Transvestites: Dress for Success and Dissymmetry


Beauty, fashion and cosmetic industries are predominantly female, thus advise for the male to female transsexual or cross dresser (drag queen) is overflowing but the female to male transsexual/cross dresser is left in the dark. There is a clear dissymmetry between men and women, even in the case of transvestitism and transsexualism. Femininity and beauty dominate our culture. As a result, for a man to become and mimic a “beautiful” and “ideal” feminine identity seems to be more accessible and attainable. Meanwhile, taking on a male persona and accentuating masculinities has more implications and challenges for a female cross-dresser or female to male transsexual.

We know all about the drag queen, with her camp impressions of famous/infamous women and extreme femininity. We understand the comedy of the cross dressed man and the slinky power of a discernibly male body in a dress. Even reality television shows and programmes have exploited and fell infatuated at the alluring sight of drag queens and females with penises (RuPaul Drag Race or Ladyboys). Drag queens and beautiful male to female cross dressers have more media and visual exposure, thus naturalizing them and culture being more accepting of them. Indeed, the last two decades of popular film have offered up numerous images of male femininity and the lure of the campy queen. More recently, more and more photographers and visual artists have featured drag artists and beautiful gender bending bodies, but still they are predominantly feminine and highlight feminine beauty. The concept that more focus and exposure is given to women is also evident in the case of transsexualism and transvestitism.

In chapter 2 entitled “Cross Dress for Success” in “Vested Interests” Marjorie Garber highlights the dissymmetry in journals and magazines for advice and guidance between female-to-male and male-to-female transsexuals and transvestites. It becomes clear that entering girl world is far more accessible then entering a boy’s world.  Male to female cross-dressers have access to both mainstream women’s magazines as well as male-to-female journals. However, they still need some guidance. With the media overflowing with Monroe-esque images such as red lipstick and voluminous hair, this isn’t necessarily the “norm” or “ideal” on the streets. It is easy to be amused by a man attempting to put of stockings and heels but this image reinforces and defines the constructedness of gender identity in our culture: as do the pamphlets offering advice for transvestites and transsexuals.

Garber refers to the SHAFT Newsletter, a transvestite publication in the U.K, which at the time published an article entitled, “Woman to Woman”. This is a mimic of mainstream women magazines such as Cosmopolitan, which also feature “Women to Women” sections offering advice from make-up to sex positions! In it the author outlines a checklist on how to become a woman, and is heavily focused on the aesthetics such as clothing and make-up. On the topic of “Nail Polish” the author notes that, “Bright red nail varnish went out with the dodo” on “Hair Style”: “bouffant styles belong in the sixties so choose a style that’s up to date”. It’s easy to say that with articles like these has brought the concept of women as artefact and parts: wigs, nail polish, mascara and “blush”. But this isn’t just exclusive to magazines aimed at transvestites this is normative in the mainstream visual media. This further evidences how far gender really is just a construction, people can take on or accentuate parts which when can alter identity as well as the perceptions people have of you. Is she or isn’t she?

I believe that society and culture is still immensely patriarchal and homophobic whilst medias distorted representations of men as dominant and women as submissive impact our perceptions and treatment of transvestites and transsexuals. Females even when conveying a masculine identity somehow fall short and are deemed the weaker sex. Male-to-female trans* have far more access to feminine things and guidance whilst female-to-males do not. We assume masculinity is easier. Most beauty products and regimes are aimed at women: waxing, hair removal, moisturisers, cosmetics, lingerie, hair products, make-up tools, it goes on and on. Men are just expected to BE masculine: muscular, strong with phallus and dominant: a pair of socks down your pants, a few hours down the gym and an aggressive expression and bingo you are a man!

But clearly the construction of masculinity is just as complex as femininity, as Garber points out: “The problem with going female-to-male is that a 30-year-old female, when cross dressed as a man can end up looking like a 14-year-old boy” (p.44). However, the publication of “Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual” by Molloy in 1985 definitely filled a void. The invaluable guide book is full of historical anecdotes, case histories and vital advise grouped under the headings such as: “Clothing” “Face, Hair” “Body Language” and “The Crotch”. Giving that Vested Interests is now quite dated I went online to sought out more how to guides for transvestites. Sadly, the majority are still aimed at male-to-female transsexuals. Another reason, female-to-male cross dressers and transsexuals are less exposed and acknowledged can also be medical. From a surgeon’s point of view it is more difficult to create a penis then it is a vagina, thus accentuating a dissymmetry between male and female transsexuals and cross-dressers further.

Nonetheless, transvestites and transsexuals commemorate that genders and identities are forms of mimicry, stereotypical acts and gestures perfected and stylized over time. How we take on certain genders and acts can be down to personal preference. However, culture and representations of ‘normal’ feminine and masculine identities undoubtedly impact these decisions and practices.

Whilst interviewing a male to female transsexual such feelings were echoed when I asked about her passing. “It was trial and error. You’ve had you’re entire life to work this all out. I had a little of over two years”. This evidences that everyone, whether in drag or not, we are all conditioned and conform to “ideals”. You can listen to our full conversation here:


Garber, M (1991) Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London: Routledge. 41-55

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