Dress Codes

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

Dress Codes
Review by Spencer Bergstedt

Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods?My Mother?s, My Father?s, and Mine. (2002). Noelle Howey, Picador USA/St. Martin?s Press, 332 pages, $24.
One of the most amazing things
about Noelle Howey?s Dress Codes is
that it does what few of the myriad
memoir-type books about trans people manage to do?it creates connections with its readers by acknowledging that all people, trans or not, have experiences in our lives which cause us to be closeted, to
feel different from others, to think we
are unique in that experience, and to at some point transition into something more real.
Noelle Howey writes of her father?s gender transition from male to female,
as well as the transitions of her mother, her two grandmothers, and herself. She creates a vivid picture of how all five of these women in her family made early life choices based on their childhood experiences and how each gained a greater sense of self and self-fulfillment by transitioning later in life, in one way or another.

The book weaves together the
stories of Howey?s mother, her father,
and herself. Howey describes how her mother started out as an insecure young bride married to a man she knew was interested in crossdressing, but committed to making the marriage last. She tells how her father was a distant, silent man, unable to show affection. She describes her own adolescent and early adult confrontations with self-destructive behavior. Ultimately, she describes a mother who moves on with her life, a father who comes to fulfill herself as the woman she knows herself to be, and a young woman becoming a self-actualized adult.

Howey manages to tackle the cultural implications of dressing up in a pragmatic and often humorous way: ?Being a transsexual isn?t just about clothes, any more than being a woman is,? she writes. ?However, that doesn?t mean clothes
are meaningless.... [They] are a representation of identity?for men, women, everyone in between.?
Howey?s is a witty, insightful style which is at its best when she is describing her family history. She keeps her perspective throughout the book and steers clear of the major sins of many trans memoirs? she?s not playing to the freak-of-the-week shocker formula, she?s not making anyone the ?former pariah now a saint,? and she?s not creating an overly flattering
picture of herself or her parents.

All in all, Dress Codes is an excellent read for those wanting to put a real, human face on transsexuality. In the end, we all have our demons to conquer in becoming our true selves.