Cross-Dressing and Sexuality

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“Lesbians have always opposed patriarchy, in the past perhaps most when we looked like men” (Nestle, 106)

Playing with patriarchal structures and gender roles is nowhere more evident than in the combination of homosexuality, transvestism and the normative heterosexual institution of marriage. It is within marriage that the idea of “original” and “copy” has taken it’s most effective form. We all mimic certain “ideals” especially when it comes to weddings but when a transvestite expresses these “norms” it brings to light how everything really is parody and working within a compulsory heterosexuality.

What gets married, ultimately, is a dress. As Judith Butler suggests, “The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of ‘the original,’…reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original” (Gender Trouble) Thus, gay, lesbian, transvestite relationships, which mimic heterosexual ones, are copying a copy. Gay or straight both are parody, both are imitation of a creed of heterosexuality. Butler goes onto say, “Drag is subversive to the extent that it reflects on the imitative structure by which hegemonic gender is itself produced and disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality” (Bodies that Matter).

What is at stake in gender roles is this very ideology of heterosexuality. Judith Butler writes, “To claim that all gender is like drag, or is drag, is to suggest that ‘imitation’ is at the heart of the heterosexual project and its gender binarism, that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations. That it must repeat this imitation, that it sets up pathologizing practices and normalizing sciences in order to produce and consecrate its own claim on originality and propriety, suggests that heterosexual performativity is beset by an anxiety that it can never fully overcome….that its effort to become its own idealizations can never be finally or fully achieved, and that it is constantly haunted by that domain of sexual possibility that must be excluded for heterosexualized gender to produce itself” (Bodies that Matter).

Heterosexual mimics within drag, lesbian and gay relationships or sometimes just a portrayal of relationship or performance, dispute the normalcy and naturalness of heterosexuality and gender roles. This may be the reason the wedding dress has featured predominantly in “non-traditional” accounts of dressing up by gay men and female impersonators. It reflects a “normal” feminine activity and in doing so reveals the falseness and unnaturalness of there being anything “normal” in relation to identity and sexuality. The female impersonator Divine appears in an elegant wedding dress and veil in John Water’s transvestite comedy Female Trouble (1975), notice how transvestitism is depicted as a source of entertainment. Perhaps poking fun at our ideas of “normalcy” when overtly expressed by a man! Or less originally, poking fun at a man in a dress!

Another example was at the end of Blumarine fashion show in Milan in 1994. The traditional bridal gown, so often linked to traditional femininity, was sent out for the finale of the collection However; the way the gown was presented was less conventional. Model Claudia Schiffer wearing a white lacy mini dress, was escorted by Nadja Auerman, in a white tuxedo. With their matching glittering coronets perched precariously on their long blonde hair, black high heeled shoes and heavily made-up faces, they were playing with stereotypes of both femininity and lesbianism. Schiffer’s coyly pretty wedding dress represented the fantasy that is the feminine. Auermans semi-drag made a nod to contemporary vogue for so called lipstick lesbianism. The entire look was ambiguous and deeply political. It challenged rigid social views in regards to sexuality as well as delicately blurring gender lines as Rebecca Arnold expresses in her book, “Fashion, Anxiety and Desire”:

“It represented the blurring of sexual and gender boundaries; it was a feint, teasingly ambiguous, deliberately evasive.

Both models were famous for their curvaceous, feminine bodies. Here both seem to be in drag, Schiffer’s overstated masquerade of femininity makes her seem hyper real, a simulacrum of the ideal woman. Auerman is also a pastiche, a sexualised androgyne, her fluid evening suit a disguise that cannot fully conceal her feminine body, her smudged eye male-up drawing attention to the artificiality of her costume” (p.107)

This attests to the idea set out by Butler that we are all like drag artists. Everyone knows RuPaul’s notorious quote, “We are born naked, and the rest is drag”. And this example of Schiffer and Auerman from 1994 attests to the fluidity of gender and the fact that anyone, not just drag artists, can take on elements of the opposite gender, elevating them to ambiguous and mystical creatures where sex and gender and sexuality blur. It’s a whole lot of fun!

Because the heterosexual matrix has dominated our minds and culture so far, one of the ways in which straight culture tries to read gay lifestyles is through “normative” models of heterosexual marriages and relationships. For example, famous lesbian couple Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi mimic a “normal” heterosexual relationship reinforced by their heterosexual looking marriage. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi are accepted and adored by millions, but is it because they seemingly reflect heterosexual characteristics: DeGeneres as butch, the man and De Rossi as femme, the woman, that we accept them? In fact, De Rossi does present something quite interesting. She is overtly feminine yet is a lesbian. This proves that her style and her elegant wedding dress do not readily reflect a “normal” sexuality or fulfil her cultural expectancies as a female for that matter.

In fact, throughout history it’s evident that what is deemed gay or straight in relation to fashion and style, are somewhat of a grey area. Thus, activists and feminists have sought to define gay relationships in new terms. Butler writes:

“…in the case of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ as historical identities of sexual style, [they] cannot be explained as chimerical representations of originally heterosexual identities. And neither can they be understood as the pernicious insistence of heterosexist constructs within gay sexuality and identity. The repetition of heterosexual constructs within sexual cultures both gay and straight may well be the inevitable site of the denaturalization and mobilization of gender categories” (Gender Trouble)

However, the marriage model can be helpful for gay and lesbian couples to find the language for the kinds of lives they envisage with their lovers. To a certain extent we like being labelled and fulfilling certain roles, it offers coherence, stability and well “normalcy”. And so perhaps the way, in which DeGeneres and Di Rossi represent themselves to the world, is the language they understand, as well as a style.

