transvest, tranz-vest', v.t. and v.i. to dress onself in the clothes of another, esp. of the opposite sex.-adj. transvest'ic.-n. and adj. transvestite (-vest'-it), (one) given to this.-ns. transvest'ism; tranvest'itism. [Pfx.trans-, and L. vestis-vestire, vestitum, to dress; cf. travesty.]
So says my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1974 edition). I know perhaps a writer ought to possess a dictionary published within her own lifetime, but I like to read words such Frisbee, econut and pneumothorax in the Supplement.
Of course, in a modern dictionary the word gender would presumably replace the word sex. Sex is now understood as a purely biological identity; what you have in your pants and your chromosomes, your maleness or femaleness.Gender is the societal construct of masculinity and feminity so dress comes firmly under this.
Even so, some people believe that nature plays a part in what we wear, that for example women are predetermined to be very much invested in their physical appearance whereas men have more important things to think about. Such speculation is made in the context of the last hundred and fifty years where the pinnacle of masculine fashion has been, quite literally, uniformity. Both my grandfathers, all four great grandfathers and indeed a few of my great great grandfathers were soldiers or sailors at some time in their lives. During peacetime, men began to wear a different sort of uniform; the suit and tie or the dinner jacket and bow tie. For millennia women have been complaining that all men are the same, but it is really only in the last two centuries that we have begun to dress them this way.
Before then and throughout much of history, men and women have been more or less equally concerned with self-ornamentation: clothes, jewellery, make-up and defoliation. And indeed there have been periods where modesty was such a highly valued virtue in women that we dressed very plainly and men were comparative peacocks. Such cultures arguably exist elsewhere in the world today.
Modern Western man, it seems, embraces the idea that evolution compels him to compete in all areas of life from the football pitch to the corridors of power, but conveniently ignores the fact that this competition is about sexual selection. Thus what a chap looks like, how he dresses and grooms himself, may be of far more importance to any potential mate than whether he can beat his mate Barry at darts. Yet many men pride themselves on a total and absolute disinterest in their appearance.
For heterosexual women, this must be a great tragedy because there is rarely anything nice to look at. Meanwhile, women feel that so much of their innate value is tied up in their attractiveness to men that many of us spend a great deal of energy and endure considerable discomfort in order to comply to an entirely artificial standard of beauty – something which has very little to do with sexual attraction. If it was all about sexual stimulus, far fewer of us would be on a diet and none of us would shave our armpits.
Men suffer a greater tragedy because they are allowed even less room for self-expression through dress. As a woman, I am allowed to wear clothes designed and manufactured for men. Men’s socks, for example, are a better wearing design for less expense and come in sedate colours rather than multicoloured stripes or infantile cartoons. Men’s boxer-shorts are superior to the thong if one wishing to avoid a visible panty-line. Men’s shirts, if bought several times too large, are far cheaper and more practical than ladies’ night-dresses. I can confess to such deviation without inviting any doubt over my femininity.
However when a man prefers texture, fit or even the sensation of constraint in ladies clothing, he is considered rather odd. Why? Women’s clothes are sold on texture, because we enjoy touching things which are silky, velvety, lacey, we enjoy colour, shininess and sparkle. However, this stuff has an appeal to all of us. Women like looking at it and touching it and men like looking at it and touching it. Why, then, are women the only ones allowed to wear it?
Of course modern masculinity is largely defined by being all that is not feminine, whereas femininity has always been slightly more pragmatic. I have never really understood the common use of the word ‘effeminate’ to refer to men who do not conform to the construct. 'Camp' men are nothing like women at all. Julian Clary or Graham Norton are not like any women I have ever met. Campness, male homosexuality and all associated eccentricities are an integral part of masculinity; gay men are not women with dingle-dangles. Yet the idea that they are, perpetuates straight male fears of losing his masculinity through the slighest frivolity.
The very idea that transvestism or a particular interest in clothes is indicative of homosexuality is ridiculous anyway. Many gay men I know have dabbled in drag, but in a very public way, as a joke, a play on expectations I suppose. I can’t imagine many gay man being turned-on by wearing women’s underwear for example, because he has probably spent a lifetime of almost total disinterest in women's underwear, unlike many of his straight counterparts.
I don’t mean to suggest that all straight men want to dress up in women’s clothing only that it would by no means be against nature if they did. It is certainly not against nature that many men wish to dress in an attractive way. My Mum actually threw out my Dad's cuban heels because she felt they made him look effeminate. [...] gets a lot of leg-pulling from my culturally conservative family because he likes to dress up full stop. Not in women’s clothes particularly, but just so he looks nice. Fortunately we live in Whitby where it is okay to dress up as a vampire or a pirate or whatever the heck you like without provoking comment.
During Goth weekend it is possible to play a game where you sit in a pub and guess the sex of each person who walks in. I must admit I did laugh inside once when talking to one beautiful lady Goth with a very deep voice in a Wakefield accent and an Adam’s apple. I asked her what she did for a living and she said “Tree Surgeon.” In my head I found myself singing He cuts down trees, he wears high-heels, suspenders and a bra…
And I must issue a word of caution. When a person has dressed according to the conventions of his gender for years and years and he begins to explore his full identity for the first time through dress, he is perhaps better off doing it behind closed doors as opposed to on the seafront at Brighton. I know that Adrian and indeed the people of Brighton would want me to post this picture here, if only as a warning to others. And anyway, he can’t complain too bitterly when it’s already on-line.
Anyway, I have now perhaps detracted from the sincere point I was trying to make, which was that we should all cast off conventions of dress and express ourselves fully as individuals, regardless of gender or sexuality. But I have kind of lost my thread now...