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Cross-dressing is the act of wearing clothing commonly associated with another gender within a particular society. The usage of the term, the types of cross-dressing both in modern times and throughout history, an analysis of the behavior, and historical examples are discussed in the article below.
Nearly every human society throughout history has distinguished between male and female gender by the style, color, or type of clothing they wear and has had a set of norms, views, guidelines, or even laws defining what type of clothing is appropriate for each gender. Cross-dressing is a behavior which runs significantly counter to those norms and therefore can be seen as a type of transgender behavior. It does not, however, necessarily indicate transgender identity; a person who cross-dresses does not always identify as having a gender different from that assigned at birth.
The term cross-dressing denotes an action or a behavior without attributing or proposing causes for that behavior. Some people automatically connect cross-dressing behavior to transgender identity or sexual, fetishist, and homosexual behavior, but the term cross-dressing itself does not imply any motives. However, referring to a person as a cross-dresser suggests that their cross-dressing behavior is habitual and may be taken to mean that the person identifies as transgendered. The term cross-dresser should therefore be used with care to avoid causing misunderstanding or offense.
Varieties of cross-dressing
There are many different kinds of cross-dressing, and many different reasons why an individual might engage in cross-dressing behavior.
Some people cross-dress as a matter of comfort or style. They have a preference towards clothing which is only marketed to or associated with the opposite sex. In this case, a person's cross-dressing may or may not be visible to other people.
Some people cross-dress in order to shock others or challenge social norms.
Both men and women may cross-dress in order to disguise their true identity. Historically, some women have cross-dressed in order to take up male-dominated or male-exclusive professions, such as military service. Conversely, some men have cross-dressed in order to escape from mandatory military service.
Single-sex theatrical troupes often have some performers cross-dress in order to play roles written for members of the opposite sex. Cross-dressing, particularly the depiction of males wearing dresses, is often used for comic effect onstage and onscreen.
Drag is a special form of performance art based on cross-dressing. A drag queen is usually a male-bodied person who performs as an exaggeratedly feminine character, in heightened costuming sometimes consisting of a showy dress, high-heeled shoes, obvious makeup, and wig. A drag queen may imitate famous female film or pop-music stars. A faux queen is a female-bodied person employing the same techniques.
A drag king is a counterpart of the drag queen but usually for much different audiences. A female-bodied person (often lesbians) who adopt a masculine persona in performance or imitates a male film or pop-music star. Some female-bodied people undergoing gender reassignment therapy also self-identify as drag kings although this use of "drag king" would generally be considered inaccurate.
Transgendered people who are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment therapy are usually not regarded as cross-dressing. Namely, a transsexual who has completed gender reassignment surgery is certainly not considered cross-dressing, unless they were to wear clothes of the gender opposite of what they have transitioned to. Pre-operative transsexuals may be considered similarly.
The term underdressing is used by male cross-dressers to describe wearing female undergarments under their male clothes. The famous low-budget filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. said he often wore women's underwear under his military uniform during World War II. Wood later starred in the low-budget film, Glen or Glenda, (1953) a film loosely based on the life of Christine Jorgensen.
Some people who cross-dress may endeavour to project a complete impression of belonging to another gender, down to mannerisms, speech patterns, and emulation of sexual characteristics. This is referred to as passing or "trying to pass" depending how successful the person is. An observer who sees through the cross-dresser's attempt to pass is said to have read them. There are books and magazines on how a man may look more like a woman.
Sometimes either person of a heterosexual couple will wear it to arouse the other. For example, the Male would wear skirts or lingerie and/or the Female will wear boxers or other male clothing. (See also forced feminization)
Others may choose to take a mixed approach, adopting some feminine traits and some masculine traits in their appearance. For instance, a man might wear both a dress and a beard. This is sometimes known as genderfuck.
The actual determination of cross-dressing is largely socially constructed. For example, in Western society, trousers have been adopted for wear by women, and is not regarded as cross-dressing. In cultures where men have traditionally worn skirt-like garments such as the kilt or sarong these are not seen as female clothing, and wearing them is not seen as cross-dressing for men. As societies are becoming more global in nature, both men and women are adopting styles of dress associated with other cultures.
It was once taboo in Western society for women to wear clothes traditionally associated with men, excepting certain circumstances, such as for necessity (as per St. Thomas Aquinas's guidelines in Summa Theologiae II), or in the case of the "holy transvestites" (cross-dressing female saints), of which there were many. The limiting guidelines on acceptability seemed to focus on passing; the taboo was most strongly focused on the blending of genders. Cross dressing is somewhat cited as an "abomination" in the Bible in the book of Deuteronomy (22:5), although even in the Middle Ages, its applicability was occasionally disputed and still is.
While this prohibition remained in force in general throughout the middle and early modern ages, this is no longer the case and Western women are often seen wearing trousers, ties, and men's hats. Nevertheless, many cultures around the world still prohibit women from wearing trousers or other traditionally male clothing.
Cosplaying may also involve cross-dressing, for some females may wish to dress as a male, and vice versa (see Crossplay). Breast binding (for females) is not uncommon and is most likely needed to cosplay a male character.
In most parts of the world it remains socially frowned upon for men to wear clothes traditionally associated with women. Attempts are occasionally made, e.g. by fashion designers, to promote the acceptance of skirts as everyday wear for men. Cross-dressers have complained that society permits women to wear pants or jeans and other masculine clothing, while condemning any man who wants to wear clothing sold for women.
