The Power of Clothing

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

by Miqqi Alicia Gilbert

Part 2 of 2

When we left off I was pontificating on the importance clothing plays in establishing who and what we are. We all know this and act accordingly, as, for example, when we carefully choose just the right clothes for a job interview. For the interview, you want your choice of clothing to establish that you are the sort of person being sought. You?ll dress one way for a corporate position and quite another for a job as a salesclerk in a grunge clothing store. Clothing expresses who you are and also what you know. By applying for the grunge job while wearing a J. Crew outfit, you?ve clearly shown you?re not the right person for them?you don?t know enough. A male going on an interview or a first date often takes a fair bit of time and care with his appearance, while most women take that time and care most of the time. They?re taught they are always under scrutiny, always being judged, always on display.
Clothing, then, expresses who we are by our choice of styles, colors, and image. It also says how much we know by showing that we?re aware of what to wear, when to wear it, and how to carry it off. Finally, clothing and our ability to wear it shows what we are worth. The guy in the $3000 Armani suit declares his worth when formal, just as he does when informally wearing a cashmere sweater and Gucci loafers. Wearing the right thing at the right time and wearing it well establishes your place in any number of hierarchies. This is the case for men, but it is infinitely more so for women.

I now need to take a detour, but I?ll come back to the main theme through a side door. The detour is to look more closely at what a crossdresser does with clothes and why he does it. (In fact, this is relevant to some transsexuals as well, but not quite as much.) There are a couple of central facts about a crossdresser that have a large impact. The first is that he came to crossdressing around puberty. He may have felt feminine yearnings earlier, but likely began to eroticize women?s clothing more or less around the time he discovered masturbation. This is important, because it means he lost out on an enormous era of pre-pubertal socialization, when he wasn?t really paying attention to what it means to be a female. (This is also true of the so-called secondary transsexual, or, as I prefer, adult-onset transsexual.) So when, some time later, he begins playing with outfits, his taste will go to the erotic and exotic, since he has never had the usual girl-to-girl social limitations placed upon him.

There?s another important factor in a crossdresser?s choice of clothing, and that is the amount of time one has to dress. A typical crossdresser may get to dress once a month, and if that?s all the opportunity you get, you sure don?t want to put on a set of sweats. In fact, the more often someone gets to dress, the likelier it is they will experiment with casual and comfortable clothing. Gals who come
to Fantasia Fair for a full week almost always end up in slacks at one point or another. With a time frame like that, you get to explore more options than cocktail outfits, and can begin to learn what appropriate dress means.

There has also been some change in this regard, change I would call progress. Ten years ago, when I attended my first Fantasia Fair, a good half of the first timers trekked to the orientation wearing heels, which is not an easy feat on Provincetown?s uneven streets. The past few years, there have been hardly any not wearing flats. This change reflects the way crossdressers are learning from each other and by investigating the Internet and how they are learning to care more about being appropriate.

Why do I care about this? Because clothing is powerful. How you dress
and how you present yourself declare volumes about what you know and who you are. When you?re being a woman, you are expressing what your womanness is about by how you display yourself. It?s important to remember that women are always on display, always being assessed and judged as objects as well as people (in fact, if the people part is included, then, as a woman, consider yourself lucky). That means the message you?re sending needs to say how smart, self-
possessed, available, sexual, and feminine you are. Your dress can say you are a sophisticated person who is feminine and sensible, or it can say you are an inexperienced crossdresser who needs a lot of help. If your goal is to pass, then you simply must blend in. If your goal is to drag it up and attract attention, then, by all means, blend out.

While you?re doing all this, you can come to understand many things. You can understand why a significant number of women simply choose to opt out and adopt a basic uniform of jeans or slacks and tops. Sometimes this is a political statement; at other times it?s a function of convenience. You can also come to understand why the majority of women, those who don?t opt out, take a good
deal of time to select an outfit, accessories, and makeup. They know they?re doing a lot more than getting dressed. Whether they think about it on a daily basis or not, they know they?re sending a message, making a statement that will be examined and read by everyone they encounter. Remember the gala affair? Perhaps the Academy Awards on TV? How long does it take a man to decide which tuxedo he?s going to wear? Then compare that to the gender that is going to be examined and critiqued by Joan Rivers. Understand that in our culture women are objects of display and they are subject to that kind of critique, and, yes, it?s no accident that the critic is another woman. It has to be; men,
mostly, don?t know the rules.

And this brings us full circle. As a crossdresser, especially as a crossdresser who wants to pass, you have to make it clear you know the rules. You have to be able to read the message you are sending, the statement you are making, and examine it critically. You need to separate the occasions on which it is OK to be lax from those on which it is important to
be correct and precise. You need to understand that being overdressed is
as bad as being underdressed, and that those numerous phone calls women
make to each other about what they?re wearing to the party are important business, not idle chatter. Why? Because clothing is powerful.

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