Cross-dressing is the act of wearing items of clothing and other accoutrements commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society. Cross-dressing has been used for purposes of disguise, comfort, and self-expression in modern times and throughout history.
Almost every human society throughout history has had expected norms for each gender relating to style, color, or type of clothing they are expected to wear, and likewise most societies have had a set of guidelines, views or even laws defining what type of clothing is appropriate for each gender.
The term cross-dressing refers to an action or a behavior, without attributing or implying any specific causes or motives for that behavior. Cross-dressing is not synonymous with being transgender.
The phenomenon of cross-dressing is an old recorded practice, being referred to as far back as Hebrew Bible. However, the terms to describe it change. The Anglo-Saxon "cross-dresser" has largely superseded the Latinate "transvestite", which has come to be seen as outdated and derogatory. This is because the latter was historically used to diagnose psychiatric disorders (e.g. transvestic fetishism), but the former was coined by the transgender community. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1911 as the earliest citation, by Edward Carpenter: "Cross-dressing must be taken as a general indication of, and a cognate phenomenon to, homosexuality". In 1928 Havelock Ellis used the two terms, "cross-dressing" and "transvestism", interchangeably. The earliest citations for "cross-dress" and "cross-dresser" are 1966 and 1976 respectively.
Cross-dressing has been practiced throughout much of recorded history, in many societies, and for many reasons. Examples exist in Greek, Norse, and Hindu mythology. There is a rich history of cross-dressing found in folklore, literature, theater, and music, such as Kabuki and Korean shamanism. In the British and European context, theatrical troupes ("playing companies") were all-male, with the female parts undertaken by boy players.
A wide variety of historical figures are known to have cross-dressed to varying degrees. Many women found they had to disguise themselves as men in order to participate in the wider world. For example, Margaret King cross-dressed in the early nineteenth century to attend medical school, as none would accept female students. A century later, Vita Sackville-West dressed as a young soldier in order to "walk out" with her girlfriend Violet Keppel, to avoid the street harassment that two women would have faced. The prohibition on women wearing male garb, once strictly applied, still has echoes today in some Western societies which require girls and women to wear skirts, for example as part of school uniform or office dress codes. In some countries, even in casual settings, women are still prohibited from wearing traditionally male clothing. Sometimes all trousers, no matter how loose and long, are automatically considered "indecent", which may render their wearer subject to severe punishment, as in the case of Lubna al-Hussein in Sudan in 2009.
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, out of personal preference for clothing associated with the opposite sex. In this case, a person's cross-dressing may or may not be apparent to other people. Some people cross-dress to shock others or challenge social norms. Some people attempt to pass as a member of the opposite sex in order to gain access to places or resources they would not otherwise be able to reach.
Gender disguise has been used by women and girls to pass as male, and by men and boys to pass as female. Gender disguise has also been used as a plot device in storytelling, particularly in narrative ballads, and is a recurring motif in literature, theater, and film. Historically, some women have cross-dressed to take up male-dominated or male-exclusive professions, such as military service. Conversely, some men have cross-dressed to escape from mandatory military service or as a disguise to assist in political or social protest, as men in Wales did in the Rebecca Riots and when conducting Ceffyl Pren as a form of mob justice.
Theatre and performance
Single-sex theatrical troupes often have some performers who cross-dress to play roles written for members of the opposite sex (travesti and trouser roles). Cross-dressing, particularly the depiction of males wearing dresses, is often used for comic effect onstage and on-screen.
Drag is a special form of performance art based on the act of cross-dressing. A drag queen is usually a male-assigned person who performs as an exaggeratedly feminine character, in heightened costuming sometimes consisting of a showy dress, high-heeled shoes, obvious make-up, and wig. A drag queen may imitate famous female film or pop-music stars. A faux queen is a female-assigned person employing the same techniques. A drag king is a counterpart of the drag queen - a female-assigned person who adopts a masculine persona in performance or imitates a male film or pop-music star. Some female-assigned people undergoing gender reassignment therapy also self-identify as drag kings although this use of "drag king" would generally be considered inaccurate.