While most male cross-dressers utilise clothing assosicated with modern women, there are some who are involved in subcultures that involve dressing as little girls or in vintage clothing. Some such men have written that they enjoy dressing as feminine as possible, so they will wear frilly dresses with lace and ribbons, as well as multiple petticoats, corsets, girdles and/or garter belts with nylon stockings.
Cross-dressers may begin wearing their opposite sex's clothing as children, using the clothes of a sibling, parent, or friend. Some parents have said they allowed their children to cross-dress and, in many cases, the child stopped when they became older. The same pattern often continues into adulthood, where there may be confrontations with a spouse. Married cross-dressers experience considerable anxiety and guilt if their spouse objects to their behavior. Cross-dressers may become obsessive and/or compulsive in their behavior, if not actually addicted to wearing the opposite sex's clothing. Some have periodically disposed of all their clothing, a practice called "purging", only to start another collection later.
The behavior of women in general has historically often received less attention than that of men, and cross-dressing is no exception. However, there are some famous examples of cross-dressing female-bodied persons in history (see Famous historical examples of cross-dressing people below).
In modern Western societies, cross-dressing behavior in women is more difficult to identify as a large number of traditionally men's clothing such as trousers have become socially acceptable for both genders to wear, leaving few types of clothing that are only socially acceptable for men to wear. A woman can even wear men's shirts, trousers, and underwear without it being noticed or considered as crossdressing, as very similar clothing items are produced for women.
Social acceptance plays a large role in the perceived low numbers of women crossdressers for the simple reason that it is far more socially acceptable for a woman to be seen wearing men's clothes than a man to be seen wearing women's clothes. Therefore a woman wearing rugged jeans and a plaid shirt would not garner much attention, whereas a man wearing a skirt and high heels would instantly be deemed a cross-dresser. Since the advent of feminism, women have been held to much more lax standards of gender expression and dress, allowing them to still express their femininity but at the same time not being constrained to the feminine ideal as in ages past. Men, on the other hand, are still subject to the same social constraints that existed before the advent of feminism. Thus, men are being held just as much (if not more) to the same standards of masculinity as in the past, and a display of seemingly opposite gender behavior on a man's part is socially taboo. Therefore the reason it is so hard to have statistics for female-bodied crossdressers is that the line where non-crossdressing stops and crossdressing begins has become blurred, whereas the same line for men is just as defined. This is one of the many issues being addressed by the modern-day masculist movement, the male-equivalent of the feminist movement.
The problem of attributing motives for cross-dressing
When speaking of historical figures, when cross-dressing is not clearly related to specific events (like an escape or disguise) it is usually impossible to state clearly what the motives for cross-dressing were. This information was rarely recorded or preserved. Documents on the subject are often either court records (where the cross-dressing person may have said whatever they thought would minimize their punishment) or accounts by other people who might not understand the motivations correctly. Furthermore, historic figures were often unable to identify themselves as homosexual, transgender, transsexual, or transvestite because these classifications simply had no names or social recognition in their era.
It can be equally difficult to be certain of the motives of modern day people who cross-dress. The only real proof of motive is that person's own statement. Yet even this is not always certain, as there are examples of people attributing their cross-dressing behavior to one motive only to later realize that they may have had another reason. The classical example of this would be a transsexual person who initially attributed cross-dressing behavior to transvestic fetishism (for transwomen) or the utilitarian practicality of male clothing (for transmen).
Another problem which many cross dressers recognize in the attempt to attribute motives for their behavior is the pathologization of cross dressing inherent in this sort of research. Many cross dressers feel, that rather than attributing motives for cross dressing, research should rather focus on the reasons for why cross dressing is considered taboo by society, or why clothing is gender-segregated at all.
Cross-dressing actors and actresses
In Renaissance England it was illegal for women to perform in theatres, female roles in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights were originally played by cross-dressing men or boys. Therefore the original productions of the above-mentioned Shakespeare plays actually involved double-cross-dressing: male actors playing female characters disguising themselves as males.
All roles in Japanese Noh dramas are traditionally played by male actors. Actors playing female roles wear feminine costumes and female-featured masks.
Japanese Kabuki theatre began in the seventeenth century with all-female troupes performing both male and female roles. In 1629 the disrepute of kabuki performances (or of their audiences) led to the banning of women from the stage, but kabuki's great popularity inspired the formation of all-male troupes to carry on the theatrical form. In Kabuki, the portrayal of female characters by men is known as onagata.
In ancient China, nearly all the characters in Chinese Opera were performed by men, so that all the male actors, who played the role of a female were crossdressing.
The Takarazuka Revue is a contemporary all-female Japanese acting company, known for their elaborate productions of stage musicals. Takarazuka actresses specialize in either male or female roles, with male role actresses receiving top billing.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Ho]], the male alien bounty hunter Greedo was portrayed by both a male and a female, each acting in different shots.
- "Dress Blues", Erin O'Brien, Cleveland Free Times, August 1, 2006
- "A teenager crossdresser's diary and thoughts", 2007
- Helen Boyd, My Husband Betty, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003
- Rudolf M. Dekker, Lotte C. Van De Pol, Lotte C. Van De Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, 1989, < ISBN:0312173342 > Buy it from Amazon.com.
- Peggy J. Rudd, Crossdressing With Dignity : The Case For Transcending Gender Lines, PM Publishers, Inc., 1999. < ISBN:0962676268 > Buy it from Amazon.com.
- Charles Anders, The Lazy Crossdresser, Greenery Press, 2002. < ISBN:1890159379 > Buy it from Amazon.com.
- Lacey Leigh, Out & About: The Emancipated Crossdresser, Double Star Press, 2002. < ISBN:0971668000 > Buy it from Amazon.com.