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Dressing up, dressing down

  • Posted on November 1, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Last night was Halloween: all hallows (saints) eve, originally for remembering the saintly dead. It has gone from a remembering or an honouring, to a commercial amalgam of all kinds of festival elements and large-scale imports of US activities, that currently is dishonouring of the dead and, increasingly, dishonouring of the living. The misuse of cultural identities in fancy dress has now extended to parody of disability and mental illness.

I would rather go with Samhain as it was (elements came into Halloween in order to Christianise it, including moving the date of All Saints Day). It is still useful to recognise that the old dies so that the new can come, revitalised. And even that the dead stays away. We may not doubt it, and ensure it with ritual, but being actively reminded of the cyclical nature of things in my opinion is good. This year in the UK the autumn season is blurring summer long past its expected end; the year is refusing to die in some ways. Shopping in shirtsleeves in November doesn’t seem quite right, and bees and butterflies are still around. The interwoven cycles that depend on the seasons and their timing will be distorted, and some dependencies of one species on another will break down as expected food sources aren’t there later.

A few weeks ago it did get chilly, and I swapped around my wardrobe and seasonal suitcase, pulling out the warmer clothes. There’s something of old friends about this: clothes you haven’t seen for a good six months. But outside my window, just as I feel uncertain about what to wear, the trees are still very green, some only just starting to turn yellow. They are just going with the flow: if the sunshine and rain are both there, it’s leaf time. Dressing down for winter will come, and I will dress up.

What is it with dressing up, though

I have rarely been to fancy dress parties, including Halloween. Quite apart from the gore and horror, I actually don’t like doing it! Ironic, surely? One of the big not-so-secret things about Halloween in the USA, is the occasion it has long provided for people to wear clothes of the ‘opposite’ gender. For some it may be opposite, but for people with unanswered gender identity questions, or who are closeted transgender, it is a chance to be hidden in plain sight, especially if they do it rather well. A friend showed me a photograph of his great grandfather, and friend who is dressed as a woman in a European national costume. The friend looks so completely natural that we have our doubts as to whether this is indeed just fancy dress. I included a poem Found Images in my first collection Realisations, on this theme some time ago.

And then so many trans* people can remember their earliest days of shucking around in their mother’s high heels, wearing girls’ things from the dressing up box. I did, a bit. And yet for some reason I always found dressing up (when other people were around) hugely embarrassing. Even the thought of it made me feel awkward. My wife might speak about dressing up as meaning dolled up, glad rags and all that. Of course, if you aren’t about to get your best dress out, there isn’t a lot you can do. Suit? Loud tie? Least-worn shirt that isn’t just a stripe? The jumper you would never wear for work?

The first time you fully dress to go out (or even share time with someone else) in clothes not of your assigned/presumed gender you can feel a mess of mixed feelings. Are you doing it inconspicuously; are you prepared to be noticed; are you comfortable? Because for sure you are making a statement and opening yourself up to anything from surprise to ridicule. If dressing up is already a hugely embarrassing thing anyway, allowing yourself to feel natural can be very hard. But what are you doing?

I can’t remember how many times I trotted out: ‘They aren’t women’s clothes, they’re my clothes!’ I was not dressing up at all, I was just wearing what felt right. My very first description to my wife, the day she returned after a weekend away, during which I had bought and worn women’s (outer) clothes for the first time, was simply: ‘it just felt perfect’. Fateful words.

Over the following two years, I felt too painfully close to the world of cross-dressing (transvestism), which I came to see clearly was not the right description for me. It was a curiosity for me that some would go to events dressed in male clothes, where ‘dressing facilities’ were available. They would socialise in clothes of their preference, then change and return home. Being dressed ‘as a woman’ was not dressing up (maybe sounding too child-like) but simply ‘dressing’. For me, that all seemed very sad, and I could never be comfortable with ‘dressing’ any more than I could with ‘dressing up’. Surely, all my clothes were simply my clothes.

What is it with dressing down?

More verbal ambiguity in English! Dress-down Friday is a workplace idiom (again from the US and Canada) meaning to go to work casual, instead of in business attire. It’s a relaxation to make people feel more comfortable and less formal. A dressing-down, on the other hand, is a reprimand of military origin, where insignia of rank are stripped off as punishment and demotion.

Being myself was never a matter of dressing up, fancy dress, or feminising. It was just a matter of getting used to clothes with more variety, more shape and style, more colour and pattern, and that felt right. But I wrote here long ago about how female to male transition increases the honours, whereas male to female transition is a removal of status, privilege and rank. So if anything my ‘dressing up’ was ‘dressing down’, even though it increased my own comfort enormously. My style at work was not executive (a woman dressing ‘up’ to look as important as a man) nor dressing down (jeans and tees), because I had no inclination to look like a man in either direction. I wanted actively to look different to how I was before, and so for three years I almost never wore trousers or jeans. And to be honest, female-cut jeans can be awkward!

Dressed up? Dressed down? Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York … and when he was only halfway … he was neither.

There are huge quandaries for people in transitioning. Your sense of identity is changing on the inside, and may not settle for some time. You may be gender queer, or androgynous – or anything. Are clothes too certain a statement, or not certain enough? Don’t go buying an expensive dress if you soon decide you are trans-butch! But people do worry about presenting at a gender identity clinic saying they are female, but dressed in jeans and jumper. Are you really full-time? Full-time what?

The bottom line is that for other people seeing you around, your clothes signify something, like feathers on a bird: brown=female, colourful=male (yes, birds are largely the other way round!). This should not mean, however, that you have to dress to impress. ‘Today I am dressed as a woman dressed as a man!’ should be OK, and in fact you might feel perfectly female in a suit, or in jeans and tee. But it seems that even ordinary clothes are a form of dressing up to communicate. I’m in this party.

Finding a balance

This morning there will be people around here who are exhilarated by cross-dressing on Halloween. This morning there will be wives, partners and friends breathing a sigh of relief that the clothes have gone away, and that the clear pleasure shown last night need not be seen again for some time. Grayson Perry is OK because Grayson/Claire is a flamboyant artist. Drag is OK because it’s mainly part of flamboyant gay culture. It’s dressing up. But please, please don’t tell me that what you did last night was not really dressing up at all.

Clothes define no-one, and they don’t classify anyone. They don’t give you an identity and they don’t change you. You change them. Some of us need to work with clothes freely, in order to find what really fits. Not to add insignia or status, but to dress down to what is really comfortable. This changes, and sometimes we need to be assertive (all the times I was the only woman in the room wearing a skirt) and sometimes we need to be clear. But it is for no-one else to use your clothes to define or categorise you either. Maybe you need to be smart and presentable for work, maybe you want to do fancy dress (but please think about why you are choosing what may be a parody of someone else’s life), maybe you want to be safe and practical. Be prepared to change as well, and to allow clothes to express you, not define you, because who and what you are is your business.

I objected a year ago to wearing a sexist brass band uniform, stood by my principles, and left. At the time, a compromise would have damaged my sense of identity. The first thing I did after surgery? I bought trousers; and now I wear trousers and jeans quite a lot. They fit, not just physically, but mentally too, and I am never mistaken for wearing them.

Dressing up? Dressing down? I just get up in the morning and get dressed. And I do have a posh frock or two, ready for those still-hoped-for special occasions with someone special. Ah well!