. One, because it's rude. Two, because most of the time you'll be wrong.

    This is a common mistake. Having reached an understanding (usually hard won) of who we are as individuals, and being so convinced of its correctness for ourselves, we assume that it must be correct for everyone else. It isn't.

    I feel that myself all the time writing this blog. I'm so sure I'm right, I can hardly fathom why people aren't queueing up to agree with me. Fortunately I have just enough self-control to write "some of us" rather than "all of us". In that way I can talk in general terms while leaving it for each individual reader to decide whether or not what I'm saying applies to them. It's the only thing you can do really – unless you're deliberately seeking to wind people up ;)

  5. ...he is open to sex with them.

    Regardless of me wearing jeans + t-shirt, or a nice little number from Dotty P's, I'd rather have a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

    Speaking personally, I dress - well, cross dress - so that I feel good and hopefully, look good to. The latter part isn't for others, but for just me.... and no, I don't want to have sex with myself either. :-D

  6. This is a very interesting post! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and have enjoyed reading the comments (troll included) even more. I particularly wanted to comment on this:

    "There's so much shame (most of it internalized) associated with cross-dressing that a lot of us seem to stop at "because I want to/like to/need to" – if we even get so far." - Jonathan

    I read a book recently called Grrl Alex: A Personal Journey to a Transgender Identity, and while I found it a very good read & largely related to what the author said, my one stumbling point was the shame issue. I've just never felt a heavy amount of shame for wanting to wear women's clothes. Apparently, though, that seems to be a bit different from the average cross-dressing experience, which surprised me a bit. (I suppose it's relevant to add, however, that I don't really consider myself a cross-dresser anyways, because I don't have any desire to wear wigs, padding, or even remotely try to pass as a woman. *shrug*)

    Anyways, what I wanted to add was that I also stop at "because I want to" when it comes to questioning my sense of fashion, but I don't believe it has anything to do with shame. For me, it's simply a matter of "I like the way that style looks, I want to wear it." Done. I suppose this quote from the post: “the natural impulse to adorn oneself in vibrant colors and silky textures” applies greatly for me, although I like to wear black with dark reds & purples mostly. Ah, well.

    At the risk of feeding the troll (which largely goes against one of my cardinal rules), when I wear a skirt or dress I'm absolutely not saying I'm open to sex with men. That sweeping generalization is so comical to me, because we all know that lesbians never wear skirts, and no straight woman would ever be caught dead in a pair of pants! All kidding aside, I tend to think that most women dress for other women, right? I'm thinking that maybe I'm just ahead of the curve.

  7. Hi Michael. Many thanks for your comments.

    Regarding shame (internal or otherwise): I think this arises (for us on the trans* side of things) from the conflation of cross-dressing with sexuality. When wearing women's clothes is "just" a fashion choice there's perhaps less of a problem. You can face down potential disapproval fairly easily (as I did in the pub the other night: "yes, it's a woman's coat, so what?!"). But when the word "transvestite" is thrown in, suddenly the perception is of non-normative sexuality as well as male femininity. It raises the stakes somewhat and can make you feel a lot more vulnerable.

    Personally, I've not felt any internal shame at wearing women's clothes (or anything else) since I got over my first proper girlfriend dumping me (partly because of it) when I was 18. But external shame – the fear of "negative reactions" (putting this euphemistically) from other people (even if that fear might ultimately turn out to be unwarranted) – does keep me somewhat constrained (see my earlier post: Stealth). This is something I still have to find a way past.

    Regarding "Grrl Alex": I've read "Queering the Tranny", which is an earlier version of the same book. (Alex just tweeted me to say: "hi -a revision: 1st book was academic focused, new publisher has got me to rework it -2 new chapters, broader readership appeal".) Yes, there were a lot of good things in it — though I thought (as an editor myself) that the first edition (self-published) could have used some editing. Probably the new book (for Bramley Press) is better in that regard. So I might get that as well. In turn, have you read Jon-Jon Goulian's The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt? Very entertaining :)