17 year-old Alex published a photo of a t-shirt on Tumblr that proclaimed: Clothes have no gender (1). Underneath Alex wrote, anyone of any gender identity should be able to wear whatever they want without facing discrimination. The statement is not so much about whether clothes ‘have’ a gender or not, but rather whether you can pick and chose to suit your taste or your deeper feelings of identity without being discriminated against. In fact, the justified indignation of victims of social constraints, if not harassment, about the way they dress, is a confirmation of the important role of clothes in gender. Clothing conventions are often explicitly used to enforce gender compliance. If you were born in a girl’s body but feel you are a boy, then the girl’s clothes your mother or father insist you wear are a way of forcing you to comply to someone else’s idea of your gender. That said, the original t-shirted statement, as it stands, is misleading if not incorrect. If any objects still retain and dictate gender, it is clothes (2).
So what do I mean by gender? An integral part of the person’s identity, gender is an individual set of images, ideas and personal theories that go to make up how the person feels in relation to the male-female divide. Talking of divide is misleading, as it gives the impression of a positioning between two poles, but the personal edifice that is gender may be much less straight forward and more flexible. It necessarily relates to a wider social system (tacitly) agreed on between people and institutions which is anchored in language, behaviour and objects, above all clothes. This relationship between the individual gender and the social norms can be a source of great tension if not suffering. Such a vision of gender as constructed by the individual in relation to wider social conventions is a relatively recent development.
Clothes are markers of gender
Clothes are eminently impregnated with gender, even those that purport to be neuter. In a society largely built on a binary division: male/ female, clothes stand out as the major markers of ‘gender’. This is less so in the case of women who can more readily dress in men’s clothes without causing a stir. But in most Western societies men wearing skirts or dresses, not to mention bras and panties, are seen as weird if not dangerous and threatening. That clothes are vehicles of gender explains why people who crossdress, like Peter in my novels Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls, go to such lengths to wear feminine or masculine clothes when society would force them to do otherwise. Something of the ‘gender’ carried by the clothes wears off on them, a sort of metaphorical fairy dust, that contributes to form their own gender and identity.
The threat that individuals perceive in people not adhering to gender related norms in clothing probably partly stems from confusing sex, sexuality and gender. But the perceived threat ma y also comes from a profound fear of confusion and ambiguity which could well reflect back to deep-seated uncertainty or anxiety about one’s own gender identity. The inherent need to be explicit is anchored in language. Is it Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms? Gender can be anchored in language differently depending on the language as I discovered when I tried to translate a small part of Boy & Girl into French. In English you can say ‘his skirt’ or ‘her skirt’ and it is clear in the first case that the boy has a skirt, causing raised eyebrows. Translated into French that becomes ‘sa jupe’ where the ‘sa’ says nothing of the sex (or gender) of the person whose skirt it is. More generally, most language is an either/or system when it comes to gender. There is no convenient alternative beyond ‘his’ or ‘her’.
Making a show of gender
The choice of clothing thus contributes to the construction of gender of an individual. However not all choices are visible or ostentatious. Not all choices are meant to be communicated to others. Even if the plain black panties a man is wearing under his trousers are identical to the underpants of a man, the fact that they were intended for a girl or a woman can be important in how he feels about himself.
For some people making a show is important. One of the apparent incongruities of many of those crossdressing males who post pictures of themselves on the internet is that they ostentatiously dress in what society sees as female attire, all lace and pastels and curves, yet, at the same time, exhibit their swollen maleness, clearly stimulated by dressing up. Naively one might imagine they proclaim that they are on both sides of the gender fence. In fact, I suspect this raises a different question, that of the relationship between clothes and sexuality, rather than gender.
I once saw a short YouTube video by a charming transgirl (3) who was quite the contrary to flamboyance and exhibitionism. Soberly dressed in a long-armed t-shirt with little makeup and her hair tied up in mini pigtails, she explained that for most boys who dressed as girls it was what they had between their legs that was most important for them, whereas, for her, and here she pointed a downward index finger to a place on her body off screen, she hated what she had between her legs. “I wanna get rid of it,” she said. Clearly for those people she was talking about, dressing up as a girl has more to do with sexual stimulation than gender.
The magical narrative
Many of the photos of ‘traps’ – a term used to signify men who dress as women such that they might be mistaken for women – posted on the internet have short stories attached. Here’s an example: My mom changed me into a twelve year old girl. I’m kinda scared cause I asked her to do my hair after I picked out this really cute outfit. I’m real excited, we’re goin shopping, I’m gettin some more pretty outfits and mom says it’s time for me to start wearing a bra! (4) The telling of the story combined with a picture, despite possibly having no link to real world events, are a powerful evocation of a wished-for reality. And often ‘power’ words are used like ‘twelve year old girl’, or ‘cute outfits’ or ‘wearing a bra’. These words bring ‘magic’ in the same way that clothes acting as totems also bring ‘magic’.
People post pictures of sexy, sometimes boyish girls on the Internet, add a caption saying it is a pretty boy or tell a story about how his mum or sister dressed him up, and, rather like a metaphor, the juxtaposition of the two produces something quite different, something they see as exciting, something that opens new vistas, at least for them.
The divided soul
When an object, like clothing, takes on a key role in sexual gratification the unfortunate technical term used is fetishism. I say ‘unfortunate’, because it is difficult to use the word without conjuring up related negative social judgements that tend to cloud any discussion of the subject. The word fetish has however another more archaic meaning: the worship of an inanimate object supposed to have magical powers or to be inhabited by a spirit. It is possible to relate these two meanings in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of fetishism. Let me take a round about route to explain.
The Harry Potter books popularised the notion of hallows. That’s to say, the embedding of part of one’s soul in an object in order to protect it and oneself. That was how Lord Voldemort was able to avoid death by splitting his soul into seven parts and placing those in different objects and people. Yet the very act of doing so both weakened him and made him more vulnerable. What if the inordinate desire for an inanimate object were a similar phenomenon? What if unknowingly those men who dress in female clothes give the power to the female clothes, for example, to excite them, and in doing so, give away a part of their ‘soul’.
A distinction made by the transgirl mentioned above is pertinent here. “Crossdressing gay men buy girls’ clothes, whereas trans girls (like herself) wear them.” If I can amend that slightly, many crossdressers wear female clothes because of the magic and excitement of being transformed, whereas transgirls wear girls’ clothes because that is what girls wear.
See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who dressed as a girl in secret and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity about gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.
(1) Address no longer available. Used to be at: http://managedmarauders.tumblr.com/post/123214176406/my-tshirt-because-anyone-of-any-gender-identity
(2) Ivan Illich wrote a thought-provoking but difficult book about the gender of objects amongst other things under the title: Gender (first published in 1982)
(3) It was quite a while ago and regretfully I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.
(4) Page no longer available. Used to be at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510032726527392107/