Thursday, 10 June 2010

Pretty in drag?

For many people, men’s ability to look attractive in “women’s” clothes came as quite a surprise.

Prior to the genderquake, it was normal to think that men cut a very poor figure in dresses and makeup. The consensus was that they looked ridiculous, and opposing voices were rarely heard. It didn’t suit male-dominated society at all to give credit to the idea that women’s clothing, and indeed inferior status, were not innately suited to women alone.

Panto dameAnd to be fair to pre-genderquake society, most people rarely saw any evidence that the consensus was not correct. There were generally only two stereotypes for crossdressing1 men. The first was the pantomime dame, the traditional British stage character, female of course, who was always portrayed by a man ‘in drag’. Some of the most common dames were Widow Twankey in Aladdin or the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella. The manner of performance was high camp, with big hair, preposterous makeup, and grotesque costumes. The drag queen entertainer was also of this type.

The second was the furtive crossdresser — a man who got a thrill out of wearing women’s clothing, but lived in fear of discovery, hiding his behaviour from his wife and family. This pathetic figure — half disturbing, half ridiculous — had no idea, of course, how to do his makeup. He wore a wig that didn’t suit him and perhaps wasn’t quite straight. He bought his clothes in charity shops, and wasn’t in fashion. He looked more like a mad old lady than anything else.

What these stereotypes had in common was that the man did not look good when ‘dressed’. Instead he was a grotesque, a sad parody of women, a kind of freak of nature. From boys dressing up for a school ‘crossdress’ day to panto dames, males felt obliged to be exaggeratedly clumsy and jokey when deprived of bifurcated clothing. This was partly just embarrassment. But for them to look well-dressed, elegant, even sexy or beautiful in female clothing was more than society would countenance. After all, male society did not want a genuine debate about why the sexes wore different clothes, what that difference represented, and whether it was just. And the last thing most men wanted was pressure to start wearing feminine things!

The legion of men who crossdressed in private or as part of a club, and who knew very well how to make themselves presentable, were not generally acknowledged in public. The internet helped redress this balance, but of course it was the genderquake that really forced opinions to change.




1 After the genderquake, of course, men wearing dresses were not crossdressing — it was weird if a boy or man didn’t wear a dress and makeup. A number of women did like to wear men’s clothes in secret — but that is another story.

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