The modern activity of battle reenactments has raised the question of women passing as male soldiers. In 1989, Lauren Burgess dressed as a male soldier in a U.S. National Park Service reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, and was ejected after she was discovered to be a woman. Burgess sued the Park Service for sexual discrimination. The case spurred spirited debate among Civil War buffs. In 1993, a federal judge ruled in Burgess's favor.
"Wigging" refers to the practice of male stunt doubles taking the place of an actress, parallel to "paint downs", where white stunt doubles are made up to resemble black actors. Female stunt doubles have begun to protest this norm of "historical sexism", saying that it restricts their already limited job possibilities
A transvestic fetishist is a person who cross-dresses as part of a sexual fetish. According to the fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, this fetishism was limited to heterosexual men; however, DSM-5 does not have this restriction, and opens it to women and men, regardless of their sexual orientation.
The term underdressing is used by male cross-dressers to describe wearing female undergarments such as panties under their male clothes. The famous low-budget film-maker Edward D. Wood, Jr. said he often wore women's underwear under his military uniform as a Marine during World War II. Female masking is a form of cross-dressing in which men wear masks that present them as female.
Sometimes either member of a heterosexual couple will cross-dress in order to arouse the other. For example, the male might wear skirts or lingerie and/or the female will wear boxers or other male clothing. (See also forced feminization)
Passing or not
Some people who cross-dress may endeavor to project a complete impression of belonging to another gender, including 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 or clocked them. There are videos, books, and magazines on how a man may look more like a woman.
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. In a broader context, cross-dressing may also refer to other actions undertaken to pass as a particular sex, such as packing (accentuating the male crotch bulge) or, the opposite, tucking (concealing the male crotch bulge).
The actual determination of cross-dressing is largely socially constructed. For example, in Western society, trousers have long been adopted for usage by women, and it is no longer 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 women's clothing, and wearing them is not seen as cross-dressing for men. As societies are becoming more global in nature, both men's and women's clothing are adopting styles of dress associated with other cultures.
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 one of the things likely needed to cosplay a male character.
In most parts of the world it remains socially disapproved 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 creating a more feminine figure, male cross-dressers will often utilize different types and styles of breast forms, which are silicone prostheses traditionally used by women who have undergone mastectomies to recreate the visual appearance of a breast.
While most male cross-dressers utilize clothing associated with modern women, some are involved in subcultures that involve dressing as little girls or in vintage clothing. Some such men have written that they enjoy dressing as femininely as possible, so they wear frilly dresses with lace and ribbons, bridal gowns complete with veils, as well as multiple petticoats, corsets, girdles and/or garter belts with nylon stockings.
Cross-dressers may begin wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex in childhood, 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, partner, family member or friend. Married cross-dressers can experience considerable anxiety and guilt if their spouse objects to their behavior.
The historical associations of maleness with power and femaleness with submission and frivolity mean that in the present time a woman dressing in men's clothing and a man dressing in women's clothing evoke very different responses. A woman dressing in men's clothing is considered to be a more acceptable activity.
Advocacy for social change has done much to relax the constrictions of gender roles on men and women, but they are still subject to prejudice from some people. It is noticeable that as 'transgender' is becoming more socially accepted as a normal human condition, the prejudices against cross-dressing are changing quite quickly, just as the similar prejudices against homosexuals have changed rapidly in recent decades.
The reason it is so hard to have statistics for female-assigned cross-dressers is that the line where cross-dressing stops and cross-dressing begins has become blurred, whereas the same line for men is as well defined as ever. This is one of the many issues being addressed by third wave feminism as well as the modern-day masculist movement.
