Dress to Transgress

I have been wearing lipstick and dresses since I could walk, and that’s not a confession, that’s just the way it is. I grew up with a dress-up chest, that miraculous saggy wooden plywood box that contained a wonder of wigs and scarves, dresses and suits, ready and waiting for whenever a creative wind arose.

I thank my parents for never defining what my siblings and I could and couldn’t wear as dress-ups. One week, my brother and I would be princesses, out in our back garden fighting dragons. The next, my sister would be leading us on an adventure as Aladdin, complete with painted beard. When we started bringing our friends home for dinner, we realised pretty quickly that this kind of play was out of the ordinary for many of them. One time, my brother and his friend were running around the house with fairy costumes on, and the boy’s father came to pick him up, only to see his son with a tutu, fairy wings and a face full of glitter. Inexplicably, he was not allowed to come back to our house again.

I recently spoke to my parents about their choice to promote this in our house, and to my surprise ‒ given their conservatism in some other aspects of life ‒ they openly said that they had tried to raise us as children in a way that was not dominated by gender.

To anyone familiar with gender theory, you’ll know that there is generally a distinction made between sex (the body that you’re born into) and gender (the social trappings that go along with that body). Think about the very first thing asked of a newborn child: “boy or girl?”. While there is very little actual difference in a baby’s body, an immediate answer to this question is essential. Family and friends need to know how they should act around the child, what presents to buy, and how to dress them. Our entire world is gendered.

Clothes are the things we own that most closely relate to notions of the body, including gender. Given we live in a society that recognises only two genders, we are encouraged to conform to the dress standards of one of them. And god forbid if we cross those lines. Male cross-dressers are often presented in films and in the media as weirdos or in need of mental help. Even in the 1990s, male cross-dressing was considered a mental disorder by the DSM, a leading psychiatry manual.

How do clothes take on such awesome power? In the end, they’re just pieces of fabric. I study archaeology and anthropology, and in these fields, a lot of what we do is attempt to give meaning to inanimate objects. For instance, we might find a sword in an excavation and try to understand whether this was a utilitarian weapon, or whether it was an object of prestige, just like a particular car or watch would be today.

Clothes hold the same value. What we wear is a symbol, a series of objects that symbolise our role in society. This explains why male cross-dressing is condemned on a larger scale than female cross-dressing. What we are seeing here is how clothes represent the power dynamic between genders. When a man puts on a dress, he risks being branded insane for reducing his privilege to that of the gender represented by the dress. On the other hand, women are often required to take on the traditional clothing of men in order to command respect from co-workers. Think of Julia Gillard’s power-suits.

There is absolutely no natural connection between the body that you are born with and the clothes or ornaments that you may choose to wear. Sure, you may identify as a particular gender, and for most people this is core to their identity. But why not have a go at experimenting with the boundaries of what this means? Why not try on some lipstick or paint on a beard sometime, and just play?

Artwork courtesy of the British Museum