Here’s another way I diverge from the standard femme guy narrative (if there is such a thing): I’ve never had an urge to wear women’s clothes. (Not even with Eddie Izzard’s caveat: “They’re not women’s clothes; I bought them; they’re mine.”) I’ve always felt slightly uneasy about this fact: surely, as a femme boy, at some point I would feel some sort of draw towards them. But I can’t say I have.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I have felt a fascination with women’s clothes as such — just not on me. I’m a bit of a costume drama queen (“If there is a petticoat and Helena Bonham Carter, I can feel the tears well up in my eyes…” – Margaret Cho) and love looking at big fancy dresses, the more outlandish the better. I also love drag shows — again, the more over the top costume-wise, the better.
(I think there’s something truly remarkable about the fact that so many of women’s formal clothes, especially historic ones but often still today, take up so much space. In a misogynist world that often wants women to be as small as possible, both in their bodies and in the amount of physical space they move through, there’s a quite remarkable tension there. Of course they are deeply influenced by the equally misogynist current of woman as decorative object, bedecked in impractical clothes that impede movement, but the sense of presence is astonishing and quite compelling to me. And many of them look stupendous on women of various body types.)
But it never really has to do with me. I remember one cold day turning a corner in the Golden Square Mile and walking past the window of an expensive boutique, and there was this magnificent, full gown, deep jewel-toned blue, and I remember looking at it with envy. Not envy because I would have liked to wear it; if I had been minded to (and had had the money) I could have marched right in and bought it for myself, gender or no gender. But it wasn’t for me.
It took a long way to realize what that meant, and what I finally came to is this. It wasn’t the dress itself that was denied me; it was clothes that meant the same thing on me as that dress would have meant on a woman.
It’s hard to put my finger on just what that was, but partly it’s a sense of splendour. Men’s clothes are rarely splendid. When they’re extravagant, there’s a sense of farce. There is no male equivalent of the ball gown: the socially analogous outfit, evening clothes, are meant to impress through the richness of their fabric and cut, not through their own beauty.
I need splendour in my life, and in dress, I have no language with which to convey that. Largely, it’s because clothes are gendered to convey messages that are also gendered. There is no simple way to wear clothes that are gendered X to convey messages that are gendered Y; such an attempt will be unintelligible.
What’s necessary is a new language, but of course a wholly new language that only you speak is also unintelligible. So we build on and subvert what already exists. Artists such as the magnificent Kent Monkman do this: using familiar symbols to draw the viewer in, then forcibly dragging them to a conclusion they didn’t expect to be at.
I prefer to start from the basis of “men’s” clothes as though to emphasize that what I am attempting to convey is possible for (someone regarded as) a man. I am quite impressed by “dandy” fashions, even though I’m not personally convinced of being able to pull them off myself, since they offer splendour in appearance without resorting to macho preening.
I’m alive to the possibility that my lack of interest in women’s clothes is a result of residual gender indoctrination, of course. Surely that’s part of it. But I do think it’s this problem of the creation of a new language, a new narrative. That’s what those of us whose way of life violates the narratives of our society have to do all the time, and it’s an arduous task. This is just the tip of the iceberg.