The general culture has very mixed views about cross-dressing. A woman who wears her husband's shirt to bed is considered attractive while a man who wears his wife's nightgown to bed may be considered transgressive. Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo was considered very erotic; Jack Lemmon in a dress was considered ridiculous. All this may result from an overall gender role rigidity for males; that is, because of the prevalent gender dynamic throughout the world, men frequently encounter discrimination when deviating from masculine gender norms, particularly violations of heteronormativity. A man's adoption of feminine clothing is often considered a going down in the gendered social order whereas a woman's adoption of what are traditionally men's clothing (at least in the English-speaking world) has less of an impact because women have been traditionally subordinate to men, unable to affect serious change through style of dress. Thus when a male cross-dresser puts on his clothes, he transforms into the quasi-female and thereby becomes an embodiment of the conflicted gender dynamic. Following the work of Butler, gender proceeds along through ritualized performances, but in male cross-dressing it becomes a performative "breaking" of the masculine and a "subversive repetition" of the feminine.
Psychoanalysts today do not regard cross-dressing by itself as a psychological problem, unless it interferes with a person's life. "For instance," said Dr. Joseph Merlino, senior editor of Freud at 150: 21st Century Essays on a Man of Genius, "[suppose that]...I'm a cross-dresser and I don't want to keep it confined to my circle of friends, or my party circle, and I want to take that to my wife and I don't understand why she doesn't accept it, or I take it to my office and I don't understand why they don't accept it, then it's become a problem because it's interfering with my relationships and environment."
British pantomime, television and comedy
Cross-dressing is a traditional popular trope in British comedy. The Pantomime dame in British pantomime dates from the 19th century, which is part of the theatrical tradition of female characters portrayed by male actors in drag. The Monty Python comedy troupe donned frocks and makeup, playing female roles themselves while speaking in falsetto. Character comics such as Benny Hill and Dick Emery drew upon several female identities. In the BBC’s long-running sketch show The Dick Emery Show (broadcast from 1963 to 1981), Emery played Mandy, a busty peroxide blonde whose catchphrase, "Ooh, you are awful ... but I like you!", was given in response to a seemingly innocent remark made by her interviewer, but perceived by her as ribald double entendre. The popular tradition of cross dressing in British comedy extended to the 1984 music video for Queen’s "I Want to Break Free" where the band parody several female characters from the soap opera Coronation Street.
Women dressed as men, and less often men dressed as women, is a common trope in fiction and folklore. For example, in Norse myth, Thor disguised himself as Freya. These disguises were also popular in Gothic fiction, such as in works by Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Eugène Sue, and in a number of Shakespeare's plays, such as Twelfth Night. In The Wind in the Willows, Toad dresses as a washerwoman, and in Lord of the Rings, Éowyn pretends to be a man.
In science fiction, fantasy and women's literature, this literary motif is occasionally taken further, with literal transformation of a character from male to female or vice versa. Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography focuses on a man who becomes a woman, as does a warrior in Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song; while in Geoff Ryman's The Warrior who Carried Life, Cara magically transforms herself into a man.
Other popular examples of gender disguise include Madame Doubtfire (published as Alias Madame Doubtfire in the United States) and its movie adaptation Mrs. Doubtfire, featuring a man disguised as a woman. Similarly, the movie Tootsie features Dustin Hoffman disguised as a woman, while the movie The Associate features Whoopi Goldberg disguised as a man.
The 10th edition of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems lists dual-role transvestism (non-sexual cross-dressing) and fetishistic transvestism (cross-dressing for sexual pleasure) as disorders. Both listings were removed for the 11th edition. Transvestic fetishism is a paraphilia, and a psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-5 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
- Breeches role
- Breeching (boys)
- Cross dressing ball
- Cross-dressing in film and television
- Cross-dressing in literature
- Cross-gender acting
- En femme
- En homme
- The Famous Flower of Serving-Men
- Gender identity
- Hijra (South Asia)
- List of transgender-related topics
- List of wartime crossdressers
- Otokonoko, male crossdressing in Japan
- Passing (gender)
- Sex and gender distinction
- History of Drag
- Sexual orientation hypothesis
- Travesti (theatre)
- Twelfth Night
- Womanless wedding
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