What’s in a dress?

Which deodorant should you buy? Brands ‘help’ you out by labelling them ‘for men’ or ‘for women’. But there is no such labelling on dresses for sale. You don’t say “a woman’s dress” because dresses are ‘obviously’ designed for women, writes Ciara Cremin.

So despite the fact many of my colleagues wear them, that I wear dresses to work is controversial and this is because I am considered male. We tend to think of men’s clothing as 'gender neutral' because by and large there is no taboo on women wearing it too.

But what men are ‘allowed’ to wear is defined by what it is not: that is, we are not supposed to wear anything associated with women.

What is this barrier in a male’s psyche that prevents him even from carrying his belongings in a handbag?

I like the feel of silky pantyhose on my freshly shaven legs and find pleasure in the process of applying makeup. I enjoy dressing en femme. However, I don’t ‘pass’ as a woman and so wherever I go, around campus, shopping in town or at the pub, heads turn and people stare, until that is, you return the gaze.

My appearance is clearly strange to others and whatever pronoun I use they are likely thinking “bloke in women’s clothes”. I embody a contradiction, man and woman, neither man enough nor woman enough, and this gets people thinking. If pleasure is my motive for wearing women’s clothes, it’s the politics of my presentation that matters to others, and this is the reason why I wrote Man-Made Woman.

Schoolboys may wear skirts in defiance of uniform code, men out at night may be clumsily attired in women’s clothing for ‘laughs’ and you may be entertained by drag artists at the club. These are, respectively, a one-off gesture, misogyny made fun and a performance for spectators; each instance is accompanied by an alibi.

In contrast, woman’s clothes are my day wear. It is not a parody.

Do I want to ‘be’ a woman? Am I expressing my ‘true’ self? There is no authentic gender for me to reveal. Gender is a mask. When I apply makeup it is the mask of masculinity that is effaced, not a woman as such that is revealed. People do however, behave differently towards me now that I present as a woman and this affects how I regard my gender. When I need to use a public lavatory, the question I ask is not whether my preference is to use the men’s or women’s but rather how will others perceive me now that I dress ‘as a woman’?

And I wager that the greatest offence will be caused if I use the men’s. There, I am judged for what encases my legs, and in the women’s I am judged for what lies between them.

Still, it appears that it is the clothing not biology that is the greatest determinant of gender.

The clothes speak to truth. I use the ‘ladies’. I call myself a woman.

So why are men so reluctant to adopt any style we associate with women? A clue lies in the ‘joke’ of men in tights. The man who wears the tights is ‘emasculated’. This is what I feared when first dressing to work as a woman: that in the eyes of students and colleagues my status and authority would diminish. A ‘man in tights’, I would no longer be ‘taken seriously’.

My make up signifies decadence and frivolity, my heels are impractical and the pantyhose fragile. In our misogynistic, patriarchal world, ‘Woman’ signifies weakness, superficiality and excess, signs that contrast with those of a man: ‘serious’, ‘practical’, ‘tough’, and ‘reliable’.

As a woman I negate man. As boys, we are teased for being emotional. As men we are told to ‘man’ up. The more we display our frailties, express our emotions and embrace sensuality, the easier we are to make fun of.

Men bare their teeth when their status is perceived threatened. Or else, in an echo of the playground scene, they deflect their insecurities through humour, typically at the expense of those men in their company seen as ‘effeminate’. The effeminate man will not bare his teeth. He is always good for a laugh. The generally rigid conformity of male appearance reveals how embedded patriarchy is, both institutionally and in the psyche. By adopting styles that we identify with women, men can enact a revolt against patriarchy in the here and now.

When a man can dress as I do without stirring a reaction then maybe we will see an end to a condition detrimental to us all.

*Dr Cremin’s book ‘Man-Made Woman: The Dialectics of Cross-Dressing’ is published by Pluto Press.

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