Anyone who's known me in my adult life would probably think it inevitable I'd end up talking about gender theory in an art gallery at some point or another. The two subjects dominate even my casual social conversation a lot of the time, and I finally got to do it in a somewhat official capacity. Well, the prophecy came true. Can this be my job? I'd like this to be my job, please. Hire me for all your art gender talk needs.
Recently I got the opportunity to give a talk as part of a tour of The Photographer's Gallery. They gave me the choice to talk on anything in the gallery I wanted, and I'd already had my eye on one section of it - an exhibition called Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers. In particular, I covered a section devoted to women cross-dressing in masculine clothes, a smaller part both of the exhibition and of the general public consciousness of cross-dressing.
So, here I am, talking queer theory at one of my favourite art galleries.
This exhibition was put together from an archive of historical photographs found from around the world, and I talked about the nature of curating found photographs, inventing context from visual and historical clues, and how much space in the sitter's stories was left up to our imagination. With a historical archive, we project so many of our current culture onto them, we have to keep in mind that the terms we use and ways we think about things are constantly changing, and were different then. Both the linguistic and social distinctions between transgender people, transsexuals and cross-dressers didn’t exist as we know them today, but we talk in modern terms, and it's interesting to try to bridge the gap there.
For all genders and to most audiences, cross-dressing implies a queerness, where it’s often linked to sexuality. Men seen to be more feminine are assumed to be gay, and women seen to be more masculine are assumed to be lesbians - practice "Mock weddings" on all-women's college campuses were banned for "barely concealed lesbianism". But although sexuality can be a large part of it, historically there have been other motivations for cross-dressing – take the early cross-dressing feminists emerging on American college campuses in the 19th century. This was seen as a way to escape restrictive gender roles, such as the European styles of the time that increasingly separated the sexes in terms of dress and silhouette. Sometimes political, sometimes comedic, and sometimes just a fashion statement, this is a different kind of escapism than what we see in the quieter, private moments of other cross dressers in the exhibition.
Although both are escaping the confines of the restrictive gender boxes they’ve been put into, it's interesting to think about what cross-dressing in “the other direction”, if you will, implies. Historically, it has always been a social/societal benefit or privilege to be a man, and a detriment to be a woman – a restrictive gender binary which is damaging for both men and women, as well as those considering themselves to be neither, in between or both.
As a result of this binary that places one gender above others, women dressing as men were seen to be aiming too high above their station, or trying to get something they don’t deserve. The women in these photographs could be seen as trying to emulate the power and social stability that they saw men having.
On the other hand, men dressing as women were seen to be demeaning or debasing themselves – beautifying themselves into the “fairer” sex but also connecting with the “weaker” sex, whose feminine stylings are often seen as frivolous and inconsequential.
This might be part of why nowadays it’s much more common to see women in what was traditionally “men’s” dress - trousers, jeans and suits have become acceptable for everyone to wear, despite differences in fit. However, in western culture it’s still more taboo for men to wear dresses or skirts, clothing items seen as more “feminine”.
This is a beautiful archive, and an important record of a kind of queerness we too often think of as being thoroughly modern. Thanks to The Photographer's Gallery for having me.