As discussed previously in my “Smoking” post, women began smoking and wearing clothes, which were previously seen as masculine and even a sign of a lesbian. This was due to women gaining more rights as well as the impact of ingenious designer Coco Chanel (1883-1971). Her simple but sophisticated garments were a radical departure from the stiff corseted styles of the day. Yet Chanel was heterosexual and deemed beautiful. This proves that styling, clothes and acts cannot be seen to truthfully reflect a persons’ gender or sexuality such is the case with Portia De Rossi as mentioned earlier.

Times change, styles change as well as eroticisms. The 1987 edition of a San Francisco guidebook advised tourists visiting the Castro (the city’s gay scene) to “Cast aside stereotypes for your trip to San Francisco. Fathers now worry if a son’s hair is too short, if his dress is too macho, or his muscles too well developed, since these are the trademarks of the new breed of San Francisco gay men”. Despite being an edition from the 80’s these “trademarks” continue to blur the lines of heterosexuality. Likewise, “Eighties butch-femme” declares an article in the gay/lesbian journal Out/Look, “There is no longer a clear correspondence between fashion and identity. For many clothes are transient, interchangeable; you can dress as a femme one day and a butch the next.” Many male and female gay celebrities embody stereotypic traits and characteristics for their sex. Thus, the outward appearance of a person really shouldn’t be assumed to reflect sexuality.

Everything is a parody within fashion and style. What is gay and straight has been blurred, so now no one can tell the difference. Women wear trousers, men wear make-up but neither of these are new phenomenon. Transvestitism has been around centuries as well as men in dresses. Painter Romaine Brooks evoked the elegance and pathos of lesbian Paris whose portraits featured the artist Gluck and Una Troubridge in male attire, which perhaps offer the best visual icons of transvestite high style in the period. Below are some  other images of Una Troubridge with her lesbian partner of 28 years Marguerite “John” Radclyffe-Hall, in which she was famed for. “The tuxedo, the cigarette, the cropped haircut, and the monocle are the most recognizable and readable signs of the lesbian culture in Paris” (Vested Interests p.153).

Female-to-male cross-dressing was before explicitly forbidden. But during the 1920’s women were being given more rights, thus dressing in trousers and smoking represented choice and privilege. The iconic Coco Chanel broke new boundaries with her masculine designs that soon even straight women were wearing tuxedos. The use of a monocle was in particular a sign of choice and freedom, as it was before exclusively used by men of power. Garber suggests that the monocle has a deeper representation that the use of the monocle denotes the male organ, which is often called “one eyed”. Thus, these props and gestures reflect a masculine gender, which when employed by women was initially seen as gay. However, these lesbian 1920’s styles slowly became mainstream and polularized onstage by entertainment like Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. Thus, menswear for women because re-sexualized as straight as well as gay.

Pop star Madonna sported a monocle and a pinstriped suit strategically slashed to let her peach satin brassiere poke through in her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour. The pun on blond-blind reinforces the point; in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The monocle was once a status symbol, in this image a retro-symbol of a “fantasized and dated patriarchy assumed and transumed by the pan-sexual material girl” (Vested Interests, p.155) By Madonna mimicking effete male power she is also reincarnating an early moment in history when women wore monocles to assert sexual difference within. “The monocled women in tuxedos that had been ‘liberated’ to dress, talk, smoke and act like men” (Benstock,301)

Below are some examples of cross dressers throughout history up until modern day. The images and identities reinforce the performative and fictioucious nature of “normal” masculinity and femininity.

Fashion the “original” is often the vision of gay designers. For example, homosexual fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier incorporated the corset as an item of outwear for Madonna’s onstage costumes and for the season’s couturier coats stating to New York Times, “Her look is so ‘me’”. Garber writes:

“Crossover style, the mainstreaming of pants for women, bright colours and make-up for men, women wearing men’s cologne and men wearing bikini underpants-above all, style as self-conscious parody, not only in drag clubs but in fashion magazines and rock groups, has rendered gay sartorial difference again almost invisible. So the borderline again shifts; as outsiders become insiders, a new inside, a new, is designed for use” (Vested Interests, p.159)

However, men and women who are read as gay, lesbian, cross-dressers-drag queens, drag kings, transvestites, transsexuals, butches, dykes-are still subjected to oppression, hostility and stigmatization. I want to prove and feel I am, that this really shouldn’t be the case as all our genders and identities are as false as the next, whether a lesbian, transvestite or transsexual. Sometimes because these sorts of people express so convincingly “normal” attributes, fashion and gestures, it’s hard to distinguish what’s natural and unnatural. So does it really make a difference?

Overall, fashion and sexuality do not reflect one another. As a result, cross-dressing and the act of drag should not be deemed “unnatural”. We are all in drag, often wearing products and clothes designed by gay men. Butler argues that we all put on a gender performance, whether traditional or not and so it is not a question of whether to do a gender performance, but what form that performance will take. By choosing to be different about it, we might work to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity. I agree. I feel if people accept that we are all actually the same, our genders are all “performative” there would be no confusion or hostility against those who are deemed different.

Butler calls for subversive action in the present: ‘gender trouble’-the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders and therefore identity.


Butler, J (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Butler, J (1993). Bodies That Matter. London: Routledge.

Garber, M (1991) Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London: Routledge.  141-157

Wurman, R A (1987) ‘Access Press’. SF Access,132

Stein, A (1989)  ‘All Dressed Up, But No Place To Go? Style Wars and the New Lesbianism’. Out/Look 1(4), 38

Arnold, R (2001) Fashion, Desire and Anxiety. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

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